running amok

“Running amok” is used to describe wild or erratic behavior, going crazy.

Wikipedia describes “running amok” as an episode of sudden, savage violence against people usually by a single individual following a period of brooding, that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malay culture but is now increasingly viewed as psychopathological behavior.

“Amok” first appeared in English in the 1500s, associated with the people of Malaysia and Java, described in the 1516 text The Book of Duarte Barbosa: An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and Their Inhabitants: “There are some of them [the Javanese] who go out into the streets, and kill as many persons as they meet. These are called Amuco.”

The theory is that “Amok” is derived from the “Amuco,” a band of warriors known for indiscriminate violence. Writing in 1772, the famed explorer Captain James Cook noted that, “to run amok is to … sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage.”

This phrase was used as a medical term in the 1700s and 1800s, when European visitors to Malaysia learned of a peculiar mental affliction that caused otherwise normal tribesmen to go on brutal and seemingly random killing sprees, a sort of homicidal mania.

According to Malaysian and Indonesian cultures, amok was deeply spiritual. Some believed the state of amok was caused by an evil spirit entering the body of a person, As a result of the belief, those in Indonesian culture tolerated amok and dealt with the after-effects with no ill will towards the assailant.

According to one writer, the Malays, Sumatrans and Javanese are an extremely gentle, refined, submissive people. In fact the word “Malay” comes from “malu,” which means gentle, and gentleness is a quality prized above all others among the Malays and their neighbors. In their family life, they obediently submit to traditional and parental authority. But every now and then, a man who has behaved in this obliging manner all his life and who has always done his duty by the outside world, suddenly revolts against the culture with a homicidal mania. 

It has been suggested that amok may be a form of intentional suicide in cultures where suicide is heavily stigmatized. Those who do not commit suicide and are not killed typically lose consciousness, and upon regaining consciousness, claim amnesia.

A widely accepted explanation links amok with male honor (amok by women and children is virtually unknown).

Police describe such events as killing sprees. If the individual is seeking death, an alternate method is often termed “suicide by cop.”

Occasionally, even I run amok. My violence, however, is never directed against people. Such an episode might be called “suicide by chocolate (cookie).”

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  One thought on “running amok

  1. November 10, 2019 at 4:18 pm

    This is very interesting, Lea. I wasn’t aware that this phenomenon was originally peculiar to Malay culture. And if you’re going to run amok, cookies are by far the best target.


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