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Penanggalan: Overview and History

Penanggalan is a mythical creature from Southeast Asian folklore. It is a vampiric entity that takes the form of a floating, disembodied woman’s head with its organs and entrails trailing from its neck. The creature is known to be particularly active during the full moon and is said to twinkle like a ball of flame from afar.

The origins of the Penanggalan are not entirely clear, but it is believed to have originated in Malaysia. The creature is most commonly associated with Malay ghost myths, although similar creatures can be found in other Southeast Asian countries as well. In some legends, the Penanggalan was once a human woman who was cursed to become a monster, while in others, it is said to be the result of black magic or other supernatural forces. Despite its terrifying appearance, the Penanggalan is often used as a cautionary tale to warn pregnant women and new mothers of the dangers of wandering alone at night.

Origins of the Penanggalan Legend

The Penanggalan is a vampiric creature that originated from Malay ghost myths. It takes the form of a floating disembodied woman’s head, with its organs and entrails trailing from its neck. The legend of the Penanggalan has been passed down through generations, and its cultural roots can be traced back to the Malay community.

Cultural Roots

The Penanggalan is deeply rooted in the Malay culture and has been a part of their folklore for centuries. The legend of the Penanggalan was passed down through oral traditions and was often used as a cautionary tale for pregnant women and new mothers. The creature was said to be a symbol of the dangers of childbirth and the importance of taking care of oneself during pregnancy.

Earliest Accounts

The earliest accounts of the Penanggalan date back to the 19th century. The tale was first recorded in 1834 by Officer Peter James Begbie, who served in the region as a part of the East India Company’s Madras Army. The story tells of a Malay man with two wives with different skin tones. The darker-skinned wife was jealous of the fairer-skinned wife and sought the help of a bomoh (a Malay shaman) to curse her. The bomoh turned the fairer-skinned wife into a Penanggalan, and she terrorized the village by attacking newborns and pregnant women.

Overall, the Penanggalan legend has been a part of Malay culture for centuries and has been passed down through generations. Its earliest accounts date back to the 19th century and have been recorded in various forms of media.

Physical Description and Abilities

Detachment of the Head

The Penanggalan is a vampiric creature that originates from Malaysian folklore. It appears to be a regular human woman during the day, but when night falls, its head detaches from its body and flies off in search of prey. Its internal organs hang below it as it flies, and legend has it that they twinkle like fireflies as it flies through the moonlit night. The Penanggalan is said to be able to detach its head from its body by stretching its neck, allowing it to fly around and hunt for prey more easily.

Feeding Habits

The Penanggalan is known for its feeding habits, which involve drinking the blood of pregnant women and newborns. It is said to be attracted to the scent of vinegar, and will often attack women who have recently given birth and who have not yet bathed. The Penanggalan is also known to feed on the blood of animals, including chickens and pigs.

Supernatural Powers

In addition to its ability to detach its head and feed on blood, the Penanggalan is also said to possess other supernatural powers. It is believed to have the ability to shape-shift, and can take on the form of a cat, dog, or other animal. It is also said to have the power to control the weather, and can cause storms and other natural disasters. The Penanggalan is a feared and respected creature in Malaysian folklore, and is often depicted as a powerful and malevolent force.

Folk Beliefs and Practices

Protection and Prevention

In Southeast Asian folk beliefs, the penanggalan is considered a dangerous creature that preys on pregnant women and newborns. To protect themselves from the creature, people often resort to various measures. One common practice is to hang thorny branches or leaves around the house or on the windows, as it is believed that the creature will be deterred by the thorns. Another practice is to place a broom outside the house, as it is believed that the creature will be compelled to count the broom straws, delaying its attack.

Signs and Omens

There are several signs that indicate the presence of a penanggalan. In Malaysian folklore, it is believed that the creature emits a foul odor that can be detected from afar. Another sign is the presence of a ball of light that hovers over the creature, which is said to be the penanggalan’s detached head. In addition, it is believed that the creature can be identified by the sound of its flapping wings or the rustling of its organs as it moves.

In conclusion, the penanggalan is a creature that is deeply embedded in Southeast Asian folklore and is still feared by many people today. While there are various beliefs and practices associated with the creature, it is important to remember that these are based on superstitions and should not be taken as factual.

Regional Variations

Malaysian Interpretations

In Malaysian folklore, the Penanggalan is a female vampire that is said to detach its head from its body and fly around at night searching for pregnant women and newborns to feed on. The creature is often depicted as having long black hair, sharp teeth, and a long tongue. According to legend, the Penanggalan is created when a woman practices black magic or is cursed by someone who practices it.

Indonesian Adaptations

In Indonesia, the Penanggalan is known as the Leyak. Similar to the Malaysian version, the Leyak is also a female vampire that can detach its head from its body and fly around at night. However, the Leyak is said to be more dangerous as it can transform into other creatures, such as a dog or a pig, and can also possess humans. The Leyak is often depicted as having long hair, sharp claws, and glowing eyes.

Overall, the Penanggalan and its variations have been a part of Southeast Asian folklore for centuries and continue to be a popular subject in modern media.

Penanggalan in Popular Culture


Penanggalan is a popular creature in Malaysian literature, often appearing in horror stories and folklore. One of the most famous examples is the novel “Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam” by Malaysian author Usman Awang. The story follows a man who falls in love with a beautiful woman, only to discover that she is a penanggalan. The novel has been adapted into a film and a television series.

Film and Television

Penanggalan has been featured in numerous Malaysian horror films, including “Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam” and “Dendam Pontianak.” In recent years, the creature has also made appearances in international horror films such as “The Night Comes for Us” and “Satan’s Slaves.” Penanggalan has also been featured in Malaysian television shows, including the popular series “Histeria.”

Video Games

Penanggalan has made appearances in several video games, including the popular Malaysian horror game “DreadOut.” In the game, players take on the role of a high school student who must confront various supernatural creatures, including the penanggalan. The creature has also made appearances in the game “Lost Saga,” a multiplayer fighting game.

Overall, Penanggalan is a well-known creature in Malaysian popular culture, appearing in literature, film, television, and video games. Its unique appearance and gruesome nature have made it a popular choice for horror stories and media.

Comparative Mythology

Mythology is a rich source of inspiration for storytellers around the world. The Penanggalan is no exception, as it shares similarities with other creatures from global folklore.

Similar Creatures in Global Folklore

  • Krasue: A similar creature found in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. This vampire-like creature is also a disembodied head with trailing organs that flies around at night and feeds on blood.
  • Manananggal: A creature from Philippine mythology that shares many similarities with the Penanggalan. It is also a female monster that separates its upper torso from its lower body to fly around at night and prey on pregnant women.
  • Churel: A female ghost from Indian folklore that is said to have died during childbirth. Like the Penanggalan, the Churel is said to prey on pregnant women and newborns.
  • Baobhan Sith: A Scottish creature that is similar to the Penanggalan in that it is a female vampire that flies around at night. However, the Baobhan Sith is said to be a beautiful woman who lures men to their deaths.

Comparative mythology allows us to see how different cultures have developed similar stories and creatures. While the Penanggalan may be unique to Malay folklore, it shares many similarities with other creatures from around the world.