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Sunday, 16 September 2012

Headcases (2)

Most gruesome of the disembodied heads of folklore is the spirit known variously throughout South-east Asia as the penanggalan (Malaysia), the leyak (Bali), the krasue (Thailand), the kasu (Laos) and the ap (Cambodia) - at least, in the unlikely eventuality that Wiki is to be believed. John D Gimlette, in Malay Poisons and Charm Cures, characterizes it as a disease-inducing spirit - "a horrible, partially disembowelled wraith from the lying-in room who comes to torment little children" - apparently taking his cue from Sir Hugh Clifford's description in his book In Court and Kampong:

"I had told them of the Pĕnangal, that horrible wraith of a woman who has died in child-birth, and who comes to torment small children, in the guise of a fearful face and bust, with yards of bloody trailing entrails flying in her wake; of that weird little white animal the Mati-ânak, that makes beast noises round the graves of children; and of the familiar spirits that men raise up from the corpses of babes who have never seen the light, the tips of whose tongues they bite off and swallow, after the child has been brought back to life by magic agencies."

The creature seems to be a sort of Oriental vampire, which during the day presents itself as a midwife but by night detaches its head from its body and flies around with its entrails dangling below it. In other (probably earlier) variants it makes no claim to humanity, but instead is a kind of harpy that, attracted by the sounds of a woman in labour, perches on the roof and makes a cacophonous screeching. The liquid that seems from its entrails can cause the newborn child to sicken and die. Or maybe it drinks the baby's or mother's blood. That's the wonderful thing about folklore; it's not a Monster Manual.

My HeroQuest book The Screaming Spectre was supposed to be titled The Singing Skull, except a suit at Hasbro thought that singing wasn't scary enough and skulls were too scary. Stolen heads still featured in the story, though, and as I chose South-east Asian folklore as inspiration for the gamebook section of the book, the penangga-lan inevitably made an appearance:

"A group of disembodied heads hang hovering in the air of the vestibule. Their eyes blaze greenly from deep-set white sockets and their long fangs are bared eagerly in anticipation of the blood-feast. But most ghastly of all is the tangle of slimy entrails which hangs from the stump of each severed neck, twitching and coiling like snakes as the disembodied heads circle around you."


  1. I like the penanggalan, but deep down I'm a chonchon man.

  2. Why am I thinking of Birdy all of a sudden?

    1. Hmm, haven't listened to Birdy for ages. The perfect inspiration for what the Spartans will find in Uruk ;-)

  3. Eek! Skipped over most of that...

  4. In Indonesia ( especially Bali) they are called Leyak ( as you noted) They're not exactly the same as Pennanglan but similar enough.
    My partners from Kalimantan and leyak and other beings like kuntilanak and the like are no laughing matter amongst the older folk.