Guman Thong – A Contemporary Perspective
For further background knowledge we would suggest you read this article in conjunction with our news article on Death Magic & Necromancy
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Child spirits are called by the generic term Guman Thong or kuman thong, which can be literally translated as ‘golden [thong] boy [kuman]’. The less popular female child ghost is called kumari, or sometimes kuman-kaew. However, the term kumanthong typically is used generically to refer to both male and female child spirits. In general boy kumanthong were preferred because they were understood to be more powerful than female spirits. Yet, it is precisely the ability to control the child spirits and their relatively nonthreatening status as children that makes them sought after.
The appeal of kumanthong, is in the ambiguous power of the child, who often has male power but in a child-like and controllable form. Conceptions of childhood innocence and purity are coupled with supernatural power that can exceed the power of a living adult.
However, one particularly striking feature of the kumanthong is that they are not necessarily children anymore. In fact, the age of the spirits may vary widely, from a foetal stage up until mid-life. The exact age of the spirits is not particularly significant
Child spirits are often linked to particular adult spirits who in a sense parent the child spirit. The best example of this is the linkage of foetal/infant spirits with their mother if the mother dies in childbirth. In fact, the most powerful and threatening spirits are those of women who have died in childbirth or while pregnant, whose spiritual power is in a sense doubled by the presence of the foetal/infant spirit within them. These spirits usually have a grudge against the living; a wrong has been done to them that fuels a supernatural rage. This terrifying spiritual form is the subject of many popular ghost legends and films, including the iconic Nang Nak legend, as well as more contemporary novels and television serials, such as Sap-phu-sa. 5 However, the image of deceased pregnant women as a powerful and threatening spiritual entity finds a masculine counterpart in the iconic origin story of kumanthong found in the epic story Khun Chang Khun Phaen.
This story is widely known in Thailand, having been made into a feature film, and is almost always referenced in public discussions of child spirits or kumanthong. It is important to briefly review this story as it clearly displays the notion of kumanthong, or child spirits more generally, as resources to be exploited by adults.
The character Khun Paen is inextricably linked to myths surrounding kumanthong as he very vividly creates one to aid him in battle. In the most popular version of the story, he cuts the male foetus from his bandit lover, Bua-khli, whom he has just murdered in retribution for her plotting against his life:
“He plunged the knife into her chest, piercing right through. She writhed and died. Red blood spurted out and spread all around like the killing of a buffalo. He cut her belly wide open, and severed the umbilical cord. Examining the baby, he was happy to find it was the male he wanted.
He then transforms the foetus into the magical entity/amulet Guman thong by roasting it over a fire according to ritual:
Guman Thong Categorisation
Sometimes the categorization of Guman Thong can be a little confusing, with numerous names being used. Hopefully the following explanation will help summarize the various types
Khun Phaen’s image and celebrity as a legendary character worthy of adulation is due to the fact that his act may be best understood as a re-appropriation of female generative powers; rather than an act of killing, his was an act of creation in the transformation of an ordinary foetus into a magical life force for the explicit purpose of aiding Khun Phaen in his adventures.
This legend must have reflected familiar practices during the time of its writing and thus the practice of producing and raising kumanthong must be at least several centuries old. Traditionally, Guman Thong were understood to be made by men, specifically adepts in arcane magic and ghost manipulation, or mor-phi, in the fashion that Khun Phaen made his kumanthong; usually a male foetus being grilled and dried out, and then covered in gold leaf [thong], Magical incantations capture the foetal spirit and placed in service of the mor- phi.
In the original story Khun Chang Khun Phaen the act of creating a kumanthong from a foetus through magical powers was not framed in terms of moral judgment. However, in contemporary public discourse a crucial distinction is made between magically-restrained kumanthong versus volunteer kumanthong produced and housed in Buddhist temples, or ‘collected’ by individuals.
The kumanthong that Khun Phaen creates shares the primary characteristic of the helpful kumanthong that contemporary guardians value; their other worldly power can be channelled and directed towards service to their guardian.
However, the ways in which Guman Thong are categorised and defined has shifted over the years and in particular with regards the associations of the spirit with ghosts (the spectral presence of the dead), that is phi, and to place Guman Thong in more lofty, Buddhist-influenced categories of heavenly creatures. Contemporary devotees divide the Guman Thong spirits into broadly the following main categories
Also included are other forms of child spirit, namely
All of the above categories of child spirits are typically subsumed under the general category of ‘Guman Thong’.
An Important Modern Day Distinction
In the following section, definitions and descriptions of types of child spirits will be discussed, including the literary background of Guman Thong in order to explore how the Guman Thong shifted from being purely a resource to be exploited by a magical practitioner/parent to being a child in need of care taking. We will attempt to explore the Guman Thong as both a collectible and a companion.
Nowadays many devotees will insist that their spiritual child companions are not Guman Thong but were thep, implying that Guman Thong referenced phi, or ghosts, rather than the loftier thep. An important distinction for many ! If you are not familiar with the word “Thep” (เทพ) it originates from Pali/Sanskrit and means ‘deity’ or ‘god’ , essentially a divine being,
Unkown Guman. Assumed to be older than 50 years. Extraordinarily beautiful
In this case, a sharp distinction was made between Guman Thong and Guman Thep, whereas previously they were typically merged. These different categories roughly conform to a Buddhist hierarchy of life forms, which includes spiritual beings both lower and higher than humans. In fact, many of the aspects of the Guman Thong are linked to Buddhist concepts and practices.
For example, on Wan Phra, a day devoted to Buddhist ritual based on a lunar calendar, special offerings are made. The statue or effigy that embodies the Guman Thong itself may be arranged on a series of shelves housing various sacred beings, with the Buddha image raised above all others.
The main distinction being that Guman Thep are not created with spirits or ghosts but with Pong Phutthakun and other auspicious powders and as such are benign.
According to the textbook of Luang Phor Hong Phrompanyo, Thung Mon Cemetery, Surin, he would also summon / request the souls of the gods dwell within the Guman Thep effigy, thus having your own personal divine being to protect you and your family. In essence a deity not a soul. Furthermore the constituent powders used to create the Guman Thong Thep are very much different to those used for example by LP Tae Khongthong who created his Guman Thong based on the ancient texts of Ajarn Daeng, using materials collected from graveyards and cemeteries etc
The Guman Thong point to a type of meta-discourse on the nature of childhood itself – they serve as a place of reflection on the various ways in which the child may be configured and the purposes for which they may serve. They are a field in which anxieties and complex contradictory attitudes towards the child are made manifest and experienced. Guman Thong are innocent, but also powerful and dangerous. They are commodities but also companions. They become part of the family but can be returned if proved unsatisfactory. They can communicate with this world, but are not of this world. They have a life force animating them, but they are dead.
The child spirits are ideally voluntary companions and as such their relationship to the living is based on mutual needs between the living caretakers and the child spirit. The spirits are believed to be waiting rebirth according to Buddhist conceptions of karma and reincarnation. These spirits build karmic merit by using their supernatural powers to assist the living in their pursuits of wealth, security and companionship. In return, the propitiators provide for the child through offerings of toys and food, and in some cases discussed here, invitations to inclusion into family activities. A relationship of exchange is formed which, according to propitiators, can be ended by either party (a child spirit may leave and a propitiator may return the spirit to a temple or spirit medium). Therefore, the practice of child spirit propitiation may be best described as adopting child spirits within a contractual arrangement.
With the important exception of Guman-thep, the Guman Thong are typically considered to be the spirits of deceased children and to be wandering ghosts, or phi re-ron. These spirits may come to reside in amulets or small statues, or even an ordinary toy figurine will do. The use of statues is probably a modern invention to replace the preserved foetal body of traditional Guman Thoing beliefs (Professor Lom Pengkaeo pers. comm. 5 July 2011). As mentioned above, some Guman Thong have no specific statue or residing places. Many devotees obtain their Guman Thong from temples or spirit mediums who specialise in the investment of power into objects [pluk-sek]. Some guardians describe their relationship with a kumanthong to be arranged directly with a child spirit who comes to them in a dream.
With the important exception of Guman-thep, the Guman Thong are typically considered to be the spirits of deceased children and to be wandering ghosts, or phi re-ron. These spirits may come to reside in amulets or small statues, or even an ordinary toy figurine will do. The use of statues is probably a modern invention to replace the preserved foetal body of traditional kumanthong beliefs
Guman-thep, or deity-Guman are differentiated from Guman Prai, which refers to the ghosts of foetus or infants and is a subset of the larger category of ghost, or phi. Guman Prai are specifically those foetuses/infants who died from violent deaths or died from abortion. It is believed that Guman-prai have the most power [hian or ithalit], even more so than the lofty kuman-thep. Guman-phrai are potentially dangerous if they are not cared for properly. There are also other cvategories such as Guman kueng thep/kueng phrai, or Guman Thong in between thep and phrai status. These are ghosts, phi, which are basically well-intentioned and striving to make merit for their propitiators.
The distinction between lofty Guman-thep and lowly Guman-phrai or phi is probably a modern adaptation, and previous categorisation would include all the Guman Thong forms under the category ‘phi’ or ghost, which did not have the negative connotation as it does now Phi are traditionally forces of nature, ancestral spirits, and other non-worldly beings, and not necessarily the monstrous figures that they have come to be in contemporary horror genre of film and fiction.
For contemporary propitiators, Guman-thep are generally described as higher spiritual beings, that is they are child thep in Buddhist cosmology. On the other hand, Guman-phrai are a form of phi, that is the ghosts of dead foetuses, babies, or children. Guman-thep are “invited from the heavens” to accompany and live with the devotee, whereas Guman-phrai/phi are the rather pitiful wandering spirits of the deceased who either find their way to their guardian or are sought after by their guardian. Different offerings are made to each category of Guman Thong, and different rituals bind them to their guardians.
All Guman Thong are propitiated and given offerings, but as higher spiritual beings, thep are not considered to be involved in a direct exchange relationship with their guardians in the same way that Guman-phrai or phi are. When the spirits are bound to their devotees, certain contractual arrangements are made. For phi, this takes the more direct form of kae-bon, or a plea for assistance for some particular project in exchange for a specific offering. All devotees agreed that thep are not propitiated in a direct fashion, and the thep may provide more general aid, such as watching over the household and providing good luck. Propitiators may ask for general blessings in their projects, but not a direct exchange of specific assistance for specific gifts. Thep, in contrast to phi, as a higher spiritual being cannot be forced into service and are by definition spirits who aid their guardians out of free will.
Referring to a child spirit as a thep (heavenly being) rather than a phi or a phrai (ghost) has the effect of reducing the stigma of death from the spirit. In a sense it cleanses the spirit of macabre associations with corpses and death, and relegates the spirit to a lofty heavenly plane of deities, whom, while are also subject to death, rebirth and the laws of karma, have lifespans so immense that they are, from human perspectives, immortal.
There is considerable difference of opinion among devotees about the definition and characteristics of all of these spiritual beings, but this is particularly true of rak-yom. Contemporary propitiators with whom I spoke claim that rak-yom is a spirit of a deceased child materialised in an amulet composed of two pieces of wood in oil in a small jar.. This contemporary understanding that rak-yom, like other Gumanthong, are spirits [winyan] of children that are lower than thep contrasts with more traditional understandings of rak-yom. The wooden figure in the amulet is in the form of a child, but the actual spirit that inhabited the amulet was believed to be a child or any other spirit, and as such was not necessarily a form of Guman Thong
Many believe that rak-yom as child spirits are also more powerful [raeng kwa] than ordinary Guman Thong. Rak-yom are the product of black magic in which a child spirit is enticed and captured through spells within an amulet. They are forced to serve their guardian and they have a tendency to seek retaliation if they are not propitiated correctly, making them a dangerous type of spirit. They are typically used for malevolent purposes, such as seeking revenge against others. These spirits are not usually forced, and like all ghosts, or phi, they may be forced through black magic to aid their propitiators, or may come of their free will. The voluntary nature of the spirit in aiding their propitiator was of central importance in defining this amulet/spirit.
Luk-krok seem to bear the most similarity to the foetal body that comprise the traditional Guman Thong. Luk-krok are amulets that are made from a perfectly formed, preserved foetus. No spells are necessary in the creation of luk krok, according to some, while others insist that luk krok are the product of black magic. The emotional tie of motherhood is enough to bind the child to its devotee, who is usually the mother.
As can be seen from this discussion, there is considerable variety in interpretations of these terms. Ghost baby/child, or phi dek, is often used interchangeably with Guman Thong, with the former more specifically referring to the spirit of the child and the later incorporating the actual objects that are believed to house these spirits.
While Khun Phaen is still revered as a cultural icon for his masculine powers, the practice of making Guman thong from foetuses currently is reviled as a form of child exploitation and cruelty.
In fact, stories of individuals arrested for attempts to make or sell these kumanthong periodically appear in the press. For example, on 18 May 2012, the news story broke that the remains of six foetal remains covered in gold leaf were found in the possession of a British man of Taiwanese descent who had planned to smuggle them out of Thailand and back to Taiwan.