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...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
surf4grrl said...

I'm trying to find the history of a tomato called "fantome du laos" that is a white tomato said to have originated in Laos. The popular story goes that the tomato will glow when a ghost is near. I am not sure if there is a south asian tomato that fits this bill. Please let me know if this is familiar. Thanks.

Bryan Thao Worra said...

The botanical name for that tomato tends to be lycopersicon lycopersicum 'fantome du laos' and the 'fantome du Laos' is a French term for the tomato. You can actually get some seeds from Baker Creek Seeds, and a few other vendors now in the US to try it for yourself, but the research is still ongoing as to the exact myths associated with these seeds. I'll try to follow up on that with you once I have more details.

surf4grrl said...

Yes, I know the know the botanical name - I am a historian and also a farmer.

I have looked up all kinds of archival material; I can't find any reference (unless its an oral history that hasn't been captured) of a tomato or a vegetable used to ward off spirits. I have catalog of 2,500 different tomato varieties alone and try to be very accurate about the history. However, this tomato was introduced in 2008 with a, what appears to be, a manufactured myth unless I hear otherwise. It's only seed savers/companies that have the story and are repeating it. I am just trying to find out from someone who may know first hand culturally. I have contacted a few academics but we will see what happens with verification. Thanks - please let me know if you find anything out. Much and sincerely appreciated.

Bryan Thao Worra said...

Yes- 2008 is around when I had a friend talking about them, as I recall.

I'm taking a 'never say never' approach because it does seem to be the type of story Lao could and would tell in the old country, but existing research efforts have been fruitless, at least in English and French sources available.

With 160 different ethnic groups in the region, our shared agriculture beliefs can be quite conflicting (similar to the variety of beliefs regarding the weretiger) I've had to do some inquiries among both Hmong and Lao farmers, but without running into anyone who claims familiarity with it. I've considered looking for viewpoints among Lue, Khmu, Tai Dam and Iu Mien who might be in a particular position to cultivate such a tomato. The Ta Oi are also another group from Southern Laos known to have distinctive beliefs in the spirits that seem likely candidates if any.

Looking through my 2003 photos of Lao cuisine when I was traveling through Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Phonsavan, I don't see any whitish tomatoes among the crops offered for sale. The trip wasn't an exhaustive,survey by any means, but you'd think at least one table stand would have one for sale.

Traveling among Hmong and Lao households across the US since ca. 1996, I never saw anyone setting something like them out on the table. The nature of refugees being what it is: If this was a popular vegetable, especially as a tomato, I would think someone would have smuggled it out and been planting it for a while until it showed up in the Asian grocery stores run by Hmong and Lao. Someone would be treating it like a big deal "Hey, come over, I've got some of these tomatoes from the old country..." for example.

I've had Lao friends who've gone back many times and while it hasn't been their #1 priority of things to look for, certainly, no one seems mention having heard of them. And Lao enjoy anything to sparks a conversation on ghosts.

I'd have to conclude it's definitely not common in the city markets. So the detective work would suggest this must have been found going up into the deep, remote hill and mountain tribes, who French engaged with enough to run into the tomato often enough to refer to it as a "Fantome du Laos." That all seems highly unusual.

I'd certainly love for it to be a true story about the tomato that can detect the presence of phi,but presently, I'd have to conclude if this is the case, it's a hell of an underground story that's known by so few of us that it hardly seems something to call a part of our tradition, if that makes sense.

surf4grrl said...

Thanks so much for the follow up explanation. This is just a quick follow up and I hope to write something more cogent.

I agree in that insofar as probability of this variety being true to the description being currently given, is more than likely very small. We find many times, seeds, like people, travel. As such, it is difficult to pin down many archival materials because the nature of oral history. I have found many seed stories, are culturally relevant and critical - however they can also fabricated, exaggerated, or just repeated with small tweaks that end up years later as a completely mutated story. (much like the game kids play "telephone")

At any rate, is it possible to re-publish your reply (with credit) as a part of our project tracing history of varieties. I have a few more comments but am rushing to get some crops out of the field with the coming freeze in our area.