Also known as:
Mae Naak; Nang Nak; Mae Naak Phra Khanong
In life, Mae Nak, Thailand’s most popular ghost, was a chieftain’s daughter who rejected an arranged marriage with a rich merchant to elope with Mak, a handsome but poor gardener. They went to Phra Khanong, a village east of Bangkok to labor as rice farmers. (Due to urban sprawl, this village, site of Mae Nak’s primary shrine, is now part of Bangkok.)
Mae Nak is estimated to have lived in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
Nak and Mak, star-crossed, tragic lovers, adored each other and were deliriously happy until Mak was conscripted into the army, leaving pregnant Nak behind. Al though not emphasized in most modern retellings, Nak was very much a stranger in the village: a young, rich, pregnant girl unused to manual labor, left alone with no family or husband, at the mercy of not necessarily sympathetic strangers. This may explain some of her ghost’s later hostile behavior.
Nak had a slow difficult labor; her son refused to emerge from the womb. Mother and child died in childbirth, the type of death associated with the most dreaded ghosts. Because of this, they were not cremated but buried in an attempt to confine their souls underground.
Nak’s soul would not stay buried, rest in peace, or travel to the appropriate next realm. The love Nak felt for Mak transcended death. She traveled to him, found him injured on the battlefield, and cared for him. They eventually returned to their village together. (In some versions of their myth, he’s tended by Buddhist monks and returns home to find Nak and his son patiently waiting.) Again Mak and Nak “lived” happily together.
Mak was unaware that Nak was dead as she was completely corporeal, at least to him, and behaved lovingly, at least to him. He noticed the neighbors behaving strangely—cold and distant—but blamed this on them, not on Nak. Bad things happened to neighbors who tried to warn Mak that he was living with a ghost and so they allowed him to remain in the dark.
Mae Nak’s skull allegedly passed into the hands of the Prince of Jumborn, a royal collector of occult objects who is considered the father of the Thai navy and is himself now popularly venerated as a guardian spirit. Since his death in 1923, the whereabouts of her skull are unknown.
One day, Nak dropped a lemon through the floorboards of their home on stilts, fifteen feet above the ground. Not a problem: she just stretched (and stretched!) out her hand, retrieving the lemon from the ground below. Mak realized something was up. A few more macabre experiences and he fled, taking refuge with neighbors. Nak, enraged at Mak’s abandonment, (clearly his love was not stronger than death), transformed into a ghostly killer, snapping villagers’ necks like twigs.
Nak fled to a Buddhist monastery where a monk/magical adept performed a standard Thai ghost disposal by forcing Nak’s soul into a pot, sealing it with magical cloth, and dropping it into the river. Mak remarried but he did not live happily ever after.
A fisherman accidentally released Nak, now absolutely livid with rage. She did not handle Mak’s remarriage well and once again became a dangerous, vengeful, bloodthirsty ghost. The monk advised Mak and surviving neighbors to create a graveside shrine for Nak. Via rituals of appeasement, Nak was transformed into Mae Nak (Mother Nak), a compassionate and often helpful ghost, now venerated as a protective spirit.
Her shrine is on the outer edge of a large temple complex in Bangkok. She protects local residents but is popular throughout Thailand and now worldwide. Mae Nak was featured in two of Thailand’s earliest sound movies (1936, 1937) and a 1957 radio feature. She’s been the subject of an opera and several modern movies, most notably 1999’s Nang Nak, which set box office records in Thailand, even outselling Titanic. Nang Nak won the award for Best Picture at the 1999 Pan Asia Film Festival.
Despite the horror movies, Mae Nak is considered generally benevolent, if a little volatile. She is especially renowned for providing winning lottery numbers and lucky numbers for gamblers. She reveals numbers through dreams and via Chinese fortune-telling sticks, (known as Siem Si in Thai), which involves shaking a container of individually numbered sticks until one or more falls out.
Mae Nak likes to watch television, especially Thai movies. At home, leave the television on for her, especially when no one else is around.
Mae Nak is not easily bribed. She doesn’t respond to coercion. She only helps when she feels like it. She accepts comparatively minor gifts but you must give whatever was promised. She becomes angry if something perceived as hers is taken away or not received, and we know what happens when she gets angry.
No need to travel to Bangkok. Mae Nak is venerated at home shrines and she also visits in dreams. Mae Nak offers protection from disasters as well as general prosperity and good luck. She may be invoked for virtually any kind of aid however women traditionally do not request help with conception and fertility for fear they will end up like her.
Her shrine’s votive statue, reputedly made from dirt gathered from seven cemeteries, is covered with paper-thin gold leaf. Devotees apply sheets of gold leaf to her statue as offerings. The statue is periodically covered with cream to encourage the gold leaf to adhere but with the additional result of making it feel like human flesh.
Apparitions of Mae Nak have been witnessed at her Bangkok shrine.
Flowers, especially orchids; cosmetics; yellow candles; incense; fruit; pilgrimage; dresses, especially traditional Thai clothing. Apply gold leaf to her statue and celebrate her by throwing a party in her honor. Spread her legend by showing movies about her to others or giving copies of the DVDs. Find her skull and return it to her shrine. Gifts traditionally given to her baby include toys, diapers, baby bottles, and whatever would please a baby or a new mother.
Ghost; Mae Posop; Nang Takian (2); Phii Tai Tang Klom
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.
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