Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/August 1898/Superstition and Magic in Cambodia

1393846Popular Science Monthly Volume 53 August 1898 — Superstition and Magic in Cambodia1898Adhémard Leclère



THE Cambodians are superstitious, and believe in ghosts, familiar spirits appearing as Jack-o'-lanterns, were-wolves, benevolent and malevolent genii, and demoniac possessions. They believe, too, in witches and diviners, evil-minded persons, who take advantage of what they know to make ill or damage whom they will, or drive a good trade in love philters and antidotes. The people are afraid of these uncanny persons, and yet they sometimes resort to them.

The ghosts are very much like our own ghosts, and when displeased with their still living friends annoy them with noises and mysterious breakings, but are seldom seen. Much in their behavior, however, depends upon the kind of persons they were in life. Some of the more evilly disposed kind enter the bodies of people and render them ill, when a thmup, or ghost-disperser, is sought who knows the special prayers and exorcisms that will drive them back to their tombs. It is said that most ghosts will cease to return when the last part of the flesh of their bodies has been decomposed, but some persons assert that riddance of them is not assured till the last particles of their bones have disappeared.

The Jack-o'-lantern spirits are much more mischievous than the others because, I am assured by one of the literati, they are ghosts of women who have died pregnant, and are affected by the disappointment of the child at not having been given the privilege of a worldly existence. Both kinds of ghosts are liable to bring with them fever, cholera, dysentery, and other diseases, and, penetrating the bodies of persons on whom they desire to be avenged, leave their ills there. They often resist the efforts of the exorcists for several days, and do not seem to comprehend the special prayers that are directed against them, and some refuse to go away till they have brought on the death of the person whom they have possessed. They sometimes also amuse themselves by misleading travelers. They change the blazes on the trees and break branches of the bushes in the forest paths, so that the wanderer can not tell which is the route he had marked in the same way, or they will call him aside and lead him into the swamps. Many persons, mistaking their light for that of a house, have thus followed them and been lost.

The approach of spirits menacing a household is announced by the hooting of the owl, "that hungry wild bird of the night with a cat's head and eyes," that scents death from afar. Then mothers tremble for their children. I have seen, in remote farmhouses, fragrant torches placed around the cradle, while the frightened mother stood with folded hands watching. Her fear ceased as soon as I came in, because she had a parang with her and was safe—for the Cambodians believe that these evil spirits keep well away from all places where Europeans dwell.

A more terrible and powerful class of spirits are the arac, or demons, who take possession of a body and bring death and madness to a whole family. Sometimes, to get more complete possession, the demon takes away the proper soul of the possessed, and hangs it on a tree, where it has miserably to wait for its reincarnation. The possessed ones behave very much like the hysterics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, suffering violent convulsions, and accusing this one or that one of having bewitched them.

The genii are as much feared as the demons, although they are regarded as being good; but as they have also the reputation of being just, they inspire dread, because one can never know when he may have given offense. They take possession of particular places—of mountains, forks of roads, roads, and rice fields—as their protecting and avenging spirits; and numerous spots are regarded with peculiar awe on account of their abiding there. The distinguishing trait between the demons and the genii is that the demons are always bad because they are never good, while the genii are friendly or hostile according to the character of the persons they are dealing with. The former are of infernal, the latter of human, origin. The genii are ancestors passed into oblivion, who, having no longer to watch over their direct descendants, watch over the whole country, over the Cambodian people, and are guardian angels of the nation, as the ancestors are the guardian angels of the family. The Cambodians see in them justice and often counselors to the people.

It was believed, according to an old tradition, that Buddha was to reappear before the year 1888 passed away, and the prediction threatened woe to those who did not prepare the ways. Taking this to refer to the roads, and to mean they should be prepared for the holy saint as they were for the king when he traveled, the people set themselves at work upon the required improvements. Stakes would be found in the morning, driven by no one knew whom, in places where they had not been, when men, women, and children would come out with shovels and hoes to remove the earth, and baskets to carry it away. In some places the bonzes, who were certainly not ignorant concerning the stakes, directed the workmen, and had the roads made straight to their pagodas. The Chinese and Malays do not escape the road-making fever, and while I was French resident at Kampot I heard some very curious stories of men who were mysteriously struck down for ridiculing or opposing it. At one place a Malay questioned the utility of the work. "What do we want of roads?" he said. "We have always got along without them; this is a French idea." His fellows warned him to look out, or harm might come to him. He went home, and in a little while cries were heard coming from his house. His neighbors went in and found him lying on his side, with his arms stretched out, crying: "Untie me; take a knife and cut the ropes from my arms; cut them and let me work on the road! I have been bound because I spoke ill of the genius." Without a smile, one of the neighbors took a knife and made a gesture of cutting the invisible cords that bound the arms of the unhappy man. He rose, shook his arms to get the stiffness out of them, and went to work on the road. Nobody doubted that he had been bound by a road genius. When I ordered a road built between Kompong Bay and Mac Prang, the Malay under-governor, who was hostile to the project, did nothing toward carrying my orders into effect, till one night a genius appeared to him and ordered him to proceed with the work, because Cambodia must have as broad and fine roads as Paris. He set his gangs to work the next morning.

The witches are not willing to confess to the possession of mysterious powers, because they are afraid of the courts and of popular prejudice; but they may be known by their strange appearance, their bright, lively, black eyes, and restless demeanor. "A witch," I was told, "is always looking anxiously around, because she always has her devil with her." Some witches acquire their standing by imitation, but more by inheritance. The daughter of a sorceress, even if she does not practice her craft, and is not acquainted with its secrets and magical formulas, is supposed to be possessed of a fatal power of which she can not be deprived. She casts the evil eye and terror about her, and her neighbors fear and despise her.

A woman sixty-two years old, who had worn irons on her feet by order of her governor for more than a year, was sent to me, charged with sorcery and the evil eye, although no mischief could be laid up against her. To justify his course the governor said he apprehended that the people would treat her cruelly; but he was really as superstitious as they, and was afraid of her power. The governor of another province refused to take her as a servant when she asked him to, because he was afraid for his family. The interpreter of the residence, a Roman Catholic of Khmero-Portuguese origin, refused to take her home at my request, because of her lively eyes and fear for his wife. A niece, who probably knew more about the unreality of her powers than the governor and the others, at last agreed to take care of her. She told me that her ancestors were reputed to be sorcerers, but she knew nothing about the art, and had never practiced it.

There are other sorcerers who pretend to be acquainted with the demoniac science, and make a trade of it. They sell love philters and magic formulas that will compel the passion; potions that will produce abortions; poisons and more or less effective remedies; and fetich strings that will keep devils and ghosts away. All Cambodians, even the king, believe in them. We need not ridicule Norodom and his countrymen for this, for I have found instances of like weakness among Frenchmen.

Amulets play a prominent part in Kmer life. Besides the cords that keep away evil spirits, they have small cylinders of lead or tin with a cotton or hempen cord running around them, to preserve them against certain diseases; and usually they contain an inscription in Pâli, and a mysterious invocation. Soldiers wear pieces of white cotton cloth marked with arabesques and letters and figures, for protection against death and serious wounds. A lover who repeats nine times the words Setthi théa jac juc tas ae pac kai sang khac annamac into a pocket handkerchief he intends to give a young woman feels certain that he will win her love. Another way of securing the love of a woman, however indifferent she may be, is to write her name on a betel leaf and pronounce upon it four times, before taking it into his mouth to chew, the words Oru chéa sac rat svahap. The sorcerers also sell marvelous invocations to augment the love of a spouse who is too cool, to prevent jealousy troubling the peace of polygamous households, and to cure slaves of the disposition to run away. They have, too, formulas to cure the bites of scorpions and snakes, to drive rats and mice away from granaries and sacks of paddy, to dispel sorrow, and to make their persons plump.

Many secrets have been lost in the course of time. I was told that there were formerly sorcerers who could travel through the air astraddle of a broomstick or of a porter's rod. The Maha Rusey, or hermits of the Satras, are represented as having been able to ascend in the air and penetrate everywhere, to bewitch arms, to manufacture amulets, and render their friends and adepts invulnerable. The modern sorcerers, who have succeeded the Maha Rusey, are much less powerful and less skillful. There are said to be sorcerers who even make wax figures to which they give the name of a person they wish to hurt or kill, and then stick with a knife, pronouncing magical words at the same time, when the person represented by the statuette is supposed to be wounded in the same way. Others, having made and named the statuette, put it where the sun will shine upon it, and as it wastes away in the heat the person represented by it declines, until, when it has all melted away, the person dies—very much like a Western form of enchantment.

Another form of sorcery is beating a buffalo hide with an enchanted stick, pronouncing a magic formula the while, to cause the hide to shrink till it is invisible. It is then ordered to enter the stomach of the victim of the spell, and obeys, when it swells out again till the victim is killed. Yet, if the stomach is examined after death, nothing will be found in it, because the hide has shrunk again to nothing.

These sorcerers pretend to cure diseases. When they are called for this purpose, the first thing looked after is the day when the malady developed itself, for each of the spirits has its special day for appearing, and it is important to know which of them is to be driven away. The "doctor" hardly looks at the patient, for he is of no account in the affair, and the spirit is all. He molds three rude statuettes with rice dough, and puts them in a small box made of a single piece of banana bark, and by the side of it ten leaf packages containing food. A wax candle is attached to one side of the box, and a fragrant stick to each corner. The exorcist then takes an areca knife, and with it touches the forehead at the root of the hairs three times, saying in Cambodian: "One, two, three (mé keo, mé kot, mé chan, or mé si). Come out of this body, go back to your country, so that this sick man may be no longer ill." He lays the knife by the side of the patient, takes the banana-bark box, goes out of the house toward the south, crosses the yard, and throws the box over the fence or the hedge. He returns, declaring that the evil spirits have gone home and the man is cured, and recites a prayer in Pâli. If the patient fails to recover, they say the spirit has refused to obey, and begin the performance again after two days.

The sorcerers are also fortune tellers. In one of their methods they use a tablet containing twelve figures arranged around a square. The figures are the tower, the silver parasol, the royal dragon, the silver house, the golden house, the dragon that causes eclipses, the golden parasol, the angel, the man with his head cut off, the doctor, the witch, and the man's head without a body. When consulted, the honorable prophet sets his tablet before him, so as to have the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 12 at the bottom. Having ascertained the sex and age of his consultant, he counts up and refers to the figure on the tablet supposed to correspond to them. If he does not know by heart the prophecies which he is to draw from each figure, he can find them in his satras, reading somewhat after this fashion: "If it is a man that consults you respecting his future, he will be a mandarin; if it is a girl, tell her she will be married before the year is over. If it is a man who wants to marry, he should be told likewise that he will find a wife within a year. If you are consulted concerning a lawsuit, inform your client that he is protected by a powerful man who will see that he wins it. If a sick man consults you, give him to understand that his illness is not serious, and that it comes from his having offended some power, or from not having fulfilled a promise." All this is not very hard. But the satras containing these revelations and prophecies has lost much of its importance in recent years. It has been stolen, and several copies have found their way into the hands of the sachars, who have very little faith in it. I have, however, seen a literatus consult it seriously, and have heard several persons affirm that it is infallible.

This business is innocent trifling, and the prophecies are not of the kind that lead the seers who sell them into the courts. It is not for predicting good fortune that they are sometimes condemned to death, but for real crimes committed under color of sorcery.

Loup-garous are victims of witches, who cast a spell upon them or cause them to absorb some magical essence. They leave their homes in a state of insanity, fly to the woods, climb trees, or hide in the thickets. They are followed by tigers, who wait till the seventh day, when the hair has grown upon their bodies, and then take them away into the forests to live by hunting. There are stories of women transformed in this way, who have become terrible tigresses, living wholly on human flesh. When a person is afflicted in this way he must be pursued with a pole and struck very hard on the head before the seventh day, the pursuer uttering magical invocations. Then he can be taken home well or convalescent.

It appears from this that Europe has not invented its magic, and that the superstitions which have prevailed there for generations of wizards and witches, ghosts, familiar spirits, loup-garous, love powders and philters, amulets, secret cures, love formulas, magical incantations and exorcisms are also to be found in Cambodia.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

The report of the Clerkenwell Public Library, London, for 1897, represents that scientific works are very largely circulated. Biology, including evolution and methods of scientific research, is a very popular subject, the sixty-eight works on it which the library contains on this topic having been issued twenty-eight hundred times during recent years. In this subject two copies of Darwin's Descent of Man have been issued nearly two hundred times, a record which is exceeded only by the most popular novels.