American Numismatic Society Assistant Librarian Jared Goldfarb published an ANS Pocket Change blog article about curses on money in Indonesia. Here's an excerpt - see the complete article online.
While walking around the streets of New York City, I find myself constantly scouring the ground for lost change in order to buy my favorite budget lunch, dollar pizza! I rarely find much, but it slowly adds up. When I visited Indonesia for the first time in 2022, I attempted to continue my habit of picking money off the ground. I immediately stopped after being met with the horrified look on my girlfriend's face. Seeing that I had no idea what the problem was, she explained to me that in Indonesia, the money on the ground could be cursed! She further explained that it is common practice in her country for people to place curses on currency, whereby their misfortunes will be transferred to the person who picks up the money. I was fascinated by the idea of money serving magical purposes in Indonesian culture, and I planned to research the topic further upon returning home.
Regarding the idea that money is used as a medium for transferring curses and misfortune, I found very little information aside from that the custom stems from local superstitions and folklore. For example, I found several popular news articles with roughly translated titles such as,
Recognize Basangan Money that is Deliberately Spread to Seek Sacrifices,
Mr. Romdoni: Don't Take It (Kenali Uang Basangan yang Sengaja Ditebar untuk Mencari Tumbal, Abah Romdoni: Jangan Diambil), and
Beware, This is how to Distinguish Real Money and Cursed Money on the Road. You take, you die! (Waspada, Ini Cara Membedakan Uang Asli Dan Uang Tumbal Pesugihan Di Jalan. Salah Ambil Bisa Mati!). These articles explain that by picking up random money from the street, especially
large sums (Fig. 1), you could become a victim of some wicked person's pesugihan ritual. Pesugihan is generally seen as a complicated, evil magic ritual whereby the practitioner will call upon the aid of a medium who can rally the aid of spirits. Unfortunately, for the ritual to work it requires a sacrificial victim, and this is where the money comes in. The money serves as bait, and upon taking the money, the person becomes the practitioner's sacrifice. This is believed to result in horrible misfortune and ultimately death for the victim.
Scary folklore aside, I did find information on a real, historical tradition of magic money on Java dating to the Majapahit period (13th-16th century). The earliest mentions what are now referred to as magic coins appeared in Thomas Stamford Raffles' 1817 work, The History of Java (?vol. 1, p. 376), where they were described as bearing traditional Javanese wayang shadow puppet characters (Fig. 2). Raffles' contemporary, William Marsden, added that they appeared to be Chinese in nature (Cribb, 22). That being said, their non-monetary functions were not clear to Raffles and Marsden at the time (Cribb, 69). More recently, the task of explaining Indonesia's magic coins (Fig. 3) was undertaken by Joe Cribb in his 1999 publication, Magic Coins of Java, Bali, and the Malay Peninsula: Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries.
Figure 3. Examples of Indonesian gobog magic coins.
(top) ANS 1911.105.497. (bottom) ANS 1916.69.35. Photos: Alan Roche, ANS.
According to Cribb, the earliest magic coins in Indonesia most likely date to the 13th century (early Majapahit period) and would have been made from the recast metal of Chinese cash coins that had become abundant in the region by then (Cribb, 54). Following the arrival of Europeans in the region in the 17th century, Spanish and British coins became additional bases for magic coins, which were still being made well into the 1990s when Cribb completed his book (Cribb, 53) (Fig. 4).
To read the complete article, see:
Indonesia's Magic Money
Wayne Homren, Editor
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