Cock Fights and the Balinese Male Psyche

Arthur Asa Berger
PhD, San Francisco State University


This essay deals with the social, religious and sexual dimensions of cockfighting in Bali and the roles it plays in Balinese culture. It considers unconscious attitudes Balinese men may have about their penises and hidden anxieties they may have about circumcision and castration generated by attendance at cockfights.

This analysis of cock fighting in Bali is from a manuscript I’m writing, Bali Tourism, that has been accepted for publication by the Haworth Hospitality Press, in the United States. Haworth has published two of my other semiotically informed tourism studies, Vietnam Tourism and Thailand Tourism. In my books I devote some chapters to statistics on tourism in the country being studied and then offer a psycho-social semiotic analysis of important symbolic phenomena, icons, and practices. Bali is an island that has been analyzed and studied by very many social scientists over the past fifty years because its culture is so rich, complicated, and endlessly fascinating.

William Ingram begins his superb memoir of his experiences living with a Balinese family, A Little Bit of One O’Clock, describing the sounds of cocks crowing. He writes (1998:13):

"I woke to the sound of roosters. There were hundreds of them. The nearest was right beside my room on the waist-high compound wall. Others scrabbled and crowed in a neighboring bamboo grove. The calls from across the whole village blended into a constant wailing."

The crowing of roosters is one of the basic sounds of Bali. You hear them all the time, making their presence felt by their seemingly endless crowing.
You also see them at various sites, in the cages that the Balinese have devised for them, waiting patiently for their brief moment of glory and almost inevitable death in cockfights, which are now limited to being held at temple ceremonies, Odalans. There are special arenas for the cockfights, in pits next to temples. The one I saw took place in a kalagan, a squared area about fifteen or twenty feet on each side, with tiered concrete rows that served as benches, where people with cocks, people interested in gambling on the fights, or those who are simply spectators watch the fights, sat.
Before they fight, you can see the owners of the roosters gently stroking and caressing them. They seem to display deep affection for their birds, which have been trained to fight. People make bets on the outcomes of the fights—money that is supposedly for the temple where the fights are held. At the fight I witnessed, the owners of the contending cocks spent a few minutes attaching a razor sharp blade, perhaps four inches in length, to the spur on one of the legs of their birds. A smallish dirty white cock was matched against a somewhat larger red and black cock. Before they fought, their owners held them near one another, face to face, as if to show them who they would be fighting.
When they were released the cocks advanced on one another, and then in a few moments of furious wing flapping and flailing, they assaulted one another. After that initial combat it was obvious that somehow the small white cock had inflicted a serious wound on the red and black one. It only took a bit more time for the white cock to peck at its opponents neck and the wounded cock fell down, dead.
A few minutes later, the victorious white cock was matched against another cock, a large brown one, and the same ritual took place. But this time the brown cock severely injured the white cock. It did not kill it, however. The owner of the brown cock picked it up and had the owner of the white cock place it at the neck of the brown cock. The white cock didn’t do anything. It had no energy and was obviously dying. The victory was awarded to the brown cock, who then had to face another cock. Around the arena, cocks were lined up in their cages, waiting for their moment in the sun. The driver of our car wagered on the fights we saw, and we had to pull him away to continue our tour. Obviously these cock fights have enormous meaning to the Balinese.
In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has a long chapter, “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese cockfight,” which was first published in 1972. He noticed the “deep psychological identification of Balinese men with their cocks,” and points out that Sabung, the word for cock, is used metaphorically to suggest “hero,” “warrior,” “champion,” “man of parts,” “lady-killer,” and “tough guy.” He adds that cockfights become the metaphor for wars, trials, political contests, and street fights. He mentions Bateson and Mead’s notion that since the Balinese see the body as (1973:417) “a set of separately animated parts, cocks are viewed as detachable, self-operating penises, ambulant genitals with a life of their own.” And a rather short life, I might add.
Obviously, cockfights strike deep psychological chords in Balinese culture. Geertz’s description of a cockfight is quite poetic. He writes (1973: 422):

"Most of the time, in any case, the cocks fly almost immediately at one another in a wing-beating, head-thrusting, leg-kicking explosion of fury so pure, so absolute, and in its own way so beautiful, as to be almost abstract, a Platonic concept of hate. Within moments one or the other drives home a solid blow with his spur."

Since Geertz wrote his article, the Indonesian government has banned cockfights, except during religious celebrations at temples, and has tried to limit the gambling that goes on.
The psychiatrists Gordon D. Jensen and Luh Ketut Suryani discuss cockfights and concur with Geertz’s observation that Balinese show little emotion during cockfights, since that is part of Balinese culture. They are interested in cockfights because they believe that cockfights can be used to counter Bateson’s assertion that there are no climaxes or resolutions in Balinese culture.
They discuss some cockfights they attended (and videotapes) and mention that before the actual fight, there was a kind of animated feeling among the spectators as people placed bets. And they expressed emotion during the fight. But once it ended, there were no emotional responses. As they write, concluding a short discussion of cockfighting (1992:108):

"In summary, the cock-fight is an emotionally intense event with a building up of tension to a point of climax. At the preliminary stages of the cock-fight, emotion is expressed overtly. Climactic emotional responses are not evident to the observer but are felt internally by the participants. Various emotions associated with winning and losing tend to be suppressed or dealt with by the utilization of the concept of karma, as it is understood by the individual."

For the authors, cockfights suggest that Bateson’s notions about Balinese culture always being “steady state” and having no resolutions, such as one finds in Western cultures (where the good guys ultimately triumph over the bad buys) were incorrect. The Barong-Rangda relationship, where neither triumphs, would be an examples of a lack of final resolutions or climaxes in Balinese culture.
There is another matter, related to sexuality, that needs to be dealt with. If Mead and Bateson are correct, and the cock is a “detachable, self-operating penis,” what does that suggest about the male Balinese psyche, which continually is battling other cocks and which is destined, most of the time, to be destroyed. Is a cockfight a kind of circumcision? The very sharp bladed attached to the cocks’ spurs call to mind the scalpels used in circumcisions. Are the cockfights connected to some kind of an unconscious repetition compulsion to undergo symbolic castration or, perhaps, to face it and triumph over it, since there is always another cock to be trained and sacrificed?
Our guide informed us that cockfights are necessary because blood has to be spilled at temple ceremonies, and it is the cocks blood that is used. So the cockfights have an obvious utilitarian function, connected to Balinese religious beliefs. But that is the manifest or obvious function of these fights. What we must consider is what the latent and unconscious meaning of cockfights might be, and how these fights, which are so central to Balinese life, may relate to unrecognized and unconscious attitudes Balinese men have about their penises. Usually, when there is intense emotion involved in some activity, there is a subliminal or masked sexual dimension to it that is operative. It may be far-fetched to suggest that cockfights deal with unconscious attitudes men have toward their penises and anxieties they have about circumcision or castration, or both, but cockfights, to my mind, at least, can be seen—whatever else they may be—as having to do with these matters.
Finally, there is the possibility that the conclusion of the cockfight represents a kind of sublimated orgasm, one of a series of “little deaths” that Balinese men experience during sex or during cockfights. There is a sexual dimension to cockfighting that involves the lives of the cocks. As Bill Dalton explains in his Bali Handbook (1997:171):

"Fighting cocks are giving loving care—regularly massaged, bathed, bounced on the ground, and trained every day. Their feathers, combs, earlobes, and waffles are trimmed so that none provide a beak-hold for the opponent bird. The owner prepares a diet of specially selected grains and a mixture of chopped, grilled meat, and jackfruit, which is believed to thicken the blood—preventing serious bleeding—and to make the bird lean and little subject to fatigue, its sexual energies are directed only toward fighting, so the cock leads a celibate life except when breeding new fighters."

There is, then, a sexual dimension to cockfighting that involves the cocks, but also, I would suggest, the men who attend these fights. Dalton describes how the cocks are stimulated and excited before they fight—their handlers tease them, pull their tails, ruffle their feathers and sometimes force red pepper down their throats. This stimulation calls to mind the narrative of the sexual act, which starts with stimulation and excitement and ends, generally speaking, with an orgasm, or, in the case of the cocks, the violent confrontation, which they may experience as orgasmic, as well.
Dalton writes that cocks seldom survive more than five or ten fights in their careers and that wounded ones are sometimes kept as pets. The passion that one finds in the audiences of cockfights has a much more profound meaning, I believe, than is commonly understood. If it is a symbolic orgasm, it would have to be considered one extremely important example of a climax (physically and psychologically) in Balinese culture.

Dalton, Bill.(1997) Bali Handbook, 2nd edition, Chico, CA: Moon Publications.
Geertz, Clifford (1973), The Interpretation of Culture, New York: Basic Books.
Jensen, Gordon and Luh Ketut Siryani. (1992), The Balinese People: A Reinterpretation of Character, Kuala Lampur: Oxford University Press
Ingram, William. (1998), A Little Bit of One O’Clock, Ubud, Bali: Ersania Books.