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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Old-Style Batak Justice: A Taste for Blood

Stone Court
The court was fashioned from stone, the chairs arranged in a circle, facing inward. The king presided over affairs from an elevated seat. His advisors and the village shaman sat near him. Directly opposite the king, in a comparatively tiny, lower chair, sat the accused. There was a stone bench several meters away, outside of the circle, where women could watch the proceedings.

   If it was a matter involving theft, and the defendant found guilty, a judgment could be to pay back four times what was taken. But if the crime was rape or murder, he (yes, he) paid with his life. (Female criminals, if the transgression was severe, would be banished from the village, chased away.)

   Our explanation of a Batak execution began with a description of the Batak calendar. The top part resembles a traditional A-frame Batak house; from the bottom hang twelve narrow strips of wood, each bearing 30 symbols - one for each day of the Batak month. The shaman would pick an auspicious day for the execution.

   Besides the calendar, the shaman executioner’s toolkit included the laklak book, containing such information as the Batak alphabet (19 letters, 16 syllables), natural medicinal recipes, and, more relevant to the task at hand, guidance on how to give magic and take out magic from a criminal's body. The third tool was the shaman's intricately carved, hefty stick.
Execution Circle
   As with the court, the action takes place in a separate circular area, the king once again presiding from an elevated chair. At the appointed time, villagers would sit on benches off to the side of the circle. The condemned man would eat his last meal, from the stone table in the center of the circle, his hands tied behind his back, like an animal.

   When he had finished, officials would chain his legs, blindfold him, and lay his body on a rectangular table on the periphery of the circle, at the six o’clock position, opposite the king’s chair. The shaman would slice the condemned’s chest with a small knife. If blood gushed out, the criminal was deemed not to have protective magic powers. He was ready to be killed.

   If instead he was found to have protective magic powers (no bleeding from the incisions), the shaman summoned his stick for assistance. The shaman would beat the criminal until he responded to the pain. Further mutilation would ensue. The criminal would be cut from head to toe. If he was a traitor, the shaman would cut his tongue out. If a rapist, his penis. A concoction of lime juice and salt would add to the agony - the point being to make the man weak and unconscious, to make it easier to kill him.

   The execution was by decapitation. The ward would move clock-wise to a low-lying strip of stone. A wooden plate lay where his head would fall. The executioner got one chance to sever the man's head with a sweep of his sword. If the executioner failed, the king took the executioner's head.

   Blood from the dead man's head would be mixed with lime juice, to prevent it from congealing, and served to the king, who would share it with others in the audience. Bataks believe blood makes you stronger. Even now, they include an animal's blood when preparing food.

   The corpse was placed back on the table, its heart and liver (believed to have magical importance) were removed for the king, for only his consumption. The rest of the body was available to spectators. Whatever parts were left over were thrown into the lake. Villagers were then advised not to take water from the lake for seven days. The deceased’s head was hung on a post at the gate, to deter others from crime.

   Mercifully, the last such execution was in the 19th century, when Christianity took hold. English and Americans failed, but Germans succeeded. They were low-key, learned the local language, and attended to villagers’ medical needs. They were persuasive. And the Batak village kingdom persists, in its 18th generation. Our guide was the niece of the present king.

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