Tag Archives: Soul

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.

Chinese Religious Folk Practice – Calling the Soul

This folk practice was collected from my Father. My father was born as a farmer’s son into a veteran’s family in Taipei, Taiwan. His father and mother ran away from China to Taipei during the Chinese Civil War. Many of his cultural practices and beliefs are taken from mainland Chinese culture. Because of his background, he is considered a “mainlander” in Taiwan (Chinese in Taiwan are divided into Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese or indigenous). My father graduated from Iowa University with an MBA. His B.A was obtained in Taiwan.

When we were having our regular telephone session, he told me the following recollection on the phone in Chinese when we were talking about a few strange police cases in the past:

(This is not a direct transcription or translation. It’s based off what I remember him saying)

” When a man dies or goes missing in the mountains or river, and the police can’t find his corpse, they’ll always resort to calling his spirit as part of the investigation, like a sort of last resort. The police will take a taoist sorcerer and the missing man’s family, along with some of his possessions such as clothes, into the mountains or river; anywhere, closest to where the man went missing. The Taoist sorcerer will then perform a ritual and ask the family to call out the man’s name while holding out his clothes;  this practice is called the “calling of the soul”…. The family usually continues this “calling of the soul” until the body is found. And usually, right after this ritual is performed, the missing man’s corpse will actually appear or the police will find the corpse somewhere in the next few days. You might think I’m joking, but I’m not. Many cases have been solved in this fashion! You see it on the news all the time.”

When I asked my father the significance of this practice, he said:

“There is a traditional Chinese belief that a person’s soul stays on earth for a week before it leaves. The police ask the taoist sorcerer and the family members of the deceased to perform this ritual because the police have faith in this belief.”

I believe my father is quite right in the significance of this practice. The police and the people involved truly believe in this folk practice and they actually perform the “calling of the soul” as a last resort, after all the help that modern science and technology can give, to find the body of the deceased/missing family member. While I am not in any place to judge whether or not the folk practice of calling the soul or this folk belief is true or not, the fact stands that it has worked before, which furthers the belief in this tradition. Moreover, the idea of this practice appearing on the news as something legitimate the police do reveals the deep-set beliefs in the supernatural and the particular idea about the afterlife that Chinese culture have. This item also shows that despite the modernization of China and Taiwan, there still remains a heavy belief in the supernatural superstitions, practices and beliefs that were passed down generation to generation.