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The Creatures in the Shadows – Part Three: East Indies

This is the third article in our Creatures in the Shadows series. You can read the other articles here:

Part One – West Africa
Part Two – South and East Africa

The expansive archipelago between South East Asia and Australia has been variously called over the centuries; Nusantara, Malay Archipelago, East Indies, Maritime South East Asia. The changing names and their origins reflected its varied nature: seen from the perspective of the colonial Empires, and their geography, the islands may have been treated as one whole, but the islanders themselves always regarded themselves as separate: the Balinese, the Philippines, the Papuans, the Javanese.

Stemming from the local, tribal mythologies, the folklore of the islanders has been influenced over the centuries by neighbourly and invading cultures; therefore, it may now be hard to tell which of the monsters come from native lore, and which have been imported from the mythologies of India, Islam or, in case of Philippines, Christianity. Still, the ancient memory of the monsters and magical creatures inhabiting the dense rainforest and mountain valleys remains strong.

Ogres and Were-bats

Bungisngis by isaiahpaulLife in the archipelago was never easy. From the mountains of Philippines to the jungles of Papua, the peasants, hunters, and travelling merchants trembled in fear of giants, wraiths, and were-creatures. The most terrible of them all was the Bungisngis, or Buso, a giant cyclops living in the forests of Bataan. It had two long tusks in its always laughing mouth, curly fur, flat nose, and a long lip that he could cover his one-eyed face with. It was the largest and strongest of all creatures in the forest; luckily, it was also quite dumb and easily tricked. His two-eyed cousins from other islands were equally big and dumb: the giant ogres, known as Gergasi by the Malays, or as the Kewanambo in New Guinea. The Kewanambo are only smart enough to lure children in the guise of kindly old women. The Kelembai of Malaya are more threatening, with their power of changing people into stone when threatened.

Another notorious race of monsters were the vampiric were-bats, known under various names throughout the archipelago, but collectively called the Aswang. The Wak Wak, the Manangaal, the Tiyanak, the Ekek, or the Alan all shared similar features: an interest in blood, hanging from the trees like bats, and ability to fly. Not all of them were strong enough to attack a human in broad daylight; the Ekek and the Manangaal preferred to hunt sleeping pregnant women, and suck the blood of their foetuses, while the Alan simply scavenged for placentas, miscarriages and menstrual blood. The Tiyanaks showed themselves as abandoned children, ready to pounce on a hapless victim with their sharp claws. The least dangerous of the Aswang, the somewhat comical Pugot of the Iloco region, although as terrifying in its demeanour as its older brethren, has been reduced to stalking and stealing women’s underwear.

Forest People

Lesser Kapre by faxtarThe archipelago is home to some of the oldest and densest rainforests in the world; thus, it should be no surprise to anyone that the stories of its inhabitants are full of tales of the forest spirits, dryads, and “forest people” of various shapes, sizes, and abilities.

In the Philippines, the tree spirits differ depending on the tree species they inhabit. The Kapre live in the acacias, bamboos, and banyan trees; they are tall, bearded men, often seen smoking a pipe and wearing native clothes. They are generally friendly, but like to play pranks. They prefer the company of human women to that of other tree spirits, such as the female Diwata and male Enkanto. These two races resemble more the Western elves: they are fair skinned, hairless, tall and slim.

In the jungles of the New Guinea other creatures can be found: the wizened, old dwarves Kilyakai, and the mischievous Dama Dagenda, who defend their territory with minor but annoying spells, like creating painful sores on the feet of the hunters.

The Malays of the archipelago distinguish a variety of woodland people. The Malay word “Orang” (as in Orang-utan) means “a person”, but not necessarily a “human being”. Therefore, an Orang Bunian is a beautiful, elfin creature, benevolent and rich. An Orang Ketot is a short and stocky dwarf, while an Orang Kenit is similar to a Western goblin, gremlin or a gnome – smaller than Ketot, with pointy ears, generally mischievous. Another Orang, Orang Mawas or Muwa, is big and ape-like, sometimes seen with black leathery wings. A variety of apes and monkeys unknown to science are also known under the Orang monikers.


Many Ignacio by LeoWhitelightermythologies have their share of were-beasts, but those roaming the islands of the archipelago are perhaps the most diverse and imaginative in their many forms. Pretty much any animal large enough can shape shift into a human, retaining its animal characteristics. There are were-boars of New Guinea – Buata – of which the most famous monster was the Totoima, who used to eat its own children born of a human mother. Sarangay of the Philippines is a smoke-breathing were-bull. The were-tigers of Java, the Macan Gadungan, are also fond of human flesh, but powerful enough to hunt adult humans in the night. The fearsome Anjing Ajak’s host animal was a red dhola dog – and if you’ve ever read Kipling’s “Red Dog”, you’ll imagine how a were-dhola would have been a far, far more dangerous creature than a simple were-wolf.

The Malays had a collective name for the lycanthropes: Jadian, preceded by the name of the animal. So, Harimau Jadian would have been were-tigers, Lembu Jadian – were-bulls, Ular Tedung Jadian – were-cobras, and so on. The common characteristics of all these was that they could show in full animal or human forms, or half-animal half-human shape, with all the wit of a man and all the strength of a beast.

There are two famous races – or maybe just genders – of a were-horse in the Philippines. The Tikbalangs have the humanoid body, but the head and hooves of a horse. They are strong and very territorial: they would protect their land by leading travellers astray, away from the borders of their kingdoms. Its female counterpart, the Boroka witch, had the head of a woman but a body of a horse (and occasionally the wings of an eagle), and, as witches tend to do, it preyed on children.

Barong vs Rangda

The mBARONG by ekoputehythical creatures of the archipelago formed intricate societies, kingdoms and warring nations, reflecting the complexity of the human interactions in the islands.

Two of the warring factions may have been encountered on the tropical paradise island of Bali. A host of good, led by the white lion Barong, faced there an army of evil, commanded by the legendary witch queen Rangda, in a constant battle over the human souls. The Barong had at his disposal benevolent protective spirits, also called Barong, usually in animal forms: Barong Landung, a hairy giant; Barong Celeng, a boar, Macan, a tiger, and a Barong Naga – a giant dragon or serpent.

Rangda’s army was made of terrible demons and wraiths; apart from the many above-mentioned monsters, the footmen of this army were the Leyak: a disembodied flying head, with entrails still attached to it; they haunted graveyards and fed on corpses, and were said to be humans who transformed into demons through black magic.

Rangda The Demon Queen by fdiskartIn the great battle between Rangda and Balinese king Airlangga, the forces of the humans were faced with total extinction when Rangda cast a spell on his soldiers forcing them to commit suicide with their kris knives. Luckily, at that moment came Barong with his host of good spirits and the day was won. Rangda fled back into her mountain abode, plotting revenge.

With over 400 millions of people and thousands of years of history, there is a lot more to discover in the mythology and folklore of the East Indies archipelago than can be covered in a short article. But we must move on. For our next chapter, we go further south-east still: to discover the mythical creatures living in the outback of Australia and jungles of New Zealand (apart from the hobbits :)).

Title image by ekoputeh.



  1. Avatar Larik says:

    Really liked this article. Partly because of the lore, partly because it talks a lot about the Philippines. xD

    (Which is where I’m from.)

  2. Really enjoyed this, if for no other reason than it had Tikbalangs, which are cool (I have one in my novel)

  3. Avatar Linda Whiddon says:

    Very informative since I am a writer of fantasy fiction, this is right up my genre.

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