Understanding an Active Volcano: Naturalism, Analogism and Animism in Central Javanese Society

Through the example of the Merapi volcano in Central Java in Indonesia, this talk will explore different practices and conceptions related to the comprehension and the communication with this uncertain environment. Merapi volcano is located in the “ring of fire” where Indo-Australian plate meets the Eurasian plate. At almost 3000 meter above the sea level, it is considered as permanently active. The volcano stands at 30 kilometers from the city of Yogyakarta, capital city of the eponym province. In the region, population density is quite high with 7000 inhabitant/km2 in the city and around 1000 inhabitant/km2 in the rural areas of Merapi’s south flank.

Map of the Indonesian Subduction Zone System (Gertisser & Keller, 2003)
Resettled Village of Pelemsari, 2012.

This reflection is a part of an anthropological research about the post-disaster resettlement (relokasi) of a village (dusun) located in the Merapi volcano’s south flank. Totally destroyed by the 2010 eruption of Merapi, the 81 household of the studied village was removed 5 kilometers downstream of its original location, through a post disaster governmental reconstruction program.

The village is also very famous in Java and in Indonesia because it is the dwelling place of the Merapi volcano guardian (juru kunci – literally “guardian of the key”) who have received, from the region’s Sultan, the key mission to conduct the annual ceremony of offerings to Merapi volcano and more broadly to sustain good relationships with the mountain.

With the main hypothesis that the study of local environment conceptions and practices is a key element for the analysis of the logics that structure the society/territory relationship, this communication aims to put in perspective and question different ontologies in the Central Javanese Society in relation with this specific volcano: naturalism, analogism and animism as defined by Philippe Descola (2005). Indeed, in this region, scientific views of “nature” – represented by state institutions and volcanoes’ surveillance agencies – are coexisting with a specific cosmological system and ritual practices in relation with the volcano – such as the Labuhan, the annual offering ceremony at Mount Merapi.

Seismogram of Merapi volcano, BPPTKG, Yogykarta, 2014.
“Gunungan dan Jajanan Pasar”. Part of the Labuhan Offering to Mount Merapi, Pelemsari Village, 2014.

By analyzing the main characteristics of these representational systems at work, I will discuss the conditions of the overlapping and articulation of these modes of identification in Central Java.

The Merapi volcano, the seismograph and the “red zone” : Naturalism through the Volcanoes Surveillance State Agencies

There are two main hazards related to the Merapi volcano: the first one is the pyroclastic flows or “nuée ardente”  (awan panas in Indonesian and wedhus gembel in Javanese) which are flows of high temperature volcanic rocks, ashes and gazes.

Pyroclastic flow at Merapi volcano, 2010

A pyroclastic flow can go down the flanks of the volcano at the speed of 300 km/hour. It was one of them that destroyed the studied village in 2010.

Dam destroyed by a lahar in the Gendol river, 2012

The second main hazard are lahars. A lahar (from the Javanese-Indonesian word lahar) is a flow of volcanic debris. Especially during rain seasons, flowing water carries volcanic debris along the valleys. These kind of flows can destroy everything on its path.

Merapi volcano is considered as a very active volcano: since 1872 (the first eruption record), the mountain made few thousands of victims in the region (Lavigne, Morin, Surono, 2015)

Date of Eruption Victims
1872 200
1904 16
1920 35
1930 1396
1954 64
1961 6
1994 64
1998 0
2006 2
2010 341

With an average of victims quite high, the Merapi volcano is the target of an intensive surveillance by the state agencies. Nowadays, the current goals of volcanoes surveillance agencies in Indonesia are 1- to anticipate volcanic eruption in the context of a risk mitigation policy (in order to prevent destructive events and to organize an efficient population preparedness) 2- and doing research about the volcano to better understand the phenomena. These activities entail specific views of nature and volcanic environment that we can analyze by considering the history of these agencies and the description of the technological tools used for the study and the monitoring of the volcano.

Merapi Volcano Monitoring Room in BPPTKG, Yogyakarta, 2014.

The creation of the first volcano surveillance agency was during the colonization: after Mount Kelud eruption in East Java in 1919, is created the Institut Vulkanologi by the colonial power (Lucas Sasongko Triyoga, 1991). Colonial state created several observatories and installed monitoring instruments in Mount Merapi : the oldest one is the Babadan observatory built in 1930.

The main observatories at Merapi volcano. Noer Cholik, BPPTKG, 2016.

Several techniques are used to anticipate volcanic phenomena: such as sismograh, tiltmeter, fumerol temperature measurement, direct observation, etc. All these techniques can provide geophysical informations and variations of the volcanic activity. In the perspective of the governmental agents and the scientists, the volcano is a geophysical entity with its own and specific forces and logics. Their goals is to understand the volcanic environment which, by nature, is different from the humankind. Considering risk management, scientists identify prone risk area – called “red zone” (zona merah) –  with prediction models. They try to isolate a hazardous “nature” where humans dwelling should not exist in order to prevent  “natural” disasters and to protect society.

Merapi Risk Zones Map, BPPTKG, 2015.

Maybe, it is important here to note that it is exactly the same logic that organize nature conservation in Indonesia. Indeed, before the independence (in 1945), volcano surveillance activities are growing beside nature conservation policies. For example, in 1912, the Dutch government created the Mount Merapi National Park. After this date, humans activities were forbidden in the park of Merapi. Merapi’s south flank people, who until then were practicing swidden agriculture in the volcano’s highlands, removed their subsistence activities downstream (Handojo Adi Pranowo, 1985).

In the end, it is during the twentieth century and with the Dutch colonization, that the “ Nature of the Moderns” , as says Descola, clearly appeared in Central Java. It is visible in two main domains : the policies for nature conservation and for volcanoes surveillance and disaster management. In both policies, one can observe a clear distinction between “nature” and “culture” :

  • between a dangerous volcanic nature and a vulnerable population in the context of a volcano’s surveillance and natural risk management
  • between a nature to protect and destructive agricultural practices in the context of the nature conservation policies

 The Royal Ceremony of Labuhan : an Expression of Analogism in Central Java

Beside its active and dangerous character, which make it one of the most well-known volcano in Indonesia, Merapi volcano is also very famous because of what it represents for the Yogyakarta kingdom. Indeed, it takes a primordial place in the local royal cosmology. The most emblematic expression of the central place of Merapi volcano in the region is the ceremony of Labuhan.

Prayer during Labuhan Ceremony at Merapi volcano, 2014.

This offering procession is performed once a year for the anniversary of the enthronization of the Sultan of the province. The origin of the ceremony is not clear. There is no writing trace or archive about it. But, a story – written in the Javanese royal chronicles (Babad Tanah Jawi) but also known and story-told by a large part of the Yogyakarta region people – explain the emergence and the purpose of the ceremony:

This is the story of Senopati, the first king of the current dynasty of Yogyakarta (17th century), who falls in love with the goddess of the southern sea named Ratu Kidul. Senopati received as a gift an egg from his lover. But because he was scared about becoming a spirit if he eats the egg, Senopati asks to his gardener named Ki Juru Taman to eat it. Ki Juru Taman, as expected became a giant spirit directly after having eaten the egg. Senopati gave him the mission to protect the kingdom of Mataram and to take place in the Merapi volcano. Ki Juru Taman took the name of Kyai Sapu Jagag and became minister in the kingdom of Merapi volcano. This kingdom is ruled by two brothers named Empu Rama and Empu Rahmadi. Sapu Jagag is the one in charge of the army of Merapi and of the volcanic activity of the mountain. Since this time, each sultan of the kingdom of Mataram, give offering to Sapu Jagag and the others spirits of Merapi to thank them for the sacrifice of Ki juru Taman. He also asks for their protection against lava and pyroclastic flows and for the safety (slamet) of the kingdom:

“Thanks to Allah for the grace and the joy He gave to us, to me and to all, so that we can meet here.  I am carrying out my mission in the name Ngarso dalem sampeyan dalem ingkang sinuwun kanjeng sultan Hamengku Buwono Senopati ing alogo abdurahman khalifatullah engkang jumeneng ing nganyojokarta [full name of the current sultan]. I am conducting the labuhan ndalem ceremony in Mount Merapi with these offerings (ubo rampe) All these offerings are for Eyang Sapu Jagag, Eyang Empu Rama Empu Rahmadi, Brama Dedhali, Nayi Gadung Melati, Eyang Megantoro, Panembahan Prabu Jagat, Parloparli, Branjang kawat, Krincing wesi. After the gift of these offerings, I am asking the blessing of Allah. May the sultan have a long life, as well as his wife, his children and all his family. May people of Yogyakarta prosper. May Allah give us what we are asking, to me and to everyone here.”

Offering procession to Merapi volcano actually take place inside a wider ritual which involve others sites identified as crucial for the Yogyakarta kingdom.

Localisation of Merapi volcano, Yogyakarta Kraton and Parangkusumo Beach

During Labuhan, royal palace (kraton) sends offerings in three different places: 1- at Merapi volcano; 2- at Parangkusumo beach located in the south of the city (Parangkusumo represents the access of the Ratu Kidul Kingdom); 3- at Mount Lawu (located in the east of the city) and every eight years at the Dlepih river (located in the east of Yogyakarta). When considering the whole Labuhan ceremony, we realize that the royal palace is situated at the center of a cosmological system ordered by relative cardinal points.

Representation of the North/South Axis, Museum of kraton of Yogyakarta, 2012

According to Merapi inhabitants as well as royal palace servants (abdi dalem) and members of the royal family, the kraton of Yogyakarta is located on a north/south axis which represents the link between the invisible kingdom of Ratu Kidul (in the Indian Ocean at the beach of Parangkusumo) and the Merapi volcano.

Merapi kingdom and Ratu Kidul Kingdom are conceptualized by using the human world as model. Merapi is like a royal palace: a kraton with its king (raja), ministers (patih), army, and common people (wong cilik) who have same activities as humans: like raising cattle as Pelemsari villagers for example. When someone disappears in the volcano, it is told that this person have been recruited by the kingdom of Merapi for some working needs. More broadly, several authors, as Timothy Berhend (1989), have analyzed the kraton as an attempt to identify inside a limited structure the unlimited universe, in others words, to represent macrocosm inside a microcosm. The kraton is considered as a pivotal point which maintains the general equilibrium between the human world and the divine world. Harmony in both worlds depends on  the conservation of a good relationship between them. Every perturbation in this relation can produce lost and destruction in both worlds. From that point of view, the Labuhan ceremony is an expression of the willingness to sustain harmony.

According to Denys Lombard, India have had an important influence in the construction of the conceptions related to the royal power and the mountain. For this French historian, cults of mountain have existed in Bali and Java before the Hindu-Buddhist period and are a part of what he calls the “ancient Javanese background” (vieux fond javanais). Later on these cults have been mixed with the Brahmanic and Buddhist conceptions of the Mount Meru, the center of the universe and the related notion of maharaja as the lord of the mountain. According the myth of origin of Merapi volcano (Schlehe 1996), before the creation of Merapi, the island of Java was not in balance. It is because of its creation that the island can finally find equilibrium and harmony. In these conceptions, Merapi stands in the center of the island of Java as Mount Meru in the center of the world.

When we consider all these elements related to the Labuhan ceremony in the light of the theory of Philippe Descola, several factors indicate an analogical mapping system: such as, for example, the use of offerings, the same social organization between human world and spirits world, the significance of symmetry and the important role of making correspondences between micro- and macrocosm. The presence of such expression of analogism in Java is not surprising when we consider the influence of India – which is interpreted as an analogical system by Descola – during several centuries in the archipelago. As an official ceremony, Labuhan is highly normative ritual with clear references to analogical conceptions that one can also witness in other kinds of rituals that can be sorted out as possession ceremonies.

Significance of Territorial Spirits and Communication with Elements of “Nature(s)”: Few examples of Relations with Non-humans among Merapi Villagers

Actually, the rituals, practices and conceptions related to the volcanic environment among Merapi flanks villagers seem to be more like a mix between analogism and animism than a fully and exclusive expression of analogism. As a matter of fact, and from the local point of view, surrounding environment is inhabited by a variety of spirits (makhluk halus): they can live in the trees, in volcanic rocks, in the springs, in the rivers… So every element of the “natural” environment can potentially be considered as possessing an interiority. It is possible to interact with them. More than just an interaction, humans have to maintain good relationship with them to ensure human stability and reproduction.

It is particularly true with the Dandan Kali ritual conducted every year at the end of the dry season in the Merapi’s south flank villages: dandan means “to dress”, “to repair”, “to fix” and kali means “river”. The purpose of this ritual is to ensure the access to water to the inhabitants by giving offering to the guardian spirits of the water sources (located in the “red zone”).

Offerings for Dandan kali ritual, Pelemsari village, 2015.

This spirits are very important for water supply needs but also even more important for the social reproduction of the village. Indeed, if people wants to get married, offering have to be addressed to these spirits during the wedding ceremony in order to ensure the protection of the ceremony itself and to get blessings for the spouses and their life as a couple and a future family.

But the physicality of these entities inhabiting the surrounding environment is unclear. We also can note that we can find in Java metamorphosis (related to animism according the theory of modes of identification) and also possession (linked to analogism). Some persons can become an animal as Jean-Marc de Grave has described it in his article about Harimurti, a champion of the kraton who had the capacity to turn himself into a panther or a tiger, a snake or a gorilla. As suggested the local techniques of becoming animal also explore the path of ritual of possession: the Jathilan is for example a dance of trance. This kind of dance can be organized for many occasions: circumcision, village celebration, independence day, etc. According to Pelemsari villagers, its purpose is to “thank God” (bersyukur). But, by analyzing the current practice, it seems that the dance is another occasion for humans to offer “food” to the non-human entities.

In this short film, it is an example of this dance: it was organized in the village of Pelemsari for the Independence Day the 17 august 2015.

At the start of the dance, horses, food and drink are blessed by prayer and incense. The man in charge of this prayer – identified as the most experimented in Jathilan – asks blessing from God, the spirits and the deads which are believed living all around humans. After around 45 min dancing, some dancers are entering in a state of trance (kesurupan). They are told being possessed by spirits (makhlus halus/roh). These spirits then ask some “food” to the humans: it can be incenses, coconut water or alive chicken as we can see in this video.

To resume, all these ritual practices have the same purpose. In an official way, with Labuhan ceremony or in a local way, with ritual of Dandan kali or with Jathilan, it appears the very important necessity to “feed” the spirits (spirits of Merapi and local spirits) and the dead – most of the time, border between the dead and spirits remain unclear because they are a part of the direct environment of the humans and so, maintaining good relationships with them is central to ensure stability and reproduction of the human world.

Another point that I want to underline here is the communicative dimension of the relationship between humans and non-humans. In the flanks of Merapi volcano, I have met several persons who have told me that they have received messages alarming of an eminent eruption: sometimes from an ancestor or from a spirit or sometimes a dream like a metaphor which need to be interpreted. The dead can also enter in a human body to deliver a message. So, humans and non-humans can communicate by these ways and receive crucial information for their safety, for example in case of the eminent eruption. This is another reason why maybe, it is important to maintain relationship with non-humans. The maintenance of the relationship is primordial because it is the condition for communication. About dreams, the guardian of the Merapi volcano described to me the concept of alam that we can translate by “nature” but which also refers to “universe” “world” “realm”. He explains that human beings are living in a first “nature” which is concrete and that humans can see and experiment: trees, rocks, air, water, etc. But in parallel, a second “nature” exists, an invisible nature. When humans receive dreams, they actually received message from this second nature. Most of the time, this “nature” remains invisible to humans but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The dreams are interpreted as a proof of the existence of an invisible but powerful “nature”. So, in such conceptions, “nature” is basically plural. Moreover, the “natures” are interconnected.

Overlapping and Tendency to integration of ontologies in Javanese Society ?

I have presented two different representational systems related to Merapi volcanic environment: naturalism typically carried by state institutions and scientists and a analogico-animic system represented by the royal court and the Merapi villagers. But actually, these two ways of conceptualizing environment are coexisting in present day in Central Javanese society. These is why in this last part of my communication, I want to discuss with you the possibility of their cohabitation and how one ontology can be integrated into another one to create a meaningful whole.

Naturalism and analogico-animic system appears to be opposite. This opposition is particularly clear with these two maps.

Cosmological Link Merapi volcano, Yogyakarta Kraton and Parangkusumo Beach
Merapi Risk Zones Map, BPPTKG, 2015.

As I explained earlier, the risk zone map separates the dangerous nature from the human’s dwelling zone. It creates a border between both. Whereas the north/south axis using as a reference for the Labuhan ceremony as the annual ritual of Dandan kali hightlights the link between humans and non humans forces. The Labuhan offerings site is actually located in the prone risk area inside the National Park of Merapi volcano. While naturalism makes separation, analogical-animic perspective creates a link.

The purpose in both ontologies is to catch signals from the volcano in order to keep the human world safe. But the main difference is that in naturalism, people don’t really communicate with this entity: they catch the signals by using instruments and observations. In this point of view, communication is not possible because the volcano or the volcanic environment is not conceptualized as possessing intentionality. And human actions have no consequences on the activity of the volcano. In the analogico-animic ontology, establishing communication with non-human world is actually possible and even more, necessary for the human sphere. Humans can interact with the volcano and their activities have an impact on the volcano and the whole cosmos as it is shown by the important role of the propitiatory rituals (such as the Labuhan ceremony). This is the reason why I characterize naturalism as a one way relationship and the analogico-animic perspective as a dialogue relationship.

To conclude and open the discussion, I want to speak about is a tendency which emerge in both ontologies: tendency to integration of concepts or element of one ontology into the other one. For example, in naturalism perspective, carried by scientist, the local worldview of the volcano is integrated into the nature/culture dualism: scientists, disaster management agents use to speak about “cultural perception of nature” or “social perception of volcano”. Local practices and representations are becoming a part of the “culture” and have to be integrated in disaster management plan for a better efficiency.

The same pattern of integration is also present in the analogio-animic perspective. For example, some people use to give offering to the seismic stations located on the volcano or some others practice meditation inside the observatories as in Babadan observatory. Scientific site in the volcano are becoming preferred places to communicate with the volcanic entity and the spirits’ world. They become embedded into a specific way of conceptualized environment and become a part of it. Sometimes, people justify the usefulness of analogico-animic practices with science. When I was doing the ethnography of the Labuhan ceremony at the kraton of Yogyakarta, I interview a member of the royal family who explain the legitimacy of the ceremony by quoting several scientific articles about the memory of water and the impact of humans actions on water composition: “If humans can influence water composition, why cannot they influence a volcano? Because a volcano remains a mountain and every mountain is an aquifer, a water reservoir…”

Even if it seems that there is a tendency to find bridges between both ontologies and to create a meaningful whole, it is not exactly an equal and complete integration. Indeed, one of the ontologies always remains the organizing structure of thinking whereas the other one just become a particular element of the general structure.

  • Behrend Timothy, 1989, “Kraton and Cosmos in Traditional Java”, Archipel, Vol. 31 N°1, p. 173-187.
  • Descola Philippe 2005, Par delà nature et culture, Editions Gallimard, Paris.
  • Handojo Adi Pranowo, 1985, Manusia dan hutan : proses perubahan ekologi di lereng Gunung Merapi, Gadjah mada University Press, Yogyakarta.
  • Lavigne Franck, Morin Julie, Surono (Eds) , 2015. Atlas of Merapi Volcano. Laboratoire de Géographie Physique, Meudon, France. Online Publication.
  • Lucas Sasongko Triyoga, 1991, Manusia Jawa dan Gunung Merapi: Persepsi dan Kepercayaannya, Gadjah mada University Press, Yogyakarta.
  • Schlehe Judith, 1996, “Reinterpretations of Mystical Traditions. Explanations of a Volcanic Eruption in Java” Anthropos 91, p. 391-409.


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