Karo Batak people
north Sumatra, Indonesia
Priest's magic staff
[tungkot malehat or tunggal malehat]
wood, cotton, feathers, hair
162.0 (h) x 22.0 (w) x 31.0 (d) cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Elaborately carved wooden staffs are the most important tools of Batak priests [datu]. Potent and greatly feared, the objects are used in esoteric rites to ward off evil, protect villages and foretell the future. So powerful are they that the sorcerer himself carves the images into his staff, and impregnates it with a magic potion. That powerful substance is created through the macabre process of abducting a child from another community, gaining his allegiance and then killing him with poison and distilling his corpse.
This staff depicts a male on horseback wearing a splendid headdress of feathers, cotton and human hair. A small female figure is seated on the horse’s head, and a dog-like animal prances on its tail. The horse stands on four figures representing the cardinal points.