Criminal Gods

Sannion wrote an excellent essay on Hellenic hero cultus at Witches & Pagans yesterday. Among many other things (including oral traditions and the solidarity of the theater), he discussed how hero cultus was extremely localized and focused on the tomb of the deceased, and how “most of them were right bastards in life and after it — murderers, thieves, rapists and lunatics.”

There are some fascinating parallels between these last two facets of Hellenic hero cultus and the deification of unknown ghosts in Taiwan. Robert P. Weller’s 1995 essay “Matricidal Magistrates and Gambling Gods: Weak States and Strong Spirits in China” deals with departures from (and reversals of) the normal conception of Chinese gods as heavenly bureaucrats.

Weller focuses on two case studies: one from Guangxi in the 1840s, and the other from northern Taiwan in the 1980s. Here is the story from Taiwan. It starts with seventeen corpses and a living dog on a boat:

Perhaps a century ago, or perhaps much longer (no one really knows), a fishing boat washed up on the shore at the northernmost tip of Taiwan. The local people had no idea who the seventeen corpses on the boat might be, nor how the dog that accompanied them had remained alive. They followed the usual tradition when one stumbles across bodies or unknown bones in Taiwan: they buried the men in a common grave and erected a tiny shrine so that people might make occasional offerings to these otherwise unworshipped and pitiful spirits.

The only odd bit of the story concerned the dog, whose unbreakable loyalty to his masters caused him to leap into the grave along with the bodies, to be buried alive by the villagers. The dog was the eighteenth of what the local people politely (and euphemistically) named the Eighteen Lords (Shiba Wanggong). (116)

The shrine is forced to defend itself in the 1970s:

The little shrine followed the fate of most such ghost temples, gradually deteriorating over the years, and receiving only occasional worship. By the 1960s, it was little more than a vague mound with a gravestone and an incense pot, occasionally worshipped [sic] by a bored soldier standing coastal sentry duty.

A decade later, however, its transformation commenced. Taiwan began to build its first nuclear power plant not far away, and the little grave was slated for destruction as the bulldozers strengthened the cliffs along the shore. When a number of accidents began occurring on the site, some of the workers began to worry about ghosts. Their fears were confirmed one day when a backhoe, poised to tear up the Eighteen Lords’ grave, suddenly froze and defeated all attempts at repair.

At this point, workers and local inhabitants mobilized in defense of the shrine. The government finally gave in, agreeing to ‘respect local customs’ and to recreate the shrine at the new, higher ground level. (116-7)

At this point, things really begin to take off:

Not only had the previously forgotten shrine brought the state itself to do its bidding, it had done so in front of an audience of workers from all over Taiwan. Community and worker pressure pushed planners to make the newly rebuilt temple larger and fancier than any ghost temple previously built in Taiwan.

Within a few years it rivalled [sic] the island’s most important god temples in popularity, attracting thousands of people every night, and thoroughly tying up traffic on the coastal road for hours. While ghosts have been transformed into gods by worshippers in the past, these eighteen continued to celebrate their ghostliness on a grander scale than ever before […] (117)

The elements of worship were completely unconventional:

Even though half of the new temple had god images of the Eighteen Lords, the main centre of worship remained the grave mound and two larger-than-life bronze statues of the dog that flanked it. The dogs themselves attracted the most attention, as members of the invariably raucous crowd would stroke them and empower amulets by rubbing them over the dogs. Worship peaked in the small hours of the morning (the yin, ghostly time) instead of the daylight of the yang gods.

Even more unusual, the original grave had been preserved as an underground room, directly below the replica with its dog statues. Those who knew about the basement room would go down there […] To top it off, people would offer a burning cigarette rather than sticks of incense in the pot. Worshipping underground and late at night, fondling a bronze dog, and offering cigarettes in lieu of incense, the cult of the Eighteen Lords turned bureaucratic god worship on its head. (117)

Weller then delves into the temple’s connections with the criminal underworld:

Ghost will do anything in exchange for worship – unlike proper bureaucratic [deities], who will not deal with improper requests. Ghost shrines have the reputation of pandering especially to those who cannot go to the official-like gods, like gangsters, gamblers and prostitutes. The Eighteen Lords played up to this reputation. […]

Visitors are always warned about pickpockets […] Relations with the Eighteen Lords have resembled contracts with mobsters more than the respectful petitions to the proper gods. The Eighteen Lords would do anything at all, but punishment for not paying them was quick and dire. […]

Many of the requests of the Eighteen Lords concerned profit (to which even the stuffiest gods have no objection in China), but especially profit from gambling on an illegal lottery, or a killing from the stock-market craze that swept Taiwan in those years, or from less than strictly respectable business practices. (117-8)

Weller lists several other ghost shrines in Taiwan, including several that are dedicated to outlaw folk heroes:

[One popular spirit] during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan […] was Liao Tianding, a sort of Robin Hood. He was murdered in his sleep by a brother-in-law who wanted the reward on his head. A similar shrine honours a mainland soldier who turned to bank robbery, supposedly to support a friend’s child. He was shot by firing squad. (118)

Weller goes on to analyze the historical context of Taiwan in the 1980s: capitalism’s “breakdown of communal ties” (120) and a secular state that had “had undermined its claims about ultimate values [by simultaneously proclaiming freedom of religion and championing rationalism], leaving a void that religion has stepped in to fill” (121).

Weber observes that “capricious deities matched the capricious nature of profit itself” (120), while their association with outlaw elements reflects the “collapse of political control over religion” (121). One can see certain similarities in the cult of Santa Muerte, which the Vatican recently declared blasphemous, or the cult of the Santos Malandros (Holy Thugs) in Venezuela, which is part of the María Lionza religion. Their leader, Ismael Sánchez, was active in the 1960s and 70s and “would supposedly steal truckloads of meat or flour and then distribute the goods among his neighbours in a poor area of Caracas.”

Saint Ismael, Cementerio General del Sur, Caracas, Photo by Santiago Stelley

Cementerio General del Sur, Caracas, Credit: Santiago Stelley

It is not only criminals who worship these saints: “Even though their devotees have been often stigmatised as thieves and prostitutes, the reality is that more and more ordinary Venezuelans have turned to these peculiar saints to ask for protection.”

Weller makes a similar observation about the Eighteen Lords: “So many people went that they could not all be underworld figures, but clearly people found a thrill in going to a temple that claimed this element of disreputability [sic] and danger” (117). I’m not including them in my worship because of the Lords’ extremely localized nature, but if I ever travel to Taiwan for some reason I’ll make sure to visit their temple.

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