This week’s entry: Running amok
What it’s about: The Javanese word amuk loosely translates to “to make a furious and desperate charge.” Indonesians and Malay,* stereotypically known to be extremely even-tempered, use the word to describe a person’s sudden assault against everyone around him or her, usually preceded by a period of intense quiet. English-speakers have adopted the word to describe anything that has gone suddenly out of control, but primarily a violent rampage.
*While Indonesia and Malaysia are culturally distinct nations, they do have many similarities, with ethnic groups and cultural norms overlapping throughout both countries’ history. Running amok is one of those shared cultural constructs.
Strangest fact: Amok has long been believed to stem from a crisis of masculinity. Southeast Asian culture linked running amok with notions of honor, as a man (and amok individuals are nearly always men) could establish (or re-establish) a reputation as someone to be feared. As violent perpetrators were often killed during their rampage, running amok could also be a centuries-old equivalent to “suicide by cop,” one that conveniently skirts Islam’s ban on suicide (both Indonesia and Malaysia are heavily Muslim).
Biggest controversy: One of the first Westerners to encounter the concept of amok was British explorer Captain James Cook, who on a 1770 voyage described individuals “indiscriminately killing and maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack.” For long afterwards, running amok was considered a cultural practice—in other words, only Indonesians and Malay were capable of such behavior. Now, of course, amok is recognized as being an unfortunately universal part of the human psyche.
Thing we were happiest to learn: In fact, amok was officially recognized as a psychiatric condition in 1849. However, the current DSM-IV makes a distinction between two states: beramok is depression and sadness, often from the loss of a loved one, while amok stems from rage or a vendetta and is associated with personality disorders and bipolar disorder.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Indonesians who coined the phrase no longer use amuk to mean what we take it to mean. In modern times, the word refers to mob violence. Gelap mata (which translates to “darkened eyes”) refers to an individual going on a rampage.
Also noteworthy: Amok is also closely linked to the berserker—a soldier who bursts into a frenzy of violence, often when defeat is imminent. This is a worldwide phenomenon, existing in Old Norse writing (where the term “berserker” originates), Polynesia (cafard or cathard), Puerto Rico (mal de pelea), Navaho (iich’aa), Zulu, Laos, and Papua New Guinea.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: On the list of related topic that includes “berserker,” there’s also “going postal,” a “list of rampage killers,” and the curious topic “Osama Bin Laden (elephant).” Apparently, a bull elephant in Assam, India went on a two-year rampage, killing at least 27 people, prompting locals to name him after the notorious terrorist. The Assam province contains large areas of jungle and tea plantations, and a population of more than 5,000 elephants, giving the world’s most wanted elephant ample places to hide. Once Bin Laden’s death count reached the double digits, local authorities issued “shoot to kill” orders, and before the end of the month, hunter Dipen Phukan had cornered the elephant. The beast charged him, and he shot it to death. However, concern persists that he may have gotten the wrong elephant, and that the real killer is still out there, lurking.
Further down the wormhole: You can follow the links through a host of temporary madness, starting with grisi siknis, a Miskito phrase referring to a syndrome that sometimes plagues teenage girls in eastern Central America, who suffer anxiety, nausea, and periods of frenzy in which the victim often believes “devils beat them and have sexual relations with them.” Some medical professionals believe this is a form of fugue state, but others insist it has no explanation in Western medicine. Grisi siknis leads to Koro, a man’s irrational and overpowering belief that his genitals are retracting and will disappear. The term is also Indonesian, but the phenomenon exists all over the world. Koro also leads us, unsurprisingly, to penis, then phallus, a Latin word that has become synonymous with the male organ, but originally referred specifically to representations of the penis. One such representation was the Fascinus, a penis-shaped religious amulet. We’ll take a penetrating look at it next week.