WriteSpa #67 – Nyai Loro Kidul

Photo: Sid Howells

When I was a girl and traveling around the world on a freighter with my family, we sailed through the Straits of Malacca and paused in Singapore to unload our cargo of copra. There we took a sampan into the city and found an elegant, red-and-gold restaurant where we ordered the specialty: sarang burung, or bird’s nest soup.

As we ate, this is what the waiter told us: edible bird’s nests are made by the little sea swallows of Indonesia. These are harvested from the ocean three times a year. Using coconut-fiber ropes, young men climb down the sheer cliff onto a ledge high above the rough waves, carrying empty sacks with them. There they wait on a wobbly rope platform for just the right wave to approach. When they see one, they leap into it, clutching their sacks, and are swept under the ledge on which they had been standing. They are washed into a dark cave where they scrabble and fumble around the slippery walls, seeking the bird’s nests. When they’re ready to return, they have to time it just right, or the violent waves will crush them against the cliff, or they’ll be swept out to sea.

Nyai Loro Kidul, the goddess of the South Seas, is the patron goddess of the bird’s nest gatherers. She’s also your WriteSpa guide for this watery month of March. Briefly, her legend (one of many) is that she was the wife of the king of Java, and a rival wife became jealous and put a spell on her that made her horrifically ugly with a skin disease. In despair, she fled the palace and wandered to the ocean where she dreamed that if she leapt into the waves she would be cured and would regain her beauty. This she did, and the spirits and demons of the sea crowned her the Spirit-Queen of the South Seas. From her dwelling place in the heart of the ocean she controls the waves and tides of the oceans around her. She is sometimes depicted as a mermaid with a tail; other times the lower part of her body is a snake. She is also wife to the Sultan of Yogyakarta, known as the “Great Mountain,” whom she visits once a year to consummate their relationship.

Writing Practice: Be Brave

As a writer – or any creator – you have experienced times when you feel stuck. You don’t know how you can move forward in your project or get out of your rut. Try to imagine your stuckness as the skin of a snake that you’ve outgrown. Your writer’s block is your not-so-easy process of shedding the skin that no longer serves you.

Photo: Gunkarta Gunawan Kartapranata

Nyai Loro Kidul’s skin disease brought her to the brink of despair, until she learned how to jump into the stormy waves, and was not just healed but crowned queen of the seas. She had shed the skin that no longer served her. Another aspect of Nyai Loro Kidul’s mythology is her ability to change shape several times a day.

This is something you as a writer do as well: you take on the shape of one character, and then another. If you are trying to paint the wind in the pines or a rider galloping across the moor, you take on the shape of the wind – or you become the horse. You are the magic. When you’re feeling that your skin is too tight, try something new. This is a good time to venture in a different direction. Take a break from the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ and deadlines and self-imposed word counts. Do something daring and different. Write a song instead of an article. Get out your water-colors instead of counting how many pages you wrote today. Try extricating yourself from a skin that’s too tight by wriggling into a previously unexplored and potentially scary activity.   

Nyai Loro Kidul is not a benevolent goddess: she’ll take the soul of any one she wants. Let her. Fishermen are scared of her, and you should be too. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fish – that’s your life. Instead, it means you should throw yourself into the ocean of Writing and let yourself drown in it, come what may. Be like the bird’s nest gatherers. Be brave.

Daily Happinesses 
    • flying an orange and purple kite on a windy day
    • the scent of cedar in an old chest
    • Islamic tiles in a walled garden
    • breathing your lover’s breath
    • nudes
    • sailing into a hidden harbor for a rest


6 thoughts on “WriteSpa #67 – Nyai Loro Kidul

  • Thank you.
    This spoke volumes to me… not only as a writer, but a wife, mother and woman in need of new energy. My life as it is now drains me completely… I am a caregiver. I long for moments, however brief when I can hear the whisper of my soul and dream.

    There is peace in my special place… my soul place, my world of dreams.

    Thank you for taking me there for a brief moment.

  • Yes, it’s so important to go to that place as often as we can. It then becomes as real as the temple of the daily life that we find ourselves so fully in. I’m glad this helped you.
    BTW I love your ‘Dance Like No One’s Watching’ piece: http://marilyndieckmann.wordpress.com/ . I watched Latcho Drom (again!) last night and thought of it when I read your piece. Have you seen it? The gypsy dancing in that is also truly inspiring.

  • Maybe u meant nyai roro kidul. Which mean queen of south, not nyai loro kidul which mean queen of south illness. But anyway it was interesting idea… that afraidness are created by our own mindset.

  • Thank you for this clarification – in my recollection of the myth these are two sides of the same coin, but I was young when I was there … I would love to be guided to a wise source that recounts myths from this part of the world. Any recommendations?

  • Yes sure… but about nyai roro kidul also has many version which I have been doing a study about it even not details, but yes there is many source which need to be explore directly. The reason is some of them are old people which doesn’t know technology but for your reference there are many article about this urban legend. You can search by “ratu pantai selatan” or “nyai roro kidul” itself. My self also living near with this south ocean myth which originally came from sundanesse legend and history.

  • Yes, that’s what I had heard also, that the myth has Sundanese origins. In a Tarot deck I use she represents what you state below, that fear is created by our own mindset – as is any obstacle. Thanks for the links – I’ll explore further.

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