On Amulets and Ancestor Spirits

Wat Mahathat is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples, in fact it predates modern Bangkok founded in 1782, and is also the center of a major monastic order. Adjacent to Wat Mahathat, between Maharat Road and the Chao Phraya river is Bangkok’s biggest market for amulets and charms, animal skulls, teeth, bones, and other objects relating to the supernatural. (Copyright Upeka.net, 2014. All rights reserved). Believers can be seen studying intricate images and symbols with magnifying glasses, hoping to find objects that will bring them good fortune, a promotion, love, ward off evil, and change their life for the better. Amulets are worn by many people through Southeast Asia, and those blessed by well-known monks can be quite expensive! The proximity of the amulet market to the wat can be understood to be highly symbolic of the marriage of Buddhism with older beliefs and it also highlights the prevailing cultural attitude that is exceptionally tolerant and inclusive of older cultures and traditions.

The first time visitor arriving in Bangkok will instantly notices “spirit houses”, small miniature houses that are built next to every building inhabited by people, be that single family homes, apartment buildings, or five star hotels. Locals will adorn these spirit houses with garlands and will leave food for the ghosts residing in these houses daily. Spirit houses seek to confuse malevolent spirits, keeping them confused and safely at bay. These spirit houses are just the tip of the iceberg: ancestry worship and many other manifestations of beliefs in the supernatural exist. It starts with birth: traditionally, three days after a newborn enters this world, a women close to the mother (but never herself) “buys” the baby for a symbolic price from the spirits who are said to have brought the newborn into this world – given the number of out of wedlock birth the spirits must indeed be very busy.

Some gruesome practices around fetuses and amulets have been reported, but this is probably (or hopefully) only of historical interest. In case a woman died with an unborn, she was not immediately cremated as this is said that this would make the spirit of the deceased angry. Instead, the fetus was first retrieved from the dead body in a process called “phi tai tong klong”. The following “Gumantong” ritual took place in a safe distance, so the ghost mother´s spirit could no longer take her baby back, and a ritual then followed whereby the fetus was used to create particularly powerful amulets.

Many other professionals are also involved in providing services relating to the esoteric and supernatural world. They give advice or solace when individuals face troubles relating to their jobs, family affairs, health, or even predicting lottery numbers. Although identifying themselves as Buddhists, many locals don´t think anything of also worshipping at a Hindu shrine, and perhaps afterwards consult with a spirit medium, a palmist, or a tarot card reader. In Bangkok, a Hindu shrine at the intersection of Ratachada/Huay Kwang attracts many worshippers, palmists, and tarot readers that offer their services at nightfall.

Another manifestation of the belief in spirits becomes apparent when one is being introduced to a Lao or Thai person. One will learn someone´s nickname, but never the legal name. Similar to the strategy employed with in the case of the spirit houses, infants at birth are given a protective nickname “chu-len“  (Thai: “play-name”) so to confuse malevolent spirits who will therefore be unable to learn the real name of the child. This nickname stays with the an individual throughout his or her life. Individuals will refer to themselves with their nickname, and so will  friends, family and co-workers, in fact even close friends would be hard pressed to name the legal name of their friends! Nicknames are typically very brief, and refer to animals, fruit, or natural  phenomena. Common nicknames for women include, fish, bird, small-bird, chicken, pig, sky, rain, orange, small, ant. Formal given (first) and last names (family names) that follow the European tradition were only introduced in early part of the 20nd Century and to this day they are primarily used when interacting with institutions. While it may seem ludicrous to Western sensibilities to address a respectful, grown-up woman as “Mrs. Fish”, this is exactly what takes place! In everyday life, even in formal situations, it is perfectly acceptable to use the nickname, preceded by the honorific “khun”.  This can only be welcomed by the average Western tourist, as the proper Thai family names are often long, and too difficult to pronounce or to remember.

As in many other indigenous societies, the spirits of ancestors was, and perhaps still is pertinent to understanding family life in rural areas. There, the concept of “Phii puu yaa” (Thai: spirits of grandfathers and grandmothers) continues to survive to some extend. When a young man come of age at about the age of 15, he first embraced his own family spirits “beeng phii”; later, when he is about to marry, he bid the spirits of his family of origin good-bye and joined the spirit world of his future wife. This is not surprising given the essential matrilineal system in place of the rural north, whereby inheritance used to be passed along the daughters, while young men were left to fight for themselves.

Marrying into a wealthy family was one way to accumulate wealth, but in order to be accepted by the bride´s family, a lenghty apprenticeship in his future family was demanded, as the groom to be had to prove his resilience and strength. During his “apprenticeship” the potential groom lived under the same roof, but no sexual liberties or intercourse were permitted. In case nature took its course nevertheless and sexual inproprieties occurred, this was construed to be an affront to the spirits (Thai: “sia phi”) that had to be rectified by ceremonial “waai phii”, asking the ghosts for forgiveness and paying a compensation for violating the woman. In fact, whenever a single woman engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage it was assumed that she violated the ancestor spirits, which may lead to failed crops, lifestock dying, or other misfortunes. The woman was obligated to tell her parents of the episode and the lover had to perform a “waai phii” as soon as possible to prevent adverse reactions.

In contrast, when young men engaged in sexual exploits, no amends needed to be taken, so the double standards for men and women is obvious, as in so many other countries. In fact, if one replaces the “sia phi” (injury to the family spirits) with the more familiar term of injuring the “family honor”  used in many countries in the Middle East, one comes to the conclusion that these traditional beliefs in Southeast Asia are fundamentally not all that different from those of other conservative societies.
Copyright Upeka.net, 2014. All rights reserved.