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Spirit House

spirit house

There are "spirit houses" everywhere. There is one in the courtyard of my hotel, next to the hot water heater. (I love Thai plumbing practices except for the absence of traps!) I took this shot looking down from a station on the "Sky Train" (Bangkok's El).

They remind me of the "bathtub Madonnas" of Somerville, MA and other East Coast cities, but I'm not sure the visual and/or folk aspects really translate.

I see spirit houses as playful and positive, but perhaps they are not that, or not all that. After all, people make decisions based on dreams here, instead of rationally maximizing utility, or some such. Ghosts, as I understand it, are real. Perhaps others with more experience can comment here.

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reslez's picture
Submitted by reslez on

As a stranger, you're struck by things that seem strange to you. Look at the handiwork, the details... A lot of effort goes into them, doesn't it? You said they look "playful and positive". I think this is a misinterpretation considering the cultural and religious roots of the practice. I'm sure you realize that, but it's something I run into over and over when I travel with other Westerners. Oh, how quaint. How playful.

They aren't doll houses. They look cute to your strangers' eyes but that's not their purpose. It's a cultural practice. It's the same thing as a mezuzah or Christmas manger scene in the West. Is a Christmas manger scene "playful"? Er, not really?

Ghosts, as I understand it, are real.

Would it surprise you that many people also believe angels are real? And they pray to them and believe they affect real world events?

These beliefs should not seem strange to you... or if they do, familiar ones should seem equally strange. And playful and positive. But also based in real beliefs. Like bathtub Madonnas. :)

Submitted by lambert on

... in Thailand (so I think you're doing a little meta-projection).

Something is hardly worth doing if it is not sanuk, and preferably with other people. (Leaving a huge vulnerability to everything consumerist, especially in malls, but that's another story.)

The bathtub madonnas struck me as beautiful, but never as fun, possibly because they aren't maintained with offerings or decorated daily.

True on angels -- believers in angels are just as alien to me as believers in spirits (who seem to be more like the genii of localities, and on a much more human scale). It is true that in many ways my own country has become foreign to me over the last thirty or forty years.

Valley Girl's picture
Submitted by Valley Girl on

After reading reslez's interesting and thought-provoking comment above, I went to find more about spirit houses.

The Thai Spirit House is from a site in Chaingmai. Having read the article, I am left with the impression that these are not "playful" creations. That said, the spirits apparently have their own ways:

~~According to folklore, the spirits themselves are either good or evil, but most are just finicky and mischievous, ~~

More about spirits from the linked article:

~~There are countless gods and other celestial beings in Thai folklore, The primary spirits the Thai's are concerned with, however, are called the Phra Bhum Jowthee, or Guardian Spirits of the Land, There are nine of guardians and each offers a different type of protection. The Guardian of the House and the Guardian of the Gardens are so frequently consulted with and prayed to that they are the only two that have permanent spirit houses built for them. ~~

~~The other seven Guardians of the Land are Protector of Gates and Stairwells, who is believed to reside in the home doorstep which explains why one should never step on the doorstep of a Thai home; Protector of Animals ; Protector of Storehouses and Barns; Protector of Forests; Mountains; fields and Paddles; Protector of Temples; Protector of Waters ; and Protector of Military Forts and Defence.~~

reslez's comment, along with above info and more in article really got me thinking. More so than I can convey. But Lambert, what person does make decisions to rationally maximize utility?

~~(Lambert) After all, people make decisions based on dreams here, instead of rationally maximizing utility, or some such.~~

Lambert, I can't find the post, although I looked. But I remember you angsting about thinning out seedlings. Correct me if my memory is wrong. But, having read about spirits and animism (see article), were you engaging in atavistic animism? And, seemed to me at the time you were dead serious about those seedlings.

jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

Why shouldn't they be very real, given their place in the long history of human experience?

I am a faithful Christian. I believe in the incarnate God, angels, miracles, and life after death. With a belief set like that, it would be very hypocritical of me to dismiss any supposedly 'strange' beliefs simply because they are strange to me. I'd imagine the Therevada Buddhists who overwhelmingly populate Thailand see my beliefs as strange. But we can agree there is a world beyond what the eyes see and the ears hear, though it speaks to us in different ways.

"There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."