I don’t think I’m flattering myself when I say that I may know more than the average human about the weird and sometimes dark world of the occult. For this reason I am often skeptical of articles posted claiming that a crime has been committed “for the purposes of witchcraft”. All too often magic and witchcraft are used as ontological placeholders for the more honest but far more distressing notion that sometimes crimes are committed for no reason at all. But nothing sells tabloids like an article claiming that teens have killed a cat, or a woman has drowned her baby, or a man has murdered his girlfriend in the name of SATAN.
For this reason, when I read that a British national of Taiwanese descent has been arrested in a Bangkok hotel for allegedly attempting to sell six dead babies, my response was one of instant skepticism. Details are predictably sparse, but the police report indicates that Chou Hong Hun, 28, was attempting to sell the deceased infants on the internet, for use in ritual witchcraft. Apparently the man acquired the dead babies from another man, as yet unidentified, for 200,000 baht, or roughly 6,600 USD.
To decide whether my skepticism is merited in this case, I have decided to analyze what I know of deceased infants in magic. Follow along, if you can handle a little dark knowledge you might wish you didn’t have.
You may know that it is a distressingly common practice in some parts of Africa to sacrifice living children in an attempt to alleviate poverty or disease, to the extent that sign like these have to be made:
However, it should be noted that in these cases the sacrifice is of a living child, not a dead one. Right off the bat we can rule out the use of these deceased infants in a sacrificial sense, as no religious or occult tradition that I can think of would use lifeless beings, no matter the relative holiness or unholiness of the entity to whom the offering is being made. Therefore we must view these infants as the magically active components of a ritual act, possessing some theoretical potency unique to their nature.
Dead bodies, of course, or portions thereof, have certainly been used in historical magical practices the world wide, and the use of these involves usually involves two justifications:
1) The Iconic, wherein the identity and life of the deceased is relevant. In the case of the infamous Hand of Glory, for instance, the hand in question is taken from a thief or murderer hanging from a gibbet. The criminal nature of the hand’s erstwhile owner is seen as lending resonance with the magical artifact in question, whose purpose is to aid in burglary. Traditional relics of Catholic saints, of course, follow the same logic, wherein the physical remains in some way continue to bear some power associated with the life of the individual from which they were taken.
2) The Compositional, wherein a specific part of a human body is believed to possess a certain innate property suited to the aim of the practitioner. Often this aspect intersects with antiquated medicinal knowledge, such as the surprisingly socially acceptable practice of medicinal cannibalism to alleviate all manner of ills in Europe, as late as the 18th century. Take the following recipe from Oswald Croll’s 1609 book Bazilica Chymica and Praxis Chymiatricae or Royal and Practical Chymistry:
Chuse the Carcase of a red Man (because in them the blood is more sincere, and gentle and therefore more excellent) whole (not maimed) clear without blemishes, of the age of twenty four years, that hath been Hanged, Broke upon a Wheel, or Thrust-through, having been for one day and night exposed to the open Air, in a serene time. This Mumy (that is, Musculous flesh, of the Thighs, Breasts, Armes, and other parts) from the two Luminaries, once illuminate and constellate, cut into small pieces or slices and sprinkle on them Powder of Myrrh, and of Aloes, but a very little (otherwise it will be too bitter) afterward by Macerating, Imbibe them for certain days in Spirit of Wine, hang them up a little, and again imbibe them, then hang them up to dry in the Air, this so dryed will be like Flesh hardned in Smoak, and be without stink.
This recipe indicates that the redness of the man is better only because of the quality of the blood involved, not because of some sort of moral or spiritual aspect that the man in question may have acquired The corpse is then put through various preparations, This human jerky could then be powdered to form poltices, or consumed to heal bruising or “ruptures”. Similarly, the scrapings of the inside of a human skull were believed to be effective in curing headaches.
Historically, materials taken from infants seem to combine these two aspects. Several medieval European grimoires, for instance, prescribe the use of infant fat for the creation of candles by which the ceremonial conjuration of a demon or spirit would be accomplished. The fat, clearly, would be chosen as the part of the body most conducive to the creation of a candle. Given that dead bodies, young and old, were an abundant resource, an infant would be used specifically because of the unique spiritual qualities imparted to infants by Christian theology: a soul residing in a complex state between innocence and sin. Traditional Catholicism states that an unbaptised or stillborn infant would be doomed to Limbo, a liminal spiritual dimension that was neither the Heaven reserved for the redeemed, nor the Hell reserved for the damned. Given that magic occurs on boundaries, peripheries, and transitional states, there is a certain rationale to lighting the boundary of one’s magical circle with the fat of a being whose soul is believed to linger in an eternal Periphery. However, this traditional Western “ingredient-based” style seems strange here. Why transport a suitcase full of dead babies when one could smuggle less identifiable jars of fat? It would seem instead that the infant’s form must be a necessity.
Thailand, of course, maintains its own historical stock of grisly magical recipes. Of particular interest along this line of thought is the Guman Thong, a seemingly benign wealth talisman that can be readily found in storefronts.
According to legend, the original Guman Thong was created 500 years ago by the General Khun Paen. When his son was stillborn, the General took the corpse to a Buddhist Chanting Hall, baked the infant to a dried husk, gilded it, and imbued it with life with various secret mantras. The newly created Guman Thong then served his father throughout his life, bringing him great fortune. Modern Guman Thong, of course, are generally porcelain or plastic figurines painted gold.
If we accept the police reports claim that these infants were intended for “witchcraft”, the creation of a more traditional Guman Thong is a possibility. Most abortions in Thailand are illegal, leading to cases such as the 2,000 aborted fetuses discovered in a crematorium, once again in Bangkok. If this theory is holds, it would not be difficult for the man charged with this crime to have acquired the materials in question. As we have no way of ascertaining at the moment whether these were aborted fetuses, stillborn infants, or infants who died after birth, we cannot necessarily rule out the potential of Guman Thong creation. However, the creation of Guman Thong in this traditional fashion would require a complicated process involving the cooperation of a Buddhist Temple, various exotic herbs, and a sizable quantity of gold-leaf.
It may be of interest to note, however, that should the Guman Thong theory prove to be the case, tradition states that the period between of transportation of the dead infant to the Buddhist Temple is supposedly an incredibly dangerous one, plagued by various aggressive spirits who will attempt to attack the bearer of the infant. Perhaps, even, going so far as to bring law enforcement down upon the offender’s head.
UPDATE: Apparently Huffpo, BoingBoing, the Telegraph and others are reporting that the fetuses were indeed roasted and covered in gold leaf. I can find no confirmation that this was mentioned anywhere in the police report, and are seeking primary sources. But for now it seems like the gold baby golem theory may indeed be true.