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MY friend Maha Mongkut used to maintain, with the doctors and sophists of his sect, that the Buddhist priesthood have no superstitions; that though they do not accept the Christian's "Providence," they do believe in a Creator (P'hra-Tham), at whose will all crude matter sprang into existence, but who exercises no further control over it; that man is but one of the endless mutations of matter, — was not created, but has existed from the beginning, and will continue to exist to all eternity; that though he was not born in sin, he is held by the secondary law of retribution accountable for offences committed in his person, and these ho must expiate through subsequent transmigrations, until, by sublimation, he is absorbed again into the primal source of his being; and that mutability is an essential and absolute law of the universe.
In like manner they protest that they are not idolaters, any more than the Roman Catholics are pagans; that the image of Buddha, their Teacher and High-Priest, is to them what the crucifix is to the Jesuit; neither more nor less. They scout the idea that they worship the white elephant, but acknowledge that they hold the beast sacred, as one of the incarnations of their great reformer.
Nevertheless, no nation or tribe of all the human race has ever been more profoundly inoculated with a superstition the most depraving and malignant than the Siamese. They have peopled their spiritual world with grotesques, conceived in hallucination and brought forth in nightmare, the monstrous devices of mischief on the one hand and misery on the other, — gods, demons, genii, goblins, wraiths; and to flatter or propitiate these, especially to enlist their tutelary offices, they commit or connive at crimes of fantastic enormity.
While residing within the walls of Bangkok, I learned of the existence of a custom having all the stability and force of a Medo-Persic law. Whenever a command has gone forth from the throne for the erection of a new fort or a new gate, or the reconstruction of an old one, this ancient custom demands, as the first step in the procedure, that three innocent men shall be immolated on the site selected by the court astrologers, and at their "auspicious" hour.
In 1865, his Majesty and the French Consul at Bangkok had a grave misunderstanding about a proposed modification of a treaty relating to Cambodia. The consul demanded the removal of the prime minister from the commission appointed to arrange the terms of this treaty. The king replied that it was beyond his power to remove the Kralahome. Afterward, the consul, always irritable and insolent, having nursed his wrath to keep it warm, waylaid the king as he was returning from a temple, and threatened him with war, and what not, if he did not accede to his demands. Whereupon, the poor king, effectually intimidated, took refuge in his palace behind barred gates; and forthwith sent messengers to his astrologers, magicians, and soothsayers, to inquire what the situation prognosticated.
The magi and the augurs, and all the seventh sons of seventh sons, having shrewedly pumped the officers, and made a solemn show of consulting their oracles, replied:
"The times are full of omen. Danger approaches from afar. Let his Majesty erect a third gate, on the east and on the west."
Next morning, betimes, pick and spade were busy, digging deep trenches outside the pair of gates that, on the east and west alike, already protected the palace.
Meanwhile, the consul either quite forgot his threats, or cooled in the cuddling of them; yet day and night the king's people plied pick and spade and basket in the new foundations. When all was ready, the San Luang, or secret council of Royal Judges, met at midnight in the palace, and despatched twelve officers to lurk around the new gates until dawn. Two, stationed just within the entrance, assume the character of neighbors and friends, calling loudly to this or that passenger, and continually repeating familiar names. The peasants and market folk, who are always passing at that hour, hearing these calls, stop, and turn to see who is wanted. Instantly the myrmidons of the san luang rush from their hiding-places, and arrest, hap-hazard, six of them — three for each gate. From that moment the doom of these astonished, trembling wretches is sealed. No petitions, payments, prayers, can save them.
In the centre of the gateway a deep fosse or ditch is dug, and over it is suspended by two cords an enormous beam. On the "auspicious" day for the sacrifice, the innocent, unresisting victims — "hinds and churls" perhaps, of the lowest degree in Bangkok — are mocked with a dainty and elaborate banquet, and then conducted in state to their fatal post of honor. The king and all the court make profound obeisance before them, his Majesty adjuring them earnestly "to guard with devotion the gate, now about to be intrusted to their keeping, from all dangers and calamities; and to come in season to forewarn him, if either traitors within or enemies without should conspire against the peace of his people or the safety of his throne." Even as the last word of this exhortation falls from the royal lips, the cords are cut, the ponderous engine crushes the heads of the distinguished wretches, and three Bangkok ragamuffins are metempsychosed into three guardian-angels (Thevedah).
Siamese citizens of wealth and influence often bury treasure in the earth, to save it from arbitrary confiscation. In such cases a slave is generally immolated on the spot, to make a guardian genius. Among certain classes, not always the lowest, we find a greedy passion that expends itself in indefatigable digging for such precious caches, in the environs of abandoned temples, or among the ruins of the ancient capital, Ayudia. These treasure-seekers first pass a night near the supposed place of concealment, having offered at sunset to the genius of the spot oblations of candles, perfumed tapers, and roasted rice. They then betake themselves to slumber; and in their dreams the genie is expected to appear, and indicate precisely the hiding-place of his golden charge, at the same time offering to wink at its sacking in consideration of the regular perquisite, — "one pig's head and two bottles of arrack" On the other hand, the genie may appear in an angry aspect, flourishing the conventional club in a style that means business, and demanding by what right the intruders would tamper with his charge; whereat sudden waking and dishevelled flight.
Another and more barbarous superstition relates to premature delivery. In such a case the embarrassed mother calls in a female magician, who declares that an evil spirit has practised a spiteful joke upon the married pair, with a design upon the life of the mother. So saying, she pops the still-born into an earthen pot, and with that in her left hand and a sword in her right, makes for the margin of a deep stream, where, with an approved imprecation upon the fiend and a savage slash at the manikin, she tosses the pot and its untimely contents into the flood.
By such witches as this, sorceries of all kinds are practised for fee. They are likewise supposed to be skilled in the art of healing, and are notable compounders of love-philters and potions.
The king supports a certain number of astrologers, whose duties consist in the prediction of events, whether great or small, from war or peace to rain or drought, and in indicating or determining future possibilities by the aspect and position of the stars. The people universally wear charms and talismans, to which they ascribe supernatural virtues. A patient in fever with delirium is said to be possessed of a devil; and should he grow frantic and unmanageable in the paroxysms, the one becomes a legion. At the close of each year, a thread of unspun cotton, of seven fibres, consecrated by priests, is reeled round all the walls of the palace; and from sunset until dawn a continuous cannonading is kept up from all the forts within hearing, to rout the evil spirits that have infested the departing year.