Myths: a way to talk about politics or a political tool? 

28/02/2021

By Vicky Gerrard


When Karina Roosvita and myself began working together back in 2016, the Southern Coast of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, was going through some rapid changes. There had been a huge growth of tourism, a new international airport was being planned, and the the sand mining industry was expanding. We were keen to understand how people along the coast were responding to these changes but were also acutely aware of the challenging politics of the topics we wanted to talk about. We decided to see whether traditional mythology might help. We had two questions: was traditional myth still relevant to communities, and could we use it to talk about difficult political issues? 

For our work we chose the myth of Kanjung Ratu Kidul, the mythical guardian of the region who had provided guidance to coastal communities for generations. We travelled along the southern coast, from Pantai Congot to Pantai Parangtritis, inviting people to retell her story and how they think she is relevant today. Did the queen still provide guidance to the community, and to what extend did she provide it in the face of significant social and economic change? 

We found that, yes, Kanjung Ratu Kidul was indeed still alive and well. She still decided the fate of fisherman against the incredibly rough seas of the southern Javanese coast. She still decided the fate of coastal businesses, whether it be in terms of the size of a fisherman's catch or the success of a beachside warung (cafe/restaurant). She still represented the dangers of coastal life - rip tides and poisonous fish. And, she was still a reminder of how to behave along the coast - no swearing or dumping of litter. For the people, the key to a happy life along the coast was to keep Kanjung Ratu Kidul happy by asking her permission for new ventures, providing appropriate offerings, and behaving nicely.   

We found that even the big ventures that were planned for the coast had followed these rules. The sultan had asked Kanjung Ratu Kidul's permission to build the airport, offerings had been given, and all requests had been granted. This is relatively unsurprising as Ratu Kidul has a long standing relationship with the Kraton of Yogyakarta. While her own mythology pre-dates the sultanate, her importance to the region was reinforced in 1587, upon its founding. The story goes, that when seeing the first sultan praying on the coast of Yogyakarta, Ratu Kidul fell in love with him and committed herself to his future patriarchal line. In doing so she secured both the prosperity of the region and the status of the first family. 

The strong association between Kanjung Ratu Kidul and the Kraton was clear in the stories we heard from the coast. Along with the usual tales of the hotel room reserved for her and the sultan's rendezvous, people even associated the 2004 tsunami with the attendance of Kanjung Ratu Kidul at the wedding of the sultan's daughter. It was the Kraton that dictated the type and scale of the offering that people made to the queen to keep her happy, to keep the region prosperous, and ultimately to keep the Kraton in power. It became clear that we were not the first to politicise Kanjung Ratu Kidul, and that maintaining her relevance along the coast had been an essential part of maintaining the relevance and power of the Kraton for generations. 

For us, this revelation shifted our understand of the myth of Kanjung Ratu Kidul from simply being a way to talk about political things, toward being itself a political thing - or a tool with which to do politics. The more we looked into it, the more we saw how Ratu Kidul had been turned, flipped and twisted to meet the agendas of the powerful - whether it be in the cult films of the 1980s which represented her through the machismo lens of the New Order regime, or in her reclassification as an islamic genie in order to meet more conservative readings of the faith, or the coastal pimps who condone the consummation of a ritual offering with prostitution. Ratu Kidul is herself a political thing, not just a way to talk about the political.

While we began the project considering whether myth might empower communities to confront the social and economic changes occurring along the coast, what we found is that myth is already an active player in that change working on the side of the developers. This is not a new phenomenon, but a successful strategy employed by the powerful for generations. By skilfully twisting myth toward their own contemporary agenda they maintain their social and economic position. How then to twist the myth in support of the people? Some of the stories we heard on the coast give us hope. Women, especially, put forward ideas of the queen as a feminist icon for the region, or as an important environmental ambassador. By presenting more radical twistings of Kanjung Ratu Kidul these stories point towards more progressive futures. It is these types of twisted myths that we are interested in pursuing here - where myth is made relevant to the causes of equality and social justice, rather than maintaining the agendas of the powerful.