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The creatures will protect us

Mt Merbabu from lava dome of Mt Merapi. Photo: KD

Kate Donovan and Aris Suharyanto* have been living on Mt Merapi, Indonesia, attempting to understand the people who live, farm - and die there.

Geoscientist 21.1 February 2011

Climbing towards the growing summit dome of Mt Merapi one cannot help but think ‘I am going to die’ - and then ‘I am so stupid’. Anyone who has studied past eruptions of Merapi (Central Java, Indonesia) should surely know better. Every two or three years the dome collapses - sending pyroclastic flows down its slopes. Less frequently, larger explosive eruptions threaten over one million people living on the fertile but deadly flanks of this volcano.

Despite the danger, in late 2007, just one year after a dome collapse eruption, cultural expert Aris Suharyanto, local villager Riyanto and I - a social volcanologist - climbed to the summit. In the dark, among house-sized boulders of andesitic rock and against the backdrop of growling rock falls, I realised that the villagers with whom we were living were correct. This volcano is alive. No-one believed this more strongly than Mbah Maridjan, Merapi’s “spiritual caretaker”, who, when asked about the dangers said: “The creatures will protect us”.

Tragically, in October 2010, burning pyroclastic flows expelled during the largest eruption in living memory killed Mbah Maridjan - along with over 250 others. Despite efforts to evacuate this elderly and humble man, he refused to leave until he had performed sholat maghrib (Islamic sunset prayers) because he felt it was his duty to stay and appease the unseen creatures of the mountain and fulfil his Islamic duties. He did so. His body was found still in a position of prayer.

Many residents living on Merapi have a spiritual relationship with the volcano that appears to have influenced their reactions during its frequent episodes of unrest. The local blend of Javanese and animistic beliefs have been shaped by years of eruption experiences, producing a distinctive culture of hazard – or, as others describe it, a “disaster subculture”. This is not unique to Mt Merapi. Examples can be found all over the globe.

Temple on Merapi. Would the 1963 disaster of Agung be repeated here?


At Vesuvius and Etna (Italy), Christian religious ceremonies incorporating saintly relics have been held in an attempt to stop flows of lava1. Such folk traditions need not always be dangerous. During the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, 78,000 residents of Simeulue Island (150km off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia) self-evacuated2, saved by a traditional lullaby whose lyric recalled the warning signs and advised running to high ground. Around Mt Pinatubo (Philippines) despite no official record of pre-1991 eruptions, historical eruptions had been memorialised within the legends of the Aytas people, warning of the potential for large events3. These examples suggest that while a local subculture can place communities at increased risk, as people attempt to “prevent” the hazard, it can, conversely, form the basis of local resilience.

Merapi erupted in October last year. 210 people were killed on its slopes. “Those who ran down from the village to a place of safety told of the suicide procession. There was hardly a survivor who didn’t have a relative or friend walking out to welcome death and honour the god. They had seen them go, accompanied by their music.” (Mt Agung, 1963, described by Anna Mathews in The Night of Purnama).

In 1963, hundreds of people were killed as they processed towards Mt Agung (Bali, Indonesia) as it erupted. Many bodies were later found still clutching traditional gamelan instruments. Mt Agung had not erupted for 500 years; locals interpreted the eruption as representing gods coming down from the mountain and decided to welcome them at their many temples. In 2006, media reports suggested that residents living on Mt Merapi were refusing to evacuate. Perhaps the tragedy of Agung was about to repeat itself on Merapi.

The man at the heart of these news stories was Mbah Maridjan. He had been appointed by the Sultan of Yogyakarta (a large city just 30km south of the volcano) to hold ceremonies for the creatures that apparently lived at the summit. He was refusing to leave his home, and by doing so was apparently inspiring others to do likewise. This may not have been the entire story, however. Were these people really willing to face a horrible death for the sake of their traditional beliefs alone?

To try to answer this question volcanologists and geologists need to immerse themselves in the everyday lives of communities at risk, and employ the techniques of social science. This hybrid subject could be referred to as social volcanology4, using methods of social research to explore the local perception of volcanic hazards.

Gathering fodder for cattle. Pelemsari inhabitants could walk many miles a day finding suitable grazing for their livestock.


Mbah Maridjan’s reaction to official evacuation policy and his trust in his traditional beliefs demonstrated the Indonesian’s cultural belief in the connection between nature and human life. Ancient beliefs remain strong in Indonesia. Natural disasters are often interpreted as punishment for political corruption, or perceived lack of respect towards traditional customs in the wake of modern ideas. Mt Merapi’s eruptions have not only created a subculture specific to its immediate slopes. They play an important role in Javanese culture as a whole.

Indonesia is one of the most geologically active and culturally diverse countries in the world. At the heart of this archipelago of more than 17 500 islands lies Java, the country’s cultural and political hub and home to over 40 active volcanoes and 130 million people. Mt Merapi, a stratovolcano considered by some to be in a continuous state of eruption due to its constant dome growth activity, sits at its heart. Its cone looms over two large cities - Yogyakarta city (pop. 400,000) and Surakarta (Solo) city to the east (pop. 600,000 – see map). In the last 200 years this volcano has shown two styles of eruptive activity. In the 19th Century it produced relatively large explosive eruptions, while in the 20th, viscous lava domes have cyclically grown and collapsed. The most recent eruption (October, November 2010) saw an increase in explosive behaviour and confirmed that Merapi’s activity is now primarily directed towards its southern flanks.

The slopes of Merapi are densely populated and divided into an intricate jigsaw of village lands


From 26 October through to mid-November 2010, Mt Merapi expelled large pyroclastic flows, destroying villages on these southern flanks. One of the many settlements destroyed was Pelemsari, home of Mbah Maridjan, located just two kilometres from the summit between two main drainage systems: the River Gendol and the River Kuning.

Among dense undergrowth, this scattering of traditional Javanese households eked a living, selling milk and livestock. The people owned only small plots of land that provided some food to feed their families, while grass for cattle had to be laboriously collected from elsewhere on the volcano’s slopes.

Pelemsari before the eruption...
Despite this humble, quiet day-to-day existence, once a year Pelemsari played host the Labuhan ceremony, the largest and most important traditional event in the region. Its purpose was to appease the creatures that, according to local belief, lived at the summit. Lasting over two days, it brought participants from across Indonesia to the tiny settlement, eager to receive a blessing.

In the early morning, Mbah Maridjan would lead a silent procession consisting of staff from the Kraton (the palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta), villagers and pilgrims to a scared place of worship one kilometre above the highest house on the volcano’s southern side, set not within dense forest, but surrounded by the grey scree that caps the summit. Through the swirling mist, one could hear the gemlugur (rockfalls); and as the chanting began, Pak Pujo (Mbah Maridjan’s aide) lifted cloth and rice above his head as an offering to the Makhluk halus alus, or unseen creatures as a sense of anticipation grew within the kneeling crowd. Once the offering was made, the crowd surged forward, each person trying to get their own piece of the blessed food. Later, back in the village, the story of the Labuhan would be told through a traditional and elaborate dance.
...and after This begins with Sultan Panembahan Senopati, being presented with Endog Jagad, or “Egg of the World”, by a mysterious stranger. The Sultan is asked to eat the egg; but in order to make sure it was not poisoned, he orders both his loyal assistant and his gardener to try first. Immediately they turn into Buto - giants or creatures. Being fearful of these, the Sultan orders them to live at Mt Merapi, promising to provide them with food and clothing every year in the form of Labuhan. With the completion of the ceremony, the creatures are appeased and will protect the village from eruption. However, frequent eruptions remind the villagers of what might happen if the creatures are “unhappy”.


In 1994 a dome collapse sent pyroclastic flows towards a settlement called Turgo. Tragically, at this time Turgo was hosting a wedding ceremony and 64 people were killed. Mt Merapi residents believe that the wedding party died because they had disobeyed instructions given to them by the creature of Turgo. Pak Karyo, a resident of Pelemsari, explains:

Early morning procession, led by Mbah Maridjan, to a place above the highest line of building for a sacred ceremony
“In 1994 the famers in the village of Turgo were given permission to live in Tugro by the creature, with one request: If you plan a ceremony or wedding do not use the days Jumat Kilwon and Selasa Kilwon [specific days in the Javanese calendar]. The victims of the 1994 eruption were attending a wedding on Selasa Kilwon.”

The area in Turgo that was destroyed was abandoned. The house holding the wedding is now a ruin. Remnants of the nuptials were never removed, and the area is now avoided as if cursed. Turgo is now a reclusive settlement - reflecting the stigma of losing so many of its community, and by the conviction that they brought it on themselves.
This and other modern myths, well known among local people, suggest three things. First, by being able to place blame elsewhere, the local community are able to better cope psychologically with the dangers they face. Second, the stories also suggest that unaffected populations perceive themselves as less vulnerable and more skilful. This complacency renders them less likely to prepare for a future eruption, ironically making themselves more vulnerable. Third, if these stories are entirely believed then the only preparation deemed necessary might be to hold ceremonies to appease the creatures.

As more people fall victim to Mt Merapi, more myths are created. For example, during the 2006 eruption two local people were killed in a bunker near Pelemsari. Yadi, from Batur (five kilometres south of Pelemsari) explained:

“The people who died...were wrong to be in the bunker because they knew it was dangerous. The creature wanted them”
Inhabitants of Bulu Kidul think they are safe from eruptions becasue their village sits on Merapi's


With so many killed last year, including Mbah Maridjan, will similar myths arise, as residents return to their stricken settlements? The answer may relate to the widespread perception that ‘our village is safe’.

This idea comes not only from a belief in the supernatural creatures’ ability to protect certain dutiful settlements but also from previous eruption experience. On the northen saddle between Mt Merapi and Mt Merbabu ( a volcano immediately north of Merapi – cover image) communities clinging to the unstable slopes have not been directly affected by an eruption in living memory. Farmers here find it unimaginable that Mt Merapi could erupt in their direction - and therefore have no plans to evacuate. Harno, a resident of Bulu Kidul on the north east of the volcano, says:

“It is impossible for Merapi to spit here, this is the back bone. We have never evacuated from here. It is impossible...”

As Harno implies, the volcano is thought in this region to be a giant sitting with its back to the northern villages. The erupting volcano is thought to be vomiting; and because vomit comes only from the mouth, the belief is that Mt Merapi too will only spew southwards. As Ismail, from Selo (the largest settlement on Mt Merapi’s southern flank) says:

“If you climb Merapi from the south the Sultan says that it is dangerous and impolite because you are climbing up the face of Merapi”

With such a strong conviction that their villages are safe, many locals on Mt Merapi do not believe that evacuation is necessary, especially when this means abandoning their livestock and potentially losing all they have. For these extremely poor communities their livestock are their livelihoods, savings and future. As Narti from Pelemsari explains:

“If I stayed in the evacuation place I get food but my cow does not”

These people have to balance the risk between definitely losing their income if their livestock starve, or possibly losing everything in an eruption. In 2006, many villagers were unwilling to accept the loss of their livestock and continued to care for them throughout the crisis. This meant that communities at risk only evacuated part-time, returning home during daylight hours. Similarly, in the initial stages of the 2010 eruption, the local population tried to return to their homes. Sadly this risk became too great. Pelemsari was one of the first settlements to be destroyed as pyroclastic flows thundered down the once-lush slopes.
Dancers re-tell the story of the Labuhan


Living within the community on Mt Merapi, one soon begins to appreciate the people’s daily struggle to survive, which outweighs the less frequent risks emanating from the volcano. As the 2010 eruption demonstrated, these people are extremely vulnerable, and their vulnerability is influenced by many variables as traditional beliefs become intertwined with social, economic and political influences, creating complex scenarios at times of elevated risk.

To understand the elements of their vulnerability, including cultural vulnerability, and so improve volcanic risk reduction, a new breed of interdisciplinary science is required. The integration of social science methods into volcanology produces a new area of study, called “social volcanology”. By exploring both the people and the hazard together, we gain a holistic picture. Using an innovative and unrestricted spectrum of methods allows hazard experts to work with communities, and develop risk reduction strategies that are acceptable to them. The future of social volcanology relies on identifying and monitoring high-hazard regions, and will only be effective if used in collaboration with physical volcanology to produce a holistic view of risk. Collaboration and mutual respect are vital to the practical application of such research.

As for those who must live alongside Mt Merapi on a daily basis, thousands are currently doing so in temporary shelters. As they recover, they will continue to balance the benefits of living in this fertile region against the dangers of an eruption. In the south, recent experience has changed people’s attitudes towards the volcano and many are trying to find other places to live. The head of Pelemsari hamlet says he is too heartbroken to return and is looking for another place to live. But those who do return may continue to use their beliefs as coping mechanisms.

As the memory of this recent eruption fades into mythology, only one thing remains certain. Mt Merapi will erupt again.


This research was funded through an ESRC/NERC Interdisciplinary Studentship and was successful due to the support and guidance from colleagues within the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Plymouth, in particular Professor Iain Stewart and Professor James Sidaway.  Photographs by the authors.

* Kate Donovan, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, UK. Aris Suharyanto, The Intercultural Institute Yogyakarta, Indonesia.


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