Gods, ghosts and demons

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Offerings to the spirits on a major feast-day

A little dictionary of some of the more important Cambodian supernatural beings (my preferred spelling first, followed by alternatives I’ve come across):

Araks (areaks): Ancestral spirits that live in fields and trees around the village. Traditionally a village shaman, the kru araks, would enter a trance during which villagers could ask them for advice, but this seems to be dying out – I only came across one in six months of searching and she was 90 years old. Nevertheless, farmers will still leave some of their midday meal in the field for the araks. They are easily angered, and punish those who cross them with illness.

Arp (ap, arb): A witch, although often called a vampire. By day an ordinary woman, though identifiable by her haggard face and bloodshot eyes, at night her body waits at home while her head flies around spreading sickness and bad dreams. She has parallels in many other Southeast Asian cultures – how did this cultural meme spread so widely?

hqdefaultBoramey: High spirit-beings who help humans with their problems. Many villages and towns have kru boramey, shamans (usually women) who enter into a trance and are possessed by a boramey. They seem to be replacing the village araks and kru-araks throughout Cambodia.

Bray (priay): A female demon (almost all the demons seem to be female), the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. She is the most malevolent of all demons, but can be tamed by those who understand the correct ritual, in which case she becomes a powerful protective spirit. Buddha images and the boats used in the annual Water Festival boat races are protected by bray.

Chumneang pteah (in Phnom Penh dialect, ch’neang teah): The protective spirit of the house. One of very few spirits who are wholly benevolent. Her shrine is always placed on the floor, and offerings of flowers and fruit (and cans of coke) should be left there on the four holy days of each month (these days are marked on religious calendars, and every house will hang this calendar near the shrine). In village houses she inhabits a particular pillar, usually the main house pillar, and there’s a special ceremony to ask her to protect new houses.

Chumneang pteah shrine - despite the Chinese appearance, it's Khmer.

Chumneang pteah shrine – despite the Chinese appearance, it’s Khmer.

Kmouch (kmout): The ghost of someone who died a violent or unexpected death. The kmouch is not aware of its status and wishes to return to the world of the living. Monks and kru know the ritual for sending a kmouch away, but it should never be destroyed, which would be the equivalent of murder – it’s capable of going to hell and eventually returning to another life.

Meba: The family ancestor-spirits. They take a particular interest in marriages and births: they have to be offered some of the wedding feast, and should be informed when the new bride becomes pregnant, and again when she is delivered. They are highly moral and highly conservative, and will punish any girl (but not boy) who has sex before her wedding (my informants were of parent-age – somebody really should study this in detail from the viewpoint of teenagers). An interesting point that I came across in interviews, and have never found in written sources, is that I was repeatedly told that the meba are ancestors by birth, not blood – they’re reincarnation-ancestors. This video plays meba-music from a Khmer wedding (after the ad). https://www.youtube.com/embed/_heYQhcZL8Y” target=”_blank”>

Mrieng kongveal: Little child-spirits, the protectors of most domestic and some wild animals (domestic animals destined to be killed and eaten get no protection, nor do wild animals that are hunted). They normally live in the trees around the fields, but they like to play with human children, and they have the useful ability to give gifts to adults. For this reason they often have house-shrines, in the form of a flat-bottomed basket with a little bamboo house. The shrine should hang from a bush or nail in the wall, and should never touch the ground. Their offerings are toys and sweets.

_DSF2041Mrieng kongveal shrine

Neak ta: The village ancestor. Almost every village will have a neak ta shrine, often with a statue of the ancestor, or possibly a rock or shiva linga (the neak ta is the only spirit who is represented in physical form – the shrines of the tevoda and chumneang pteah are empty, and although the mrieng kongveal shrine often has little toy children in it, these don’t actually represent the mrieng).  He represents fertility and social order, and once a year he has a village festival at which the village boundaries are rehearsed and his blessings invoked.

Neak ta shrine on an Ankorian brick platform Siem Reap - from Alison in Cambodia https://alisonincambodia.wordpress.com/2009/08/08/surveying-in-takeo-province-part-2/

Village neak ta shrine, Takeo province – from Alison in Cambodia

In addition to the village-level neak ta there are also “wild” neak ta who own the hills and forests and other unsettled places, and anyone entering their lands must ask permission. And finally there are the “great” neak ta who have charge of entire regions and provinces. Unlike the “wild” and village neak ta these have names and histories – the one pictured below is called Red Neck. The red colours (his turban and scarf) and his beard and moustache mark his Indian/brahmanical origins – the colour or Buddhism is yellow, and Buddha and Buddhist deities are clean-shaven.

Neak ta Neak ta Red Neck at the Angkorean temple of Chisor, near Phnom Penh.

Praet: A ghost that died a good death and is now in hell. Hell is far from pleasant, but it’s the right place for ghosts and the only place where they can prepare for their next life. Praet, like kmouch, are eternally hungry – they have tiny mouths and huge stomachs, and can eat only filth. Once a year they return to the world of the living and their relatives feed them at the temples – this is the festival of Pchum Ben, the most important in Cambodia.

Hungry-Ghosts-768x1024-1

Hungry ghosts from Thailand – they look the same in Cambodia.

Preah phum: The name means something like “holy earth,” and it represents the entire village, including its fields and ponds and groves. Its shrine is a little house on a pillar, very like the tevoda shrine but with one significant architectural difference: the tevoda shrine has a roof with a spire, indicating that this is the home of a goddess (compare to the spire on the roof of the monastery prayer-hall and on the royal palace), but the preah phum roof does not, as preah phum is not a god. Phreah phum is extremely important to the psychic health of the village, and there are special ceremonies to “centre” him in times of trouble, such as epidemics or droughts. This village preah phum involves quite a different-looking shrine made of four posts in a square with a fifth in the centre.

004_bigThe shrine of a village preah phum ceremony, constructed when calling the spirit of the village land. From Khmer Renaissance

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Tevoda: Like the chumneang pteah,  a protective house-sprit, but unlike the chumneang she’s a goddess. Associated particularly with the annual New Year festival, her shrine is the little toy temple on a pillar outside the house. This should be placed in a corner of the house-yard, facing the door of the house but not in front of it. The offerings vary from year to year, as there’s a new tevoda each year. I’ve also heard of what seems to be another sense of tevoda, a sort of messenger of the spirit-world, but have no information about this. The shrine itself is called rean tevoda, a “tevoda shelf.”

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2 thoughts on “Gods, ghosts and demons

  1. I will never remember all of those but it was particularly interesting to read this, and it made sense of some of the things I have seen but had absolutey no understanding of, eg the rean tevoda and a little inside into what Pchum Ben is all about.

    • Thanks Helen. These are the three shrines that you see all the time, two outside the house and the third inside. There are more household shrines – one old lady had them all round the walls (all “shelves) – and I remember one of them was for the “soul” of the caul in which one of her children had been born; cauls are frequently regarded as something supernatural, and I believe Julius Caesar was regarded as singled out for greatness because he was born with one. For Pchum Ben, I have a description that explains it more fully here: http://pjcoggan.com/2014/09/16/pchum-ben-feeding-the-hungry-ghosts/

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