One of those days. Everything is gone to hell and I have to sit at this desk and make phone calls. The kind of phone calls where you have to be focused, assertive, and able to state your case — the kind I hate.
I should grab a pencil for notes, but instead I pick up one of Z’s knickknacks. A wood carving. The decorative handle of an ceremonial dagger known as a keris. Z collected a dozen or so of these in 1997, while we traveled through Indonesia.
They are the kind of visitors who live quietly together on a shelf for years till the day you pick one up to avoid making phone calls. I examine it. The dense, dark wood is carved into a finely detailed, fanged lion, with wings. He crouches, ready to pounce. A demon?
The small label in Z’s writing says Bali.* A quick search of Balinese dieties leads me to Barong — king of the spirits and a fierce protector.
Bali. I remember. In ’97, we attended a performance of the Barong dance, a re-enactment of the struggle between good and evil. Barong battles Rangda, against the trippy backdrop of gamelan music.** We learned that Barong never kills Rangda. He only restores the balance. Rangda will return. Achieving balance between opposites — rwa bhineda — is central to the Balinese worldview. Black-and-white checkered cloth — saput poleng — is draped everywhere on the island to remind us that harmony, not victory, is life’s greatest aim.
Back to the keris figure. I turn the carving around to hold it like the dagger handle it was meant to be. The keris is a ceremonial weapon. The most sacred are passed down from ancestors and treasured as family heirlooms.
Since long time ago, keris were used as magical weapons to defend themselves, their families and society, from danger or enemies, both human or blackmagic. It was also believed that a keris sometimes had a negative power to destroy its enemy. Thus, keris were not considered usual weapons. [“Keris Bali” by I.B. Dibia. CV. Indopres Utama & Co., Bali, 1995]
As a rule, knives have to be sharp and durable — a master craft. But, aside from the weapon’s basic lethality, how do you broadcast its power? By wearing it visibly on your belt, of course. How do you intimidate and ward off enemies even before the blade is pulled from its sheath? How do you “win” by avoiding the bloodshed and preserving balance? By making it beautiful! By commissioning the best artisan you can afford to carve a formidable image in its showy handle.***
And what could be more formidable than the image of the king of spirits Barong?
In Balinese mythology, the good spirit is identified as Banas Pati Raja. Banas Pati Raja is the fourth “brother” or spirit child that accompanies a child throughout their life, which is a similar concept to guardian angels. Banas Pati Raja is the spirit which animates Barong. A protector spirit, he is often represented as a lion. [Wikipedia]
I turn the keris handle around to examine the Barong figure more closely. Below the winged lion’s forepaws the carving continues. I make out teeth and fangs and, what’s this? A long tongue. A little more research tells me that Barong is sitting on the head of his arch-enemy Rangda, the ever-lurking, mischief-making, evil witch. Barong has been fighting her forever, never killing her, only containing her nastiness, till the next time. They are inseparable.
It makes me smile, this observation, this little glint of understanding, oh I see it now. It is a message sent to me across the ages, across the planet. Trouble is always lurking. Rangda and her blackmagic chaos are never far away. Waters rise. Equipment breaks down. Disease and misfortune nibble away at our confidence. But wherever Rangda threatens to defeat us, Barong is also there. You have the power, he whispers. You have the tools. Breathe. Your words will come.
I reach for the phone.
**YouTube video clip of the Barong dance: Bali Ubud Barong Kris Dance
***See social anthropologist Alfred Gell’s “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” 1992.