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Into the Burmese Supernatural

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

The people of Myanmar (Burma) are amazingly creative. Storytelling and storytelling competitions are a favorite past time in Myanmar. Not surprisingly, the Burmese supernatural is a rich wonderland of stories and legends. At the heart of these legends is a spirit known as a "Nat."



What are nats? The word is often translated as "Spirit," but they are more than that; they are intertwined in the history and culture of Myanmar. In a nutshell, the nats are a collection of spirits of people who died a violent death, were somehow connected to royalty (often killed by royalty), and who had some role, real or legendary, to play in the history of Myanmar. The Burmese say, "Love the Buddha, fear the nats." That about sums it up. Almost every temple in Burma has a nat shrine on the ground level. Nats are lower than the Buddha, but still an important part of the religious life of the Burmese.

The nats are not a pleasant lot, with a few exceptions, and the main goal is to keep them out of trouble. They can be persuaded to grant favors to people as long as they are rewarded. They don't do much for free. The exception to this is the king of the nats, Thanga Min. He goes around doing good things and stopping bad people with no expectation of reward; the rest of the nats must be given plenty of incentive.

Thanga Min

Thanga Min

A typical story about the life and death of a nat is that of the blacksmith Muang Tin Deh. He was the mightiest blacksmith of all and he could shake mountains with his hammer. The king became worried that his strength and popularity would outshine his own. He tried to have Muang Tin Deh murdered, but failed several times. Finally, after Muang Tin Deh fled, the king married Muang's sister. He then asked her to send a message to her brother asking him to return. The blacksmith returned to the kingdom, but the king immediately had him tied to a tree and burned. His sister was heart-broken and rushed into the flames with him. The two became nats and haunted the tree where they were burned. Many people met their fate while passing by the tree so the king had it cut down and floated down the river. But it just turned up again! Finally, after a great deal of misfortune struck the king and his family, he had the tree carved into the figures of the brother and sister and enshrined the images at Mount Popa, a mountain sacred to the nats.

This story and the stories of the very early nats come from the 800 - 900s before Myanmar was unified. The unification of Myanmar and the introduction of Buddhism have been heavily embellished and are an important nat story in themselves. Before relating it, let me explain another member of the fascinating members of the Burmese supernatural: the zagwi. Throughout Buddhist Southeast Asia, there are hermits, aesthetics who practice extreme self-depravation. The Burmese believe that some hermits who perform extreme austerities and perfect themselves morally and perfect the magical arts they practice can die and be reborn as zagwis. A zagwi lives for 80,000 years, can fly, and is incredibly strong. As one must be perfected morally to become a zagwi, zagwis pose no threats to humans and often save the day in many Burmese stories. But there is one danger: when a hermit becomes a zagwi, his old body turns into a sort of cake that gives off an aroma. Anyone who eats it will become very powerful. Not as powerful as a zagwi, but powerful nonetheless. Thus, if a bad person eats it, bad things can happen.

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