The Folklore That Explains Why an Indonesian Volcano is Erupting

KABANJAHE, Indonesia–Scientists can't explain precisely why Indonesia's Mount Sinabung – quiet for centuries – is now one of the world's most active volcanoes. Many locals, however, point to folklore to offer one explanation: the mountain is angry.

At least 15 people, mostly high-school students, died on over the weekend after being consumed by hot gas while venturing too far up the mountain. The volcano, in the north of Sumatra Island, has been erupting almost daily for the past three months, but these were the first eruption-related fatalities, prompting authorities to tighten access to restricted areas.

Government volcanologists have witnessed eruptions from Sinabung only once previously, in 2010, and say they have little way of knowing what it might be capable of.

Evacuees at different shelters have their own theories: perhaps someone swore while climbing to the peak, perhaps unwed youth are engaged in sexual exploits at the lake northeast of the mountain.

Some Muslims in this largely Christian region of the world's most Muslim-populous country worry that someone cooked meat that was haram – forbidden by Islamic law – or that too few of them pray regularly.

'Most of us didn't pray five times a day,' said Sistari Barugintang, who has been living at the city's largest mosque in Kabanjahe, the district headquarters, since November. Her house now sits under a layer of ash less than four kilometers from the peak.

'We're all praying now,' she said.

In local folklore, Sinabung is guarded by the spirit of a woman of uncommon purity. Years ago, one tale goes, a young woman of good heart, who lived in the Karo region around the volcano, grew frustrated with her family and ran away to the mountain. There she changed into a spirit that now guards Sinabung, bringing the wind and rain and clouds whenever someone offends her.

For many locals, hiking the 2,500-meter massif–as they often did before the volcano sprang to life late last year–meant leaving offerings of cigarettes and other goods to the mountain spirit.

A guide and resident of Berastagi, the highlands town east of the volcano, tells the story of a group of university students from nearby Medan who hiked up the volcano a few years ago in search of edelweiss, a white mountain flower.

One young man in the group was openly contemptuous of local tales about the mountain; he swore as he climbed, littering whenever they stopped for snacks.

At a camp about 500 meters below the summit, the group went off to look for the flower, and the young man was separated from the others when a cloud rolled in.

When he didn't return to the camp later, the group went looking for him. All they found were his shoes and shirt.

'He probably went mad,' the guide said. 'Spiritual leaders say he's still up there on the mountain, but that he no longer looks like us. One day he'll resume human form and return home, but he'll be an old man and not even his family will recognize him.'

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