The story

Semar: The Fallen God and Divine Jester of Indonesian Mythology

Semar: The Fallen God and Divine Jester of Indonesian Mythology

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Semar is probably one of the oldest characters in Indonesian mythology who was said to not have been derived from Hindu mythology. He was made famous by performances of Wayang (Shadow Puppets) in the islands of Java and Bali as a rather unattractive, short man with breasts, great sized behind, and uncontrollable urge for farting. However, underneath his peculiar appearance, Semar plays a major part in the Indonesian creation myth as the elder brother of the supreme god Batara Guru (the Hindu god Shiva).

Semar, a wayang (shadow puppet) character from Indonesia. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In traditional Wayang performances, Semar acts the part of a jester and a retainer for the kings. In his depictions in the performances, he does not have the elaborate ornamentation commonly found on the heroic characters, as he represents the man of the people. Semar is also known as the dhanyang (territorial spirit) of Java and a pamong (leader) of the people. He is often referred to with the honorific Kyai Lurah , which roughly translates as Honored Chief. He is therefore often called Kyai Lurah Semar.

An Ancient Spirit or a Warrior God: The Many Beginnings of Semar

There are many versions of the myth of Semar. A likely explanation for this is that not only that he comes from an oral tradition of storytelling, which still largely persists to this day; the stories of ancient deities in Indonesia are considerably more fluid than their Indian, Chinese or Western counterparts. This means that storytellers had no qualms about changing or adding stories or characters to suit the moral being taught or for pure artistic license. In many cases, characters from the traditional performance of Wayang (Shadow Puppets) were modified to suit the political or religious agenda at the time. It is therefore not unusual to see centuries old characters discussing the current Indonesian politics in a Wayang performance.

Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance by a famous Indonesian dalang (puppet master) Ki Manteb Sudharsono, is usually a whole night long. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A dalang performing wayang kulit in Java, circa 1890.

The origin of Semar, for example, ranges from him being the father of Shiva to the grandson of Sang Hyang Ismaya. After the spread of Islam in Indonesia, versions saying that Semar was the grandson of Adam, the first man, also circulated. As a retainer, Semar is generally recognized as the youngest Pandava brother, Sahadeva’s retainer. Yet, one would still see him as a retainer for the prince Rama from Ramayana or any of the other Pandava brothers from Mahabharata.

The five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata in the Javanese wayang kulit, Indonesia. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

According to one version, of the book Purwacarita, Semar is actually Sang Hyang Ismaya, elder brother of Batara Guru, and father of Batara Surya (the Hindu sun god Surya).

Surya, chief solar deity in Hinduism. ( CC BY 2.0 )

He was one of the three powerful warrior gods born from a single divine egg. His brothers are Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Manikmaya (who later took on the name Batara Guru). When it was time to decide which one of them was to be the ruler of heaven, Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Ismaya quarreled for the position in a battle that went on for forty days. Their father, the ruler of heaven, finally decided to hold a contest. The brother who was able to swallow the heavenly mountain would be crowned as the next ruler of heaven…


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Serat Rama is a composition of the old Javanese song Ramayana Kakawin, composed at around 870 AD. In the poem Rama, the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, explained the concept of leadership to Wibisana, the new king of Alengka. After watching his extended family die on the battlefield, Wibisana was unwittingly put in the unexpected and unwanted position of being the next king of Alengka. Seeing this Rama, who battled and killed Wibisana’s elder brother Rahwana, gave him a crash-course on leadership called Astabrata, a teaching about obligation of a great king.

Wayang Purwa: A Creation Myth for Shadow Puppets!?

In the beginning there were only spirits then Betara Guru had to go and create Ismaya (darkness) and Manikmaya (light).

At this point in the story the fantastic dalang shadow puppeteers all around Indonesia strike their flints and ignite their torches, casting their shadows (the word for shadow being the same as ‘imaginings’).

Families sit on the lawn at night, watching the cosmic comedy: The two princes, darkness and light, are eager to find out who is the first-born and heir to the multiverse?

Of course Manikmaya (light) says he came first, because all memories begin with the appearance of a bright beam of light. Ismaya (darkness) counters, arguing that without darkness light would not be noticeable either, meaning that darkness must predate its existence. The bickering continues until finally Betara Guru is forced to create planet Earth.

Ismaya Becomes Semar

And while Manikmaya is allowed to remain in the sky as an eternal light, his brother Ismaya’s fate is a grim downward spiral that lashes and cracks violently, comically, in the puppeteer’s worn hands. Ismaya comes to tell the history of Southeast Asia. As darkness, he is transformed into the holy hermaphrodite, Semar, the guardian of all physical forms and bulbous representation of mortality itself.

Having no counterpart anywhere in India, lumpy old Semar is believed to be a voice from pre-Hindu Indonesia. A disincarnate tropical breeze, who knows for how long Semar has been a whisper in the cultural imagination here?


Christian theologian and professor of New Testament, Rudolf Bultmann wrote that: [1]

The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three storied structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings -- the angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. Even the earth is more than the scene of natural, everyday events, of the trivial round and common task. It is the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his demons on the other. These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do. Miracles are by no means rare. Man is not in control of his own life. Evil spirits may take possession of him. Satan may inspire him with evil thoughts. Alternatively, God may inspire his thought and guide his purposes. He may grant him heavenly visions. He may allow him to hear his word of succor or demand. He may give him the supernatural power of his Spirit. History does not follow a smooth unbroken course it is set in motion and controlled by these supernatural powers. This æon is held in bondage by Satan, sin, and death (for "powers" is precisely what they are), and hastens towards its end. That end will come very soon, and will take the form of a cosmic catastrophe. It will be inaugurated by the "woes" of the last time. Then the Judge will come from heaven, the dead will rise, the last judgment will take place, and men will enter into eternal salvation or damnation.

Myths as traditional or sacred stories Edit

In its broadest academic sense, the word myth simply means a traditional story. However, many scholars restrict the term "myth" to sacred stories. [2] Folklorists often go further, defining myths as "tales believed as true, usually sacred, set in the distant past or other worlds or parts of the world, and with extra-human, inhuman, or heroic characters". [3]

In classical Greek, muthos, from which the English word myth derives, meant "story, narrative." By the time of Christ, muthos had started to take on the connotations of "fable, fiction," [4] and early Christian writers often avoided calling a story from canonical scripture a "myth". [5] Paul warned Timothy to have nothing to do with "godless and silly myths" (bebēthous kai graōdeis muthous). [6] This negative meaning of "myth" passed into popular usage. [7] Some modern Christian scholars and writers have attempted to rehabilitate the term "myth" outside academia, describing stories in canonical scripture (especially the Christ story) as "true myth" examples include C. S. Lewis and Andrew Greeley. [n 1] Several modern Christian writers, such as C.S. Lewis, have described elements of Christianity, particularly the story of Christ, as "myth" which is also "true" ("true myth"). [8] [9] [10] Others object to associating Christianity with "myth" for a variety of reasons: the association of the term "myth" with polytheism, [11] [12] [13] the use of the term "myth" to indicate falsehood or non-historicity, [11] [12] [14] [15] [16] and the lack of an agreed-upon definition of "myth". [11] [12] [16] As examples of Biblical myths, Every cites the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 and the story of Eve's temptation. [17] Many Christians believe parts of the Bible to be symbolic or metaphorical (such as the Creation in Genesis). [18]

Christian tradition contains many stories that do not come from canonical Christian texts yet still illustrate Christian themes. These non-canonical Christian myths include legends, folktales, and elaborations on canonical Christian mythology. Christian tradition has produced a rich body of legends that were never incorporated into the official scriptures. Legends were a staple of medieval literature. [19] Examples include hagiographies such as the stories of Saint George or Saint Valentine. A case in point is the historical and canonized Brendan of Clonfort, a 6th-century Irish churchman and founder of abbeys. Round his authentic figure was woven a tissue that is arguably legendary rather than historical: the Navigatio or "Journey of Brendan". The legend discusses mythic events in the sense of supernatural encounters. In this narrative, Brendan and his shipmates encounter sea monsters, a paradisal island and a floating ice islands and a rock island inhabited by a holy hermit: literal-minded devotés still seek to identify "Brendan's islands" in actual geography. This voyage was recreated by Tim Severin, suggesting that whales, icebergs and Rockall were encountered. [20]

Folktales form a major part of non-canonical Christian tradition. Folklorists define folktales (in contrast to "true" myths) as stories that are considered purely fictitious by their tellers and that often lack a specific setting in space or time. [21] Christian-themed folktales have circulated widely among peasant populations. One widespread folktale genre is that of the Penitent Sinner (classified as Type 756A, B, C, in the Aarne-Thompson index of tale types) another popular group of folktales describe a clever mortal who outwits the Devil. [22] Not all scholars accept the folkloristic convention of applying the terms "myth" and "folktale" to different categories of traditional narrative. [23]

Christian tradition produced many popular stories elaborating on canonical scripture. According to an English folk belief, certain herbs gained their current healing power from having been used to heal Christ's wounds on Mount Calvary. In this case, a non-canonical story has a connection to a non-narrative form of folklore — namely, folk medicine. [24] Arthurian legend contains many elaborations upon canonical mythology. For example, Sir Balin discovers the Lance of Longinus, which had pierced the side of Christ. [25] According to a tradition widely attested in early Christian writings, Adam's skull lay buried at Calvary when Christ was crucified, his blood fell over Adam's skull, symbolizing humanity's redemption from Adam's sin. [26]

Modern trickery

The answer to the problem of gaining sufficient distance from a levitation was solved in the mid-1980s when an underwear factory worker in China realized that ultra-thin, super strong, micro-nylons, used to construct panty elastic, could be repackaged and sold to magicians all over the world as “Invisible Thread”. Today, numerous companies produce tiny plastic cylinders containing reels of Invisible Thread, lengths of which can be pulled out by the magician and anchored with a tiny ball of wax, to anything, anywhere, at any time. Against carefully chosen backgrounds the line is invisible to the human eye and the magician can levitate anything from bank notes to flower petals.

Invisible thread was used by many to produce deception. (Public Domain)

Invisible Thread was revolutionary in magic circles in that it accounted for a classic flaw in the visual system. When we see something levitating in nature, say a leaf spinning on a spider’s web, although we sometimes can’t see the web, the brain assumes the leaf has vertical assistance, it must be hanging. The ancient method of levitation ‘suspending objects’ was rumbled after the publication of Secretum philosophorums, but the invention of the ITR ‘invisible thread reel’ breathed new life into levitation.

Having an ITR attached to the inside of a jacket, magicians can pull out a length and anchor it to a table or a chair, horizontally. This means when observers swipe their hands through the air, above and below the levitating object, attempting to snag the invisible string, they find nothing, leaving them utterly dumfounded. The brain does not consider the possibility that a magician has some kind of invisible horizontal suspension system. It took magicians five hundred years to figure out horizontal anchoring, so what chance does a casual observer stand?

It is maintained in magic circles that ’90% of an illusion is done in the mind of the observer’ and this was perfectly explained by illusion historian Nicholas Wade from the University of Dundee in Scotland in a recent interview with the BBC where he spoke of optical illusions throughout history: They were of interest theoretically because they went against the prevailing view that you could understand vision if you understood the way in which an image is formed in the eye. But he warns that the literature on illusions is littered with over-interpretations caused by the reactions of the viewers or sitters.”

Remember, what you see, is seldom if ever what you are looking at.

Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social

Top Image: The Flying Carpet, a depiction of the hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich 1880 by Viktor Vasnetsov (Public Domain)

Ismaya Becomes Semar

And while Manikmaya is allowed to remain in the sky as an eternal light, his brother Ismaya’s fate is a grim downward spiral that lashes and cracks violently, comically, in the puppeteer’s worn hands. Ismaya comes to tell the history of Southeast Asia. As darkness, he is transformed into the holy hermaphrodite, Semar, the guardian of all physical forms and bulbous representation of mortality itself.

Having no counterpart anywhere in India, lumpy old Semar is believed to be a voice from pre-Hindu Indonesia. A disincarnate tropical breeze, who knows for how long Semar has been a whisper in the cultural imagination here?

Semar Meets The Indian Pantheon

Straight out of the Mahabharata, India’s Pandawa Brothers then parade across the goat-skin-silver-screen of the shadow puppeteers. There is Yudistira, representing smell Bima, representing hearing Ardjuna, representing sight Nakula, representing feeling and Sadewa, representing taste. Eight thousand kilometers from their familiar subcontinent, the Pandawa Brothers are now like tourists in Indonesia and soon acquire the ancient entity of Semar as their guide.

Is it not suitable that Semar, the representation of human mortality itself, should become the guide for the five senses, of samsara? Dark though that Semar should be so obese, clumsy, babbling, and passing gas like a broken motorcycle. Yet while his slapstick routine seems immature and cynical, Semar’s character has much deeper implications: Ugliness and stupidity share the same divine origins as beauty and intelligence.

Just as this absurd character did away with gender, Semar further slips the trap of duality, playing both the impulsive imbecile and the one who accidentally solves everybody’s problems (much like the Barong dragon of Bali).

Semar in the eyes of Sohieb Toyaroja (via The Jakarta Post)

For artist Sohieb Toyaroja, Semar is his favorite jester in Javanese mythology because the character is divine and very wise.

Semar, one of four famous punakawan (jesters), has three sons: Petruk, Gareng and Bagong. Each has a different form, representing different philosophical characteristics of human beings.

In Javanese wayang (shadow puppetry) stories, Semar is portrayed as a powerful figure, with the courage to protest the Gods and compel them to act for the good.

Many believe that the tired-eyed, flat-nosed Semar is a man, but Sohieb questions this belief, pointing to the figure’s bulging rear, belly and chest, that gives the jester the appearance of a woman. However, the lesson Sohieb says can be learned from Semar in wayang stories is that beauty is found on the inside, not the outside.

“[The characteristics] of Semar can be found in anyone. He can be inside you,” the 50-year-old said.

To express his admiration for Semar, Sohieb has made seven paintings of the character, which are now on display at his solo exhibition titled “Ke(Diri)” from April 29 to May 27 at Tugu Kunskring Paleis Gallery in Menteng, Central Jakarta.

The title Ke(Diri) has two definitions. It can literally mean “to the self”, but also refers to Sohieb’s hometown of Kediri in East Java where he first became acquainted with Semar during the wayang shows of his childhood.

Through the exhibition, he seeks to show that Semar can be a role model for everyone, regardless of their power or position in society.

Sohieb feels he now lives in a country that is polarized, sharply divided by politics and religion, in which each group claims to be right and the others wrong.

Read more of A. Kurniawan Ulung’s article via The Jakarta Post.

ArtsEquator Radar features articles and posts drawn from local and regional websites and publications – aggregated content from outside sources, so we are exposed to a multitude of voices in the region.

The unique aesthetic of the region

The arts of Southeast Asia have no affinity with the arts of other areas, except India. Burma was always an important route to China, but Burmese arts showed very little Chinese influence. The Tai, coming late into Southeast Asia, brought with them some Chinese artistic traditions, but they soon shed them in favour of the Khmer and Mon traditions, and the only indications of their earlier contact with Chinese arts were in the style of their temples, especially the tapering roof, and in their lacquerware. Vietnam was a province of China for 1,000 years, and its arts were Chinese. The Hindu archaeological remains in southern Vietnam belong to the ancient kingdom of Champa, which Vietnam conquered in the 15th century. The Buddhist statues in northern Vietnam were Chinese Buddhist in style. The essential differences in aesthetic aim and style between the arts of East Asia and those of Southeast Asia could be seen in the contrast between the emperors’ tombs of Vietnam and the temple-tombs of Cambodia and Indonesia or the opulent and dignified Buddha images of Vietnam and the ascetic and graceful Buddha images of Cambodia and Burma. Islamic art, with its rejection of animal and human figures and its striving to express the reality behind the false beauty of the mundane world, also has no affinity with Southeast Asian arts. Both Hinduism and Buddhism taught that the sensual world was false and transitory, but this message found no place in the arts of Southeast Asia. The world depicted in Southeast Asian arts was a mixture of realism and fantasy, and the all-pervading atmosphere was a joyous acceptance of life. It has been pointed out that Khmer and Indonesian classical arts were concerned with depicting the life of the gods, but to the Southeast Asian mind the life of the gods was the life of the peoples themselves—joyous, earthy, yet divine. The European theory of “art for art’s sake” found no echo in Southeast Asian arts, nor did the European division into secular and religious arts. The figures tattooed on a Burmese man’s thigh were the same figures that adorned a great temple and decorated a lacquer tray. Unlike the European artist, the Southeast Asian did not need models, for he did not strive to be realistic and correct in every anatomical detail. This intrusion of fantasy and this insistence on the joyousness of human life have made Southeast Asian arts unique.

Watch the video: 13 October 2021 (May 2022).