USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘thai’
Folk Beliefs
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Thai Spirit Houses

Not sure if it is a Buddhist thing or just a general thing, but a lot of Thai people have little miniature houses on a pole or a stick called spirit houses. The Thai belief is that every house or every dwelling has a spirit who inhibits the house, so the Thai people build a house which they keep outside in which the spirits may reside. It is where spirits live, usually right on the property in front of the house, and they give it food and water and take care of it so that the spirit of their house may be kept happy. This is also so that the spirit of their house may protect them from outside threats.

This tradition may also be found in an article by Michael Pearce, who writes about it in The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief in Volume 7, Issue 3, 2011.

Michael Pearce (2011) Accommodating the discarnate: thai spirit houses and the phenomenology of place, Material Religion, 7:3, 344-372, DOI: 10.2752/175183411X13172844495939

http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175183411X13172844495939

Background: I had first heard about the spirit houses from my mom, who did not know too much about them. But then she reached out to her aunt (my great aunt) and told me a little bit more about the tradition of keeping spirit houses, which can be seen all over in Thailand. This interview was conducted live; this story was given to me in person. I thought this was a really interesting combination of folk beliefs and folk objects — mainly a folk belief carried out through the implementation of a folk object. I really enjoyed hearing about this and how it really is believed in Thai culture and that is why so many people have spirit houses outside their own houses, apparently usually out front. This is also something my mom remembers really well from her childhood in Bangkok because she said that she would see them everywhere — in front of every house.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general

Arab Belief: Soles of Shoes

“For a lot of Middle Eastern people, you can’t- you can’t put them so that the soles are facing up because the bottom of your foot is the lowest part of your body, the most dirty, the um..and if you put your shoe facing up, it’s like an insult to God.”

The informant is a Middle East Studies major at the University of Southern California. She says she learned this folk belief within the last year while studying various beliefs of people in the Middle East. This was a response to the belief in Thai culture that the feet are considered dirty and the head contains knowledge. This Middle Eastern belief as the soles being dirty and as an insult to God is an oicotype of the Thai belief, but adapted to its own culture. While the Thai belief believes that it is rude to other human beings in general to point one’s feet at, pointing soles of shoes towards the sky does not offend other humans in the Middle East, but God. It is a regional variant on the folklore that reveals the nature of each culture.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general

Thai Culture: Head and Feet

Transcribed Text:

“In Thai culture, the head is the most important part of your body, and the feet are considered dirty, cuz that’s on the ground all the time. So it’s very disrespectful if you point your feet at somebody’s head, or if you point your feet at somebody in general. And also, if you step over books, or like, put your feet on books, or put books on the ground, because books are considered knowledge from your head.”

This is a Thai folk belief about knowledge and dirt. The informant says that she learned this belief from her mom when she was a child. She says that she remembers pointing her feet towards the prayer room at Buddha in her house and she remembers her mom reprimanding her for doing so and explaining why it was wrong to do so. It makes sense that the feet are associated with dirt and the head is associated with knowledge, so this is a folk belief that is tied a lot with logic. Furthermore, books are also associated with the brain in Thai culture, because books contain the knowledge that people have in their heads. Therefore, stepping on books, or even stepping over books is considered offensive, as it is considered to be stepping on somebody’s knowledge. This also branches out to temples and houses as well. A person is not allowed to enter a temple or a house with shoes that one would wear in the outside world, because they are entering an area of holiness and family.

This folk belief is also an oicotype of the folk belief in India. In India, people are not allowed to wear their shoes into a temple or a home. Often times, it is even encouraged for people to wash their feet before they enter, to cleanse the dirt that they may have. Both Thai and Indian culture have such a similar folk belief because there was a lot of interaction between the two cultures over the past hundreds, if not thousands of years. It is extremely plausible that many pieces of folklore exchanged between the two countries and developed along in similar fashions.

 

Folk Beliefs

Thai folk belief: Butterflies carry souls

My informant had a personal experience with this folk belief while attending her grandmother’s funeral in Thailand. She and the other funeral-goers were kneeling in prayer in front of the Buddhist temple where the funeral was being held, when she noticed a black butterfly fly over her grandmother’s coffin as the monks chanted a sutra to help the soul pass on.

When my informant mentioned the butterfly to an aunt afterwards, the aunt told her that butterflies are containers for souls, and that they carry souls away. The timing of the butterfly’s flight, as well as the fact that she’d never seen a butterfly in Thailand before, convinced my informant of the validity of this folk belief.

My informant suggested that it may be comforting to someone mourning a death to equate their loved one, and maybe death itself, with a butterfly, which is almost universally considered to be beautiful and graceful.

The main religion in Thailand is Buddhism, which rejects the idea of an unchanging self or soul, and so the soul’s flight in the butterfly could be considered the luminal stage between death in one body and reincarnation in the next. Also, while human/alive, we can’t fly—it could be exciting to think that in death, we are able to rise beyond the limitations of our past human bodies.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Thai folk belief: Mole on foot

Shortly before starting her freshman year at college, my informant noticed a mole on the back of her left foot which she was sure hadn’t been there before. She mentioned the mole to her mother, and it was then that her mother told of her the Thai belief that when you get a mole on your foot, it means you’ll travel far. (My informant’s mother is from the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand.)

My informant strongly believes that this belief is accurate, because she moved away from home and into a college dorm a few weeks after noticing the mole. She told me that the belief was bo-lan, a historical saying, or ancient/common knowledge, and that you have to respect bo-lan. Though she didn’t move far (her home is about a half hour drive from her college), she believes that this is because her mole is fairly small, and the size of the mole either determines or predicts (she’s not sure which) how far you’ll be traveling.

The location of the mole on the foot is probably significant. The feet are associated with walking, and therefore travel. This belief reminds me of another bit of folk speech: the “travel itch,” the desire to travel. Moles can itch, prompting the desire to walk, which could be a metaphor for travel.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Thai custom: First menstruation

The first time my informant got her period, her mother told her to go to the stairs, hold her breath, and walk down the number of steps she wanted her period to last for. For example, my informant decided that she wanted her periods from then on to last for three days, so she went down three steps while holding her breath. According to my informant, it worked for her; her periods now last three days.

I asked her why she didn’t just go down one step, and she said, “because it wouldn’t be possible, biologically, so to keep the legend true, you have to go down at least three or four.” This response suggests that there’s an element of conscious self-delusion for every girl who performs this custom, and that the belief is important more for its own sake than for the fact that it works.

My informant proposed that going down the stairs represents that the performer is taking the steps to becoming a woman. The girl holds her breath because Buddhism (the main religion of Thailand) encourages believers to endure suffering. Not breathing also symbolizes the pain of menstruation.

I agree with her assessment. A girl’s first menstruation is, biologically, the marker of her transformation from girl to woman. Taking physical steps represents that she is crossing that threshold.

Annotation: This folk custom appears in the 2001 Thai movie The Legend of Suriyothai. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0290879/

Folk medicine
general

Thai remedy

“Drinking warm water every day is healthy.”

The informant heard this from her elementary school friend’s mother from Thailand.  She does not believe in this remedy and does not understand it.

Perhaps the Thai culture wants people to stay hydrated by drinking water since Thailand is such a warm place.  However, in Holland it is often cold so drinking cold water may not be as appealing, so perhaps the mother changed the remedy to warm water to adjust to her new climate.  Thai people are also known for their tea so perhaps drinks that remind them of tea, like warm water, express their culture so the drink is encouraged.

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