Thursday, November 07, 2013

Magic in Western Fantasy vs. Lao Magic

My family is filled with Harry Potter fans and love the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. And most things magical and fantastic. But we rarely have discussions about the magic systems and beliefs within Laos, which can extend over thousands of years, depending on which culture we're looking at.

The supernatural and black magic traditions of Southeast Asia are very different from the Western perception of magic. I think there is an appreciation of the true chaos that's inherent with magic. The West's fantasies create a very sweet, romanticized vision of magic for itself today. In these stories, the magic almost approaches the level of science. It's rare to see magic presented as the frenzied, ecstatic and terrifying rituals of old. It's all very clinical and neat. And then there's Clarke's law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

But in actual application in Southeast Asian tradition, magic is unpredictable and inconsistent, even for the best practitioners. It can be utterly random and idiotic, in the academic sense. One minute your magic may yield a valiant army, the next a grove of fruit, or a talking tiger who likes the color blue. Or an inert stone. If you're lucky, most of the time, what you get works in your favor, if you're a quick thinker.

Certainly, there are legends and reports of rituals that people can undertake, specific forms of meditation and preparation that will consistently grant you significant powers, but for everyday people, these are out of reach. And based on those same legends, it's very easy to disrupt the enchantment, sometimes with as little as a kiss.

It's worth remembering that the spirit realms and the entities within them are dynamic and difficult to communicate with. They don't necessarily speak Lao, Hmong, Khmu, Tai Dam, Yao, or any other other hundreds of languages and dialects found in Southeast Asia. It's currently littered with numerous foreign ghosts, as well. Each with their own goals that shift from day to day. You're not even sure if it's not simply another spirit who shape-shifted into the shape of another, or an exceptional example of the spirit who has a power others do not.What they want one day may be completely inappropriate to offer the next. Or, they may take it, but still try to harm you, but not out of a Freudian cause and effect issue. It's just their nature.

Rules, such as they are for the spirit world, are extremely malleable, and there's a great deal to be said about the benefits of seriously bypassing the intervention of the spirits whenever possible, because any engagement with them often comes with a price people may consider too high, not only in this lifetime but for many future lifetimes.

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