Variations: Hantu (Malay)
The Bès are the evil spirits of the Jah Hut, an Orang Asli people from peninsular Malaysia. They are true spirits, existing independently and not emerging from humans alive or dead. The vast majority of bès, or hantu as they are known in Malay, are malevolent beings associated with disease. Far less numerous than the bès are the jin (underground spirits), nabi (guardian spirits), and kemoch (spirits of the dead).
All the bès were created along with ‘iblis, the evil one, by Proman, God’s assistant, who botched the creation of the first man. Their great stronghold is a Pauh Janggi Bringin Sungsang, a “Giant Mango Tree Entwined by a Strangler Fig”, that stands beyond the ocean. From there they sally forth to cause all kinds of trouble. God allows it because the bès keep the world in balance, taking life that others may in turn live.
Sickness is caused by the influence of the bès. This usually happens by night – while we sleep, our soul leaves our body and wanders in the jungle. A bès who finds that soul will prevent it from returning, and the owner of the soul will fall ill.
Healing is the duty of the puyang or medicine man. It is their job to locate the missing soul and return it with the help of the good spirits, otherwise their charge will die. The běni’sòy ceremony is used in those cases. It involves drawing the evil spirits out of the body and transferring them into a palm leaf bundle brushed over the skin. Once the bès is trapped, the bundle can be safely disposed of.
Spiritual wood carvings of the bès in question are made to help draw the evil spirit out. These carvings establish an iconography for the bès and allow us to see them as the Jah Hut do.
Teoh, B. S. (1986) Bes Hyang Dney: A Jah Hut Myth of Peninsular Malaysia. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 59(2), pp. 139-144.
Werner, R. (1975) Jah-hět of Malaysia, Art and Culture. Penerbit Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.