The pre-hike briefing was at 2:30 a.m. We would not go all the way to the cone of the volcano, since it’s still active. Instead we’d stop at a couple of different viewing points to see the lava and smoke from a relatively safe distance. Christian gave us our emergency instructions, which boiled down to: “If somebody says run, run!”
Then he told us his brother-in-law would be leading the hike. That was disappointing, because Christian is a great storyteller. On the plus side, he said Ilu, the dog, would be coming with us. Ilu is a funny-looking mutt with stumpy legs and an extravagant plume of tail. He has a piece of skin stuck haphazardly on his head, the memento of a long-ago fight. “A nice dog, but quite smelly,” Christian said in his precise way.
Ilu: A nice dog, but quite smelly
Isa, the brother-in law, showed up, and we headed out through the dark town to the woods. We hiked for about an hour up an easy trail to a viewpoint. There we stood looking across a canyon at the peak of Merapi, barely visible in the dark. Nothing happened for a while. Then we saw a finger of red tracing down from the cone. Lava! Then another red thread, and another. The sun began to rise, and the peak became visible. The call to prayer sounded, along with the bellow of the loudest cow I have ever heard. And while all this was happening, Isa told us a story.
A long time ago, he said, the first sultan of Yogyakarta came into power. Since he was the first, he wasn’t quite sure how to rule the kingdom. The kingdom was very small. He wanted to make its people more numerous. He wanted them to be safe and prosperous. He decided to medidate in pursuit of wisdom. After a few days, the Queen of the South Sea, who rules the water along Yogya’s coast, came to him in a vision.
The Queen of the South Sea
“Hey Sultan!” said the Queen. “I notice you’ve been sitting around for quite a while.”
“I’m meditating on how to make my kingdom grow,” said the Sultan.
“Well that’s all well and good,” the queen barked, “but leaders have to act. So get up and get moving! Since you seem to need a little help, here’s what we’ll do. If you marry me, I’ll align my kingdom with yours, and I will enhance your power.”
That sounded good to the Sultan, so he agreed. He married the Queen, and she tutored him in the ways of love — and power.
One day the Queen gave her husband an egg. This was not the egg of a chicken or a duck, but a mystical egg, the egg of the Earth itself. “There is only one egg like this in the whole world,” the Queen said. “If you eat it, you will never be hungry.”
A magical egg
The sultan accepted the egg. He had his royal chef cook it up for breakfast. But as he pondered the Queen’s words, he began to worry.
“What sort of person never gets hungry?” he reasoned. “A dead one, that’s who!” He began to wonder if the Queen was plotting against him.
So he called to his gardener. “Hey gardener. Come eat this!”
The gardener dutifully ate the egg. Then he began to grow. He grew taller, taller, taller! “What will I do?” the gardener cried. “I can’t go home! I’m too big for my house!”
The sultan thought quickly. “There’s a wild mountain near here,” he said to the gardener. “You shall be the king of that mountain, and use your newfound power to protect all of Yogyakarta.”
So it was, and so it has been to this day. As each sultan of Yogyakarta passes away, he leaves an heir by his earthly wife. Each new sultan enters into a mystical union with the Queen of the South Seas. And the king of Merapi (for that was the name of the wild mountain) rules with the sultan and the Queen to protect Yogyakarta and its surroundings.
The tenth, and current, Sultan of Yogyakarta,
And that is why, to this day, the sultan and the people of Yogyakarta make regular offerings to the sea Queen and the mountain King to maintain peace and prosperity.
When the story ended, the sun had risen, and Isa had proved himself no slouch as a storyteller. Ilu, who had fallen asleep (he’s probably heard the story a hundred times) gave himself a shake, and we set off for a closer look at the peak.
(This is one of many legends about Yogya, Merapi and the Queen of the South Sea, and I make no claim to it being the authoritative version. It’s a good story, though, eh?)