Jan 20, 2018 Last Updated 3:31 AM, Jan 6, 2018

Time honoured remedies for uncertain times

Inez Mahony

Alternative healing, which is becoming increasingly mainstream in Western society, involves the mind, body and soul. Although there are some parallels, alternative healing in Indonesian culture is vastly different, with aspects that would strike even the most open-minded Westerner as unusual.

In Indonesia, the common term for practitioners of traditional healing, magic and sorcery is dukun. Dukun have always played a major role in Indonesian society as healers, sorcerers, priests, mystics and sages. Since the late 1950s this important aspect of Indonesian culture has largely been ignored in Western literature. However, the 1998 murders of some 200 suspected dukun santet, or sorcerers, in East Java brought them back into focus.

Dukun are thriving in this current period of uncertainty. The climate of instability following the fall of Suharto in 1998 has seen an increase in demand for dukun services. Before 1998, being a dukun was a part-time occupation. Now many work full-time and being a dukun has become more established as a profession.


Dukun are the gatekeepers to the supernatural world. In modern Indonesia people continue to seek refuge, help and healing in the realm of spirits and mysticism when their rational world is shaken. It is the dukun that many Javanese, in particular, turn to when problems arise.

In the past dukun used both white and black magic. Now they claim to only use white magic and differentiate themselves from practitioners of black magic called dukun santet. Beliefs about black magic and sorcery run deep. Even some Western trained doctors in East Java believe that modern medicine is powerless to cure victims of sorcery. If a doctor cannot cure a particular illness, or another illness arises in place of the original one, the diagnosis is usually sorcery. In such cases the patient consults a dukun to eliminate the spell and ease the symptoms.

Bloated stomachs, paralysis of the legs, fevers, confusion and disorientation are symptoms often attributed to black magic. Cases of foreign objects, such as nails and glass, revealed through x-rays or sucked out of the insides of victims by a dukun, are also common. The Javanese believe the only way to combat the effects of sorcery is to seek the help of a dukun, who can determine the source and initiator of the sorcery. The dukun Zhen removes the spells and provides an amulet, such as a small ceremonial knife called a keris, to ward off further black magic.


There are many other strange and amazing accounts of the healing and magic of Javanese dukun. These include tales of dukun healing broken bones and open wounds within a matter of days, restoring a patient’s ability to walk after years of paralysis, and spells that successfully bring back stolen goods or missing loved ones.

Dukun play a variety of roles, from midwives and masseurs to mediums and alternative healers. And while an individual dukun may possess many different skills and have knowledge of various methods of treatment, they usually specialise in one specific area.

Specialist dukun include dukun susuk, who specialise in curing or enhancing their client’s power of attraction by inserting golden needles under the skin; dukun prewangan, who employ the advice of spirits to help or heal their clients; dukun pijat, who use massage to apply their healing powers; dukun jampi, who cure with traditional remedies; and dukun jilat, who cure by licking or sucking the problem area of the body.

The methods of treatment used vary from dukun to dukun, depending on their ideological and religious convictions. However, the general principles of treatment, which are based on Javanese mysticism or ilmu Jawa, have remained largely the same for centuries.

A common treatment is to chant a prayer or spell over a glass of water that is then given to the client to drink. Sometimes a rajah (a mystical script) is written on paper and burnt over the glass of water or salt is added. Dukun also often make up or prescribe traditional remedies of herbs and other organic ingredients for their patient to ingest or use as an ointment. Dukun use a variety of tools to diagnose their patients including Javanese numerology, mystical cards and incense and well as their own spiritual power.

One particular dukun jilat I visited treats people with stomach problems by rubbing his faeces on the stomach of female patients and his urine or semen on the stomachs of male patients. He licks the forehead of patients who are suffering from disorientation or confusion and writes a rajah on a leaf of the betel vine, crushes it then rubs it on the eyes of patients with eye complaints. He claims his self-taught curing techniques are usually successful, although it could be argued that these unusual techniques discourage repeat consultations.

Ordinary people

Dukun are indistinguishable from everyday people. Some are reverent teachers of Islam, some are comical, and some are gentle parental figures. All are strong characters and inspire respect in their own ways. Dukun believe that their spiritual powers are a gift from God. If those powers are abused through personal gain or nethical intent, they will be lost or weakened.

A person’s ability to become a dukun is generally passed down from their dukun ancestors. However, some form of preparation, at least initially, is necessary for dukun to receive their spiritual power. This usually consists of long periods of meditation and fasting for days or even months. Once the dukun has received this spiritual power, he or she needs to learn the skills and knowledge of dukun practice. Some dukun learn these skills from another dukun or from books on ilmu Jawa that are readily available in bookshops. Others say their skills were taught to them by spirits whom they continue to consult for advice on the diagnosis and treatment of their clients.

As the dukun practice is based on altruism, payment for their services is minimal. It is only a token of thanks, discreetly given to the dukun in a handshake at the end of the consultation. Payment can be in the form of money, tobacco, or consumables used during the consultation such as flowers, herbs and incense. It usually is between the value of A$2 and A$5. As such, dukun live modestly and are neither rich nor poor but have enough with which to survive. A well-off dukun is often suspected of fakery.

The dukun of Java have the wondrous ability to help people in all areas of their lives including the mind, body and soul through ancient practices. This intriguing and important aspect of Javanese culture provides hope, solace, healing and a sense of meaning for people in these uncertain and irrational times. It is no wonder the dukun trade is flourishing.

Inez Mahony is a student at Sunshine Coast University. She recently spent three and a half months in Banyuwangi, East Java, researching the role of dukun. She can be contacted at inez@musician.org.

Inside Indonesia 75: Jul - Sep 2003

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