Ghost Legend of Mae Nak- Thailand (Buddhist)


About 100 or 150 years ago, there was a married couple in Bangkok. While the husband was gone on military service the wife, Mae Nak (??????), delivered their first-born baby, but because medicine wasn’t as good at that time, she and the baby died during delivery. When the husband came back, nobody in the village told him that Mae Nak and his baby died because they thought that he would be sad since he was expecting to see his wife and baby, who he hadn’t seen in a long time, when he came home. However, he comes to his house and finds Mae Nak and their baby. Everyone in the village saw that the man had gone home and yet was still acting normal, and talking about Mae Nak and his baby as though they were still alive. These people wonder what is going on and talk among themselves but do not say anything directly to him about the death of his wife and child.  Though someone in the village finally comes and tells him that his wife and child are dead, he doesn’t believe them because he sees them still alive.

One day, Mae Nak is cooking a meal in which lime is one of the ingredients, and the lime falls between the cracks in the floor of the house. The husband sees the lime fall and he goes downstairs to pick up the lime. His wife doesn’t know that he is going to get the lime and, because she is a ghost, she extends her arm all the way through the crack of the floor to the ground under the house to pick up the lime. The husband sees this and now he also recognizes that the house appears differently—all of a sudden, he realizes that his house is also very dirty because his wife is dead (he originally thought that it looked very clean). He finally believes what the village people told him about his family being dead. The husband runs away and goes to a village temple, asking a monk to help him.

At the same time, Mae Nak doesn’t know that her husband saw her ghostly arm extend to pick up the lime and so she doesn’t know why her husband left or where he is and goes searching for him. After looking for a long time, she finally finds him at the village temple. When she gets to the temple a group of monks holds a rope together in a circle with the husband in the middle and pray at the same time (a Thai practice believed to protect the person in the middle from spirits) in order to protect him. One of the monks explains to Mae Nak that she is a ghost and that she must go to the ghost world to be reincarnated, but Mae Nak tells the monk that she really loves her husband and wants to stay with him. The head monk then explains that her husband is not hers forever, and that she cannot fight with nature; she must be reincarnated and cannot stay like she is. However, Mae Nak breaks through the circle of monks and the husband runs away from her. She keeps following her husband, and is very sad and angry that her husband doesn’t want to be with her anymore. He explains to her that a man and a ghost cannot live together, but she still doesn’t understand why and they keep arguing.

Finally, a famous head monk (equiv. to a Christian bishop in Christianity, according to the informant), named Somdej Toh (????????) comes to Mae Nak and explains to her the Buddhist concept of non-attachment, teaching her that from birth, nothing is yours—your body, your property, anything—and that being with this man or not being with this man is no different because she is just a part of nature; no matter what happens, everything is the same. Because this monk is such a great teacher Mae Nak understands now and leaves her husband and goes to the ghost world. Still, to this day, when people go to the district in Bangkok, called Prakanong (???????), where Mae Nak and her husband lived, they claim to see Mae Nak’s ghost around the place where her house used to be.

The informant learned this item from his grandmother while he was very young, perhaps 6 years old. The legend is usually told “by parents to young children so that if they misbehave something very bad will happen to them because the ghost of Mae Nak will come and get them.” “If you are concerned about the Buddhist context” then the story is “good and very deep,” according to the informant. However, he does not believe most people care very much about the story’s Buddhist themes, but rather “just as a ghost story.” The informant also states that the story is good because it helped him to “learn about people in an earlier time period and how they lived.”

I agree with the informant that the main purpose and value of the legend, besides its use by elders to scare children into behaving properly, seems to consist in its conveyance of the important Buddhist principle of “non-attachment” as the informant refers to it. However, despite its apparent connection to Buddhist belief and practice, it is interesting to find that one of the main events in the story—the encircling of the husband with a group of praying monks who are  connected to each other with a rope in order to keep Mae Nak away—is actually described by the informant as a practice which is not part of Buddhism but rather is a Thai folk belief. Since this practice ultimately fails with Mae Nak breaking through the sort of “force field” created by the praying circle of monks, while the teachings of the great Buddhist teacher Somdej Toh succeed in convincing Mae Nak to depart her husband and this world, it is quite possible that the legend is in fact asserting the efficacy of Buddhist teaching over mere Thai superstition. Finally, the story need not have a specifically Buddhist message (though this seems very clearly intended) but rather may serve to teach in general that we must know when to let go of something, such as a person or an endeavor, and simply move on instead of foolishly trying to hold on to it.

Upon more closely analyzing the story, I also found that the story’s main dilemma—namely, Mae Nak’s unwillingness to go to enter the spirit world—is resolved only on the third attempt, echoing the importance of the number three which pervades much of American folklore. In the legend, we find that the first attempt to persuade Mae Nak is made by one of the “superstitious” temple monks who is protecting her husband. Next, it is the husband himself who tries to convince his wife that a ghost and a man simply cannot remain together in this world. Finally, the famous Thai Buddhist teacher, Somdej Toh, enters the story for the third and final attempt, so wise and compelling that he is able to successfully demonstrate the foolishness of Mae Nak’s wish to remain with her husband in this world, and persuade her to depart this world for the next.


Nadeau, Kathleen, and Johnathan H.X. Lee. Encyclopedia of Asian-American Folklore and Folklife. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2011.