Jin Tee is a young graphic designer in Kuala Lumpur interested in the intersection between visual culture, history and fiction. In this article, she reimagines the mythological creatures of nusantara as folktales for a contemporary audience.
The inspiration for the first creature, the Weretiger, was a story in William Skeat’s 1900 book, Malay Magic. A seminal work of a colonial officer on magic in the peninsula, the book was an attempt to rationalise and document “real” folk beliefs in the form of an ethnographic portrait of rural Selangor. This myth is here reimagined graphically, with a suite of other original characters: in these drawings lie an act of transgressive interpretation, blurring the boundaries of historical fact and popular fiction.
SANG BAGAS THE STRONG (WERETIGER)
The weretiger is powerful, proud and haughty. It was once a human who could transform into a tiger at will. Sang Bagas used his power to defend his village from real tigers, and was thus much celebrated. However, this magic caused its wielder to lose their humanity if they remained in their tiger form for too long.
Once, a real tiger the size of an elephant arrived at the village, and so the weretiger transformed and defended his territory fiercely. The fight lasted three days and three nights, and the tiger-king was felled in the end. Alas the weretiger was too ensnared in the magic, and upon transforming back, found itself unable to do so completely, stuck instead in a half-human, half-tiger form.
The weretiger despaired at its embarrassing appearance: wide-chested, fanged and clawed, but attached at the waist to the slim rump of a human. The villagers, fearful that it would forget its humanity and turn on them, offered praise and bowls of milk to distract and entreat it to continue protecting the village.
The half-tiger continued to defend the village for many generations, but always out of sight of the villagers. When the village fell to ruin, it roamed the Malay archipelago, a wandering feline without a master.
Sang Bagas can be enticed to do your bidding, if it strikes his fancy. To invoke it, take his image in your hand and lay a bowl of milk at the entrance of your house overnight. If it is empty the next day, all your enemies will be intimidated by you; anyone giving you the evil eye will find themselves blinded momentarily.
But the weretiger is a prideful thing. Once you have invoked its power, you must continue to do so consistently. You must offer it a bowl of milk every dawn, and praise it for its beauty and power. Fail to do so, and you might wake up with mysterious bruises and scratches.
His eye markings belong to those who will pierce their enemies’ morale with its unrelenting stare.
YANI THE SEARCHER (PANGOLIN/FISH)
Yani is a celestial pangolin with a gift of finding everything and anything. With a keen sense of smell and strong claws that can dig through anything, it can unearth treasure at the bottom of the sea, and even find a missing loved one. Its scales are impenetrable and its tips glow in the dark.
This pangolin-fish makara is harmless and has a timid nature, but can be coaxed out of the sea with offerings of candied ants. Fill to the brim three bowls of ants. Add one cup of sugar and a quarter cup of water. Cook until a layer of crystallised sugar forms around the ants. Bring it to the coast and describe that which you seek. Those who harm it are said to never be able to find what they lost ever again.
Its eye markings belong to those who can find what they seek immediately, with pinpoint accuracy.
ENGGANG THE GUIDE (HORNBILL/SNAKE)
Enggang is a half-snake-half-hornbill. When it is not flying, it curls its tail around tree trunks and sleeps with its beak under its wings. Its appearance is the same as a common hornbill, but where clawed feet should be, there is a snake’s tail. Its beak is lined with pointed teeth, but it only sinks its teeth in fruits, not flesh. The fruits are what gives its horn colour.
Accounts about its size vary greatly: some say it is small, preening its feathers in the company of a flock of common hornbills; some claim that its wings are large enough to blot out the sun and darken the skies, and makes a great show of baring its teeth, but this account almost always come from loggers.
The locals regard it as the jungle’s chimeric guide of the lost. It is known to appear before explorers and hikers, leading them through the dense vegetation to open, well-worn trails. Its partially sinuous appearance unnerves many, especially the visitors. It doesn’t shy away from humans, and is easily mistaken for a normal hornbill unless you spot the muscular tail gripping the tree branch it is perching on.
Its eye markings belong to those who are a compass to the lost and weary.
ILANG THE CLOAK (TAPIR)
This creature takes on the form of a young Malayan tapir, and can hide itself away in an instant by dissolving into the jungle floor. Ilang is the protector of lost children, and appears only to the innocent and sinless. It is playful, with a ringing laugh, and will seek out lost children in the jungle to play with them. It is fearful of adults and hides away from their eyes, but if peopledo manage to catch a glimpse of it they will only see a strange shimmering in the air.
Ilang seeks out the lost and frightened, tending to their bruises and cuts and cheers them up by tickling their faces with its funny nose. When night falls, Ilang curls up around them, and brings them the solace their homes could not. When daylight breaks, Ilang casts a spell over them and grants them the invisibility it has: to be hidden from the eyes of those who would harm them, and adults. The jungle will be their home, and Ilang their immortal playmate.
Its eye markings belong to those who give to those with nothing, and never let go.
MIRA THE SCHOLAR (KANCIL)
The weredeer is quick and bright, with a needly smile. She is extremely knowledgeable and is an excellent strategist in all manner of things: from tomorrow’s exam to business deals, from where best to place your auspicious item to how to attract the eye of a love interest.
What people don’t know— what she would never confess— is that she is the very same mousedeer that inspired the founding of the Sultanate of Malacca. After dodging Parameswara’s hunting dogs, she tore through the jungle and found herself in an ancient candi The place was dark, with claustrophobic brick walls and leaky ceiling. It did not seem like it was built for the living.
Still anxious from the chase, she stumbled into a hallway that opened up to a massive underground chamber. She knocked over an intricately carved box—it emitted a blinding light, and when vision returned to her eyes the world revealed all its secrets to her. It spoke to her from the draft blowing in from above, and following the smell of rain she emerged from the temple armed with a newfound power.
Her knowledge dissolved away her timid, skittish nature. She manoeuvred through difficult situations with confidence, and even had a brief stint as an advisor to a monarch, until he began to claim her wisdom as his own. But when she refused her service she also lost access to the library he had amassed, and now spends her days looking for new tomes to peruse and collect.
The weredeer cannot resist a book she has not read before, so to invoke it you must procure such book. Go to the spine of the peninsula; lay the book open with an image of her, in the dead of the night. She will appear, and ask to look at the book, and you must delay her with questions until you are satisfied. The weredeer delights in both absorbing and imparting knowledge, but exhaust her patience and she may answer untruthfully.
Her eye markings belong to those who can see through lies and recall everything she has seen.