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Enchanted Asia

main asia exhibit

by Carole E. Atkinson, information and reference contact for the Asia Collections

The current exhibit in the Asia Collections at Kroch library, Enchanted Asia, explores sorcery, witchcraft, spells, rituals, and “magic” in Asia and the various means people have used to protect against bad fortune or to empower themselves.   

Some of the legendary sorcerers and witches highlighted in the exhibit are Zhang Daoling (Zhang Tianshi, ca. 34–156 CE), founder of the Way of the Celestial Masters in Daoism. According to legends, he lived one hundred twenty-two years and was also a geomancer, alchemist, magician, and exorcist.[1]  

Abe no Seimei was a court onmyogi in the Heian period (794–1185 CE) in Japan. He was a yin-yang master and specialist in magic, divination, geomancy, and exorcism in the Bureau of Onmyo, whose onmyogi had the responsibility of using their skills to protect the capital from malevolent forces. 

The legends of the widow-witch Rangda of Bali may have origins in the stories about the real Queen Mahendratta, mother of King Erlannga (d. 1049 CE), who was banished for practicing sorcery. Alone and enraged that no one would marry her daughter, she transformed into a witch (with Durga’s help) and took out her fury on the people.[2]

Beware the flying aswang manananggal of the Philippines (similar to the Indonesian kuyang), a witch that is in human form in daytime, but at night the lower half of its body stays hidden on the ground while its top half floats along with entrails hanging, searching for prey.

In addition to items about sorcerers and witches, our exhibit contains lore on black magic such as the Japanese “Ushi no koku mairi,” the Hour of the Ox ritual ceremony. Taking place between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., a wara ningyo, or straw figure representing the cursed person, is nailed to a sacred tree.

Gu or ku magic of southern China is believed to be very powerful. The early character for gu depicted a pot with crawling animals. To create this blackmagic, five poisonous creatures (a scorpion, centipede, viper, frog, and lizard) are put into a container on the fifth day of the fifth moon. The one left alive possesses great power. It is sacrificed and made into a liquid, its poison then used in food or drinks to control or harm others. Only the gu-creator has the antidote.                                    

Persons who believe they have been victims of black magic might visit certain Thai shamans who specialize in counteracting it. For example, using an egg a shaman may roll it on the subject’s body to locate the harmful article secreted in the body. He then “extracts” it using a second egg, which is broken open to reveal the deleterious item, perhaps a nail, a gob of hair, or other foreign material.

The exhibit also features photographs of objects that have been used for divination. These include ancient Chinese oracle bones that were used not only to record transactions of daily life, but also to reveal to diviners answers to queries—for example, whether it was auspicious to proceed with a certain course of action. The bones would be inscribed, heated over fire, and the resulting pattern of cracks studied and interpreted by the diviners.

The thirteenth-century bronze geomantic tablet pictured in our exhibit was made by Islamic metalworker Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al Mawsili. It contains a series of slides and dials that the geomancer opens and sets according to the inscribed instructions. Various configurations of dots appear. The final semicircular panel provides the meaning of the patterns to the geomancer.

What forms of protection have been employed to ensure good fortune or protect against evil? Amulets, such as the amulet against the evil eye in our exhibit, can be worn around the neck, carried on one’s person, or inserted under the skin like a magical microchip (President Marcos of the Philippines is said to have had an amulet in his back). Spirit shirts or tabards with written incantations, magic diagrams, and images give extra strength or protection to the wearer. Tattoos can be especially powerful if inked by tattoo masters and chanted into life by these arjan in special ceremonies. As one Thai master said, “I know the secret code I have worked into the tattooed spells . . . some designs are so powerful, I change them to prevent the wearer from going insane.[3]


All are welcome to view the Enchanted Asia exhibit, which runs through March 2018, any time the Olin/Kroch library is open. Wear your favorite lucky charm! 



[1] A geomancer uses his divination skills to determine, for instance, a good location for a burial site or for orienting a plan for a town or a dwelling, or for advising on travel in a certain direction. It is based on Taoist belief in the energies of the earth and the auspicious or inauspicious configuration of earth’s features in a particular area (similar to feng shui).

[2] Durga is a very popular Hindu goddess who has many incarnations and names, including Devi and Shakti (“feminine energy”), consort of Shiva. She is a powerful demon-slaying Hindu warrior; each of her eight arms holds a weapon. The witch Rangda uses Durga’s power to conjure up her wrathful retribution.

[3] Michael McCabe, Tattoos of Indochina: Magic, Devotion, and Protection (Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2002).

asia exhibit