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ImagePenanggal is also known as Penanggalan in Philippine. The Penanggal is a rather obscure female vampire that comes to us from Malaysian folklore, its legend tenuously handed down through the gauntlet of time, leaving us with only a tattered remnant of its original horrific glory. Foul in both appearance and behavior, the Penanggal consists of a woman's head that floats through the air with its entrails hanging below it. Yet, this is where the stories vary.

The Penanggal seems to have full control over her organs, using them as an octopus manipulates its tentacles, yet this fact is often overlooked in descriptions. The Penanggal would use her entrails (primarily her small intestine, because of their length) to perform a variety of common mechanics, as well as using them to constrict her prey. The strength and vulnerability of her organs has never been examined in full, but they must be well beyond that of a normal being, lacking the warm, protective outer casing that we all enjoy.

The origin, or transformation, from a normal woman to the Penanggal also differs somewhat from tale to tale. The most common and widely accepted is this: a woman, while seated in a large wooden vat, used for holding vinegar distilled from the sap of the thatch palm (menyadap nipah) performing a religious penance (dudok bertrapa), is interupted by a man who asks what she is doing. She is so utterly startled that she jumps up, her head literally popping off of her body. The severed head, along with the entrails, which follow it through the neck opening, flies up into a nearby tree, shreiking. Ever since then, she existed as the Penanggal, an evil spirit that has a certain weakness for newborn blood.

Here is a list of the variations and embellishments on the classic tale that I've heard so far:

  1. The Penaggal is cursed to roam the earth, forever in its bodiless form, until destroyed.
  2. The Penanggal walks the earth as a normal woman during the day, and becomes a Penanggal at night, when she hunts:
    1. She must keep a large quantity of vinegar in her lair. She uses the vinegar to soak her entrails, which distend when they leave the body, so that she can fit them back down through the neck. This is a possible link to the original story, where she was seated in a vinegar vat when she became a Penanggalan.
    2. The Penanggal's headless body, left within the lair, is vulnerable to attack, so it must be guarded by "servants."
    3. The woman, during the day, smells of vinegar, whether strongly or slightly.
  3. The Penanggal's entrail discharge, in addition to being caustic or disease carrying, spoils the earth where it drops in quantity, causing the growth of a hideous thorny plant, that spreads like a weed. The plant is sometimes described as possessing colorful bioluminescence in its leaves, which glow brighter when the wind blows. Tracking down of the Penanggal's lair is simplified by the tell-tale presence of the Penanggal briar. Here, again, the Penanggal would employ "servants" to destroy all traces of the plant.
  4. In households, where a newborn is expected, branches from the thistle, jeruju, are hung about the doors and windows. The theory is, the Penanggal's entrails will become ensnared in the thorns, and she will be held there until morning, when she is vulnerable to dispatch. This is rather peculiar because the Penanggal comes into the house up through the floorboards in some later versions of the tale. Perhaps this is the Penanggal's method of circumventing the jeruju security precaution, a precaution whose purpose has been forgotten in the later tales. Another variation has it where the thorns must be the branches of the Penanggal's own briar(see above).
  5. The Penanggal's shriek (mengilai) can be heard whenever a baby is born at night.
  6. In addition to the blood of newborns, the Penanggal also hungers for the blood of young children and pregnant women.
  7. The Penanggal abducts pregnant women, taking them to her lair.
  8. The Penanggal must always possess long, flowing hair, which she uses as tentacles or even wings.
  9. The Penanggal was originally an evil female wizard, under the tutelage of a demon. When her commitment to the demon expired, she was then given the gift of flight. However, when she took to the air, her head separated from her neck, bringing with it her intestines.2

-It is important to remember that the items on the above list do not all coexist within the same version of the tale. Today's version of the Penanggal is probably differs greatly from its original telling. The version you hear will vary from one person to another. There are many gaps in the story, as you can see. Today's gaps are tomorrow's embellishments. I, for one, am not satisfied with the original tale. Quite plainly, it doesn't make much sense. Somewhere, something has been lost. Such is folklore.