Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Banana tree spirits in Chinese and Southeast Asian oral tradition

Interesting similarities and differences between concepts of banana tree ghosts in various countries:

Pontianak/ Kuntilanak
Region: Malaysia/ Singapore/ Indonesia
Ghosts of women who died during pregnancy, pontianaks are believed to reside in banana trees during the daytime.1

Appearance and behavior:
A pontianak manifests as a white-skinned, long-haired woman. Dressed in white, she flies about in the night.2 She can also take the appearance of a normal, attractive woman to entice men.3

The pontianak rips her victims open to devour their organs.1 Pontianaks also haunt pregnant women and cause miscarriages.4
Nang Tani
Region: Thailand
A nature spirit that lives in Kluai Tani, a species of wild banana, she is also known as Phi (Ghost) Tani or Phrai (Nymph) Tani.5

Appearance and behavior:
Nang Tani manifests as a green-skinned young woman in green Thai traditional dress. She appears on full moon nights. Nang Tani is thought to a gentle spirit that a man can summon through ritual to become his wife. But conjugal relations with her is said to drain a man's vitality.6
Ba Jiao Jing /Ba Jiao Gui (banana demon/ ghost)
One regional tale attributed this demon's origin to the grisly murder of a woman by bandits. Her parents buried her dismembered body under a banana tree.

Appearance and behavior:
The woman's vengeful spirit would leave the tree at night to suck the blood of her killers.7 Ba Jiao Jing can be summoned by tying a red string to the banana tree. According to rural oral lore, placing the other end of the string under the bedchamber window of one's enemy would lead the banana spirit to him. After nights of carnal relations with the blood-sucking demon, the man would wither and die.7

Modern accounts from Chinese communities in Southeast Asia tell of men blackmailing/ torturing banana tree spirits into divulging winning lottery numbers.8 Such acts by humans don't always go unpunished.
Not all accounts of human-banana spirit relations are negative. Here are a couple of stories that provide a different take on banana spirits:

This post is inspired by a friend who brought up the topic of banana spirits crossing borders. It got me thinking about the origins of different, seemingly conflicting accounts of banana spirit contact protocol that I've heard about. It turns out that these conflicting accounts were of different cultural origins, but when immigrant and native communities share a similar belief in a certain kind of spirit, people combine foreign and local concepts in their retelling of spirit encounters, while forgetting which country each piece of superstition ultimately came from. There isn't anything necessarily wrong with that, but tracing the origins of different strands of belief has given me a clearer, more satisfying picture of the bigger story. :-)

  1. Pontianak (folklore) on wikipedia
  2. The New Tekong on Singapore's Freakiest Online Ghost Stories,
    5 most haunted locations in Singapore
  3. Kuntilanak (Pontianak) on
  4. Pontianak - The Vampire of Malaysian Folklore
  5. Nang Tani on wikipedia
  6. Thai ghosts: Welcome to our world on bangkok post
  7. 传说中的芭蕉精是什么啊
  8. Singapore's Most Enduring Ghost Stories,
    Kenny Fong, Spooky Tales: True Cases of Paranormal Investigation in Singapore, p23

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