The Myth of Mae Phosop: The Rice Goddess of Thailand

Worshipping goddesses like Mae Phosop (โพสพ), the rice goddess, has been a part of Thai culture and tradition since prehistoric times. Even though the role of female deities became subservient since the introduction of male-dominated faiths such as Hinduism, Brahmanism and the official religion Buddhism, the power of the matriarchal spirit has always played an important role in Thailand. She is also known as Mae Khwan Khao (แม่ขวัญข้าว), the ‘Mother of Rice Prosperity’.

The rice goddess of Thailand

 Thailand’s rice goddess. Note that the letters seen top right are Khmer script (photo credit: devata.org)

Thailand ’s rice goddess. Note that the letters seen on top right are Khmer script (photo credit: devata.org)

Mae Phosop is considered the spirit or soul of rice, that is the main staple of the Thai diet. Thus, it is a common belief that without rice, a person cannot sustain and live long. The myth and legend of the rice goddess says that she is badly mistreated by an old widow. Hence, she flees and finds shelter with a friend. This friend is a fish that leads the goddess into the deep forest where no human being can find and reach her.

A mae Phosop statue in Chiang Mai (photo credit: Xufanc, wikimedia.org)

A Mae Phosop statue in Chiang Mai (photo credit: Xufanc, wikimedia.org)

As a consequence, all human beings begin to suffer from the absence of Phosop and try all that is humanly possible to find her. Finally, the fish advises the goddess to return to the humans because the next Lord Buddha will soon come to the world. Thus, the blessing of the rice goddess is needed since the Buddha will not be able to fulfil his duty on earth without Mae Phosop. Hence, she comes back to the community of mankind to stay forever. However, before her return, the goddess asks human beings to promise her to treat her with respect forever after. In return she promises to bring abundant crops to mankind. Man keeps his word and so does Mae Phosop.

A Thai paddy field, abundant crops arevital (photo credit: Takeaway, wikimedia.org)

A Thai paddy field, abundant crops are vital for mankind (photo credit: Takeaway, wikimedia.org)

This story explains Thai fertility rites concerning the cultivation of rice. Thus, we may be justified in claiming that the relationship between humans and the ‘soul’ of rice is mutually dependent. Hence, there is also a saying that ‘The virtues of rice are 69, while the virtues of the Lord Buddha are only 59’. This proverb speaks for itself and what is more, it also seems to point out the conflict between animistic beliefs and Buddhism. In addition, it reveals an intrinsic connection and relationship between mankind and what sustains its source of life.

Thai Mae Phosop (photo credit: devata.org)

A depiction of the Thai Mae Phosop (photo credit: devata.org)

When the spirit of the rice goddess is invocated, the person who performs the rite will address the spirit with sweet, kind and respectful words. The invocation runs as follows:

‘Dear Spirit of Rice, Mother Phosi, Mother Phosop, Mother of the Nine Stars, Mother Chanthewi, Mother Si Dusada, come, please, come’

A painting of the Thai rice spirit (photo credit: devata.org)

A painting of the Thai rice spirit (photo credit: devata.org)

Mae Phosop is addressed by the title of mother (mae) who provides food for her children (i.e. mankind). Thus, people are her children and they treat her with respect as they would their natural mother. Here is a clip demonstrating how the spirit in invocated. By the way, according to Thai tradition, children are also taught to Wai, i.e. put their hands in the position of obeisance and respect, after finishing their meal.

Summing up, we may say that on the one hand, the myth of the rice goddess in Thailand shows how animistic and Buddhist belief were combined in the past. On the other hand, it also reveals mankind’s dependency on a good rice harvest. Hence, people feel grateful to the rice goddess and behave respectful towards her. If you want to experience Thailand and it’s culture first hand, please check out Thailand Tour Packages.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Siraporn Nathalang, Thai Folklore. Insights Into Thai Culture, Chulalongkorn University Press, 2000)

Media Review: Thai Ways by Denis Segaller

Today’s media review is about Thai Ways by Denis Segaller (ISBN: 9789749575734 ). This book was published in 2005 by Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The book is in English language, comprises 254 pages and is available as print version and e-formats (iBooks, Kindle, Google Books and Kobo). It costs 395 Bath, on Amazon the print version is about 15 EUR. You may take a look inside the book here.

Denis Segaller: Thai Ways

Thai Ways written by Denis Segaller (b. 1915) can be regarded as a delightful collection of stories and tales covering nearly all aspects of Thai culture, customs and beliefs. Segaller came to live in Thailand at an older age in 1965, married a Thai lady, became a Buddhist and worked as a writer for the Bangkok Post among others.

‘Thai Ways’ comprises many of Segaller’s magazine articles that were mainly published, updated and completed during the 1970s in the popular weekly column ‘Thai Ways’ in the ‘Bangkok World’ which was the former afternoon tabloid companion to the Bangkok Post. The weekly ‘Thai Ways’ column ran continuously from 1975 to 1985. In short articles and anecdotes, the author describes Thai culture very comprehensively and accurately. Even though the selections are about four decades old, they nevertheless remain as informative today as when Segaller first wrote them down.

The book starts off with a preface and a note about the spelling of Thai words. ‘Thai Ways’ has ten chapters which are each divided into several sections. The chapters are about ‘Royalty and Nobility’, ‘Festivals’, ‘Ceremonies’, ‘Customs’, ‘Beliefs and Superstitions’, ‘Legends’, ‘Families’, ‘Thai Fortune-Telling’, ‘Names, Words and Language’ and ‘Miscellaneous’.

Thai Ways, customs & beliefs: It's a Thai belief that if you put a coin up and it stands still, then your wishes will come true (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

Thai Ways, customs & beliefs: It’s a Thai belief that if you put a coin up and it stands still, then your wishes will come true (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

The chapter about ‘Customs’ takes up the largest part of the book. For instance, this chapter is divided into 16 sections. To give you an impression of the structure of this book, this chapter is subdivided into the following topics:

  • Some Social “Do’s and Don’ts” in Thailand
  • Khun: An Everyday, but Deep, Word
  • Some Other Social Norms
  • The Wai
  • More Elaborate Forms of the Wai
  • Music – Classical and Western
  • Worshipping Brahma and Other Deities
  • Lak Mueang – The Log that Helped to Found a City
  • Traditional Thai Medicine
  • Preserving Thailand’s Traditional Arts of Self-Defense
  • Telling the Time
  • Lunar Months
  • The Twelve-Year Cycle
  • When a Child is Born
  • When Traditions Intermingle
  • Some Like It Hot

Segaller covers numerous aspects of Thai culture and customs, thus demystifying constructs like the system of royal ranks and the Thai musical scale, and customs like the Loi Krathong festival and the Wai Khru ceremony, for instance.

In my view, the book is a gem of information that provides insight into the heart, mind and social structure of an Asian country not to be subjected to the culture of colonial rule. It probably provides more information than the typical tourist wants to know. However, for anyone who has personal, economic or diplomatic interest in Thailand it is a source of important insights. The book might seem a little dated, nevertheless it offers a deep understanding of how Thailand has developed and functioned on many levels.

Finally, I can highly recommend Thai Ways by Denis Segaller because it is comprehensive and provides you with a picture of Thailand that the non-Thai readers are not likely to encounter elsewhere. In addition, it should be noted that there have been two subsequent publications titled “More Thai Ways” and “New Thoughts on Thai Ways” which offer additional topics presented in a similar format.

Yours, Sirinya