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Orang bunian (pronounced "BOO-nee-ahn") are supernatural beings in Malay folklore, invisible to most humans except those with spiritual sight. While the term is often wrongly translated as "elves", it actually means "hidden people" or "whistling people". Their appearance is nearly identical to humans dressed in ancient Southeast Asian style. They are sometimes said to lack a philtrum, but are always extremely beautiful. Modern depictions deviate considerably from the traditional view, and are increasingly elf-like. It is now common in popular culture to see bunian depicted as having pointed ears, high fantasy-influenced attire, or dressed in modern Malay-Muslim clothing.
The bunian usually inhabit the deep forests or high mountains, far from human contact, but they are also known to live near human communities, and are even said to share the same houses as human families. Their social structure is similar to that of humans in the ancient Malay Peninsula, with families, clans, and royalty. As with other mythical beings in Malay folklore, bunian often have supernatural powers, and must be appeased with certain rituals and customs before humans are allowed to trespass areas which they inhabit. They are sometimes blamed when children get lost or when someone gets lost in the wilderness.
However, bunian are generally regarded as benevolent, and have been known to befriend and assist humans, particularly magicians (dukun or bomoh) and shamans (pawang). It is even possible for them to intermarry with humans and bear invisible children. Stories are recounted of men who married bunian women but, pining for their families they left behind, decided to leave the bunian community. Upon their return to human society, they found that everyone they once knew has died, and that many years have passed—similar to Urashima Taro and Rip Van Winkle.
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