The Demon Museum

The Balinese New Year’s Day, Nyepi, occurs in March or April of each year. Three days before Nyepi, all the villages take all the ceremonial objects they own and carry them to the beach in a procession to be purified by water—including Barong and Durga masks because they have living spirits in them. The next night, this cleansing process continues with purification by fire: torchlight parades through town carrying the ceremonial objects as well as huge demonic images that are carried overhead to scare any demons or low spirits out of the village, to clear everything out before New Year’s Day.

These big demonic images, known as Ogoh, are based on traditional stories and legends. They are built by banjar youth organizations, made up of local teenagers and unmarried young adults. Making these giant dummies has the same thrill for Balinese young people as Halloween has in our culture: being able to create a giant scary beast and then saying, “I’m not afraid of that.”

The man who created the Ogoh-Ogoh (repetition in Balinese indicates more than one) museum is passionate about these demons. He hears about the best ones each year and travels to villages to purchase them for his museum. Periodically he sells them off to collectors to make room for more. So new demons appear in the museum regularly.

What’s amazing about these demons is how huge they are and how they’re built to be paraded and carried aloft. Often the whole giant demon is balanced on the ball of one foot. The construction of each demon is an amazing feat of engineering—as well as artistry. No Styrofoam is used, just natural basketry materials like rattan, papier-mâché, and bits of wood.

It’s exhausting for the young men who carry them to parade these giant demons around, which is great, because the next day, New Year’s Day, no one is allowed to leave their homes or family compounds. On Nyeti, Balinese aren’t allowed to make loud noises, cook or have sex. They turn off the wifi for the whole country. The airport even closed down. Lights are turned off or hidden so they won’t draw the attention of demons who might be looking to create problems. For the Balinese the process of purification in preparation for the new year is completed during this quiet day free of demonic images and disturbances.

What intrigues me the most about the giant demons in this museum, which fits in with everything I’ve witnessed in my month+ in Bali so far is witnessing a culture that openly confronts their demons in public and in community, through ceremony, humor, theatre, masks, dance and festivals. In our culture, our shadow sides are considered dangerous and are therefore suppressed and held inside, unacknowledged and denied, and look what shows up in our society as a result of all that suppressed energy. The Balinese approach to the shadow aspects of human existence seems to me a whole lot healthier. Come on a tour of the Ogoh-Ogoh museum with me. How do these archetypal demons compare to ones floating deep in your own psyche?

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