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The penanggal or penanggalan is a nocturnal vampiric entity of Malay ghost myths. Its name comes from the word tanggal meaning to remove or take off, because its form is that of a floating disembodied woman's head with its trailing organs still attached. From afar, it twinkles like a ball of flame, providing an explanation for the will-o'-the-wisp phenomenon.
The penanggalan exists by different names in every country of Southeast Asia. It is known as balan-balan in Sabah, leyak in Bali, kuyang in Kalimantan, palasik in West Sumatra, kra-sue in Thailand, kasu in Laos, ap in Cambodia, and manananggal in the Philippines.
Though commonly referred to in its native languages as a ghost, the penanggalan cannot be readily classified as a classical undead being. Rather, it is a witch that developed the ability to take such a form through meditation in a vat of vinegar. The creature is, for all intents and purposes, a living human being during daytime (much like the Japanese Nukekubi) or at any time when it does not detach itself from its body.
In Malaysian folklore, penanggal are mortal women who practice black magic. To become a penanggal, a woman must meditate during a ritual bath in vinegar, with her whole body submerged except for the head. Only active in penanggal form at night, the creature regularly soaks its organs in vinegar to shrink them for easy entry back into her body. The penanggal thus carries an odor of vinegar wherever she flies, and returns to her body during the daytime, passing as an ordinary woman. However, a penanggal can always be told from an ordinary woman by the smell of vinegar. The penanggal was also mentioned in Hikayat Abdullah, written in 1845, much to the amusement of Sir Stamford Raffles.
Modern urban legends offer alternative views of the penanggal. This includes being the result of a curse, or the breaking of a demonic pact. One story tells of a young woman who was taking a ritual bath in a tub that once held vinegar. While bathing herself and in a state of concentration or meditation, a man entered the room without warning and startled her. The woman was so shocked that she jerked her head up to look, moving so quickly as to sever her head from her body, her organs and entrails pulling out of the neck opening. Enraged by what the man had done, she flew after him, a vicious head trailing organs and dripping venom. Her empty body was left behind in the vat.
The penanggalan's victims are traditionally pregnant women and young children. As traditional Malay dwellings were stilt-houses, the penanggal hides under the stilts of the house and uses its long tongue to lap up the blood of the new mother. Those whose blood the penanggalan feeds upon contract a wasting disease that is almost inescapably fatal. Furthermore, even if the penanggalan is not successful in her attempt to feed, anyone who is brushed by the dripping entrails will suffer painful open sores that won't heal without a bomoh's help.
The most common protection against a penanggal attack is to scatter the thorny leaves of any of the subspecies of a local plant known as mengkuang, which has sharp thorny leaves and would either trap or injure the exposed lungs, stomach and intestines of the penanggal as it flies in search of its prey. These thorns, on the vine, can also be looped around the windows of a house in order to snare the trailing organs. This is commonly done when a woman has just given birth. The shards of glass glued to the top of the walls around a house serve the same purpose, in addition to protecting against thieves. As an extra precaution, the pregnant woman can keep scissors or betel nut cutters under her pillow, as the penanggalan is afraid of these items.
Once the penanggal leaves its body and is safely away, it may be permanently destroyed by either pouring pieces of broken glass into the empty neck cavity, which will sever the internal organs of the penanggal when it reattaches to the body; or by sanctifying the body and then destroying it by cremation or by somehow preventing the penanggal from reattaching to its body upon sunrise.
Another non-lethal way to get rid of penanggalan is to turn over the body, so that when the head attached back it will be attached reverse side, thereby revealing to everyone what she really is.
Differences from manananggal
Unlike the Filipino manananggal, all penanggal are females and there is no variation in Malaysian folklore to suggest a penanggal to be male. Another notable difference between them is that a penanggal detaches only her head with her lungs, stomach and intestines attached while leaving the body before coming back and soaking her innards in a prepared container filled with vinegar to fit back into the body. Also, the manananggal is usually described as having a normal human head. While the penanggal is often described the same way, some also have fangs. Modern depictions commonly give it two fangs like a European vampire, but traditional descriptions have the fangs as more rakshasa-like.
In popular culture
The penanggalan was listed as a monster in the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons rulebook Fiend Folio. In Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others comics, Hellboy travels to Malaysia in 1958 where a village devoid of Bomoh shaman has fallen victim to a demonic penanggalan. In the 2016 Image Comic Cry Havoc a character named Sri reveals that she is a penanggalan and describes how her head detaches from her body and "slithers around like an electric eel". The miniature game Malifaux by Wyrd Miniatures contains a character Yin the Penangalan. Penanggalans are enemies in the 2019 video game Indivisible, where they attack by spitting bile.
- Vampires in popular culture
- Chonchon, a Mapuche creature that also detaches its head
- Mercatante, Anthony S.; James R. Dow (2004), Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend (2nd ed.), New York: Facts on File, p. 690, ISBN 978-0-8160-5781-8