“Man’s enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself” – Lao Tzu
Just because you’ve clawed your way up from the nether regions of Hell, it doesn’t mean you don’t practice good citizenship, particularly when you’re down and out (and diabolical) in 19th Century Burma, where the men were men, the women were women, and the demons have a strong tradition of turning state’s evidence in the local courts. While demon on demon crime typically merited a more specialized tribunal, angry spirits could be required to provide testimony in the disputes of mere mortals, and there are records of surprisingly civic-minded devils offering eyewitness statements to the judiciary in order to ensure that the guilty would not go unpunished. A particularly well documented case can be found in the legal proceedings involving a Burmese Thayai named Nga Tumbee, his living wife Mi Pu, and the dastardly thief Nga Pay Toe. The recently deceased Nga Tumbee overcame his infernal tendencies, unrequited love, and consequent marital resentment, testifying on behalf of his widowed wife in a court of law.
Burma, which these days is officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, emerged on the historical scene as a Tibeto-Burman enclave in Southeast Asia, made a later splash as the Pagan Empire in the 1050’s where its distinctive Burmese language, culture, and strain of Theravada Buddhism reigned supreme only to quickly succumb, like most of Asia, to Mongol invasion. You can try scrubbing and you can try soaking, but still you’ve got Mongols. This was followed by an impressive 16th-18th Century reunification under the Taungoo Dynasty. Burma became a British colony after three Anglo-Burmese Wars in the 19th Century, declared independence in 1948, and has largely been a military dictatorship ever since. Perhaps it was the influence of Buddhism that mellowed Burmese monsters a bit. Don’t get me wrong. They’ll still kill or eat you, but by and large they maintain some worldly attachments, sense of justice, and often a vague social conscience. The Thayai (or Thaye) is technically a version of the pre-Buddhist, animistic Tasé, a generic term for disembodied spirits that were once humans. The Thayai are the subcategory of angry Tasé. “The thayé and thabet are spirits of those who died violent deaths, or of women who died in childbirth, or of those who lived wicked and sinful lives. These spirits are inimical to mankind, and are represented in folk-lore stories as having hideous bodies, as big as those of a giant, and with long, huge, slimy tongues, which they could make use of as the elephant would his trunk. They are bloodthirsty and their special delight is to cause the death of human beings” (Temple, 1991, p9). At the time when the sun had not yet set on the British Empire, the Thayai had an established, unsavory reputation, known to “haunt burial grounds, forests, and lonely localities, enter and possesses men, and change them into creatures of ghoul-like habits” (Nisbet, 1901, p162). There is also a close association of the Thayai with epidemics of cholera and smallpox, in keeping with their mostly malevolent nature. And oddly, there seems to be a legal record referencing precedents for Thayai testimony in the ancient Burmese legal system.
Burmese kingship was pretty much absolute from the get go, but any good despot knows that the day-to-day business of administering a nation has to be delegated. After all, what’s the point of being an absolute monarch if you don’t have time to hang out with the royal concubines, count your treasure, or party hard with your aristocratic drinking buddies? Local legal disputes over minor infractions could generally be handled by local village headmen, but every once in a while larger issues emerged that were the province of the “Hloot Taw”, or Great Council of State, and to which legal decisions could be appealed.
The Hloot, or Council, as I shall for brevity’s sake call it, thus discharges at once the functions of a house of legislature, a cabinet, and a supreme court of justice. It meets literally at the King’s Gate, in a building situated in the esplanade or court-yard between the “Red “or main-gate, and the outer gate of the palace enclosure. The various ministers have small offices of their own not far from it, within the same space. The President of the Hloot is nominally the King himself, or in his absence, the Heir-Apparent, or some other member of the Royal Family. Practically, the Prime Minister usually presides. The officers who compose the Council do not seem to be divided by any sharply defined line as superior and ministerial, though their functions suffice to designate them as such (Pilcher, 1882, p305).
Luckily, like most lawyers, who view the smile and a handshake as a legal maneuver and prefer to have things signed and notarized, the Hloot Taw kept a decent record of its proceedings which “contain an immense amount of learned dicta on disputed points of Burmese Law. From the Hloot Taw there was but one appeal, and that was to the King, who through his Hpone or glory (the result of previously accumulated merit) possessed powers of life and death over his subjects, animal, human, and even superhuman, such as nats, or spirits, and thayais, or demons. The superhuman subjects sued and were sued at their own tribunals, but when a human being was concerned they were not loath to appear as witnesses in the ordinary courts of the country” (Gyi, 1897, p284). Lower courts (when encountering a curious legal point) would pass up interesting case law for the Hloot Taw to enter into the record. One particularly illustrative occurrence of demon involvement in a legal action was reported in the 19th Century by the Prince of Kyouk Souk, Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Army, and son of one of the chief ministers who presided at the Hloot Taw.
It all started as an ordinary domestic dispute near the village of Toung Byone in 1885 between a man named Nga Tumbee (a nickname – his real name wasn’t preserved) and his bride Mi Pu. Mi Pu was not particularly enamored of Nga Tumbee, and married him only to spite a former boyfriend. Consequently, although Tumbee adored Mi Pu and was utterly devoted to her, she found him prone to embarrassing public displays of affection, fits of jealousy if she even smiled at other men, and annoyingly clingy. Recognizing that despite his shortcomings, Tumbee was an essentially good man, she too was faithful to him, but desperately unhappy. Finally, upon finding Mi Pu innocently conversing with her old lover, Tumbee flew into a jealous rage, haphazardly hurling furniture, which unintentionally struck Mi Pu in the head. Mi Pu, both unjustly accused of adultery and knocked in the noggin with a chair, decided this was the final straw, paid five rupees to the village headman, and was granted a divorce. By Burmese Buddhist law, Mi Pu got to keep the house, the fields, the oxen, the plow, and the cart (all the stuff she brought to the marriage), and she started dating her old lover again. Nga Tumbee was, of course, devastated and hung himself in Mi Pu’s barn, unbeknownst to her– a sure recipe for becoming a Thayai.
That day a neighbor asked to borrow Mi Pu’s cart to take his family to a pagoda feast, to which she assented and directed him to the barn to retrieve it. Awful screaming ensued, at which point the neighbor was discovered with a broken neck, and the body of Nga Tumbee was found hanging from the rafters, having committed suicide some time before the attack on the neighbor. Strangely, the oxen were also missing. Mi Pu railed against the now demonic Nga Tumbee, particularly for stealing her cattle and was terribly frightened when the voice of poor, dead Tumbee protested his innocence in the matter (stealing the oxen, that is – he definitely broke the neighbor’s neck to give credit where credit is due). Nga Tumbee directed Mi Pu to the house of a notorious cattle rustler Ko Pay Toe, where she found her oxen. Mi Pu proceeded to lodge a complaint with the local Governor’s court, and Ko Pay Toe was brought to trial, but most of the evidence against him was circumstantial. I mean, after all the oxen could have simply wandered onto his property. Since Mi Pu had recovered her property, the magistrates figured hearsay evidence provided by a demon was not enough to convict with and prepared to dismiss the case. Except that Nga Tumbee, undead, but still mindful of his civic duty put in an appearance, calling from outside the court, and declared that it would be a great injustice to throw out the case.
Mi Pu prepared to leave the court, and Nga Pay Toe looked triumphant. But at that moment a voice was heard from outside the court, saying, “That would be very unfair, my lord. A true judge should dispense with evidence and know intuitively truth and untruth. “What son of a dog dares address the Court without permission? Bring him before me immediately,” shouted the Governor to the policemen. These went out to look, and soon returned, saying that there was not a soul outside the court. “Who spoke just now?” demanded the Governor, looking round the court. “Your humble slave, Nga Tumbee, my lord,” was the reply from the same side of the court. “What have you to say?” “Your humble slave wishes to give evidence in this case, my lord,” was the reply. “You are a Thayai, are you not?” “Yes, my lord, your slave unfortunately is.” “How is the Court to identify you? What you say may be a trick or those ventriloquists who come from Lower Burma. If you are desirous of substantiating Mi Pu’s words, you must come into court in your natural form and be sworn.” “Your humble slave is willing to do so, but he is afraid those who see him will die of fright. Will your humble slave’s hand be sufficient to identify him?” “Yes, put it on the table, touch the sacred palm-leaf, and take the oath.” “Your humble slave will do so. He prays your lordship to request Min Magari to permit him to enter.” The Governor took a cigar and a chew of betel, which he offered to Min Magari, and requested the house-hold deity to grant the required permission. When that was done we saw an immense hand about six cubits long, its flesh resembling raw beef that one sees in the bazaars, and covered with huge bristles. The demon gave his evidence, stating that through being an Udaitsa and through his suicide he became a Thayai, attached to the spot where his thoughts in life were centred. He watched over Mi Pu’s safety, and saw Nga Pay Toe take away the oxen from the shed, and he followed the thief to find out where he was going to hide the cattle, and also to know where he lived. He would have broken Nga Pay Toe’s neck as he did that of the neighbour who tried to borrow the cart in order to swindle Mi Pu, only Nga Pay Toe had a powerful charm which protected him. Nga Pay Toe was a notorious thief—not only did Nga Pay Toe steal the cattle but also the glass tumbler, which was the demon’s wedding present to his wife. The ruffian Nga Pay Toe went with two of his friends to rob in the village of Toungbyme. One of them had a bottle of shamsu (country spirit distilled from rice by Chinamen), but had no cup to drink out of. So when Mi Pu went to the high road to look for her old lover, Nga Pay Toe slipped into her house and stole the glass He was not only a thief but also a great drunkard. The demon, addressing the prisoner, said: “Now, Nga Pay Toe, thief and drunkard, confess.” Nga Pay Toe, terribly frightened by the sight of the demon’s hand, made a full confession and begged for mercy. The Woon offered the prisoner the choice of paying Mi Pu treble the value of the oxen or of undergoing a long term of slavery in the ruby-mines. The robber adopted the former alternative, and, when he paid over the money to Mi Pu, was discharged. This case, on account of the demon’s evidence, was so curious that the Governor sent a full account of it to the Hloot Taw, where it was entered in the records (Gyi, 1897, p285).
Demons need to have a sense of fairness, since frankly if they don’t know justice from injustice it makes it awfully hard to concoct elaborate stratagems to corrupt us mortals. Even a demon has to have standards, and they don’t necessarily appreciate being blamed for mundane crimes. You don’t move up the infernal ladder through mere larceny. That’s what imps are for. Real demons go for the big, theatrical Faustian bargains, horrific plagues, and unrestrained debauchery. Stealing livestock is just plain beneath them. Satan has often been sued in court through the years, but finding someone to deliver court documents to Hell is difficult, and he generally refuses to appear anyway, so unless the diabolic reputation of a demon is at stake, you can’t usually get him to testify. Those Burmese demons just seem to think that good citizenship shouldn’t end with eternal damnation. Demons make fantastic expert witnesses because they traffic in unscrupulous behavior, for as Scottish actor Peter Mullan once said, “Sometimes you have to confront your demons and sometimes even let them loose to genuinely find a place where you can gain some understanding”.
Gyi, J.A. Maung. “Demons as Witness in Court”. Harry Houdini Collection (Library of Congress). Borderland v4. London: [s.n.],1897.
Nisbet, John, 1853-1914. Burma Under British Rule–and Before. Westminster: A. Constable, 1901.
Temple, Richard Carnac, Sir, 1850-1931. The Thirty-seven Nats: a Phase of Spirit-worship Prevailing In Burma. London: P. Strachan , 1991.
Pilcher, R.H. “Burma”. Journal of the United Service Institution of India v11. Simla: United Service Institution of India, 1882.