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The Séance

We have oftentimes heard that there are people who have the ability to summon the spirits of the dead by means of a certain ritual. And some of us may perhaps have occasionally heard of the astonishing results of their practices. But is there any scientific explanation to this?
The Séance

Like in many other countries, in Indonesia too we have people who can communicate with the spirits of the dead, though the way the communication is done may be somewhat different.

In one secluded room, a group of about ten people sits encircling two men holding a basket. A bamboo cross clothed with a child’s shirt is tied to the upper part of the handle of the basket. On top of the bamboo cross, a coconut shell is so placed that the whole thing looks just like a doll. A pencil, to be used for writing, is then attached to the lower side of the basket.

The burning of the incense starts, and smoke begins to billow, transmitting, as it spreads across the room, a certain aroma. There is complete silence in the room now and everyone looks solemn, as if they are attending a funeral. All eyes are focused on the basket, which is now being held higher up by the two persons to ensure that it will have all the agility it needs when the time comes for it to write. The leader of the group, whose role is more like a shaman, sits right in front of the basket, which they have by now named “jailangkung.? He then starts murmuring: Jailangkung, jailangse, come to me. . ., Jailangkung, jailangse, come to me. . . .,? repeatedly until the basket turns heavy, a sign that someone’s spirit is entering it. Thus, as soon as the two persons holding the basket give him a nod to signal that they are being visited by a spirit, which happens to pass by, the leader immediately asks the Jailangkung, “What’s your name?? Though slowly, yet surely, the Jailangkung moves the pencil to write his name on a piece of paper that has intentionally been prepared earlier. Incredible! How is it possible that only a basket with a pencil attached to it can write so clearly? Now, just imagine that you are at the moment holding the basket, by yourself, trying to move it so as to write something. Difficult, isn’t it? And yet you are doing it alone. So just imagine how frustrating it can be for any two persons working under natural condition to do such writing, because each will be pushing and pulling the basket in different directions. The shaman then asks another question: “Where are you from?? This second question is also answered in writing. The Jailangkung writes down his address, slowly yet clearly. And the questioning and answering goes on and on. Astonishing indeed! All the questions are answered correctly. In fact, the Jailangkung can even tell the secrets of everyone present in that room.

What is the Jailangkung actually? Is it a spirit? Is the Jailangkung just a lingering, inquisitive spirit that happens to come by? Or is there any other power that is logically and rationally comprehensible?

Before we go further on with our discussion, it is perhaps worthwhile that we present here a few examples taken from the real experiences of some people. These examples will enable us to have a different, yet more complete picture of the Jailangkung, because they are not just words of mouths of which the truth may not be verifiable.

Jailangkung. Such is the name given to this game, which was quite popular among the people of the past. Yet, the question remains: “How could it be that the Jailangkung can have the answers to all of the questions set forth by the participants of the game? Could it be that the only reason why the Jailangkung thing has managed to gain so much currency is the limited thinking capacity of the concerned community which has consequently led them to associate any inexplicable phenomenon it encounters with some magical power?

The story below concerns the experience of Wawan’s father as narrated by Wawan, a young man from Pekalongan, Central Java, himself. Somewhere in the 1980’s when the “judi buntut?(A kind of illegal gambling in which the participants predict the last two figures of the forthcoming lottery draw and put their bets on them.) was at large, a group of people in a small village in Pekalongan got themselves indulged in this Jailangkung game. They believed that by this game of Jailangkung they would be able to summon some spirit, hoping that it would be able to give them those figures that would likely win them their bets. Thus, on one occasion, after all the members had gathered they began to perform all the rituals required to summon the Jailangkung. All done, and after the leader had muttered a few words of magic spells and following a moment of silence in honor of the spirit, there suddenly entered a spirit claiming itself to be Madam Ami. The Jailangkung then wrote that she died while in imprisonment after being captured by soldiers because of her alleged involvement in the abortive September 30 Communist coup. It also wrote that before she died, the soldiers had even yanked her nails out one by one. On hearing this story, the entire population instantly and without question took it to be true, and soon rumors of her tragic death shook the whole village. Later, however, news spread that the Madam Ami about whom he Jailangkung had been writing was in fact still alive, then living as fit as a fiddle in Yogyakarta. Obviously what the Jailangkung had written was not what it actually was in reality.

Let’s take a look at another example. This was what I myself experienced some time around 1956. I was then 10 years old, hanging around in a neighbor’s house where a number of adults were gathered, playing the Jailangkung. At one time, it so happened that the spirit occupying the Jailangkung basket was one that claimed itself to be a H.A. Salim. However, just at the very moment when we were all so absorbed by this spirit of someone who had died years ago, my aunt, who could speak English fairly well, came running into the room to pick me up. To our astonishment, the spirit, which had earlier been writing things in the Indonesian language, now began writing in English. “Thank you very much every body,? it wrote. Amazing, isn’t it? Curious, all the people there, who happened to be acquaintances of my aunt and who knew well that she could speak English, asked her what those words meant. And on being told what they meant, everyone of them was convinced that the person who owned this spirit must have been that on someone who had had a good education in his mundane life.

Now what have you to say about all these? Let’s take a brief look at them from the viewpoint of science.
All objects in this universe have the ability “to radiate their influence,? a phenomenon commonly known as gravitational force or magnetic force. The earth can influence and bind the moon to revolve around it. The moon, on the other hand, has an influence over the earth in that it is the cause of the ocean tides. The sun can influence all other planets to revolve around it. Similarly, the central-hub of the Milky Way galaxy can make the sun and the billions of other stars revolve around it. The larger the object is the larger is its “influence.? Naturally, the smaller the object is the smaller is its influence upon others.

Human beings and inanimate objects, though they are not comparable to each other, are yet made up of the same basic materials, i.e. sub-atomic particles. Hence it should not surprise us then if someone should say that man has the ability to “radiate his influence,? a phenomenon popularly known as biological radiation. Unlike objects, man is constantly receiving, besides the various signals from all of his senses, also “reports? from each and every cell of his body. It is all these that have made it difficult for him to radiate his influence. However, if he has the ability to ignore all those influences up his self, be they external or internal to his body, and direct his concentration to a particular object, he may be able to radiate his influence.
This is very much like those people who are gathered around a Jailangkung-calling ritual. Everyone focuses his attention on the basket, hoping that it will give them all the answers to their questions. So everyone directs his biological radiation to the pencil through the two persons holding the Jailangkung so that the two of them can work together in harmony in the act of writing. This gives us reason to believe that whatever the Jailangkung writes, this will never be anything that goes beyond the knowledge of those involved in the ritual.

The first example is an obvious illustration of how the common opinion of the people involved in the Jailangkung ritual could influence it in the act of writing. In the second example, with the arrival of the writer’s aunt, who could speak English fairly well, the biological radiation she emitted merged with that of the other participants such that it was possible for the Jailangkung to write in English. Apart from the above examples, there are, of course, many other examples, which seemingly have brought about negative effects upon the people in general and the participants of the ritual in particular.

Obviously, we can now conclude that all this Jailangkung thing has nothing to do with the coming of the spirit of the dead. Rather, it is more an outcome of the combined biological radiation of the participants.

Admittedly, however, the layman may find it hard to accept the whole idea presented here. Nonetheless, we can at least look upon it as some sort of comparative reasoning so as to avoid being carried away too far in the world of lasting superstition.

Reinarto Hadipriono
Reinarto (at)
Mailing address: Lemahwungkuk 37, Cirebon - Indonesia. Fax 62 231 207569, Phone 62-231-206980

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