Thursday, June 04, 2015

Ghosts of Laos, or Phi

The term phi is usually used as something of a catchall term for supernatural entities in Laos and Southeast Asia. But within this broad category, they include but do not seem strictly limited to ghosts in the way that most Europeans and Americans are familiar with.

There are of course hundreds, if not thousands of different types of these phi documented by Lao folktales and other sources. Some of the more common ones include the Phi Ban ຜີບ້ານ, who are the village spirits. There are spirits for the heavenly realms and the sky, such as the Phi Fa ຜີຟ້າ and Phi Thaen ຜີແຖນ. The Phi Tonmai ຜີຕົ້ນໄມ້ have trees as their domain, and there are a variety of nature spirits who are usually referred to as Phi Thammasat ຜີທັມະຊາດ. The Phi Hai ຜີໄຮ່ and Phi Na ຜີນາ are spirits who are believed to empower and guard rice fields.

Phi Taihong ຜີຕາຍໂຫງ are spirits of the violently killed and not to be trifled with. Phi Borisat ຜີບໍຣິສາດ are nameless evil spirits.

Of course, we've also discussed entities such as the Phi Kasu, with their floating heads and viscera.

There are the grandmother ghosts of Phi Kongkoi, Phi Ya Moi, and the cannibalistic Phi Ya Wom. As noted before, the Phi Kongkoi ຜີກ່ອງກ່ອຍ: is a terrifying ghost known for her cries of "Kok kok kok koi koi koi" (“Hungry! Hungry!”) The usual depiction of her is as a ravenous elder spirit often encountered out in the jungles, but she should definitely not be considered the same as a Phi Phed, or hungry ghost found in Buddhist hells. There are some accounts that many of these ghosts, like Phi Ya Moi and the Phi Kongkoi have feet that are on backwards. Some say there are Lao grandmother ghosts who have only one leg.

In some of the Lao ghost stories, there are suggestions that defeating a grandmother ghost in wrestling will transform her into a beautiful woman who “marries” you. The odds that this in fact turns into a happy ending for all involved seems dubious. Some suggest that some of the Lao grandmother ghosts can take on the form of small children or monkeys. Newer forms are also being discovered on a somewhat regular basis.

An examination of some stories suggests that in the old days, the Phi Kongkoi only attacked those who ate the meat of pregnant animals, but obviously, over the years, she has expanded her taste preferences. There are some folklorists who suggest she is similar to the Bogey-man of Europe and the Americas. There aren't any clear, consistent ways to dispel her, however.

Phi Ya Wom ຜີຍະວາຍ was a cannibalistic grandmother spirit who was using her granddaughters as unwitting lures to waylay strangers traveling through the woods. She tried to eat her granddaughters, but when she was defeated, fell from a great height and broke into thousands of small pieces that became the carnivorous animals of the earth that still plague humanity.

Little children have become ghosts such as the Phi Kowpoon, who sells noodle soups by her banyan tree.

The Lao also Phi Pob, and the Phi Am, who squats on your chest. Lately a number of other reports have been coming up Scholars note that many phi defy traditional taxonomic classification, and the nature of the underworld seems to suggest a certain fluidity regarding their purpose and the extent of their powers. Because many can change shapes and imitate or possess other entities, dealing with them can be a frustrating process without the assistance of specialists, such as a Mor Phi.

Hopefully we'll see more scholarship emerge over time to take a look at the way these spirits have interacted with humanity over time.


Joel Arnold said...

Great blog post! I always enjoy learning about ghosts and entities of other cultures.

Crazy Girl said...


Crazy Girl said...