I have here in my hands, even though I know it is improbable that I am typing and holding it simultaneously, John D. Gimlette’s Malay Poisons And Charm Cures. It was first published in 1915 but the edition I have in front of me was issued in 1971 by Oxford University Press. I obtained this interesting artifact from the library a few weeks ago.
I would like to share what I learned about the Malay word hantu, which means ghost, from this book. As a Malaysian and therefore having had a childhood ‘bombarded with warnings of unfriendly spirits’ as my friend KB would put it, the fascination with this word is unsurprising. The spirit world is so real to us - too real!!
Gimlette quotes H.N. Ridley’s (the author of List of Malay Plant Names) suggestion that hantu is sometimes used to mean “false” in Malay botanical nomenclature. Limau hantu, for example, is the name for “wild pomelo”.
Certain wild plants are said to be planted and cultivated by spirits. Paku langsuir, the Malay name for bird’s-nest fern, is made up of the words “fern” (paku) and “female vampire” (langsuir, or langsuyar), the creature that makes her home within this wild jungle fern. In Malay mythology, women who die in childbirth are said to turn into langsuirs, and when they do, all hell breaks loose. Interestingly, I have heard that Malays boil the leaves of the paku langsuir as medication for women in confinement, so that the fern becomes, in my mind, a strange symbol of feminine duality, that of nurturing mother (because the fern resembles a nest) and that of angry she-devil.
There are other interesting uses of 'hantu'. Gimlette writes:
Certain clouds, when of very quaint or changing form (hantu dagok) are believed to be the ghosts of murdered men.
In Kedah, an evil spirit called Hantu Doman is a survival of the Monkey-God, Hanuman, who occurs in the Hindu legend Ramayana. It is described as having the face of a horse and the body of a man.
The word hantu is applied to the middle finger (jari hantu), perhaps supporting the old superstition of “making the horns” against the Evil Eye;
a sea-shell called siput laut, unidentified, is called hantu, and the word siput, if used in another sense, signified the lines or markings on the hands used in palmistry.
And now, to see if I can go to sleep after reading all that…