Saturday, July 28, 2012

Spirit Houses

One of many spirit houses at Wat Phnom

Ever since my arrival in Cambodia, I have been fascinated with spirit houses. I see them everywhere—there is one outside almost every building in Phnom Penh; it probably would be more accurate to say that there is one outside almost every building in Southeast Asia! There is even one on the embassy grounds, presumably doing duty for the entire compound.

Spirit house at the U.S. embassy
So what is a spirit house, anyway? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a house for spirits. Although most Cambodians are Buddhist, there is no problem for Buddhists to adopt or maintain aspects of other religions as well. Spirit houses  are highly associated with Buddhism, but their roots are in the animistic religions that predate Buddhism. According to these old religions, there are spirits everywhere, associated with particular areas of land. Some of these spirits are good, some are evil, and some are morally neutral, but most of them seem to be mischievous. They cause trouble for humans, whether deliberately or accidentally, and if you insult them, they cause big problems for you. So, it’s in your best interest to keep these spirits both happy and out of your home or business. That’s where spirit houses come in.
Making an offering
Spirit houses are small structures located outside of buildings. These structures usually are in the shape of an ornate house, and they are located on pedestals. The purpose of spirit houses is to provide a home for the animist spirits. The idea is that if you provide a nice home for the spirits, and keep them happy with food, flowers, and other gifts, then those spirits will not invade your home or business and cause trouble. Placate the spirits, make sure they’re happy in their own houses, and they will have no reason to enter your house (or business).

One of many in the Silver Pagoda compound

Why exactly would I be fascinated with spirit houses? After all, I’m not Buddhist, I’m not animist, and I don’t believe in these spirits. I believe in God, angels, and fallen angels (demons). I do not believe that having a spirit house would protect my home from harm; if anything, I view it more as an invitation for fallen angels (the only spirits who go around causing trouble) to come and make themselves at home not only in the spirit house, but in the entire property upon which the spirit house resides. The act of placating these spirits by providing offerings is an act of worship, something that the Bible teaches we should provide only to God.

Stone spirit house at Wat Phnom

There is one reason, and one reason alone, why I am fascinated with spirit houses: they’re beautiful.

A shop where spirit houses are made and sold

Whether they’re made of wood or stone, these houses are designed to be ornate and beautiful. Some are white with sparkling gold trim. Some are gold with burgundy accents. They almost always have ornately peaked roofs, columns around the front “entrance,” and pretty “porch railings.” The inside is a single open space, usually filled with flowers, candles, and fruit. The whole thing is gorgeous to look at.

Spirit house outside of a shop

I never will have a spirit house on my property, although I do believe that one would be absolutely beautiful in or beside a flower garden, for example. It would go against my beliefs and would send an incorrect message to all who saw it and knew it for what it was. But because they are so beautiful, and because their prevalence here has made them become representative of Cambodia to me, I wanted to share them with my family and friends who may not have seen them before.

Spirit houses outside of businesses

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