Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2020

Calon Arang, The Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy (2016), by Toeti Heraty, translated by Iwan Mucipto Moeliono and Kadek Krishna Adidharma

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer, 1507, (Wikipedia)

Blaming women for anything that goes wrong has a long history.  In Judeo-Christian cultures it goes right back to Eve being responsible for the Fall of Man, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  Not only does the God punish Eve more severely because she tempted Adam to disobey the command that forbade them to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil—he also sets her up to be under the patriarchal thumb for evermore:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. (King James Bible, Genesis 3:16)

In countless depictions of this allegory by artists, (see Albrecht Dürer’s above) Eve is a saucy wench while Adam is depicted as a victim of her wiles.

Pandora, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1881) (Wikipedia)

In Greek mythology there is the story of Pandora whose curiosity led her to open a jar mistranslated, (according to Wikipedia) as a box by Erasmus in the 16th century), thereby releasing all the evils that beset humanity.  When the Romans appropriated Greek mythology and made it their own, they appropriated Pandora too.  So you only have to spend a cursory amount of time among Roman writers (or Robert Graves’ I Claudius (1934) which I’m currently reading in a desultory sort of way) to find that women cause all the trouble — Livia Drusilla, for example, presiding as arch-villain over generations of Roman emperors, confirms the role of women as interfering, wilful, and handy with poison into the bargain.

From a feminist point-of-view, whenever people seek to vindicate God to answer the question of why a good God permits evil, (theodicy) women are at fault.  Both Eve and Pandora were the first women on Earth; and each is condemned for provoking the transition from a paradise of plenty and ease in eternity to a life of suffering, struggle and death.  Human misery is the punishment for woman’s transgression of divine law, and you can see all kinds of depictions of her perfidy in any number of Renaissance artworks.  All our fairy tales from the Snow Queen to Cinderella to the Sleeping Beauty show any woman with power to be misusing it, and the only way any other kind of woman can triumph is through the power of loving kindness. (And then all she gets as a reward is some prince lording it over her instead).  In the Middle Ages, any woman who knew anything about herbalism was promptly burned as a witch if anything terrible happened, and the modern tragedy of burning and disfiguring women in places like India is just one example for how blaming the woman persists to the present day.

Calon Arang as portrayed by Bulantrisna Djelantik at the Satua Calonarang performance by the AyuBulan Legong Dance Group, 2016

So it comes as no surprise to find that there is a version of Blame the Woman from 12th Balinese and Javanese folklore.  Wikipedia tells us that Calon Arang was a witch and a master of black magic.  This is the WP summary of the story:

In the village of Girah in the Kediri Kingdom long ago, in what is now Indonesia, there lived a very cruel widow named Calon Arang, a witch, a black magician. She had a beautiful daughter named Ratna Manggali. But because of her ruthless nature, the people of Girah are afraid of Calon Arang, and Ratna Manggali had no suitors. Knowing this, Calon Arang became angry, holding all of the people in the village responsible. She decided to place a curse on Girah, so she performed a dark ceremony in the cemetery, offering the sacrifice of a young girl to the Goddess Durga. And Durga came down and granted the request of Calon Arang: the curse came true. A flood engulfed the village, and many people died. Afterwards, many of the survivors became very sick with an illness for which there was no cure.

Word of this finally reached the Kediri King, Erlangga, at the Royal Palace. After learning about the evil actions of Calon Arang, King Erlangga sent his army to Girah to kill her, but she was too powerful. The army had to retreat, and many of the king’s soldiers were killed.

After days of pondering the situation, King Erlangga asked his advisor, Empu Bharadah, for help. Empu Bharadah sent his disciple Empu Bahula to Calon Arang to ask for the hand of Ratna Manggali. The marriage proposal was accepted and Bahula and Ratna Manggali were married in a ceremony that lasted for seven days and seven nights. The celebration pleased Calon Arang very much. Ratna Manggali and Bahula were also very happy. They greatly loved and respected each other.

From Ratna Manggali, Bahula learned that Calon Arang kept a magic scroll and performed ceremonies in the cemetery each night. So, at midnight, Bahula went to the place where Calon Arang lived. Calon Arang slept very deeply because of the seven days and seven nights of partying during her daughter’s wedding. Bahula succeeded in stealing Calon Arang’s magic scroll, returned to Empu Bharadah, and told him all about Calon Arang’s magic and ceremonies. Empu Bharada told Bahula to go back to Girah before he was caught by his mother-in-law.

Bahula invited his master, Empu Bharadah, to visit him in Girah. Empu Bharadah and Calon Arang met in the Girah village cemetery. Bharadah asked Calon Arang to stop practicing her evil magic because it caused so much misery among the people. But Calon Arang would not listen to Empu Bharadah, and, eventually, there was a great battle between them. Because Calon Arang didn’t have the magic scroll, she could not beat Empu Bharadah, and she was finally killed.

When Ratna Manggali found out that her mother had died, she wept, for despite Calon Arang’s evil, she had always been good to her daughter. Eventually, however, Ratna Manggali realized that her mother’s death was for the best. Since then, the village of Girah has been happy and safe and secure.  (Wikipedia, viewed 18/1/2020)

Indonesia’s most eminent author Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote a children’s edition in 1951.  As far as I can make out from the description of the Indonesian edition at Goodreads and from one of the reviews, Toer’s story offers a limited form of redemption for Calan Arang. This is Google Translate’s version of the Indonesian blurb of Toer’s Dongeng Calan Arang which I share as an example of how, while Google Translate has its uses, it should never be relied upon if the translation really matters.  In this instance, the pronoun dia which can mean he or she is mistranslated as masculine.

The story of Candidate Charcoal Calon Arang tells the life of an evil old woman. The owner of black eggs and human bloodsuckers. He She is arrogant. All his her political opponents were cut down. Who criticizes the end. He She likes to persecute fellow human beings, kill, seize and hurt. He She has a lot of magic to kill people … his her students are forced to wash with human blood. When they are partying, they are like a pack of wild animals, afraid that people will see it.

But this crime can eventually be crushed in the hands of the lines of goodness in an integrated opera operation [i.e. a stratagem or a plot] led by Empu Bharadah. This master can restore the lives of people who are struggling to the right path so that life can be better and calmer, not playing games of all kinds of evil.

A reader of this version, Indu Jamtani really liked it, and writing her review* for Goodreads in English, tells us that:

…There are few things to take from this book, like no matter how evil, how power hunger a woman is, if she is a mother, she will always be a mother, hurt when her daughter was done wrong to. Calon Arang (the witch) got really mad when nobody wanted to marry her daughter and thus her curse began.
In it was also shown how one thing written could be use as evil or good depends on the beholder. That everything we know, we learnt have two sides of it, it is upon us which side we chose to act upon.
The other point I took was that when an evil person dies evil, his/her death will never mean anything, but if at the end of life he/she could be purified, then maybe, perhaps, at least in death he/she would mean something to mankind.“ Every good teaching may still end up producing evil bandits who have no principles whatsoever, an outcome even more likely when the teacher is also a bandit.”-Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Cover art: detail from ‘Misogyny and Patriarchy’ by Sri Haryani

So, after all that introduction—phew! we come to feminist author Toeti Heraty’s interpretation, which I am reading with my Indonesian book group.  It’s titled Calon Arang, The Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy.  This is the blurb from Goodreads, which I wrote, because there wasn’t a description of the book either for the Indonesian edition or the English one.

First published in Indonesian in 2000, followed by this 2006 English edition in lyrical prose, Toeti Heraty, professor of philosophy at the University of Indonesia, retells the ancient story of the witch Calon Arang from 12th century Balinese and Javanese folklore.

Inspired by the work of photographer Rio Helmi who described Calon Arang as an old woman in sorrow, Heraty’s version asks the question: ‘Do you know what it means to be a widow, what it means to be old?’

Written at a time of massive changes in Indonesia, when gender roles and the disproportionate power of men were being questioned, Calong Arang explores the injustices inflicted upon women by relating the old story to the realities of modern society.

This English edition is beautifully illustrated with cover art by Sri Haryani and paintings to accompany each poem by various Indonesian artists, curated for this edition by Sarita Newson.

The Introduction is by freelance journalist for culture and contemporary art, Carla Bianpoen.  There is a brief retelling of the original story, and then an explanation of the origin of Heraty’s contemporary retelling.  A libretto for a dance performance which premiered in New York, was based on Willem Samuel’s English translation of Toer’s version, The King’s Witch, and it used Heraty’s lyrical prose to present a woman’s voice for the first time.  From this feminist perspective Calon Arang was a threat to the King’s authority and she was therefore made a scapegoat for all disasters that befell the kingdom.  This interpretation is reinforced by the work of Balinese journalist, novelist, playwright, poet, and activist Cok Sawitri, who, through access to sacred lontar scripts, says that Calon Arang in these ancient versions of the story was a priestess whose only intention was to spread the spirit of peace.  Presenting her as an evil character is just slander…

Heraty at the outset presents a Calon Arang in distress, accompanied by a striking artwork called ‘Anti-Pornography’.  I wish I could show this powerful painting but copyright must prevail: it depicts a woman in deep distress, on her knees and head bowed before an encroaching sea of red.  ‘Bali’s Queen of Evil’ is just an old women/a crone with anger overflowing. 

Her story begins with an outbreak of fear
spreading though a village called Dirah
the widow, Calon Arang, her magical powers
so feared, nobody dared to court
her beautiful daughter Ratna Manggali,
so angry the widow
so shamed the widow
Calon Arang in never-ending fury
spits fiery devastation
from eyes, nose, mouth and ears.  (p.1)

The tone changes in Chapter II: ‘The ‘Wicked Witch’ — a Literary Version’.  History is not as simple as that/because we need scholars, who study/at Gajah Mada University, writing theses.  Scholars analysing this myth have earned doctorates and the title of ‘philologist’ but none have explored beyond the tale, it’s as if she, the widow, had no life story. 

The text goes on to describe the humiliation of women’s reproductive biology being hidden in shame, and the loneliness of widowhood.  Calon Arang hopes that even if she is denied love, her daughter will be spared that emptiness, and when that does not happen the widow enacts a gruesome revenge. And the narrator sardonically admires…

mankind’s creativity, crafting
a convincing legend, laden with hidden meaning
designed to protect male hunger for power
hatred and vengeance
against one fearful woman.  (p.9)

The next chapter is titled ‘Misogyny and Patriarchy’ and it’s accompanied by the painting of the same name on the cover.   The tone is angry, expressing ideas about how male envy and fear of women seek to enfeeble women (ideas which feminists who’ve read Germaine Greer will recognise from The Female Eunuch). But Calon Arang is not just a feminist retelling of an ancient myth: it also exposes how the King’s envoy to Bali is symbolic of contemporary nepotism and Javanese domination of the archipelago — in Papua, in Dili and in Aceh.

An aspect of the artwork that strikes me, is how different it is to the paintings offered to tourists in Indonesia.  You don’t have to be in Bali for long, to realise that almost everything you see is a copy of the same artwork.  A visit to an ‘art studio’ is a frustrating experience because what you see is ‘artists’ churning out multiple copies.  It’s like watching children do colouring in, and there’s nothing creative about it. But the original paintings in this book derive from Indonesian myths and legends and expressions of contemporary ideas in the diverse ways that European art depicts religious stories, classical myths and contemporary life: the book showcases a variety of styles and techniques which make it worthwhile for the paintings alone.  For example, there’s a wonderful painting in a style somewhat reminiscent of Grace Cossington Smith‘s squarish daubs of paint in subdued colours from the yellow end of the spectrum: titled ‘The Treachery of a Daughter’, it’s by I.G.P.A. Mirah Rahmawati.  It depicts Calon Arang’s daughter seduced as part of the King’s strategy, unaware that her betrayal enables the theft of her mother’s book of magic, which gives the priest the power to kill her.  But the painting has a contemporary resonance too, representing an aspect of life in a country in transition from tradition to modernity.  The faces of the women also show with cruel clarity the way that young people wholly absorbed in their passion sometimes cast aside the love of their parents and reject their advice, something unthinkable in traditional society.  (A theme also explored in The Atheist by Achdiat K Mihardja, see my review).

From page 29 onwards, the text diverges from the myth, to Heraty’s observations on contemporary issues.  She comments on how holy books are misused to reinforce male power; how as part of the rituals of courting, women are targeted as consumers of beauty products; how legitimacy seeks its authority in ancient texts but is used to prop up corruption in the bureaucracy; how there are family planning measures to control Indonesia’s burgeoning population but it is the wife who is pursued and hounded; and how a woman’s right to sexual pleasure is denied through genital mutilation in some countries — and it is older women who perpetrate it determined to transform each girl into a perfect offering to her partner. 

She goes on to comment on ‘The Backlash of Feminism’:

A ferocious undertow is dragging
women back down in so many clever ways, to
torture themselves with the demands of tradition
or follow the trends, fashion, making them
targets of advertising condemned to uphold
the myths of beauty.

This backlash is relentless, particularly among the elite
who depend upon media, art, and fashion for celebrity.  (p.44)

The artwork for this page is brilliant: a cartoonish young woman in a mini skirt, with green hair and a tattooed ankle and belly, has arms bedecked with shopping bags, and a mobile phone to her ear plus a cigarette clutched by fake talons.  Dwarfed by this representation of womanhood are three small figures of women in traditional kebaya and sarong, resolutely walking away from her—except for one who turns back with a look of profound distaste and a speech balloon conveying an explosion of anger.

Once more, enmity between mother and daughter
that so often emerges during adolescence
while susceptible to violence and drugs
when other teenage girls are having adventures
yet it is clear, none of them wish to
be trapped and repeat their mother’s fate. (p.47)

Heraty’s interpretation of this ancient tale ends on an optimistic note: the emergence of ‘female bonding’ and networking is beginning to replace the female rivalry which for so long has hampered the progress of women.

The book concludes with Afterwords and an explanation about the artworks:

  • by academic Karlina Supeli who explains how the text is used in contrast with Pramoedya’s version as part of the Women’s Discourse segment of a philosophy course;
  • by Sydney academic Keith Foulcher, who analyses the absence of women’s voices in Indonesian literary history and Toeti Heraty’s pioneering role in placing women’s experience and a female perspective on male-female relationships at the heart of literary developments beginning in the 1960s and spanning three decades; and
  • by art curator Sarita Newson, who provides details about the artists and how the artworks interpret the texts.

It will be interesting to discuss this book with the book group!

* Used by permission from Indu.

Image credits:

Author: Toeti Heraty
Title: Calon Arang, The Story of a Woman Sacrificed to Patriarchy
Translated from the Indonesian by Iwan Mucipto Moeliono and Kadek Krishna Adidharma
Cover painting by Sri Haryani, internal illustrations, various, see pp 61-71
Publisher: Saritaksu Editions (Bali) and Galeri Cemara (Jakarta), 2006, 71 pages
ISBN: 9789799697592, hbk.
Source: On loan from my Indonesian bookgroup.  The book seems to be impossible to source from within Australia.


  1. Optimism. I need more optimism right now. This sounds interesting, Lisa, but not right now.


    • I think we all do. I’m not optimistic when I read today that Albanese has no plans to have a more ambitious climate policy. It’s stupid politics apart from anything else: if he’d had any sense he would have deferred making any pronouncements until after his party had a chance to review their policy in the light of the bushfires at a national conference, and if I’d had any say in it, I’d be telling the media that he’s calling an urgent party conference to debate what should be done, and I’d be giving a voice to young people, not just a bunch of old unionists.


      • We need leaders with vision who are able to articulate the need for change in a way that takes people with them. We don’t need party hacks focussed on short-term relection. Sigh.


        • Yes, though of course, as Penny Wong is reported to have said in Margaret Simon’s bio, you do need to be ‘inside the tent’. It’s no good having visionary policies if you can’t get elected.
          But I think Albanese is misjudging the electorate if he isn’t aware that this is a time when the people might very well be with him. To put it another way, he needs to stall, while he also demonstrates that he’s going to listen to the young people whose future it is.


  2. It will be an interesting discussion am sure at your book group.As for propaganda it comes in different guises here in the west and the flooding (pardon the language) of the media with irrelevant mini spiels about things of no interest is my main bone of contention about this culture. The first prejudice of humanity is still thriving and makes it challenging to be an optimist. But Lisa you do a great job of educating us so all credit to you.


    • Thanks, Fay, but please, be aware that I’m educating myself as well — I’m no expert on Indonesian culture, that’s for sure!


  3. Calon is pronounced Chalon.


    • Yes, ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’ in Indonesian, as in ‘coklat’ (chocolate).
      One of the aspects of Indonesian that makes it comparatively easy to learn is that it is phonetic.


  4. Albo is a disappointment, a new Arthur Calwell, who I can’t see ever winning an election (and whom I can’t see much point in electing). Anyway, an interesting book interestingly expounded. I’m not a woman but I have daughters and granddaughters and I think the sexuality of third wave feminism might have been designed by men. I hope fourth wave is a backlash.


    • Oh, that’s a bit harsh. Poor old Calwell couldn’t have won a chook raffle in the pub…


  5. Thank you for your passionate post, Lisa. I appreciated your comprehensive backgrounding leading up to Toeti Heraty’s feminist retelling. And I enjoyed all the illustrations. It’s a post I will re-read.


    • Thanks, Bryce, it was a fascinating journey for me to undertake. I am learning a lot from being in this book group.


  6. Thanks for this great post! She is such a fascinating character, after living inBali I’m quite obsessed by her and I love Toeti Heraty’s feminist angle. I have been searching for this book, but it is really hard to get. If you know I place I can buy one, please let me know…


    • Hello Karien, how nice to ‘meet’ you.
      I’m afraid I don’t know anything about availability, we had to share our copy around the book group because we couldn’t source it anywhere. It’s one of the frustrating things about Indonesian books…
      You could possibly try one of the state libraries or a university library, or beg them to find one and buy it?


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