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244th Meeting - Tuesday, February 25th 2004

In Between a ‘Feeling of Natural’ and the Burmese Buddhist Order

An Encountering with Burmese Spirit Possession

A talk by

Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière,



Present : Adele Anderson, Hans Bänziger, Alex Brodard, Kwanchewan Buadaeng, Wit Buadaeng, Penkhae Camsa, Guy Cardinal, Darryl W. Crist, Etienne Daniels, Nathalie Decroix, Bill Dovhey, Ron Emmons, Katie Friendship, Louis Gabaude, E. J. Hass, Ryan Hillyparts, Otomi Hutheesing, Ken Kampe, Gordon Kaufman, Joshua P. Kelly, Carool Kersten, Sylvie Kerston, Onsri Khamnai, Renee Lertleumsai, Phubordin Phitipongkul, Nicolas Renre, Siphon, David Steane, Bob Stratton, Carol Stratton, Don Swearer, Valerie Veres, Michael Vickery, Molly White, David Wyatt. An audience of 35.


The full text of the talk 

We were at Padeima, that is to say somewhere in between Shweguni and Monywa, sitting on the Irrawady River’s sandy bank, in the light of the moon, and listening to the stories of KSM, a spirit-medium, who had previously shared a bottle of brandy among the boatmen and his disciples. Then KSM told me that he only had the chance to experience this ‘feeling of natural’ during this time of the year when going up the Irrawaddy from one nat festival to another. What did he mean with this ‘feeling of natural’, I did not dare to ask and stop him then when he was of his spirit-medium’s world.


Indeed he went on telling his version of what may be considered as the foundation myth of the ritual specialists of the cult to the ‘Thirty-Seven Lords’. This version supports my hypothesis that spirit-possession as an urbanized and professionalized practice, as it is practiced nowadays in Burma in the cult context, must have developed during the last period of Burmese kingship, in the second half of the 19th century, as an indirect consequence of a reorganization of rituals to the tutelary spirits of Central Burma that were then reshaped according to those of kingship and around the Court. An ethnohistorical analysis of today’s rituals to the tutelary spirits, and of what is said or known of their development, shows that this reorganization occured as a reaction to the acute threat that British India was then posing on Mandalay, which culminated in the Burmese kingdom’s dismemberment in 1885.


As stated convincingly by Rosalind Morris in her recent book, contemporaneaous developments of spirit-possession in Chiengmai may be considered as an attempt to be ‘in the place of origins’ and stand for the nostalgia of these origins. In the same way, the development of spirit-possession in Burma during the whole of the 20th century may be understood as expressing the loss of Buddhist kingship as it is experienced and as an attempt to represent it again and again. However if spirit-possession allows to make present what is not here and thus always implies the feeling of a loss – loss of sovereignty in Chiengmai as in Burma – the historical contexts and the ritual settings are very different in the two cases.


The conditions that allowed KSM’s experience of ‘natural’ were, for instance, linked to the specificity of the Burmese ritual setting that implies for the spirit mediums the recurrent physical separation with the living and practicing environment, mainly Yangon, due to the obligation to pay homage to the nat at their annual festivals in Central Burma. These are the places where the nat are supposed to have appeared through their settlement as guardian spirits by Burmese kingship. They are all located close to the historical centers of Burmese kingship, either clustering at the confluence of the Chindwin river or in the Mandalay area, actually mapping the Burmese place of the origins. The feeling of ‘natural’ expressed by KSM arises from the recurrent experience of the gap between its own place, that appears restrictive by contrast, and those places of the nats’origins that are the source of the ritual specialists’practices and their legitimation.


This gap experienced by the spirit-mediums during their frequent travels shapes their in-between placement that allows spirit-possession to occur and the experience of the loss that is also an experience of the otherness. In Burma, this gap is not only a temporal one, separating the contemporaneous outlet from the past authenticity : it is also spatial and hierarchical. This gap differenciates the cult to the Thirty-Seven Lords that constitutes the Burmese cult, from the numerous practices locally addressed to tutelary, local or particular spirits that are integrated into it. It is maintained through the ritual setting that articulates the general cult whose main ritual category is that of the spirit-possession ceremonies to the Thirty-Seven Lords that are performed by the spirit-mediums with the local rituals to particular figures of this pantheon that are connected together in an annual ritual cycle through the participation of these same spirit-mediums.


This articulation is a specificity of the Burmese spirit-possession cult. Its structure is a dynamic one that has allowed a number of adaptations and developments and that still does, notably through its constant renegotiation by the different participants in the cult, namely the spirit-mediums and the local populations, backed as it is by the symbolic authority still invested in the lost Burmese Buddhist kingship. The structure implies at a given time a closed list of nats whose figures have been supposedly settled by kingship as local cults. This theoritically closed pantheon of 37 tutelary spirits is also specific to this ritual configuration, although one will find other cults organized around the number 37 elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It is all the more noticeable that it does not prevent the existence of minor figures or the appearance of new ones, outside of the pantheon and that it has evolved in time. Moreover it does not prevent the fluid and unpredictable character of the spirit possession. Actually this fluidity inscribed in a fixed frame is needed for the dynamics of the cult that are constituted by the continuous encompassment of differences or particularities in the general cult: it insures that the gap between the center and its parts is maintained in the Burmese space. In other words, it allows the differenciation of Burmese identity out of its components to occur.


The in-between, or more precisely, the articulations that hold up the origins of the cult with its instituted form and their dynamics have been the main objects of my twenty years of research into the social and ritual world of the Burmese spirit-mediums. It has led me from the study of spirit possession and its phenomenology, and the practices and discourses of the ritual specialists of the ceremonies, to the Thirty-Seven Lords, a mainly urban community of professionals, to the study of the local nat festivals, these events of the Burmese countryside where the spirit mediums meet and confront local populations and their practices.


The ‘feeling of natural’ expressed by KSM not only implies the temporal and spatial gap between the instituted cult and the origins that are the sources of its authenticity, but the hierarchical setting makes it appear as fundamentally ambivalent: if local practices are granted some value by dint of the fact that they represent the original components of the general cult, this value has to be put in the perspective of its needed encompassement. From this point of view, the discrepancies of the spirit-mediums positions are significant: they may altogether highlight a detail of a local ritual as a pertinent sign of the nat identity, preserved in the local memory but forgotten in the general cult, or dismiss it on the grounds of the version of the nat story told in the royal chronicles, criticizing the ignorance of local population. The qualification of ‘natural’ is imbued with the same ambivalence by referring both to a lost value and to the necessity of its loss in the process of its mobilisation in the ritual setting.


From this point of view, it makes sense to compare the qualification of ‘natural’ with that of ‘tradition’ (‘yô ya), often used by the spirit-mediums to differenciate the local rituals from the general spirit possession cult. Both terms cast the local rituals away in a temporal otherness. Ironically ‘tradition’ is also used in Burmese to qualify the cult to the Thirty-Seven Lords from a Buddhist orthodox point of view. Not more than ‘animism’ that one will find in some writings in occidental languages, is ‘tradition’ pejorative, apparently. But the label of ‘superstition’, used in English by the Burmese Buddhists, does have a pejorative intention. However, all these qualifications imply the same casting out as pre-Buddhist that is equivalent to a banishment in the time and the space. That is why these ways to qualify the cult, and inside the cult to qualify the local rituals, must be considered as a part of the hierarchilizing processes by which the ‘yet non-Buddhist Burmese’ is encompassed in the Burmese Buddhist society.


As a matter of fact the localisation of the cult in another time diverts the attention from its contemporaneaous dimension and from its articulation to the Burmese Buddhist society. It hides the sociological dynamics involved and particularly the way that Burmese Buddhist identity is a continuous construction made out of the differenciation from such components that are banished in the time and the space, one could say ‘disavowed’. This denial seems all the more necessary to the Burmese identity construction that by concealing such articulations it allows the essentialization of its Buddhist dimension. The spirit possession cult does constitue one of the devices of the differenciation of the Burmese identity, one necessarily working under the cover of ‘superstition’ in order that the Burmese Buddhist identity emerges duly essentialized.


The way Burmese identity and particular identites are hierarchilized at the structural level has a continuity in the cognitive field. Downgraded as superstition, the spirit possession cult can not be a valuable object of researches concerning Burmese culture, which has been told to me many times by Burmese, with some violence some times, out of the cultual context. This hierarchilization also has consequences on the structuration of the Burmese studies field as it has been constituted in the West, that is to say as orientalism, were the study of this cult, after having been kept under the umbrella of folklorism (see the works of Temple and of Htin Aung), has been very marginal with the exception of Spiro’s work, particularly if we compare with the field of Buddhist studies.


As for KSM evocation of the ‘natural’ of the festivals, it also had these effects of rejection of local practices, more often conveyed in the reference to ‘tradition’, because it is a part of the very dynamics of the cult. As a matter of fact, the spirit mediums of the cult to the Thirty-Seven Lords give voice to the dominant discourses, particularly by contributing to the encompassment of the idiosynchratic rituals in the general cult. Moreover, although when performing the spirit mediums give shape to figures of the nat that are more often than not standing against recognized norms of behaviour, they actually work for their integration in the Burmese Buddhist order by inscribing them in the cult frame. Anyway, they do not display a discourse of opposition, on the contrary they are agents of the Burmese order.


While listening to KSM dreaming in such an ambivalent way of the ‘feeling of natural’, that is to say longing the loss of the non-Burmese-Buddhist origins of the spirit possession cult which implies its actual Burmese Buddhist character, I had to reflect on my own place in the world of the spirit-mediums. Obviously KSM was not talking to his present disciples then, but to me, the ethnographer, for him the foreigner, that had followed spirit mediums in so many of their displacements toward the festival places and who was then following him in his boat travel to pay homage to some nats whose domains where located on this journey, according to the route his master was himself following on his way to the festivals. Indeed I was standing out from his usual disciples who were taking this way as members of a ‘line’ of spirit mediums having the same duties towards the nats as those of their disappeared master. My approach was rather to have a view as global as possible of the diversity of the practices belonging to the cult to the Thirty-Seven Lords, without being restricted by specific obligations, neither towards a master nor towards a nat. My position was that of an outsider of spirit-possession, a position that was almost inconceivable in the cult context but that was well known especially by KSM. My demand was therefore specific, it was not merely a devotional one as that of the other devotees or disciples seeking to insure the protection and the benefits of the spirits for themselves, but it was concerning rituals. I was particularly asking questions about ritual ‘norms’ and about the deviations allowed in the actual practice, questions that may have been received in this context as an attempt to evaluate the relative legitimacies of the different specialists’practices. These questions were able to shake specialists whose legitimacies lay in spirit possession that is their only expertise and recognized way to act : they have not the possiblity to refer to an explicit knowledge, at least theoritically, as spirit possession implies forgetting as rightly insisted on by Rosalind Morris.


The difficulty for the spirit mediums to answer any question concerning their knowledge about the ritual practices came out on many other occasions, provoking either a relative silence or the following stereotyped reaction : turning his face towards the shrines, the hands joined above the head, the spirit medium mumble an improvised formula whose meaning may be summarised as ‘forgive me if it happens to me to say something wrong, it is because I do not know’, apologizing in advance to the nat about a discourse about them that will not be dictated by them during spirit possession. At the same time, this precaution serves to put comments under the nats’ control and gives them some consistancy. The difficulty for the spirit mediums to talk about their ritual knowledge raises the question of transmission in the spirit possession cult, between masters and disciples organized in ‘lines’, the only form of transmission theoritically available working through practice that is supposed to be governed by spirit possession. It raises also the question of the possibility of an ethnography of the cult that would not be involved in spirit possession.


Anxious to answer with a kind of authenticity that I could accept to what he may have perceived as a test about his own validity, KSM overcame this difficulty by proposing the reference to the ‘natural’ of nat festivals as the only source of ritual legitimacy that could be the object of an explicite knowledge among the spirit mediums, rather than to spirit possession that is the main legitimacy of spirit mediums. He gave shape in this way to another displacement that the ritual setting requires from the specialists of the cult to the Thirty-Seven Lords, the displacement of the legitimacy embedded in spirit possession to the legitimacy given as a ‘tradition’. But KSM went on telling me the myth of foundation of the specialists of the cult to the Thirty-Seven Lords, getting back immediately spirit possession in his discourse, and what is more, the origin of spirit possession. While juxtaposing in this way what characterise conversely the two poles of the ritual setting, KSM was highlighting the fundamental position of spirit possession as a form of rituality that has allowed the integration of the local cults or so to say  the encompassement of the ‘natural’.


I knew KSM before setting out on the voyage : indeed he considered the lady spirit medium whom I had followed previously during my festivals peregrination, DY, as one of his ‘sisters’, as he was paying homage to her mother who was then the most ancient and highly respected spirit medium in Burma. But they were not belonging to the same ‘company’, or troupe, what the complexities of both personal and vocational histories could explain. They were calling each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ merely to signify a close relationship as peers. DY while being an experimented specialist of the cult was not strictly speaking leading a troupe of her own and that explains why I found with her the possibility to participate in the festivals without being restricted by the obligations due to a particular belonging. I did not fully appreciate the value of this freedom she gave to me until recently when venturing alone on new festivals tracks, it happened to me, as I had withdrawn for the night into the relative secrecy of the mosquito net, to hear an exchange between the spirit medium who had accepted me in his camp and his neighbours: they asked him if he had ‘breed’ me to welcome me in this way in his campment and he answered laughing out of defense that I had installed myself. I knew before that participants in festivals are not supposed to go from one encampment to another one, that his to say from one troupe or line of mediums to another one, but as long as I had the benefit of the generous protection of DY, I had considered myself as not concerned by the ritual rules governing relationships between companies while the spirit mediums community did not and could not consider me in any other way.


Anyway, when I asked DY about the possibility to observe some specific rituals she was not cocerned with, she left me naturally to the care of her ‘brother’ KSM whose travel was going across these rituals. The voyage turned out to be a true encountering of my interest for the variety of the ritual practices and their developments, and his anxiety to maintain the cult authenticity through the scrupulous performance of his ritual duties, that is to say all those that his master had complied with before his death and those that were his own. Actually, if the cult to the Thirty-Seven Lords requires a closed pantheon of settled tutelary spirits, the calling of the cult specialists depends on a privileged relationship with one of the figures of the pantheon – a relationship that is conceived as marriage relationship from which the specialists get the name of ‘nat spouse’, natkadaw. And they get experience through the particular practice of the master who accepts them into his troupe. The masters lead in this way schools of spirit possession: the specialists they have trained are of course able to perform spirit possession ceremonies to the Thirty Seven but they have also special ways to perform them that are shaped by the particular affinities with the nat they have been married with and with those of the festivals their master used to go to. In this way they belong to what is conceived of as ‘lines’ of spirit mediums. Thus, the practices of the cult to the Thirty Seven are not homogeneous, but are made of the addition of the particular practices of the different spirit possession schools or ‘lines’, and of the addition of local particularisms. The actual cult to the Thirty Seven although given as a fixed pantheon, could be better described as a constellation of ritual travelers having their own specificities but still following the common trajectory of a circumambulation of Central Burma given by the temporal and spatial sequence of the festivals.


That is why the spirit mediums can not have a complete direct knowledge of the local rituals constituting the complete cult although they may expose what they know about some of them explicitely. While travelling up along the Irrawaddy river, my insistance to note down all the versions of the rituals, even the local versions, must have looked amazing to KSM. Born in a family with an educated background, the son of a school master and the nephew of a once advanced student of the most famous Burmese historian, both the father and the uncle had turned to the devoted practice of the cult to the Thirty Seven, although for very different reasons, without ever becoming professional specialists. KSM did and he inherited from them an unusual explicit knowledge of the cult to which my curiosity was most probably giving a new value. His master had just died and he was in a position to succeed to him as the leader of his school: he had to take over the responsability to transmit his particular practices while having to be recognized as an authority of his own.


As a young spirit medium he had been famous for his beauty but he was now much heavier in a way that to attract audiences to his ceremonies he could no more rely on his dances, the main manifestation of the nats when they embody their mediums during the ceremonies. On this ground he was facing fierce competition from more and more numerous young transvestites, drawn into the spirit possession market by promises of easy money and ‘who know only how to dance,’ according to KSM’s own words. That explains probably why KSM developed a very particular style of performances, a didactic one in which the ‘right way’ to comply to the need of each figure of the pantheon and thus to insure its ‘true’ presentification, is explained as a part of the spirit possession.

These norms concern particularly the way to prepare the needed offerings and the respect of the hierarchical sequential order of the appearance of the figures during the ceremonial time. They constitute a form of knowledge that, for some years, the spirit mediums have referred to with the Pâli word of thammazin meaning in this case that they get this knowledge from their master through the practice in the spirit possession context. The way KSM has invested these norms does also echo an aspect of the official discourse concerning the upgrading of the cultural traditions that as promoted the use of the word thammazin that was seldom heard before. This discourse has had other effects on the contemporaneous way to perform the ceremonies to the Thirty-Seven, particularly the return of the musicians to the classic repertoire to call on the nats, that one that is compiled in the Mahagita Medanikyan, when during the eighties any adapted pop song would have been prefered. That is to say that the general actual context in Yangon had obviously its part in the development by KSM of a particular inclination to orthopraxy, together with his personal and familial history : particularly his own culture concerning the cult makes him conscious of the changes in the practices and raises his feeling of loss of authenticity.


However, without wanting to give too much importance to the effect of my own look at his practice, it is unquestionnable that as soon as this travel on the Irrawaddy river, KSM gave to my questions a particular echo, commenting on them abundantly to his disciples and to other spirit mediums. When going back to my field notes now, it appears to me that he systematically rephrased my comparative questions and comments about ritual variations as normative critics and that the exchange that we then started and that had been going on has been mainly dealing with the very working out of ritual norms. Paradoxically, as an answer to my outsider discourse emphasizing rituals variability and to my want to discover more about the idiosyncrasies, he displayed rituals that were demonstrations of the way that the ceremonies to the Thirty-Seven should be performed and it seems to me, for the ceremonies I have attended, demonstrations that were addressed to me. In these ritual contexts, my attendance was announced publicly, that is to say that it was announced to the nat and I was presented as a ‘lecturer of history’. That I will be in the position to advertize the practices of the spirit mediums of the cult to the Thirty Seven Lords in the outside world  as a part of the Burmese culture was stressed and used significantly as a disciplinary tool of the other spirit mediums participating in. In a way my questions on the differences of practices were disturbing KSM because they were casting doubt on their ritual validity, a doubt that could not be dealt with spirit possession legitimacy as I was staying out of it : he thus transformed them in an expertise about norms that he appropriated. It is as if he had cast on my interest the anxiety for orthopraxy that has become his own ‘trade mark’.


Strangely enough, although his knowledge of the ritual norms is explicitely the object of our exchange, KSM goes on saying that he knows nothing, meaning that he knows nothing but what he is practicing in the spirit possession context. Recently he went back over the version of the myth of foundation of the spirit mediums that he had told me on the Irrawaddy river bank, explaining to me that then he had not remembered well the story his master had told him and adding some factual details that could give historical credence to this myth and that I had in between mentioned to him, that is to say the name of the ritual specialist performing at King Mindon Court, the kawi dewa Kyaw Thu. This latter has left an unknown parabaik about the rituals he was in charge of and he could indeed well be the one who is only referred to in the spirit mediums version as the Old Guy. KSM then worked out anew this connection I had already made in front of him to better integrate it as part of his own tradition.


That is when I understood the strange way that knowledge had circulated between us without knowing it, because it was finally mediated through spirit possession although, of course, I never experienced it. The process involved, the casting of norms on the otherness to incorporate it, is indeed the process characterising spirit possession in the Burmese cult. Moreover, by casting on me, in this way, his anxiety for orthopraxy, KSM was at the same time integrating me into his own line of spirit mediums that is to say, in a way, in a spirit possession framework. Thus it has proved impossible to escape to the specular move through which the ethnographer by looking at the spirit medium is taken in his gaze, kept at a distance and integrated in the same time. This distanciation is the very process of encompassement in the superior Burmese Buddhsit order working in spirit possession.


Thus far, I have tried to give you an idea of some of the main characteristics of the Burmese cult through this encounter with KSM. Let’s now summarize them and see how they differ from what is known about Northern Thai spirit possession cults. First, I have to underline that the studies about the Northern Thai case are much more developed, having been conducted by so many outstanding scholars as Davis, Turton , Tanabe, Wijeyewardene, Rhum, and Morris, et al. (my list is still incomplete). They have given all together a picture much more diversified not only reflecting a diversity of views and opinions but I believe an actual diversity of the spirit possession contexts and modalities they were observing. The first characteristic I want to stress seems all the more striking by contrast : the Burmese cult is an integrated one in the sense that it is organized in a cultual framework that encompasses the different possible cultural modalities under the general cult to the Thirty Seven Lords.  Although the historical process is well documented, the symbolic material expresses the importance of the kingship as the authoritative reference in the appearance of this setting.


It means that not only is spirit possession bounded by a fixed pantheon of 37 figures but that these figures are a given, although the cult has changed and may still evolve. The figures of possession always appear as already existing, as cultural heroes whose cults have been settled by kingship, contrasting with what we found in northern Thailand, that is to say, for instances, purchased said ‘ancestral spirits’ of  matrilineal spirit cults, or spirit possession build in spirits as described by Morris in the case of individual urban possession. It means also that different modalities of the Northern Thai cults such as those of the tutelary spirit of a place or of the domestic spirits of kinship groups are all articulated in the Burmese case: actually the tutelary spirit of the place ones originates in becomes the domestic spirit transmitted as a tradition (‘yô ya) when moving out of the place. It means that the place guardian spirit and the kinship group guardian spirit are all but the same one: both cultural functions are fused in a single one. The spirits are not linked as ancestors to the cult group but they are cultural heroes of royal chronicles. The fact that ancestrality is irrelevant is best expressed by the fact that the spirits although they often go by two are actually pairs of brothers and sisters, the sisters having been married to the king, and the pairs being necessarily without any offspring.  At another level, the addition of all these ‘yô ya /tutelary spirits forms the pantheon in which individuals may tape for more modern personal aimed urban practice of spirit possession eventually giving the way to professional mediumship itself linked to the tutelary spirits cult through the participation of the spirit mediums in the festivals.


There are cases where this process of fusion of place guardian spirits and kinship group guardian spirits in one category of ‘yô ya /tutelary spirits is still traceable, probably because it is rather recent, as the case of the spirits of Myittou I have analyzed elsewhere, where the fusion is not well achieved until now (Brac de la Perrière, 1998a). But most of the cases are not traceable and what is more there is almost no evidence concerning the processes of the institutionalisation of the integrated structure of the Burmese cult. Given this difference with the diversity of the Northern Thai spirit possession cults it is all the more interesting to see what are the similarities concerning the spirit possession rituality in itself. Reading the literature about Northern Thai cults, the Mon influence among others seems to have been important. The Phi Meng cult case presented by Tanabe (1991) is particularly interesting of course none the less because Tanabe suggests that the Mon patrilinear cult have been converted to matrilinearity in the process of encompassment in the Northern Thai culture. Whatever the case, it is interesting to note that the modern urban practice of spirit possession in Burma also denotes Mon influences: I will only refer here to the organisation of the ritual space opposing shrines devoted to spirits and musicians (but not as such matrilineal spirit to male authority) in a specific temporary ritual pavilion that in Burma is called kana, a Mon word, and that is dismantled as soon as the ceremony is completed. There are also differences but the general impression coming out of literature is that of a ‘familiar resemblance’.


Reading this literature made me think about the fact that the ritual setting of the Burmese cult could be seen not only as the transformation of an integrated cult to the tutelary spirits of the Burmese Kingdom, due to the displacement of the Mandalay court by the colonial port of Rangoon and giving the way to a modern professional practice of spirit possession, but also it could be seen as the encountering of the Burmese public cult with the Mon rituals through which the tutelary spirits were enriched with an aspect of kinship group guardian spirits, an aspect that is styled as ‘yô ya in Burmese : however its working is very different to that found in the Northern Thailand Mon/Meng cult for instance in the sense that it does not follow at all a linear definition and is not thought about as a linear cult but as a domestic one eventually transmitted on an indifferenciated basis.


The interest in tracing these kinds of influences is to somewhat enrich our understanding of historical processes involved : comparison between different configurations such as the Northern Thai one and the Burmese one gives it some weight but it is still all conjecture. When coming to the comparison of the articulation of public and domestic cults in different settings, it seems to me that we get a more interesting point. Whatever the Mon influences that could be traced in the contemporary practice of ‘yô ya cults in Lower Burma the origins and the legitimacy of these ‘yô ya reside in their function of place guardian spirits in Central Burma. They are encompassed in the territorial organization of the Burmese cult that gives this striking integrated dimension compared to what we find in the Northern Thai case. In contrast, the fact that the articulation between the different levels of the cult is not integrated in the Thai case could explain the kind of prediction made by Rosalind Morris in her book. If I understand her well, in the study of spirit possession that she has undertaken as a kind of history of representations, she states that the denial of spirit possession such as that publicisized by a famous spirit medium of Chantanaburi in 1997 leads to the encompassement of spirit possession in unmediated communication in the era of post modernism, after having herself stated that previous predictions of  the diminution of the kinship group spirits possession cult had been invalidated by the increase of modern urban spirit possession in Chiengmai. I wonder if her prediction is not in turn challenged by the actual revival or should I say ‘reinvention’ of kinship group cults in Northern Thailand that has been recently the subject of some papers in the press. The fact that there is no integration of the different levels of practice of spirit possession could explain why they seem to react independantly.


Actually I do think that these different levels are articulated in Northern Thailand, even if not integrated in the Burmese way. Finally, the fusion of place guardian spirits and kinship group guardian spirits into one category of tutelary/‘yôya spirits has to be understood as a reflection of more general features of the territorial integration of the communities in Burmese kingdoms. It is at this level of, say, social fabric, that a more thorough comparison of the articulation of public and domestic cult in the two cases could be more revealing. In Burma, the Burmese kingship times’ religious policy had resulted in an enduring territorialization of the identity of communities through a ritual setting that is still producing distanciation allowing the integration of new others in the Burmese society. Comparison between spirit possession cults in Burma and in Northern Thailand may thus allow to enrich the comprehension of what processes and influences may have been involved in the appearance of the different settings in the same time that it does highlight the specificity of the integration of the Burmese cult not as an essentialized part of the Burmese identity but as the product of a construction or in other words as a historical process.


After the question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Bénédicte in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.



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Brac de la Perrière, B. 1993. “ La fête de Taunbyon : le grand rituel du culte des naq de Birmanie (Myanmar) ” Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, 79.2 : 201-232.

Brac de la Perrière, B. 1994. “ Musique et possession dans le culte des 37 naq birmans ”. Cahiers de Littérature Orale, 35 : 177-188.

Brac de la Perrière, B. 1998a. “ ‘Le roulis de la Dame aux Flancs d’Or’. Une fête de naq atypique en Birmanie centrale ”. L’Homme (avril-juin), 146 : 47-85.

Brac de la Perrière, B. 1998b. “ Le cycle des fêtes en Birmanie centrale : une circumambulation de l’espace birman ”. Pichard & Robinne eds. Etudes birmanes en hommage à Denise Bernot. Paris : Ecole Française d’extrême-Orient, Etudes thématiques 9 : 289-331.

Brac de la Perrière, B. 1998c. “ ‘Etre épousée par un naq’. Les implications du mariage avec l’esprit dans le culte de possession birman (Myanmar) ”. Anthropologie et Sociétés, 22 : 169-182.

Brac de la Perrière, B. 2000. “ Bouddhismes et chamanisme en Asie ”. Aigle, Brac de la Perrière & Chaumeil eds. La politique des esprits. Chamanismes et religions universalistes. Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie : 17-24.

Brac de la Perrière, B. 2000. “ Petite en Myanmar : destin et choix de vie d’une femme birmane ” Cauquelin ed. L’énigme  conjugale. Femmes et mariage en Asie. Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, collection Anthropologie : 33-50.

Brac de la Perrière, B. 2002. “Sibling relelationships in the Nat Stories of the Burmese Cult to the “Thirty-Seven””, Moussons, 5, 31-48.

Brac de la Perrière, B. Forthcoming. « Les rituels de consécration de Bouddha et de naq en Birmanie : adaptation birmane de formes rituelles indiennes ? »

Brac de la Perrière, B. Forthcoming. « Le traité des apparences du monde. Analyse des rituels de la royauté birmane d’après un traité du dix-huitième siècle »

Brac de la Perrière, B. Forthcoming. « Les processus de différenciation de l’identité « birmane » à travers le culte birman des 37 Seigneurs ».

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