Across south-east Asia you’ll find Spirit houses in front of nearly every home and business. Spirit houses are elaborate and beautiful miniature versions of temples and traditional homes. They’re meant to do exactly what their name implies: house the spirits who reside on that piece of land.
Across the region, it is believed that there are many kinds of spirits who live throughout the landscape. These spirits inhabit trees, rivers, and even people’s dwellings. By offering the spirits a beautiful, ornate place to reside, and daily offerings, the people believe they’ll keep mischievous and harmful spirits out of their homes. When the spirits are happy and cared for, the residents feel the same.
What is a Spirit House?
Traditionally, spirit houses were intricately carved from pieces of wood. Many were, and still are, painted bright colors. Designed to mimic homes and temples, spirit houses were placed on either one large pillar, or four smaller ones. If a spirit house sits on four pillars, it’s meant for the land-gods. These spirit houses usually have statues of an older man and woman, as well as butlers, servants, dancers, and animals. Spirit houses placed atop a single pillar are said to be inhabited by an angel. The guardian spirit is represented by a gold-colored statue of a man holding a money bag (success) and a sword (protection). This type of spirit house is said to provide connection between the heavens and earth.
A few things have changed over the years. The craftsmanship and detail of wooden spirit houses has become much less prevalent. Cement and metal structures are more common today. The animal statues (like elephants and horses) that once represented transportation have often been replaced with toy cars and airplanes. Despite these signs of the time, there is still a great level of respect given to spirit houses. Offerings are not disrupted, and many people still offer a slight bow when passing.
Spirit House Construction
The size and elaborateness of the spirit house is an indication of the owner’s wealth. Hence, you’ll find huge spirit houses in front of malls and large businesses, and more modest ones in less affluent areas. Much care is taken in the planning and construction of a spirit house. In fact, this process must be overseen by a Brahm priest, who is said to have the ability to communicate with spirits. The priest will consult the astrological charts of the landowner to assist in the choice of spirit house design, color, its location, and even the time of day when the ceremonial installation should take place.
When the time comes, a hole, approximately two yards deep, is dug in the ground at the blessed location. Then, the owner of the spirit house and his family members throw coins and other offerings into the hole to ensure that the spirits are happy. The priest then calls upon the spirits, invoking them into the statues that reside in the spirit house. The statues are transformed from ordinary objects into holy ones.
Once the ceremonial construction and installation is complete, the owner has a daily responsibility to maintain their relationship with the spirits. By offering incense, fruit, vegetables, flowers, and even vessels filled with red liquid (often strawberry Fanta!) daily, the spirit house owner shows respect to the spirits. In return, the spirits are believed to bestow prosperity, health, protection, and good luck on the household.
History, Design, Spirit
We were blown away when we found this spirit house on our last trip to Asia. It’s intricate design, craftsmanship, and condition are to be celebrated, especially when you consider that it could be over 100 years old. The Elements East philosophy is to integrate history, design, and spirit in all that we do, which made it easy to bring this piece home. As we opened our new store in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, it felt so fitting to install this piece in our meditation room. We honor the spirits who’ve watched over this piece of land for centuries, and invite them to share this space peacefully, and prosperously with us and our community.
Our space is your space. We welcome you to stop in and sit in this peaceful room when you need a little quiet, and a little connection. We also offer a monthly meditation practice, classes, and seminars, which are open to the community.