One of the least-pleasant-to-visualize folkloric monster
s, the penanggalan is, according to Malay
tales, something akin to a female vampire
with a few slight variations: instead of turning into a bat, at night the penanggalan's head detaches from her torso and flies about (using its long, flowing and prehensile hair as wings), still connected to the internal viscera
e (the name supposedly literally translates as "head with dancing intestines
" - though another source translates is as the considerably more pedestrian "removing"), to feed on the blood of pregnant women, children and newborns (the latter which it finds especially delicious, uttering its characteristic shriek (the mengilai
) whenever a baby is born at night in anticipation of the potential meal and occasionally tearing into the wombs of late-term mothers to gorge on the almost-newborn), returning before dawn to their bodies to function as an ordinary (albeit vinegar
-smelling - see below) human being during the day.
There is much variety among different accounts of this abhorrent beastie, but what is mentioned here is a collection of some of its most frequent attributes. Most tales agree that the prehensile organs (used, especially the small intestine, for constriction-strangulation of its prey) exude some foul slimy fluid (either green, glowing or both), dripping on the ground as the penanggalan flies overhead and leaving sprouting bioluminescent briars in its wake. In addition, should the slime fall on an unwary innocent below, it has been described as having both caustic and adhesive properties as well as inducing unspecified illness.
Because all this gallivanting about and throttling people outside the body is considerably more exertion than our internal organs are designed to endure, the penanggalan will dip its organs in vinegar at the end of a night's hunting to shrink the distended / swollen organs down to a size such that they can fit back through the neck of the cast-off body.
Vinegar also features prominently in the terse but grimly humourous earliest origin myth of this creature (later versions featuring relatively uninteresting plot devices such as curses and demon-deals gone awry): A woman was engaging in the dudok bertapa ceremony of penance, the details of which involve sitting in a large wooden vat used for distilling thatch palm (menyadap nipah) sap into vinegar. Some nosy fellow approached her and started poking into her business. "Whatcha doin' in that vat? Penance, eh? What'd you do?" To maintain her privacy and discretion (there is some vague mention of bum-lookery in the tale) she fidgeted and shuffled and tried to move such that he wouldn't see any more of her than he already had. Unfortunately, she was a bit too enthusiastic in this logistically-tricky endeavour and when her head went one way and her body the other, the head kept going, tearing off at the neck and pulling her innards in a glorious train behind her. Obviously upset at this turn of events she flew off and decided that it would be a good idea to eat babies. Look, the accounts are scattered and contemporary anthropologists have worked very hard to maintain as strong a narrative as the one I just provided based on hundreds of scattered and inconsistent accounts. Cut the storytellers a break.
To protect your children, pregnant wives and yourself (they'll eat anything if they get hungry enough) against the predations of the penanggalan, decorate your house with the thorns from the jeruju plant. The loops and coils of guts get caught on the prickles and the hapless undead monstrosity becomes trapped until the morning, when its powers diminish and you can safely, er, make hot dogs out of it or something.
With potential visuals as distinct as those this tale provides, the penanggalan has made a few appearances in the cinema of Southeast Asia, notably in the Hong Kong film The Witch with Flying Head and the Indonesian movie Mystics in Bali, each of which embellish the tale a bit (or a lot - vomiting mice and mirror balls was never part of the traditional tale!) For those of you with a keen memory or a well-stocked library, the penanggalan was also featured in the original edition of the Fiend Folio, and it has been brought forward in the Creature Crypt of the d20 system as detailed at http://www.d20reviews.com/cc/Creature_Crypt/converted/penanggalan.htm
If your imagination really doesn't give you a satisfactory notion as to what this creature looks like an illustration of it can be eyeballed at http://www.agonyagogo.com/pennysm.jpg