Illustration from a classic Thai tale of a man who kills his wife to obtain a smoked baby amulet
Journalist Nate Thayer was in a guest-house in Aranyaprathet (Thailand) on his way to interview Pol Pot in 1997:
There was a knock on my door, and … [Ghung], a young boy of 17, entered. … He opened his hands which clutched two Buddhist amulets. “I want you to take these with you. Wear them around your neck. If you are respectful to them, they will protect you from danger,” he said. The one on the left, pictured below, is an effigy of a dead baby fetus. He warned me that I should not be afraid if it talked aloud to me. The powerful one, he said, was that image, the Kuman Thong. “This will make sure you don’t die”, he said, if I treated it with a reverence. Ghung clearly did. “Only wear it around your neck and don’t be afraid. Sometimes it will talk to me.”
The kuman thing is, of course, the Thai version of the Khmer koan krak. Quite possibly it’s found all over Southeast Asia – I’m told there’s a Philippines version, although that involves using the afterbirth rather than a fetus taken from a pregnant woman’s womb (a slightly more civilised approach, though not much). Here’s an interesting ghost story by a foreigner who bought a kuman thong in Bangkok without realising what it was – I don’t know what in this is fiction and what’s fact, but the gist is that his Thai girlfriend was horrified (yes – I gather most Cambodians find koan krak pretty horrifying) and warned him that he’d taken a responsibility – he had to feed the kuman thong and take care of it like a normal child. Which, naturally, he failed to do. Read on.
Nate Thayer’s story also underlines that the fetus is entirely protective – it can’t be used to harm others. In that sense it isn’t black magic at all, but since it involves the almost certain death of the mother it might as well be.
This brings up the question of where the fetus comes from. In theory it’s either taken from a woman who died in childbirth, or, and preferably (more powerful amulet), from a woman who voluntarily agrees to give her unborn fetus to the man (who is, presumably, the biological father). This website suggests that in Thailand they come from abortions and morgues, but that would violate one of the rules of making a koan krak: the fetus must be willingly gifted by the mother to the father. Quite possibly, in modern urban conditions, this is being lost, and the simple possession of a mummified fetus over which magic spells have been chanted is seen as enough. This is highly disturbing, given the potential for all sorts of shenanigans. This is from a 2006 article by Bronwyn Sloane:
Recently a smalltime young criminal was arrested after trying to cut his pregnant girlfriend’s fetus out of her womb. She struggled and escaped, probably saving both her own and her unborn child’s life. To local police investigating the crime afterwards, his motive was obvious. The man had not wanted a child. He wanted a talisman to help him improve his criminal skills, and he had deliberately impregnated a young woman claiming he loved her to achieve that.
An academic study of Cambodian refugees on the Thai border in the 1980s tells how some refugee women induced abortions in order to provide their husbands or lovers with a koan kroh. This account is interesting because it suggests that the death of the mother is not essential to the creation of the koan krak (or koan kroh, or whatever – the variations are endless).
Some more factoids:
- The question of ownership is uppermost: the father – in reality already the biological father – must ask the biological mother to give him the fetus, as if in some fashion it isn’t actually his already. This implies that the father desires the biological role of the mother.
- Relationships are inverted – the father of the koan krak is less powerful than the kun krak, and is actually dependant on it. He constructs an altar for it and makes offerings, as to a superior spiritual being.
- The mother of the fetus also becomes a spirit- she’s now a bray, the earth-bound spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, the most powerful and malevolent of all spirits. (Recall that in the alternative route to procuring a fetus, from a woman who dies in childbirth, the dead woman’s spirit must be summonsed by magic, and she appears as a bray; the bray, incidentally, is the spirit that inhabits the racing canoes at the Water Festival).
- By making an altar to the koun krak, the man makes the koan krak an ancestor in the maternal line. “From being a member of a conjugal couple, he becomes a descendant of his wife’s lineage”.
- How is the amulet carried? Some say in a bag around the neck or waist, others in a wooden ball made of two halves. No doubt both could be true.