The Origins of Jenga

The game Jenga is a well known and often copied game of wooden plank stacking that originated in Indonesia in the early 1900s. It is played today for fun, and in some cultures it is a way to ward off ill fortune. But it has a darker origin than most people would ever guess. A story of evil, blood, and imprisonment… While this may sound strange, and is something you never would have guessed about the beloved game Jenga… It’s all true. and it gets so much weirder, lets talk about the origins of Jenga.

jenga 1

                              The family game of defeating evil

 

Jenga comes from Indonesia, but we have to look at the Malay language itself to understand what it actually means. Jenga consists of a translation of a noun and an adjective that form a compound word. Jeng (actually written Gaang in their normal english translations) is malay for Witch, and the -a suffix means “against” or “anti”. So Jenga literally means against the witch. Which when you delve into their mythology a little more you find a lot of disturbing stories about a creature known as the Jenglot.

Jenglot 1

Jenglot, again, has a literal translation, Jeng (Gaang) for witch, and Lot for boy. So a Jenglot is a Witch’s boy, which… could either be construed as their child or as their slave – the mythology sources I’ve been reading have been unclear on that small aspect. But what’s most unimportant is that these Jenglots are real things. They are still produced today by artisans but in the times of their mythology, Jenglots were tiny human shaped homunculi that were dug up at around villages after witch activity. The stories say that certain demon worshiping hermits, and those who associate with witches (or other evils), would find themselves trapped in their bodies as Jenglots – forced to consume the blood of the good to continue their own lives. These hermits would be forced to hide undergrounds during the days, but at night they would allow their blood lust to guide them. When they went without blood for a time they would begin to gradually shrink to the size of a doll – eventually becoming the small immobile Jenglot that are sometimes discovered by the villagers.

Jenglot 2

Jenga the game, comes from a practice that was designed to prevent Jenglots from rising from their shallow graves. Whenever a Jenglot was found, the men of the village would erect a Gaanga, a small wooden cage designed so that when the Jenglot emerged – it would not be able to escape. As the technique spread, it became normal for children in these cultures to practice building these cages themselves. They stacked sticks in such a way to build a tall narrow cage that a Jenglot could rise into, but then be trapped and not move. Again, these cages were tall and narrow, much like the game we see today but they had a hollow center. Eventually the belief in Jenglots waned… but children did not abandon the cage practice. The Gaanga had become a game to them, even before the belief in Jenglots had fully dissipated.

Jenglot 3

                                          Jenglots come in all shapes and sizes

Over time, anthropologists studying Indonesian cultures took various iterations of the Gaanga practice and displayed them in studies and cultural showcases. One such showcase was attended by Mr. Francis Parker of the Parker Brothers game company. His fascination with the idea and the game was immediately apparent. He demanded to be taken to the village where the game had originated from. Upon his arrival the natives treated him with some trepidation, seeing him as a potential thief of their cultural heritage. He spent time in the village first attempting to gain the trust of his hosts, then by doing innumerable hours of research on the game Gaanga, but also upon the creature of the Jenglot.

Francis w Parker

Francis Parker had a mighty mustache

The children of the village could only teach him so much before he had to move to the elders who refused to speak to him. He offered them coffee, cigarettes, cars, and even weaponry, but none of his offers would get the tight lipped wisemen to speak. Only a few days before he was to return to the United States, he began to hear rumors of a woman who lived outside the village that wished to speak to the strange foreigner who wanted to know more about Jenglots. The details become hard to discern at this point but it seems that Mr. Parker may have found this woman – and this woman may have been a Gaang. The following is all hearsay, and no records exist, but she showed him the technique to create a Jenglot and how to build a cage that could hold him. It’s unknown if Mr. Parker ever used that knowledge after he returned to the United States, but the game began production in the 1970s. 30 years after his trip to Indonesia, but only 2 years after his death. Did he simply not think that it would be a success? Did he feel the need to prevent the game from being made despite the huge investment in discovering it’s origins? Or… Did he become a Jenglot himself, and spreading the means to manufacture his own cage could be equated to suicide. The world may never know the truth.

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