What Is a Dukun?

Elizabeth West

In parts of Indonesia, especially Java and Bali, a dukun fills the role of shaman and healer. Also known as a bomoh, this traditional specialist uses ancient rituals and a natural pharmacopeia to heal physical and spiritual ills. Much of Southeast Asia is modernized, but the dukun and bomoh are still sought despite religious prohibitions of their art. Recently, bomohs have come under scrutiny for scams involving unscrupulous practitioners who molest patrons or con them out of money and property.

A dukun may practice the black arts and perform spells against patrons who have been wronged.
A dukun may practice the black arts and perform spells against patrons who have been wronged.

Most people in the area are Muslim, but a strong belief in ancient practices still underlies modern life. The dukun uses a deep and extensive knowledge of herbs and natural medicines to treat illness or invoke help from the spirit world. Bomoh practices lean toward the black arts, and are used to perform revenge or retaliation spells against someone who has wronged a patron. A dukun may perform a love spell or advise someone about their future through fortune telling. Exorcisms require a very skilled dukun.

A dukun may use herbs and natural medicines to treat illnesses.
A dukun may use herbs and natural medicines to treat illnesses.

Gurus teach new practitioners who are usually descendants of practicing or previous dukuns, since the powers are believed hereditary in most cases. Dukuns are usually men, and women take on the role in midwifery, weddings, and as spirit mediums, but not sorcerers or diviners. A specific magical skill possessed by a dukun is called his ilmu, the ability to find lost objects or predict the future. Most dukuns specialize in curing, sorcery, or divination rather than performing all skills.

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Dukuns do not make a substantial living from their art. The profession is considered a humanitarian one, and a good dukun will not charge much, if anything, for his services. Most dukuns are part time practitioners, making their main living from working a parcel of land. A well-off dukun may be suspected of running a con game, and this has been true in many cases involving false bomohs stealing from their patrons.

During the Islamic Revival that began in the 1970s, dukuns and bomohs were shunned and forbidden to practice out of religious and legal prohibitions against black magic and trafficking with spirits. Many people still consulted with them, however, and fraudulent practitioners soon set themselves up to fill the gap. Common crimes perpetrated by false bomohs are rape or molestation as part of a ritual or scamming victims out of copious amounts of money or property. This has resulted in many areas outlawing these practices to protect people.

Bali, where dukuns work.
Bali, where dukuns work.

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Discussion Comments


@stl156 - That is a decent solution to the problem, but to me it seems like too simple of a solution to a complex problem.

The fact is, the area is modernizing to the point that the government is not the ones forcing the belief in the practices of dukuns, it is simply the fact the area is modernizing enough that people are starting to believe in other things.

It is unfortunate that people are posing as fake dukuns, but I am sure that this occurred in the past, maybe not as often, but has always been a problem and that most people will simply not accept dukuns as part of their culture anymore.

It is easy to say the government can regulate them, but society has to accept them and that makes this an issue on how popular they are and if they are simply dying out due to people losing their beliefs in them.

This is a question that I would like answered in regards to how popular the use of dukuns actually is and if they are really that accepted anymore?


@matthewc23 - I agree with you about the modernization part, but even a modernized country will still keep certain beliefs that seem to be out of date in their culture and this is what will make them unique.

I have heard of dukuns being used as a last resort and more of a person to see when someone is about to go. Many of the dukuns specialize in specific practices and not just healing.

What I think would be a more appropriate thing to do in order to corral the illegal activities of those posing as dukuns is for the government to simply license them and permit them to engage in certain acts pertaining to their culture.

By doing this it would eliminate the illegal activities because the police can simply check to see if the person is a real dukun or simply a poser.


@titans62 - I agree to a point. I find it unfortunate that people are taking advantage of tradition and using the role of a faux dukun in order to trick the person and commit despicable acts, but it may very well be time that this centuries long part of their culture be set aside.

Indonesia and that part of the world has began to modernize in recent times and with modernization comes the loss of beliefs in the practices of the shaman and dukun.

With the loss in belief of these people comes the perceived advancement in the belief of modern medicine to cure those who are ill.

People need to look at this from an evolutionary perspective in that people eventually modernize and their beliefs change over time. It may sound sad that this part of their culture is getting passed by, but this happens a lot and it may simply be this beliefs time to pass.

Progress is always made in cultures and the evolution of society will always happen over time excluding these types of beliefs and relying on more modernized methods.

I can see now how the world has changed recently in that part of the world. Shamans and Dukuns were seen as humanitarians who were supposed to be the healers of the sick and were believed to be able to heal those in that part of the world.

Dukuns were integral parts of the culture of this area for centuries and it somewhat saddens me to see that now during these times that the practice has completely changed to the point that the whole profession is seen as a scam, at least most of the time.

It is very unfortunate that during these changing times that people that were trusted to heal those who fell ill for hundreds of years are now banned due to people taking advantage of the trust people have in these people and it has forced the governments to act and try to eliminate the entire portion of this culture.

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