Malaysian Myths and Legends

To the orang asli, the “original people” who have for millenia inhabited the forests of Malaysia, the earth was an abode for more than the diversity of plant and animal life. The world’s oldest jungles, dense with mystery, were the playground of spirits, both benevolent and, well, less so.

Prominent natural features–and there are many in Malaysia–were wreathed in legend. Tioman Island is said to have been a dragon princess who decided to make her home where Tioman now rises out of the sea. Tranquil Lake Chini in the wilds of Pahang is thought to be the site of a magnificent Khmer city now sunk beneath the lotus blossoms. Mount Ophir, in Johor, is said to be the home of ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang’, a legendary princess once wooed by the Sultan of Malacca. The princess’ beauty is still associated with the natural charms of the mountain itself. Langkawi Island has no such creation story, but the curse laid on the island by a princess falsely accused of adultery is one of the best-known of Malaysia’s magical myths.

The supernatural imbues not only the land and water, but living things as well. The orang asli believe that one’s semangat–soul or life force–traveled abroad during sleep; dreams were the record of the soul’s adventures. In the city, it is a little harder to find someone who believes so wholeheartedly in what was once a compelling way of thought. But fragments of the old mythological system remain; the kris–the wavy-bladed Malay dagger–is a shining example. Many Malays have their own kris as well as their own kris tales. The kris is reputed to be able to fly by night and seek out victims (their owners’ enemies, presumably) without a guiding hand. One who possessed a loyal kris was indeed powerful.


“The kris is reputed to be able to fly by night and seek out victims (their owners’ enemies, presumably) without a guiding hand. One who possessed a loyal kris was indeed powerful.”


The manuscript above relates the story of Hang Tuah, the most revered warrior of the Malaccan Sultanate. The Sultan Tun Perak ordered Tuah to be executed after he offended the sultan, but a loyal bendahara (royal advisor) secretly imprisoned him instead. Courtiers later discovered Tuah’s best friend, Hang Jebat, romancing one of the sultan’s concubines, and surrounded the palace – but no one dared go in to capture Jebat. When the sultan was told that Tuah was still alive, he ordered Tuah to kill his best friend to prove his loyalty. During the fight, Tuah embedded his kris in the palace wall three times, but Jebat allowed him to remove it. But when the same thing happened to Jebat, Tuah stabbed him in the back.”Does a man who is a man go back on his word like that,” asked a dying Jebat. “Who need play fair with you, you who have been guilty of treason,” Tuah replied. The sultan rewarded him with the title laksamana, or admiral.

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