Superstition is no stranger. Paul and I each were raised in the Roman catholic church, exposed every manner of laughable saintly devotion — pray to St. Anthony if you’ve lost something, have a statue of St. Christopher on the dashboard of the car to ensure a safe journey or bury a statue of him upside-down in the yard of a home you wish to sell quickly (see more here). The entire Sykora family would mumble a prayer every time we drove past a church in our Chevrolet four-door. We had little prayers on cards attached to strings, worn about the neck. Incense, holy water, bloody statuary, candles touching our necks on the feast day of Saint Blase to protect us from sore throats.
So when I post pictures of Spirit houses and comment upon the superstitions that accompany them, I do so with full acknowledgement that my home culture is no different. If anything, what’s portrayd here highlights a goofiness we all share, a silliness that unites us across cultures, sweet if desperate grasps at security and predictability in an insecure and unpredictable world.
And this brings us, with some glee, to Tuptim … the Penis Shrine. A Spirit House in Bangkok with no shortage of phallic augmentation.
Penises at this shrine are accompanied by, as one would expect, ball gowns. For a discussion of gowns and spirits, see our Erawan Falls post from last summer.
I’ve been fascinated by (and have taken pictures of) spirit houses since we first visited Thailand in the ‘eighties. I’m still impressed by their ubiquity and variety, and their consistency over the decades.
Basically, I figure “whatever comforts that people gather from superstitions, they are welcome to them”. After a lifetime in the U.S. of experiencing fundamentalist christianity’s vigorous hatred of LGBT people, the beliefs show here seem to me benign, even sweet.
Big caveat here, as I have only a rudimentary understanding of this. But chickens seem to be big with the spirits in spirit houses. As in: if my mother’s surgery goes well, I’ll make you a gift of a chicken. If I pass my exams, I’ll give you a chicken. If anyone has a clearer understanding of the role of chickens and spirit houses, please use the Comments section to enlighten the rest of us.
Remember our previous post about Spirit Houses? Since then, we’ve learned a bit more. But just a bit.
See? The above Spirit House in the corner of a huge Bangkok hotel has a tiny ladder similar to the one in the May 2016 post. The little ladders are to help the spirits get up to the little platform, where they will find opened bottles of water or opened packages of food, or fruit on plates. Often the opened drinks will have straws in them. It seems the spirits have legs (to climb the ladders) but not hands (to open the water bottles or grasp a glass or cup). There are burning sticks of incense on the platforms, too, and candles and flower garlands.
People who describe themselves as “Good Buddhists” are quick to say that the Spirit Houses are “just a superstition” that has nothing to do with Buddhism. But those same people will wai the shrine as they pass by it, closing their eyes as they do, and bowing their head.
The animist idea behind the shrines is that construction of any building disrupts the spirits who reside there, and those spirits can be mischevious if not appeased. Spirit Houses are ubiquitous throughout Thailand, found on whichever corner of property is not going to be shadowed by the building. The most humble home in the countryside has one, as do multimillion dollar condos in Bangkok.
Yet to be determined is the overlap of belief, if any, between Animist beliefs and the reliquaries containing ashes of family members. It seems that the reliquaries and the spirit houses are located on the same corner of the property. There also seems to be some overlap with respect for the monarchy, as shown immediately above with the image of the Queen above a corporate Spirit House.
More about Animist beliefs in Thailand can be found here.
Update: beginning to photograph spirit houses in Thailand is daunting, because they are everywhere and in endless variety. Here are a few more, the first two having a little bitty set of figures, like a creche.
Note the simple glass of water on the front porch of this one, to meet the needs of parched spirits: