Yeay Mao (“Black Lady”) has shrines from southern Vietnam to the edge of Thailand, but the most important is at Pich Nil, in the hills behind Sihanoukville. In the days of Angkor she was the Hindu goddess Kali, associated with fertility cults – you can read about her on Wikipedia. She’s black because Kali was black. Her consort was the god Shiva, hence the Shiva-lingas and the phalluses.Shiva has become Preah Eisey, the name taken from one of his attributes.
(Apologies for the poor photo, but I don’t have a better one). Her offerings are bananas, roast piglet or roast chicken, and carved phalluses. As the phallic offerings suggest, her main business is control of fertility. Women come to pray for a baby, men come for problems with sex drive or erectile dysfunction.
She also has a very important role as a goddess of roads – motorbikes and cars and trucks and buses always stop here to offer bananas, pray for protection, and bless their vehicles with holy water. The holy water is taken from a spring by the roadside, and this was the original place of her shrine (it’s now been moved to the far side of the road).
The phalluses are getting to be a problem. There used to be hundreds of them, stuffed into the secondary shrines next to the main one, but now there are none. The attendant showed me a cardboard box full of them behind the shrine. The one in the photo above I took from the box just for the picture. They’re all about to be burnt, like the thousands before them. The explanation I was given was that they clutter up the shrines, that more room is needed for offerings of bananas and roast piglets. I don’t think so. I think the authorities are just embarrassed. (Interestingly, the authority in charge of the shrine isn’t a ministry in Phnom Penh, as I’d expected, but the local army unit).
These haven’t been removed – there are just a few giant stone phalluses in the form of Shiva-lingas. Like all the rest, they’re donated by the devotees of the goddess, but these are extremely expensive and must come from very important people – cart these away and there’ll be questions.
Quite a different question is raised by the face on this one. There’s an inscription underneath identifying the figure as Eisoh in mediation. The guardian told me that some people have objected strongly. The correct god to accompany Yeay Mao is Preah Eisey, who appears dressed as a hermit with a kettle and naga-staff.
Eisoh is a problem – who is he? There’s a Ream Eisoh who appears in legend as a stupid and wicked giant who attacks the beautiful Lady Mekhala (“Cloud”) with his magic axe, their eternal battle causing thunder and lightning. His title there is not Preah (“Sacred”), and he has no evident connection with phallic imagery – except perhaps that the rain that follows the battle with Lady Cloud connects the pair of them with fertility. Or perhaps the donor had private reasons for promoting the giant to godly status. Or perhaps he/she just got it wrong.
Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, by Sojourn Foto – from the ballet by Toni Shapiro
The origin-myth for Yeay Mao as told to me by the guardian is that her husband, named Ta Kry (not Eisey) was a general who fought the Thais. Yeay Mao missed her husband (it was explained to me that “missed” means missed sexual relations with him) and took a boat to go look fort him. (Note the maritime connection). A storm arose, and the captain wondered aloud what he’d done to offend the gods. Yeay Mao admitted that she “had four eyes” – meaning she was pregnant. It’s strictly taboo to have a pregnant woman on a ship. Yeay Mao apologised to everyone and cast herself into the sea, at which the storm ceased. End of story. Except there seems to be a couple of non-Kali threads lurking here. Kali isn’t associated with the sea, for example. More, there’s a hint of human sacrifice, although no more than a hint. But the connection with sexuality (Yeay Mao “misses” her husband sexually) and fertility is totally in keeping with tantric thinking (Wikipedia‘s article is as prissy as the attendant’s burning of the phalluses – tantra was totally about using sex as a means of union with the god).
Tantric carving from India – Khmer art is never so explicit
Two minor points that are only notions of my own: first, it seems the “high” gods, meaning Buddha and the tevodas and such – any beings that are from the heavens – are worshiped with flowers and fruits, while “lower” divinites such as the neak ta (all the gods here are neak ta) have these plus meat offerings. Second, it seems that an awful lot of neak ta have self-sacrifice in their origin myths.