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Spirit Worship:
Wisdom from the past.

As evident by the popularity of horror movies and books, most of us are often fascinated by the tales and stories of spooky folks who come out after dark or live outside the realm of reality. It seems almost like we enjoy the thrills which come with the bone-chilling and hair-prickling experience when we watch horror movies, listen to or read such stories. While people in the West enjoy reading about or watching movies on vampires and werewolves, Northern Thai folks also have their own version of that kind of entertainment - and you had better watch out if you are reading this alone in a quiet, old guesthouse or a dark hotel room. And think twice before you decide to go trekking and staying overnight in some remote village in the country next time.

Those of ancient Lanna believed in animism for centuries before the messengers of Buddhism came to southeast Asia. For this reason, people have persisted with both animism and Buddhism nowadays.

The Thai word for ghosts is "pii" (pronounce 'pii' with a hair-raising tone).

To a lot of people, the thought of spirit worshipping probably conjures up images of primitive tribe groups in a jungle dancing around a fire or involving themselves in some barbaric activity. These are undoubtedly the results of popular films and novels. An average modern man (and woman) tends to regard the rituals as uncivilized and having no value in this age of high technology. Consequently, the younger generation are abandoning traditional customs and rituals in favor of fast-paced lifestyles with minimum restrictions and self-control.

If you are one of those who consider spirit worshipping, along with other traditional customs, anachronistic, I would like to show you another side of the subject. Maybe next time you will not think we are ignorant when you see a Thai paying respect to a spirit house or a large tree with seven color cloths wrapped around the trunk.

In Northern Thailand there are many kinds of spirits to be feared and worshipped. I will describe just a few to give the reader a rough picture of this belief system.

[home spirit altar 9k] 1. The spirit of the ancestors, Pii Bunpaburoos. When the grandparents or parents die, it is believed that their spirits will still reside within the house to look after the family. A special room in the house is reserved particularly for them. When the family is in trouble of any kind, a request for help from the spirits will be made, usually through some offerings of food, flowers, and incense. If one of the family members does something morally wrong the spirits will also be offended, and to avoid punishment in the forms of illness or other kinds of misfortune, an apology must be made.
One of the more common types of behavior which is considered "pid pii" or displeasing to the spirits is when a man touches or has sexual relationship with a woman before formally marring her. The woman in this case will immediately inform her parents (particularly when she is not an accomplice in the act), then the man will be held responsible for offering an apology to the spirits. The whole family and possibly other relatives will come to witness the event.

The ceremony of calling these spirits -- Pii Mod Pii Meng would usually take place in June. Mediums dress up in garish costumes and dance in an unusual way after food is offered to those ancestors. This is like a reunion of living children.

[spirit house 10k] 2. The spirit of the house, Pii Baan. Within the living compound a small structure resembling a house or a cottage is a set up for the spirit who protects the house and the surrounding land surrounding. At present the spirit houses are made commercially and can be purchased in many styles ranging from a traditional Thai wooden house to a miniaturized palace with elaborate decorations. This kind of spirit house is now very common in most parts of the country.

The spirit of the house is normally treated with respect and care, offerings of food, flowers and incense are made regularly. In some cases, clay dolls representing servant and mistress, wooden elephants and horses are also offered. They are supposed to add to the comfort of the spirit. It is also apparent that all of the spirits are male, since the dolls are always of the female gender.

3. The spirit of the village, Pii Moo Baan. In each village a small plot of land is set aside for the building of a house for the spirit who protects the village. This kind of house is usually bigger than the household spirit house. People from the village will come to pay respect and make offerings when they feel help or guidance is needed.

A yearly offering is usually made when every family in the community will come with special offerings such as cooked chicken, pork (particularly the pig's head), and local whiskey. All of these will be consumed by the participants after the ceremony is over and the spirit is believed to have finished with it.

[village spirit house 12k]
[temple spirit 9k] 4. The spirit of the temple, Pii Wat; the spirit of the city, Pii Muang. The spirits will protect the local temples and cities from possible disaster. Meanwhile the spirits will make people happy and healthy. Seasonal climate and natural environment will be usual or normal. Offerings are similar to that of the spirits of ancestors, house, and village.
5. The spirit of the rice field, Pii Na. Northern farmers believe the spirit would look after the farming business so that it will become successful -- fertile land, fully grown rice plants or vegetables, bountiful water and fish, healthy buffaloes, and cows. The spirit will reside in one corner of the rice field. The farmer will build up a high dike to safeguard that particular plot. [rice field spirit house 10k]

[forest spirit house 11k] 6. The spirit of the forest, Pii Bpa. In some parts of the country in the North (this is also true for other parts of Thailand) there are a few particular places along the road where a large spirit house is erected and maintained. Many passing by will stop to pay respect to the spirit and ask for protection in their travels. Most drivers will not stop but will slow down and honk the horn once or a few times as a respectful gesture to the spirit.

These are but a few of many kinds of spirits interwoven through the lives of the Thais. It used to have strong influence on their behavior, lifestyle, and our relationship to the environment. But as houses are replaced by apartments, condominiums, and concrete row houses, the relationship with the spirit seems to fade away.

[possesed by bad family spirit 11k] 7. The next one, Pii Ga, is believed to be the spirit of the family or an ancestor which has gone bad. Instead of protecting and looking after the family, it turns to possessing family members, usually the female ones such as the wife or a daughter. Sometimes the spirit will demand an offering of certain kinds of food by causing the possessed person to experience great pain and discomfort. The typical symptoms are expressions of extreme suffering through loud and continuous wailing and making demands of certain food or offerings.

This is also accompanied by changes in personality such as voice and manner. Sometimes when the family is offended by an outsider, the offender can also be possessed and develops the same kind of symptoms. Normally a 'maw pii' or witch doctor will be invited to perform exorcism. The procedures in driving away the evil spirit usually involve incantations or praying, sprinkling holy water on the victim and whipping the possessed one. I was told that the telltale bruise marks will appear on one of the family members who have the 'pii ga' in the have on the following day after the whipping, while no bruises will appear on the victim's body. I still have yet to witness this.

A Thai psychiatrist that I have consulted with has done a lot of studies on the subject and has categorized this kind of behavior as a 'culture-bound syndrome'. Actually this type of behavior can be classified as hysterical reaction in western psychiatric terminology. The cause of this behavior is believed to be anxiety and frustration in living which has no way of expression or ventilation, thus the belief about being possessed by evil spirit seems to be more acceptable in the culture. I remember one such case in my village when I was a young boy. There was a family who lived in a small bamboo hut at the far end of the village about one kilometer away for our house. The husband and the wife appeared to be in their mid-forties, and they had two or three teenage children. Once in a while I would hear the continuous wailing by the wife from the house. Sometimes she would keep at it for an hour and my mother would tell me that she was having one of her 'pii ga' attacks and the witch doctor was probably being summoned to come to the aid of the woman.

Looking back carefully at the family, I could see that the woman must have had a lot of anxiety and frustration about her family and their living conditions. Her husband seemed to be aggressive and abusive, and the children were probably not very obedient and respectful toward her, being teenagers themselves. And the family seemed isolated and lacked support from the community. The poor woman had no one to turn to. This could have been her only way of getting some attention and care from others. I have also done a study with the same psychiatrist at another province in the North where a group of school girls were reported to have been possessed by spirits. They would have the attacks almost daily and greatly disrupted classes. From our investigation through interview and psychological testing with some of the children and teacher, we discovered that there were some conflicts among the teachers and students in the school. The behavior was initiated by one particular girl who appeared to be leading the trend in the group. This girl also had problems in her family life which added to her anxiety at school. This type of behavior is called in psychiatry 'mass hysteria' where one person starts the symptoms and then others in the group who are suggestible imitate the behavior.

A common belief about the sign that indicates the existence of "pii ga" in a house is the frequent appearance of an owl over the roof or on a tree in the compound, and a daughter of the family who appears to be particularly attractive and seductive. So next time, watch out for the owl when you visit a beautiful Northern Thai lady. My mother said if you marry a daughter of such family you will bring the evil spirit on your own family, too. I tend to agree with her there. Being a daughter of a neurotic mother, she must have seen how her mother coped with family problems and would very likely imitate the behavior pattern when she was in a similar condition.

8. Another kind of pii well known to the Northern Thai folks is the Pii Paong, the hungry spirit. It can be found lurking around the rice field in the rainy season. This ghost is normally a male who favors a raw diet, namely live frogs and fish. He would travel alone late at night with his fluorescent nose to show his way in the dark. He is usually spotted by farmers who go fishing at night as a floating light in the field and in the morning there will be pieces of dead frog remains along his trail. Another evidence of the existence of this pii are marks on clothes which are left to dry overnight on the clothesline outside of the house. It is believed that the ghost likes to use them as napkins to wipe its hand and mouth after his midnight snack of live frogs and fish.

"Pii paong" is also a shy and unaggressive ghost, I was told that if you run into him in the field at night and happen to recognize him, he would offer you a piece of gold as a bribe so you won't tell other people about his gruesome eating habits. But when you get up in the morning and are about to rush to the market to sell the gold, you will find that it is just a piece of charcoal.

My suggestion: don't leave your laundry out overnight, and accept only cash (and cut it twice) every time you accept a bribe from a tricky pii.

With recent interest in ecology and environmental science, resulting from greater awareness of incidents of manmade disasters such as toxic waste, deforestation, and pollution, a connection between old beliefs and the preservation of the environment can be more easily appreciated. If we were still respectful to the spirit of the forest, we wouldn't have destroyed it as much as we have done. And if we still feared of the spirit of our great grandmother, society would probably have had a lower rate of teenage pregnancy. We would probably drive more carefully on the highway, if we remember that a spirit is watching over us all through the way. We would learn to live more in harmony with our neighbors and our environment.

Written by Professor Sombat Tapanya, April 1989.


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