The Power of Circles

CirclesCircles are a very mystical form. They are considered the perfect shape and for that reason, they hold great meaning in folklore and superstition.From King Arthur's round table to chanting circles to drumming circles, even to bagels which are eaten to promote good luck on certain holidays, the circle is a perfect form to represent the full completion of the life cycle.

Circling is said to form a protective shell around the person circled. That is one explanation for the bride circling the groom at Jewish weddings.

More recently Circling has taken on a more psychological adaptation incorporating meditation, conversation and perhaps a bit of performance art.


Spirit Homes in Thailand

 Hannah Beech writes for the New York Times about Thailand's spirit homes:

IMG_5277In Every Corner of Bangkok, Spirits Need a Home and Maybe a Strawberry Fanta

BANGKOK — These spirits were not wearing face masks. They appeared well fed, untroubled by the hunger pangs that have afflicted some Thais during the lean times of a pandemic.

But despite the spirits being so coddled — or perhaps because of it — the spiritual adviser accompanying them looked nervous.

These spirits, or at least the pair of figurines representing them, were too tubby to fit through the door to their new spirit house at the Baan Pitak condominium in Bangkok.

For the next hour or so, incense and incantations swirled. A gong pierced the steamy air of Bangkok.

Then, holding his breath just a little, Kitsana Phattharasirisap, the spiritual adviser, rose to his tiptoes and nudged the statues through the intricately carved entry to their new abode. Magically, they fit. A diet of prayers had slimmed them down in under 60 minutes, he said.

“If you don’t believe,” Mr. Kitsana said, “then it won’t work.”

Many Thais do believe in such spirits, and Mr. Kitsana, 47, thinks this may help explain why the coronavirus pandemic has so far largely bypassed the country. Thailand, a nation of 70 million people, has recorded only about 3,130 cases of the virus, with 58 deaths, despite having had the first confirmed case outside of China.

“Thai people respect ghosts and spirits,” he said. “Every day we pray and, you will notice, our country has not had many cases of coronavirus. The spirits listen to our prayers.”

In every crowded corner of Bangkok, whether by a tin-roofed shack, a glass-plated skyscraper or a marble-pillared government hall, there are said to be spirits who need placating. A coronavirus lockdown is no excuse.

The spirits also require spirit houses, which look like dollhouses mounted on pedestals. These range from a few pieces of plywood hammered together to create a miniature bungalow to gilded structures with ornate spires that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The figurines, sized to live inside, typically fit easily in the palm of a hand.

Spirit houses are common throughout Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, although the architecture differs by country. While not everyone believes, the practice is widely respected and the houses are an ordinary and integrated part of Bangkok’s cityscape, like church spires in an American town.

All these spirits expect sustenance, like a bunch of bananas, a cooling coconut or a mound of sticky rice. The offerings are usually placed at the front of the spirit houses in the morning by homeowners or building staff members, along with incense and garlands of marigolds and jasmine. Ants or rats may raid in the afternoon.

The spirits are not unreasonable, said Nongrak Puwasawadi, a self-employed spirit communicator, who enters a trance and advises people on the spirits’ druthers. In times of economic crisis, they will scale back their expectations.

“Like now, with the coronavirus, they will be happy with a glass of water for refreshment,” said Ms. Nongrak, 75. “But if it’s a more fortunate time, Kuman Thong would like a remote-controlled car.”

Kuman Thong, a young boy with a topknot and pantaloons, is one of the more popular spirits. Today, he is represented in spirit houses and on family altars by plastic dolls with cherubic features.

In an earlier era, his worship used to involve the preservation of stillborn babies with layers of lacquer. The practice of using fetuses in rituals has been outlawed but has still been seen in recent years.

Like many spirits, Kuman Thong favors certain brands, and he is especially fond of strawberry Fanta, according to Ms. Nongrak.

“Red is a nicer color than the brown of Pepsi,” she said.

In their houses, many spirit figurines come with entourages of servants, dancers and bestiary. There are the elephants and tigers that are native to Thailand, but also zebras. No one seems to know for certain why zebras, although some theorize it has to do with the safety associated with zebra-striped pedestrian crossings.

There are spirits that organize other spirits, and there are spirits that are standoffish. There are spirits that are evil, and it’s worth ensuring that the good spirits are on your side.

Some spirits live in trees, and the mightiest ficus trees are wrapped in multicolored sashes, with incense and sweetmeats placed among the roots.

The cosmology of spirits in Thailand — a Buddhist-majority nation with crosscurrents of Hinduism, Chinese ancestor worship and animism — is vast. Some spirits are family forebears. Others are demigods in the Hindu pantheon. Still others come with the land and stay on the land.

And this shared occupancy is something that developers and homeowners must contend with each time they build on the land.

It was early this year, as construction progressed, when the spirits of the Baan Pitak condominium made their unhappiness known. The former owners of the land — the human ones, that is — had built spirit houses. But they were, frankly, a bit plain. And they faced in the wrong direction.

The construction workers, who were living on-site, began receiving nightly visitations, they said. Two of them got sick and were convinced the spirits were to blame. The workers talked to the forewoman, the forewoman talked to the building manager, and the building manager talked to the landowners.

“I don’t believe in this stuff but my wife does,” said Pitak Nopprapun, who owns the land with his wife. “I listen to my wife.”

The $1,100 ceremony to sanctify the new spirit houses took place on a particularly sticky day in late May. Most everyone was dressed in white, even the spirits, although one spirit overlord figurine was decked out in gold, clutching his usual sword and pouch of money.

The spread laid out for the spirits, to ease their transition from one set of houses to the others, was sumptuous: papayas, bananas, tangerines, pineapples, watermelons, mangoes, coconuts, corn, taro, sweet potatoes, rose apples and, at the center of it all, a pair of pig faces.

After the ceremony, the pigs’ faces were given to the construction workers to eat, minus a chunk of one ear, which was sliced for an offering.

“I believe in science,” said Nutthikan Bunthanalaksamee, 29, the building manager, who was recording the ceremony with her cellphone. “But I respect people who have their beliefs.”

Mr. Kitsana, the master of ceremonies, is a one-stop spirit shop. In addition to communing with the spirits, he sells spirit real estate. His priciest cement spirit houses cost more than $12,200 in a country where the average yearly income is about $8,000.

After the ceremony, the pigs’ faces were given to the construction workers to eat, minus a chunk of one ear, which was sliced for an offering.

“I believe in science,” said Nutthikan Bunthanalaksamee, 29, the building manager, who was recording the ceremony with her cellphone. “But I respect people who have their beliefs.”

Mr. Kitsana, the master of ceremonies, is a one-stop spirit shop. In addition to communing with the spirits, he sells spirit real estate. His priciest cement spirit houses cost more than $12,200 in a country where the average yearly income is about $8,000.

“Young people have forgotten about the spirits but maybe with the coronavirus they will slow down and worship more often,” he said.

Their obsession with social media, all that careful tending of virtual spaces, he said, came at the expense of nurturing the spiritual realm.

“If you take care of the spirits,” Mr. Puvisit said, “they will take care of you.”


We Are A Very Superstitious Nation

Art SpiegelmanWe as a nation tend to be rather superstitious. In a 2014 YouGov survey of 1000 adults, more than a third said that they believe in good luck pennies, 30% think knocking on wood might bring them luck and 27% believe in the power of crossing their fingers.

But belief in Superstitions declines with age and the AARP magazine reports that the survey shows almost 75% of those over 65 years old were not superstitious at all - more than any other age group. We tend to be more superstitious when we are younger partly because of pressure from family and peers.

Where are you on the superstition meter?


The Spirits of Malaysia

Malaysia spiritsGreat article by Dan Nosowitz on all of the fascinating spirits of Malaysia.

Malaysia Has Good Ghosts, Bad Ghosts, and Gremlin-Babies That Will Steal Your Stuff

Its spirit culture is unlike any in the world.

Everybody loves a ghost story. Really, everybody. All cultures have some variety of ghost story, by that name or another. But some are more pervasive and deeply ingrained than others. It isn’t really possible to identify the most ghost-heavy culture on the planet—there’s no clear metric for how one would judge such a thing. But few ghost cultures are as powerful and varied as the ones found in Malaysia. The modern English and North American conceptions of ghosts—from the ones under bed sheets to Victorian-garbed, translucent shades to the poltergeist that makes things go bump in the night—feel downright embarrassing in their limits when compared to the great world of Malay hantu.

Hantu is the general term for all ghosts, spirits, and otherworldly beings in Malaysia and among the Malay people of maritime Southeast Asia and its diaspora. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of them, ranging from natural spirits (representations of individual rivers, trees, and lakes) to vampire-type ghosts to leprechaun-like tricksters. Some are good, some are bad, some are to be avoided, and some are like partners to the living. And they coexist with wide range of religions observed by the very diverse people of Malaysia.

With a strategic location straddling the South China Sea, the land of the Malays has been a fluid and multinational place for thousands of years. Malaysia, known by that name or not, has been a vital trading post for huge empires: China, India, the Arabs, the Netherlands, Portugal, England. The indigenous people of Malaysia, called the Orang Asal, practice what the state (and researchers) tend to classify as a type of animism, with various natural objects held as sacred.

And all of those empires left their religions—and their more spiritualist aspects—behind, too. Today Islam is the most-practiced faith in country, but there are substantial numbers of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. (There were Jews for a long time, too; today, not so much. And ethnic Malays enjoy advantages that starkly stratify society there.) Malay ghost culture is, therefore, a hybrid of spirits, spooks, and haunters from around the globe.

“It certainly has a very big place in the culture,” says Cheryl Nicholas, an ethnographer at Penn State Berks who was born and raised in Malaysia and who has made Malay ghost culture a central part of her research. “Whether or not that continues in the more modern era, I don’t know. I still feel the presence whenever I go back.” These ghost stories that imbue the culture of Malaysia seek, as many supernatural or religious stories do, to explain the mysteries of life and help lead a person to a more successful, longer, or more profitable one. Ghosts or spirits vary throughout the country and the culture, but there are some particularly popular individual types or broader categories

One of the most popular types is a sort of vampire-ghost. The pontianak is one that emerges upon the death of a woman during pregnancy or childbirth. She has the shape, usually, of a demonic woman capable of flight, who targets the blood of young children. (Alternatively, the pontianak may prey on men; these stories vary by region and teller.)

There are, in fact, a wide variety of ghosts floating around the concepts of birth and young children. There’s the hantu tetek, a ghost with pendulous breasts who likes to kidnap children just to play with them for awhile. She is used to explain why sometimes a child is found, unharmed, in a weird place, like deep in a bush or up a tree.

My favorite is the toyol, which is usually described as looking like a naked baby, though sometimes as more of a gremlin-baby. The toyol is very different from Western ghosts in a specific way: You can buy one.

Typically one purchases a toyol from a bomoh, or medium. It wouldn’t quite be described as a purchase, since you’d be paying the bomoh for connecting you with a toyol and the spirit itself would be free. Toyol are childlike: mischievous, a little clumsy, a little needy, easily distracted. But they are known as excellent thieves. You can have your toyol go out and steal for you, though Nicholas says it’s sometimes believed that a toyol will only steal up to the dollar amount you paid for it.

“The people in the village use that to explain petty theft,” she says. It also explains why you might see some shiny toys or marbles in front of rural Malaysian houses: countermeasures to distract a thieving toyol and give it something to play with. Nicholas says the best place to find a toyol isn’t in Malaysia, but rather near Mecca, Saudia Arabia. Muslim pilgrims have to discard all the bad influences in their lives for the Hajj, and though toyols aren’t exactly evil, they’re not what one would consider a force for good. In any case, you’ll find toyols near Mecca in the same way you’ll find stained Ikea furniture on move-out day at a college dorm.

The idea of owning a ghost of your own splits particularly hard with the Western conception of spirits as either barely aware of the modern world, or preoccupied with scaring people, or in search of eternal rest. Some Malay ghosts are more like partners to living humans, working side by side as protection—or to do one’s dirty work. Take the hantu polong, a sort of attack ghost used to inflict harm. It must be fed with blood from one’s fingers.

Nicholas’s work cataloging the wonders of Malay ghost culture has turned up dozens of species. There are some that cause specific health issues: The hantu buta causes blindness, hantu cika causes colic, hantu kembung is behind stomach aches. Some are more innocuous: Hantu apu is a party ghost, and so is hantu jamuan, though if it is not invited, it will wreck the festivities. Note to self: Remember to invite the hantu jamuan.

Another interesting aspect of many of these ghosts is the interaction, acknowledgement, or maintenance they require. Hantu lembong is a spirit of swollen growths on trees. Nicholas related a story she had been told about a man who had to formally apologize to this ghost after peeing on one of its trees while on a hike in the forest. If you disturb the soil, you might want to make an offering to hantu jembalang, a spirit of the earth. There are gigantic ghosts who get bigger the closer you get to them, ghosts with the head of a dog, ghosts that break traps to set animals free, ghosts of the moon and the sun and the sea. There are powerful elemental ghosts who should under no circumstances be messed with, and ghosts who throw stones at people for kicks.

“Ghosts are always a plausible explanation for Malaysians,” says Nicholas. A prominent urban bomoh even made international news following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. He eventually claimed the plane was being hidden somewhere in Southeast Asia by the orang bunian, sort of like invisible supernatural elves.

The robust ghost culture only occasionally runs afoul of modern globalist culture of the industrialized nation. “There is a very distinctive negotiation between the public and the private” regarding ghosts in Malaysia, says Nicholas. When she traveled around the country seeking ghost stories, many people would repeatedly explain, and demand that she understand, that they are good Muslims before acknowledging and revealing all their great ghost stories. But ghosts are simply too entrenched in Malay culture to go away. There are tremendously popular ghost movies released all the time. A Malaysian rapper recently offered a reward for the name of the bomoh responsible for a curse put on him. Bomohs are sometimes used to find missing people.

In Malaysia, it seems, you’re never too far from a ghost. It’s not inherently good or bad, it’s just in the air.


Witch Hunts - More than Just Salem. Scotland Had Many Many More

Witch memorialAs recently reported, there has been an under reporting of the degree and length of witch hunting in Scotland. Over the span of 200 years, thousands of people, mainly women, stood accused of witchcraft and were often tortured and executed.

I have found many articles recently and here is a map (with a clickable link) to see who and exactly where:

Mapping Scotland’s Grim History of Witch-Hunting

A new interactive map project from Edinburgh University charts the bloody wave of persecution directed at women accused of witchcraft in Scotland.

In 1662 a woman named Janet McNicol, who lived on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, went on trial for witchcraft. She confessed—possibly under torture—of having met the Devil three times, in the form of a leper, a “gross copperfaced man” and a good-looking fellow who saved her from drowning on the quayside. For reasons undetailed, McNicol managed to escape sentencing for 13 years.  When she was captured in 1673, she was strangled and her body was burnt—the usual punishment for witches in Scotland.

Thanks to a newly published interactive map, a dark passage in the history of Scotland is being brought into the light: the country’s fierce, centuries-long persecution of people accused of being witches. From the mid-16th to the early 18th century, close to 4,000 people in Scotland—overwhelmingly women—were tried for witchcraft. Up to two thirds of this number may have been executed.

This during a period when brutal witch persecution was relatively common in Europe. But in Scotland, the number of accused witches reached four to five times the European average. The new map of Scottish witch trials, created by students at Edinburgh University with data provided by its school of history, doesn’t just highlight the breadth of this persecution. It tells us exactly who the victims were, where they lived or were tried and, in some cases, even what they said.

The map’s geolocations were collated by University of Edinburgh Data and Visualisation intern Emma Carroll and the university’s Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew. Embedded above, it’s perhaps most easy to navigate on its own website, and it makes for fascinating, if grim, browsing.

Take the fate of another woman featured on the map, Agnes Sampsoune. Employed by locals in the lowland town of North Berwick as a healer and midwife—sometimes to people of high status—Sampsoune got caught up in the North Berwick Witch Trials. More than 70 people were investigated in these notorious trials, on suspicion of raising storms intended to drown Scotland’s King James VI and his new wife, Anne of Denmark, on wedding journeys they made across the North Sea to and from Scandinavia. After being made to suffer a “pain most grievous” Sampsoune ended up implicating 59 other people for witchcraft; she admitted, among other things, to traveling in a chimney-shaped boat to meet the devil at sea, and baptizing a cat.

Such details, likely forced under torture, pose as many questions as they answer. Why did Europe witness this unprecedented spike in witch persecution—and why did Scotland in particular experience it more intensely? The possible answers are various and complex.

Edinburgh University’s Julian Goodare is one of the researchers and compilers of the database upon which the map is based. In his book The European Witch Hunt, he sees parallels between the witch craze and modern anxieties: “Nowadays we have a wider range of cultural fears, such as fears of aliens, paedophiles or terrorists. Some of these fears are encouraged by politicians, or by commercial popular culture… [for example] belief in abduction by aliens is the modern cultural form of a sleep disorder that shaped some accusations of witchcraft and witches’ own confessions.”

There were nonetheless some preconditions to the persecution that were specific to Early Modern Europe. Fears of being attacked by neighbors through magical means are not unique to the time, and nor are beliefs that visions of the type reported by some witch suspects have supernatural inspiration. What is specific to this period, however, is a vision of demonic witchcraft—the idea of a person, usually a woman, who channels the Devil’s power (but doesn’t possess any of their own) after entering into a covenant with the Evil One.

This specifically religious crime was a concept propagated not so much by a superstitious general populace as by an educated, empowered elite. It’s possible to trace this clash of wordviews even in the excerpts included on the map, where magical beliefs, such as those expressed in 1616 by Elspeth Reoch of Orkney, are repeatedly interpreted as diabolical. While trial records reference the Devil, admissions from the accused often talk instead of folkloric beliefs, such as fairies and the Queen of Elphame.

The trials happened during a period when, due to the Protestant reformation, Northern Europe’s institutions of both spiritual and temporal power were shifting seismically—perhaps more so in Scotland than elsewhere. The country’s witchcraft act of 1563, which kick-started its witch craze, came just three years after Scotland officially adopted Protestantism. As the state was urging people to accept the new faith, persecution of witches was encouraged by the King himself: James VI (who later became James I of England) not only believed himself to have been the subject of witchcraft during his wedding voyage, he published a defense of witch-hunting in 1597 called Daemonologie.

Add to this an ingrained cultural misogyny that deemed women more open to corruption and periods of want that followed poor harvests, and you have the makings of an ongoing social panic in which women bore the brunt of widespread fear and religious upheaval.

Official belief in witchcraft drained away in Scotland in the early 18th century, until the witchcraft acts were repealed in 1735. In recent years, there has been a rediscovery of this bloody history—and a determination to commemorate more fully its victims. The skeleton of Lillias Adie, one of the few accused whose body was not burned after her death in prison in 1704, is due to be returned to a burial site reimagined as a memorial.

There are also plans to reconstruct a historic lighthouse as a national monument to victims of witch persecutions. In the meantime, Scots have use this new map as a way to reckon with this wave of cruelty that happened not just in a vaguely misty faraway time, but in places they know, in some cases just around the corner.

About the Author

Feargus O'Sullivan

Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.