Medicine Man: A Sanctification Rite in the Marketplace

Author: Abi Muhammad Latif

Is it possible to find a sanctifying rite in a market crowd? Perhaps yes, perhaps not. In Jember, Banyuwangi, and Jakarta circa 2000 – 2010, we still found itinerant medicine (and book) vendors selling their spectacle actions involving magic or sorcery. The structure of the text/stories they recite often succeed in attracting and lulling the public to buy what they sell, and well in that.

Indeed, there are several styles of selling that they do, be it those that use storytelling tricks, and those that involve metaphysical powers. But what is most obvious, both of them have a storytelling style that is captivating and binding, sparking hope between tragedy/tragic-comedy attractions, involving metaphysics as a narrative medium or mode of work.

What I witnessed in the early 2000s: one medicine vendor (we will call him Medicine Man) created a bazaar in an open badminton court, close to Pasar Deprok (literal: Sitting Market), a traditional market in Cipinang Muara 3, East Jakarta. In their work, other medicine vendors often brought the audience as close to them as possible, but the Medicine Man was different. It was a rather cloudy night. Medicine Man spread out his stall with a fairly large tarpaulin. The audience was gathered some distance from him. Unexpectedly, he managed to master the large stage by himself with a performance of “fighting the spirit that attacked him”: he rolled backward then spat out nails and blood. Not quickly impressed, I thought it had been prepared previously.

But a few minutes after this attraction, my neighbor – whom I am closely acquainted with, volunteered to be a patient. He told the Medicine Man he had a hernia with a large swelling. Cliché but always effective, Medicine Man diagnosed that his patient was affected by dark magic. The drama of the second act entered into a structure of conflict.

The spectacle was getting bigger and more mysterious. Would the public, who mostly were acquainted with this patient, suspect that this event had been prepared? I began to weigh the metaphysical presence at that moment. The patient was put as if he was being exorcised: Medicine Man recited something to him, and he groaned. Before long, he vomited out quite a lot of nails and was covered in blood. The public was stunned – between fear and belief. Soon, the medicine (a kind of herbal powder and mineral water that had been covered with spells of prayers/mantras), as well as sheets of paper/books, were selling out fast.

The next day, from my house, I saw that the door ventilation of my neighbor’s house had been covered with Arabic writings on a sheet of paper. The paper was brownish yellow. My own brother has been deceived by the great show (as well as metaphysical things) the Medicine Man had put on. Thus, is it possible to find a sanctifying rite in a market crowd? Are we – the three foolish land-clearers—going to be the Medicine Men at the Tamsweg market that takes place at noon? Perhaps we will, firstly, have to learn how to spit out bloodied nails (read: food coloring).

The Medicine Man performs an attraction with the participants. Documentation: Heri Purtanto.

A Medicine Man is crowded by people in a traditional market in Aceh. Documentation: Saifullah Yusuf (2014).

The Medicine Man in West Java. Dokumentation: Abey.

The Medicine Man performs a throat-slitting attraction. Documentation: Jaya Wijaya 2017.

A Medicine Man wearing traditional costume in Medan. Documentation: Erwin Zn 2009.

Friday Market at Tamsweg Marktplatz, Salzburg Lungau. Documentation: Studio Klampisan (2022)