Understanding Superstition as a Coping Mechanism for Turmoil and Loneliness in the Modern World

Thai Black magic

The Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University invites us to explore and understand the phenomenon of “mutelu” — superstitious and mysterious matters that reflect social conditions, the way of life, and the emotional state of city people who must contend with loneliness and the myriad uncertainties they face in life. 

When one mentions the concept of “superstition“- supernatural mystical arts, many people may dismiss it as an unscientific matter stemming from “ignorance”. Then again, if we look around at the media and people’s lives, we will find that it has become so prevalent now in urban society.

At a large area in the heart of the city like Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong intersection – the hub of economic trade and shopping, we also find a center of objects that both Thais and foreigners like to worship and pray to for success in work, good fortune, love, and relationships.

Especially in the last decade or so, the popularity of sacred objects and amulets has increased and is now expanding. New forms of occult knowledge, such as the Naga, Garuda, Thao Wessuwan, Phra Rahu, as well as Ai Khai and Kru Kai Kaew are sprouting up everywhere and have become a controversial issue in society.

In social media, one finds many stories about superstition and black magic. Some channels gather and update what is now known as “Sai Mu trends” each year.  Nowadays, there is even a website that takes those interested in an online voyage to pay homage to various trendy sacred objects.

There are also other matters concerning astrology, how to remedy inauspicious years, talismans, lucky stones, charm-enhancing oils, amulets of world-class football teams, and news presentations close to the release date of the Government Lottery results such as the license plate number of the Prime Minister’s car or strange occurrences such as a golden snakehead fish or an anthill shaped like a Naga.

These are things that occupy only a small space of the vast forms of the occult that are expanding as the city grows.

“Such significant growth of black magic in urban society is a matter of questioning to determine what is happening in urban society. What is it that has led people to approach and rely on black magic? What are people seeking or feeling in this society?” Assistant Professor Dr. Kanya Wattanakul, Thai Studies Center, Faculty of Arts Chulalongkorn University opened the topic for the forum entitled “Scepticism, Contradiction, Seeking: Superstition in the Urban Way” which was held recently.

Assistant Professor Dr. Kanya Wattanakul, Thai Studies Center, Faculty of Arts Chulalongkorn University
Assistant Professor Dr. Kanya Wattanakul,
Thai Studies Center, Faculty of Arts Chulalongkorn University

Assistant Professor Dr. Kasem Penpinan, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, and Assistant Professor Dr. Pipat Krajaechan, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University also contributed their views on how to understand the factors that promote ways of dealing with supernatural beings in the urban context.

Assistant Professor Dr. Kasem Penpinan, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University
Assistant Professor Dr. Kasem Penpinan,
Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

“Many might think that black magic is about superstitions and mysteries. But if you understand it deeply, it can be seen as a tool that answers the needs of urban life which is volatile and lonely. Understanding the function of black magic will allow us to understand the state of mind of people living in the cities” Asst. Prof. Dr. Pipat from the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University opined.

Assistant Professor Dr. Pipat Krajaechan, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University
Assistant Professor Dr. Pipat Krajaechan,
Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University

To this, Asst. Prof. Dr. Kasem, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, added that “Black magic is not an ancient and outdated matter. It can be seen as something that answers the needs of humans in every era since time immemorial. This is especially so during times when society is facing turmoil and confusion.”

Asst. Prof. Dr. Phiphat from the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University, explained that originally, Black magic was not a matter of superstitious beliefs. Society then entered into the modern era and scientific knowledge spread into it. 

“The worldview of people before the reign of King Rama IV did not see superstition in as limited a way as today. Black magic was not concerned with mystery or black magic but it was a religion and belief that had elements related to supernatural powers, miracles, and magic, that concerned reciting mantras and rituals. In addition, black magic in Thailand also incorporated local beliefs as well.”

 “In the modern worldview, the principle of binary opposition makes science the opposite of superstition. Superstition has become irrational, nonsensical, and unreliable. In addition, superstition is also opposite to Buddhism. By black magic, it means one who sleeps or a belief that is asleep as opposed to Buddhism, which is a religion of awakening.”

As for the philosophy professor, Asst. Prof. Dr. Kasem’s view is that science and black magic are not different regarding human thought systems.

black magic

“Superstition is a form of wisdom. Human thought and belief systems that try to create explanations for things that humans do not understand, such as rain or thunder, make us understand the world and understand ourselves, and answer the questions of a future that we don’t foresee, and things we may not be able to fix. Superstitious beliefs make us think about these things.”

“Whether the modern world pushes black magic to be the opposite of Buddhism and science, the function and meaning of black magic in the sphere of human life and spirit remains the same. Moreover, in the urban context of today’s world, it has become increasingly important,” said Asst. Prof. Dr. Kasem.

“Black magic is a human belief system that addresses our mental and spiritual needs. The function of black magic in modern society is a form of spiritual exercise that helps humans become stronger, have hope, and continue to live on in a world of uncertainty.”

Asst. Prof. Dr. Kanya added that in the modern world, scientific knowledge may provide answers and reflect a myriad of truths. But what science cannot replace in terms of black magic is the emotional dimension.

“Even though humans today have knowledge and rational understanding along with scientific knowledge and an understanding of reality, sometimes, however, the truth doesn’t respond to one’s emotional needs, such as sadness and hope – black magic, even though it doesn’t make sense, is comforting.”

Black magic exists in both rural and urban contexts. But they answer and respond to the goals and needs of people differently.

Asst. Prof. Dr. Kasem’s view is that in rural societies, black magic serves the collective, whereas in urban communities, black magic responds to “individuality.”

Superstition plays a rather important role in rural society. The practice of black magic is in the realm of rituals and traditions which are linked to groups of people who share common beliefs, answering the survival needs of the community.  In this context, rituals are more important than beliefs. In some beliefs, people may not believe in them anymore, but rituals still exist as a tool to bind people in the community together.”

Asst. Prof. Dr. Kasem gave an example of the “Cat Procession” to ask for rain which is still practiced in many areas today.

“Although this ritual remains, it does not mean that the community and those who perform this ritual believe that when a cat is paraded around it will rain.  The ritual only helps with the community’s mental state and provides hope.”

Asst. Prof. Dr. Kasem refers to a period in philosophical history where black magic, mysticism, and supernatural beliefs abound,

“The era after the fall of Athens and before the founding of the Roman Empire is considered to be the most chaotic and confusing. At this time, many systems of mysticism or supernatural beliefs arose. This means that in times of turmoil when life is unstable human beings will turn towards what they think is the most stable. It is a principle to rely on to create stability in life.”

And the area that faces the most chaos and turmoil is the urban area!

“Black magic is a tool for managing risks in the lives of people in an urban society,” Asst. Prof. Dr. Kanya explains the connection between the flourishing of black magic with the context of urban society that is full of instability, uncertainty, insecurity, and economic and social inequalities as well as opportunities in life.

 “In the urban capitalist economy, wealth is concentrated and poverty is widespread, with high inequality and large income gaps. To deal with life’s emergencies and uncertainties whether it is political, economic or social circumstances, many people turn to superstition.”

Asst. Prof. Dr. Kanya gives the example of people from the provinces who come to work as construction workers in the city and are paid daily wages.  Life in this context is unstable, uncertain, and highly unsafe. 

“Their income alone may not be enough to cover their daily expenses, not to mention savings to use in times of emergency.  They also might need money for treatment and care when they become ill and cannot go to work. In a situation where they are faced with many risks, there are no funds, nor resources that can help these people cope with life emergencies. People will turn to seek spiritual refuge from various sacred objects to create peace of mind.”

Not only urban blue-collar workers but also those with seemingly stable social and economic status (white-collar workers) rely on black magic.

Adding to these views on this matter, Asst. Prof. Dr. Kasem recalls, “Before, I didn’t think that doctors and engineers whose careers seemed stable would give importance to fortune telling or such matters. But it turned out that they were serious about these beliefs. It was as if there were things that science couldn’t answer. Even people who see their social and economic status as stable still have to face uncertainties. Amidst the feelings of insecurity in life, there is something unknown, and black magic may help them to cope with the unknown and uncertainty.”

Amidst the turmoil and uncertainties of society, the economic and social dimensions are the factors that most contribute to people entering the realm of black magic, Asst. Prof. Dr. Phiphat said.

“Superstition in urban society focuses on meeting individual needs and goals. and revolves around the issues of wealth, success, love, and relationships which is what urban people in the capitalist world seek.” A feeling of competition and accumulation of wealth according to capitalism causes a feeling of insecurity.  The more you feel insecure, the more you will rely on supernatural powers to grant what you desire.

“The desire for wealth gives rise to new sacred objects, rituals, and amulets that were believed and expected to bring good fortune and material success.”

Lucky objects are popular.  The same goes for giving lottery numbers, presenting news stories about strange objects and circumstances that may be interpreted as numbers, and worshiping the gods believed to bring good fortune.

Superstition in urban society

“What kind of social conditions cause people to turn to seek refuge from supernatural beings rather than seeking help from social structures, the economy, or from people in society themselves?” Asst. Prof. Dr. Kanya asked the question and offered this opinion. “Is it because of the economic and social structure that doesn’t offer support There is no welfare that exists to help people in times of crisis or a society with various inequality. If we want to be as rich as the wealthy 10% of the country, it seems there is no other way aside from having to win the lottery perhaps?”

Bangkok is a metropolis where people from all over the country and neighboring countries have flocked in search of work opportunities. Being far from home makes “black magic” act as a form of “emotional refuge” and an “anchor” to survive the chaotic urban society they find themselves in. 

loneliness of city

“Even though people from all sorts of places live in Bangkok, the city does not provide a space to help cope with loneliness. They feel cut off from their communities, from the beliefs that bind them to their foundations of life and cultural backgrounds.  Black magic can therefore be a refuge and provide emotional support,” said Asst. Prof. Dr. Pipat.

Asst. Prof. Dr. Phiphat also noted that asking for blessings for matters regarding love, relationships, and family is most prominent in the case of city dwellers.

“In the city, people can be gripped by a sense of loneliness and would yearn, therefore, for a partner. Black magic somehow tries to respond to this vulnerable emotional state.”

The city is a melting pot of diverse people and cultures that give rise to new sets of beliefs. Many minor practices and objects of belief, new gods, goddesses, and ghosts keep appearing, allowing city dwellers to shop at their convenience and desire. There are traditional Hindu, Chinese, and Buddhist gods, deities, ancient ghosts, and new ghosts that are straight out of the world of cartoons and literature.  

Thai black magic

“Exchange of cultures and diverse backgrounds along with certain beliefs and practices, when entering urban context, will lead to the syncretism of new beliefs and practices, resulting in the growth of new forms of beliefs or spiritual practices,” Asst. Prof. Dr. Kasem said.

In addition, modern urban people in Thailand like to use the word “Sai Mu” coming from “Mutelu,” to call superstitious practices making them appear more modern thus reducing the level of mystery or darkness involved in the concept.

Black magic has its believers and non-believers. But even if you don’t believe it, the saying “If you don’t believe it, don’t disrespect it” helps open up a space for superstition and supernatural beliefs to survive and expand in society.

“This statement quickly brought new beliefs into the consciousness of many people making them become a social trend by default,” Asst. Prof. Dr. Kanya said.

When there are controversies regarding beliefs in society, such as the emergence of new gods or ghosts or new ways of doing things, the phrase “If you don’t believe, don’t disrespect it” seems to help open up space for people to experiment. “If it doesn’t cause damage, isn’t against the law, and isn’t moral, it’s probably worth trying.” This enables both believers and non-believers to co-exist in the space of difference in beliefs.  Superstition and belief in the supernatural are not always irrational but it reflects the worldview and awareness that humans are not the center of the universe,” Asst. Prof. Dr. Kanya said.

“Today’s world is full of volatility, uncertainty, and many factors that are too complex for humans to control. Scientific knowledge and rational thinking are not enough, and they often cannot meet our needs. People are looking for ways to meet their living needs.  Superstitious beliefs can be one of the answers along with the principles of religion and reason.”

See more about the forum entitled “Scepticism, Contradiction, Seeking: Superstition in the Urban Way” (Thai version) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-p3ynGLfSU

Chula is the place to discover one’s true individuality and the years I spent here were most enjoyable.

Rossukhon Kongket Alumni, Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University

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