In her article, “The Persistent Presence of Cambodian Spirits: Contemporary Knowledge production in Cambodia”*, Courtney Work argues that the presence of spirits in Cambodian culture has been made a subjacent subject in the dialogue of empire, but that the human culture of this complex nation cannot be properly explained without reference to the “other-than-human world”. The subject of colonial discourse on spirit presence in Cambodia is a winding and absorbing story, with a number of French Orientalists of the early twentieth century reversing earlier negations of persistent beliefs in spirits. In Phnom Penh, in February 2016, I interviewed young Cambodians for a novel I was working on. I found strong patterns of spirit belief emerging through the interviews, but with evidence of impacts made by education and outside cultural influences.
Courtney Work’s article points out the absence of spirit power in the chronicles of colonisers. Early Indianologists, when confronted by Cambodian spirit practice, erased the matter from their studies, “attempting to purify lived practice to more closely match the texts they encountered”. But, while the merging of Khmer animism from the second century AD with Hinduism and later Buddhism was seen by many to pollute the introduced creed, its denial would never be universal. By the early twentieth century, some French colonial functionaries were letting the spirits back in. Indeed, some fell in love with otherworldly Khmer-ism and began collecting monks’ tales from pagoda schools and by the 1920s were publishing collections of Gatiloke stories for consumption both in Cambodia and France.
As Work writes, in practical respects, “spirit-energies continue to flow under the civilising veneer of empires”. Her article is organised around the boundaries between the living and the dead, which are crossed by the spirits and their living families, boundaries which are “in constant states of closure and opening, of blurring and resolving”. Neak ta spirits preside over a certain places and today farmers ask their permission before changing any aspect of the landscape. In other ages kings purchased land from these spirits and in exchange became accepted by peasant communities as arbiters of justice and healers. In the period of restoration following the mass desecration of spirit power under the Khmer Rouge, spirits of the land have been renewing their territories and have been present in fights against de-forestation. Work mentions two recent studies which claim that neak ta spirits are present at events of mass faintings in factories – showing outrage that a building was erected in their space and demanding compensation for distressed workers.
These spirits of place can merge with deceased persons. Even at the jungle tomb of Pol Pot, locals claim to be witness to his gradual transformation into an ancestral master-of-the-earth figure, which will protect future villagers. When reading this I was reminded of the folk story of the kounlok bird, where two sisters are abandoned in the jungle by their avaricious mother and metamorphose into spirit-birds with their haunting half-human cry. Interestingly, Work points out that, in the context of Buddhism, spirits can change from being amoral retributive powers to forces reflecting moral goodness. After death, all that remains is the spirit power, and Pol Pot had power. It is expected that all the dead will remain powerful forces in the Cambodian landscape and their efficacy is not restricted to Khmer people. Work reports that Cham, Chinese and Vietnamese spirits all merge and through spirit relationships, living ethnicities may co-inhabit territories.
The time when convivial long-term relationships of care and reciprocity can best be cultivated with the spirits of the recently dead is during the annual fifteen day Pchum Benh festival. Strong public acceptance of these processes was revealed in the forty interviews I conducted in Phnom Penh. All the participants were students and hospitality students aged between eighteen and twenty-nine years and had experienced at least five years of English-language training. I chose this demographic partly in order to investigate the impact that Western education was having on the beliefs of young people.
First was a simple question about belief in ancestor spirits who live on in some form and can influence, or be influenced by, the deeds of the living. I then asked whether they believed that the spirits of people who died violent or untimely deaths became bad or unhappy spirits needing special ceremonies. The third question concerned the efficacy of black birds, or ravens, whose appearance on house roofs is seen by some as a harbinger of imminent death or at least serious sickness; involved with this question was the power of monks to fight bad spirits or to intervene when a living person is sick.
On the first question of general belief in spirits, thirty-one out of forty, or 77.5 per cent, support Work’s claim that there is a deep well of belief in the community, which may be flowing under the radar of official attention. When I asked about bad spirits resulting from violent death, the belief was still strong but less overwhelming, with around 60 per cent stating a clearly held conviction while another 20 per cent were uncertain. This 60 per cent belief-level remained fairly consistent whether the participant was raised in the country or the city. The belief level dropped again when I asked about the power of ravens and the special ability of monks to fight bad spirits, but there was still support, with seventeen out of forty believing.
I was a little surprised that the country-raised cohort did not record a higher incidence of belief than those from the city, but a more potent dividing force than location was education. Where at least one of the participant’s parents had completed the Certificate of Upper Secondary Education, the belief in spirits dropped to 40 per cent, compared to 70 per cent for those whose parents were less educated. This education divide became more dramatic again when considering the number who believed in raven power, which I consider the most radical of all the traditional spirit beliefs. Only 15 per cent of participants with an educated parent believed in raven power, while 65 per cent of those with less educated parents did believe.
Of the believers I interviewed, there were three who claim to have personally witnessed witness the death of a human being because of a raven visit. My policy at interview was not to press for details, but to record such experiences when they were volunteered, so there may well have been others with an experience of this sort who did not bring it up. But those who claimed that close friends or relatives had died in this way related their stories with a proud kind of avidity, almost as if the association with ravens made them special. One interviewee claimed she had been close to three people who died after raven visits, all on the very day after the visit. Many related stories of strong belief, with their families throwing rocks onto house-roofs to scare away the birds.
Untimely or violent deaths were seen as the cause of unhappy spirits, including women who died in childbirth, for whom an especially long and complex ceremony should be performed, in which the spirit is encouraged to come home to the spirit house of the family. Without this ceremony the spirit would wander unhappily. Participants held many different beliefs about where spirits lived. Some said in the toilet, some said under the house with the animals, another was clear that the spirit stayed outside where firewood was kept, and yet another said under the steps or anywhere that humans didn’t go. One participant thought spirits swirled all around the house and were dressed in white. Despite some disagreement on this level, all were clear that the proper maintenance of a spirit house and replenishment on a weekly basis – some said more often – with fresh fruit, coffee and maybe doughnuts and sweets, was essential to keeping spirits happy. A number of participants said that if they did not attend the Pchum Benh festival then an important spirit, such as a deceased grandfather, would be sad and would go roaming, endlessly seeking the non-attender, possibly for a whole year until the next Pchum Benh.
There was a rate of 95 per cent participation at Pchum Benh. This compares to the 60 per cent who believed that unhappy spirits needed extra attention and appeasement. Of the participants who attended the festival without strictly believing in its need, many expressed a feeling that attendance at the festival was a kind of community responsibility. One participant stated very clearly that she was an atheist. In her case, education was clearly a factor. Both her parents had completed the Certificate and her father was an NGO worker for Lutheran World Vision. She herself was a graduate in Economics. With advanced education and strong outside religious influence, the whole family still attended Pchum Benh – perhaps an example of Buddhist ideals of self-denial and community holding up against Western cultural influences.
Only two participants did not attend Pchum Benh. One was the son of a very well read bookshop proprietor who had rejected all spirit beliefs as irrational and he happily acknowledged his father’s influence. The other non-attender had become Christian. Her mother was a fanatical Buddhist who kept six spirit houses and also the bones of her deceased husband in the house. But my interviewee had been taught English as a teenager and was proselytised by Christian women. This girl believed that the timing of her recovery from throat cancer coincided with her conversion to Christianity and that consequently it was the Christian God who had the power. She also claimed to have been stalked for weeks by a “bad girl” spirit who tried to get into bed with her on a nightly basis. When she threatened the spirit with the Christian God the girl ran away and never returned, proving that Christianity was stronger than Buddhism.
The research interviews I conducted show strong persistence, but Western education and culture are beginning to erode the unity of these beliefs. With enormous competition for advancement a present force in Cambodian society, the question remains whether spirit beliefs will prevail, and whether the ancient connections to place, the neak ta spirits and the environments they protect, will still be observed by the emerging generations.
*Kathrine Brickell and Simon Springer (eds), The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia, Routledge, Editor: 2016
Robert Horne is an Australian fiction writer, researcher, critic and teacher