Research and discussion paper

On the Question of Origins: Kathoey and Thai Culture

Andrew Matzner 

Independent researcher and Adjunct Professor in Women's Studies at the Hollins University, Virginia, USA. 

Copyright Andrew Matzner to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

Andrew's research and writing interests are in TG in Asia and the Pacific. He is the author of 'O Au No Keia: voices from Hawai'i's mahu and transgender communities', published by Xlibris Corporation. He is currently translating 'The Third Path', a semi-autobiographical novel by Kiratee Chanar about growing up transgendered in Thailand. Working with his life partner, Lee Ray Costa, on a book that focuses on life stories from university-aged Thai TGs. 

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Uploaded 11/11/02


What is the cultural history of transgenderism in Thailand? Is there an unbroken link which connects kathoey living in Thailand today with transgendered beings found in a primeval mythology? Is there something in the "Thai religious belief system" or "Thai world-view" which provides a space in society for those who exist between the poles of male and female? Addressing these questions might help to explain the apparent toleration of transgenderism in contemporary Thailand, which is especially striking when compared with other countries. However, this is a difficult undertaking for two reasons. First, there is very little information written in Thai or in English about transgenderism in pre-contemporary Thailand. Indeed, due to a lack of oral history collecting, we know very little about the lives of kathoey and their place in Thai culture even fifty years ago. Second, the very idea of a homogenous "Thai culture" or singular "Thai nation" is itself problematic.

In this essay I will try to begin to make sense of the place of kathoey in the cultural history of those people who live in what is today known as Thailand. I will do this by examining creation myths found in this area of the world which include the figure of a "hermaphrodite." These creation myths are significant because they provide some clues as to the role and status of the transgendered individual in southeast Asian religious tradition. As these stories were created by groups of people who existed before the concept of "Thailand" did, I must begin my discussion by providing a brief background of their ethnic origins (based on Wyatt, 1984). We shall see that Thailand – in its existence as a nation-state – is a relatively young entity. Accordingly, a concept such as "ancient Thailand" is actually an oxymoron, and the linkage of pre-Thai myths involving "hermaphrodites" with present-day Thai kathoey by various authors is not as straightforward as they would have us believe.

The Tai and Thailand

"Tai" is a term which refers to various groups of people sharing common cultural and linguistic features who, thousands of years ago, lived in southern and southeastern China. Chinese expansion during the first millennium CE drove the Tai into southern and southwestern directions, forcing them to slowly make their way to locations today known as northeastern India, Burma, Laos, southern Yunnan, northern and western Vietnam, and, eventually, Thailand. During this time groups of Tai became ethnically differentiated from one another, although each retained linguistic and cultural similarities.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Tai peoples gradually began to form new states of increasing size, and those Tai who were making their way into what is today northern, central and northeastern Thailand came into contact with the highly advanced Dvaravati civilization. Dvaravati cities, which originally developed in the sixth century CE in southern Burma and central Thailand, were populated by the Mon people. The Mons, who spoke a language unrelated to Tai, produced a highly developed civilization about which we still know very little. With primary centers located at Nakhon Pathom and Lopburi, in the vicinity of present-day Bangkok, the Mons went on to expand their power in the second half of the first millenium to the northeastern plateau (present day Isan) and to the north, in the Chiang Mai – Lamphun area.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Khmer empire of Angkor (in present day Cambodia) began challenging Mon dominance. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as various Mon and Khmer kingdoms waxed and waned, Tai populations spread further southwards down from upland valleys into the plains areas previously controlled by these groups. At this point, the major Mon and Khmer empires began breaking up into smaller city-states. All the while, the Tai in this part of southeast Asia were being exposed to both Mon and Khmer social and religious systems. In particular, the Theravada Buddhism of the Mons and the brahmanic Indic rituals of the Khmer became integrated into the Tai belief system, which was based on animism.

Eventually the Tai were able to assert their dominance over local Mon and Khmer populations, and a group of Tai known as the Siamese gained control of the central plains area centered around the Chao Praya valley. In the late thirteenth century Sukhothai, a local kingdom ruled by Siamese, grew into an extensive power under the rule of King Ramkhamhaeng. After King Ramkhamhaeng’s death, his kingdom disintegrated. But over the next two hundred years three other Tai kingdoms came to power. The most powerful was that of Ayudha, which originated in the central plains. The others were Lan Na, in northern Thailand, and Lan Sang, centered in Luang Prabang, Laos. In the course of empire building, each of these Tai kingdoms had to manufacture identities for themselves for the purpose of "internal cohesion and external recognition" (Wyatt: 62). Here we can begin to see the homogenization of diverse ethnic groupings under singlar "national identities."

Ayudha was sacked by the Burmese in 1767, but within a short time a new Siamese capital was established at Bangkok under Rama I, the first king of the still current Chakri dynasty. By the nineteenth century we find that the Lan Na kingdom has been incorporated into a Siamese nation whose borders look very much like those of present day Thailand. Beginning from the mid nineteenth century, Siam underwent a project of nation-building in the Western sense of the term. Particularly under the reign of Rama VI (1910-1925), education, religion and government-sponsored programs were used to emphasize the idea that those living within the borders of Siam were all Siamese citizens, and that "the nation should provide the primary focus of personal and group identity" (Wyatt: 229). At the same time, Siam’s need for wage-laborers meant that Chinese immigration rates greatly increased. By 1910 they made up 9.5 percent of the total population. Although large numbers assimilated into Siamese society by taking Siamese names and marrying into Siamese families, many Chinese retained aspects of their cultural background. This led to tensions between Siamese and Chinese communities, especially in Bangkok.

In 1932 there was a coup and King Rama VII’s rule was replaced with a constitutional monarchy. In 1939, prime minister Luang Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, partly in reaction to Chinese economic dominance and growing Chinese nationalism within Siam. Another reason Phibun gave for the change was that the name Siam had been first used by other countries (such as China and Cambodia) to refer to the Tai people living in the central plains. The term "Thai"(meaning "free", as does "Tai") also appeared to incorporate those Tai populations within the borders of the country which Siam originally did not refer to, such as the Tai living in the north and northeast (Wyatt: 253-254). Other groups of Tai peoples which Phibun hoped to include within an ever-expanding Thai nation included populations settled in Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

It was Phibun more than anyone who, from his assumption of power in 1938 until his (temporary) departure from the political scene in 1944, was responsible for creating a sense of Thai-ness which had not existed previously. His nation-building mission utilized ideologies of nationalism and patriotism which produced a "foundation for uniformity of the national culture and social values, and the prescribed way of life" (Suwannathat-Pian, 1995:106). Part of Phibun’s notion of Thai-ness was based on a heritage connected to Ayudhya-era culture and society, that is, the Siamese culture which had flourished in the Chaopraya river valley. At the same time, Phibun introduced cultural reforms which came from Western sources, such as a dress code which replaced Thai articles of clothing with Western ones, and the outlawing betel-chewing. His promotion of a common, nationalistic "Thai" culture makes Phibun one of the most important architects of "Thailand" as we know it today. For, like no other who had come before him in Siamese politics, Phibun was able to effectively articulate and forcefully implement the notion of a singular nation-state contained within a set perimeter of borders held together by the glue of a common culture.

This brief historical sketch illustrates two points which are important when discussing "Thai culture" or "Thai tradition." First, it shows that "Thailand" is actually a very recent invention. What we think of today as a culture and society unified by common beliefs and value systems only came into existence in the twentieth century. Therefore, when thinking about something such as the cultural history of kathoey, it would serve us better to focus on regional, localized groups of people in this part of southeast Asia, some of which were culturally differentiated from others. Indeed, the second point of this historical introduction is to emphasize those ethnic influences which have shaped the nation we now know as "Thailand." A person you meet today on the street in this country might have Tai blood, or, alternately, be descended from Mon, Khmer or Chinese ancestors. It is also worth noting that more Lao (who, regardless of shared Tai ancestry, are considered and consider themselves ethnically different from the Siamese) live in Thailand than in Laos. Then there are the numerous hill tribe populations living in northern Thailand, as well as the Muslim Thais in the south whose culture is closer to that of the Malays. Therefore, "Thailand" and "Thai culture" must be understood as constituting more than a singular ethnic identity. Rather, over a thousand years of interactions between Mons, Khmer, different groups of Tais, Chinese, Indians and others have led to the construction of constructs such as "Thailand" and "Thai-ness."

While Thailand officially possesses one language and one national culture, and while a great deal of assimilation between different ethnic groups has taken place, a huge range of cultural and linguistic variation nevertheless exists within its borders. The different cultural attitudes held by various ethnic groups within Thailand and various patterns of migration are factors which make an investigation of "Thai attitudes" towards transgenderism or the place of kathoey in "Thai society" in pre-,modern times so problematic, not to mention difficult. It will be especially important to keep the history of Thailand I have outlined above in mind when I examine present-day interpretations of "Thai mythology."

The First "Kathoey"?

In 1991 Anatole-Roger Peltier published a translation of the Pathamamulamuli, which he claims is a Yuan (northern Thai) creation myth. The Yuan are part of the Tai ethnic group, and Peltier writes that other Tai peoples, such as those living in northeast Thailand, as well as the Burmese Shan and the Lao, share this same origin story (1991:187). This myth, dating back to at least the fifteenth century AD, contains two themes, reflecting the mixture of pre-Buddhist and Buddhist beliefs commonly found in Southeast Asian religious texts. The first theme details the creation of the world, which represents local Tai oral tradition. The second, while providing an account of the lineage of the earliest humans, is mainly concerned with relating stories of Buddhist personages and elucidating principles of Buddhist philosophy.

The Pathamamulamuli is significant because it contains two hermaphrodite characters. The following is a summary of the beginning portion of the myth. According to Peltier’s translation, a female being born of the earth element called Nang Itthang Gaiya Sangkasi created all the animals of the earth. Afterward, a male being named Pu Sangaiya Sangkasi emerged from the fire element. Coming upon Nang Itthang Gaiya Sangkasi, he sought to make her his wife. The woman agreed, but only if Pu Sangaiya Sangkasi could tell her why the animals she had created were continually being reborn after they died, and what she could do to prevent this from happening.

After thinking for a long time, the man finally answered her question, and so was able to take Nang Itthang Gaiya Sangkasi as his wife. Some time afterward he said, "Let us make three sexes: female, male and hermaphrodite." The woman used all sorts of materials, including the four elements, to shape three human-shaped figures: a female, a male and a hermaphrodite. The woman gave them life, and so were born the world's first human beings.

When these three people grew older, they themselves had three children. At this time, Itthi [the woman] had good feelings for Pullinga [the man]. She loved him much more than Napumsaka [the hermaphrodite]. Because of the relationship between Itthi and Pullinga, Napumsaka became jealous and killed the man. Itthi was distraught. She buried her husband's body in the ground, planted a tree above the spot, and offered food every day to his grave. A short time later, the hermaphrodite died. The woman buried it in the ground, but never went near it again. Instead, she continued bringing offerings of rice to her dead husband. Seeing their mother behave in this way, her three children asked her, "Mother, why do you bring food to Father who died first, and not to Father who died last?" The mother answered, "I loved the first very much. However, I felt no love for the second." Soon afterward, Itthi died. Her children collected together the bodies of their three parents, buried them in a cemetery, and offered food to them everyday.

Later, Itthi [the second generation of humans have the same names as their parents], having come to the end of her life, passed away. Her husband, Pullinga, buried her body in a cemetery, planted a tree over her grave, and made daily offerings of food. Not long afterward the hermaphrodite died. Pullinga deposited his body in a certain location, and then ignored it. At this point Pullinga’s children asked him, "Father, you offer food everyday to the grave of Mother who died first. Yet you don't do anything for Mother who died last. Why are you not treating them equally?" The man answered, "Children, I loved your mother who died first. The one who died last, I didn't love at all" (202-8; 212).

The myth of the ancestors continues, but at this point in the story the figure of the hermaphrodite permanently disappears.

In 1991, the same year in which Peltier's translation of the Pathamamulamuli appeared, the Journal of the Siam Society published an article by Emmanuel Guillon entitled, "The Ultimate Origin of the World, or The Mula Muh, and Other Mon Beliefs." In it, Guillon presents a creation myth which he states is "uniquely characteristic of the Mons" (22). Interestingly, the Mon story is quite similar to the Yuan one.

According to Guillon’s version, when the first Female Being (Itangaya Sangasi) encountered the first Male Being (Posangeya Sangasi), she asked him how to stop the animals she had created from being continually reborn. Posangeya Sangasi thought this problem over for quite a while, and finally answered, "If we could create a male human being, a female and a neuter from the three sexual natures and the four elements, humans would grow in wisdom generation after generation and would be able to conquer the whole animal kingdom." The female being did not reply, but this answer pleased her.

After staying together for some time, the man then left in order to find "the four embryonic elements for the woman, who mixed them with clay and made three human forms, one neuter, another female, and the last one male. She put the element Earth into them to give them stability, the element Fire to give them strength, the element Water to give them beauty, the element Air to make them joyful, the ability to see so they could discern shapes, and the ability to understand so that they could experience feelings. Finally she gave them a disposition or natural inclination towards having a spirit, which took the form of a grub or caterpillar in their abdomen, and in eighteen months made them into living human beings, male, female and neuter" (23).

These three human beings grew up and had three children. The woman was deeply in love with the man and took great care of him, but she didn’t care at all about the "neuter" who, envious of the happiness of the man and the woman, murdered the man. When the woman discovered that her companion had been killed she grieved over him. Then she took the body and placed it in an isolated place and brought it food every day until it had completely decomposed. The woman then erected a wooden post as a monument over where the body had been, and continued to bring food every day. Then the neuter died. The woman laid its body near the grave of the man but did not bring it any food. The children asked her, "Why don't you bring any food to one of our fathers?" The woman replied, "I only loved one of them, not the other." When the woman finally passed away, her children treated her as she had treated her "husband." This portion of the myth ends by reporting that the three children had children of their own, six girls and seven boys, "since the neuter had not had any offspring" (23).

The creation stories presented by Guillon and Peltier are quite comparable to one another, particularly regarding the inclusion of two generations of three human beings: female, male and hermaphrodite. Nonetheless, there are several differences between the Yuan and Mon accounts. In the Yuan story, the first generation hermaphrodite kills the male being, whom the female being then mourns. Moving forward to the second generation of beings, after both the female and hermaphrodite pass away, the male expresses grief for the female, and ignores the hermaphrodite. It is noteworthy that negative feelings towards the hermaphrodite are expressed in both generations of humans.

While the Mon story also presents two generations of male, female and hermaphrodite beings, it is only the first generation's activities which are the same as in the Yuan version. Unlike in the Yuan myth, the second generation of male, female and hermaphrodite in the Mon story apparently coexisted without incident. As mentioned above, in the Mon myth it is stated that, "These three children [i.e., those of the first generation of three beings] had children of their own, six girls and seven boys, since the neuter had not had any offspring". An interesting question to ponder is: If the three original male, female and hermaphrodite beings had three children who were also male, female and hermaphrodite, why didn't hermaphrodites continue to be produced in the third generation?

Especially significant in both the Mon and Yuan stories is the negative role assigned to the hermaphrodite: This is the human who commits the world's first murder, brought on by the jealousy it felt at being ignored by the female in favor of the male. And while the female conducts funeral rites at the male's grave, she later spurns the hermaphrodite's burial site. In addition, there is negative language directed towards the hermaphrodite which Peltier leaves out of his English translation of the myth. I was able to discover this because besides printing the original Yuan (Lan Na) language text of the Pathamamulamuli,, Peltier also provides Thai, French, and English translations. Although I am not able to read Lan Na Thai, I was able to compare Peltier’s Thai and English versions, and the English is relatively faithful to the Thai – but not entirely so. For example, at one point in the Thai text the second-generation male refers to his dead wife as having been his "soulmate" (yonisomanasigaan), and emphasizes that the hermaphrodite is "not his soulmate" (ayonisomanasigaan). Peltier also does not translate a sentence in which the father tells his children that the hermaphrodite, "was not pleasing to me" (naw peung jai hae goo paw lae) (43). Although the reasons are not clear, we can see that the hermaphrodite’s role in the Yuan creation myth, and to a lesser extent in the Mon story, is not positive. Rather, this character appears to occupy a lower status than either the male or female, an element of the myth which is underscored by the hermaphrodite’s exclusion from the third generation of humans.

Our next question concerns the ethnic origins of the Pathamamulamuli and Mula Muh myths: from which ethnic group did these stories originally come from? Peltier argues that the Pathamamulamuli is based on the world view of a Tai group (the Yuan), and that this myth "prevailed" in the ancient Lan Na kingdom of Chiang Mai between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries C.E. (177). Peltier also informs the reader that he began his study of the Pathamamulamuli at the insistence of a Thai prince. This prince, the author of a book entitled, "The History of the Thai Ancestors," wanted Peltier to research origin stories in northern Thailand. Peltier believes that translating the Pathamamulamuli into several languages "will no doubt contribute to making the Tai civilization known as a whole, and the Yuan civilization in particular. Thus, the present work is somehow a continuation of Prince Chand’s book on Thai ancestors" (178; my emphasis). Peltier continues by claiming that the idea of two ancestors who "shaped the world" is found "more or less among all Tai ethnic groups" (184). He also writes, "The Pathamamulamuli is a reference work about Yuan cosmogony; it was very popular among the Tai since it is also found in Shan countries, among the Khun, in Laos and in the North-East of Thailand" (187). This background indicates that Peltier’s project was of political importance in terms of establishing a link between present-day Thai and a wide range of Tai forebearers (i.e. including those living in Laos and Burma) in order to justify a Bangkok-centered empire-building project. As we shall see below, while the basic framework of the Pathamamulamuli is indeed a popular Tai creation myth, it consists of versions with significant differences, some of which are more common than others. However, Peltier presents his version as if it were the dominant one among the different Tai ethnic groups. Also significant is that Peltier assumes that the Pathamamulamuli creation story represents an indigenous system of Tai cosmogony, which means that he ignores the possibility of the impact of cultural influences on the Tai by non-Tai ethnic groups.

Indeed, Peltier’s claim of Yuan ownership of the Pathamamulamuli runs counter to Guillon’s insistence that, "There does exist, in fact, a cosmology of which we have every reason to consider, no matter what may have been written on this subject, that even if it is not actually Mon in origin, the Mons have taken it over to such a degree that it has become part and parcel of their culture" (22). Guillon writes that manuscripts with the Mula Muh have been found "even recently in all Mon monasteries" (ibid.), although he does not make clear exactly where those temples might be located. Guillon further states that this origin story "bears no resemblance, in so far as I am aware, to any other creation myth in this part of the world" (25). However, Guillon does shortly thereafter does admit that, "to be sure, there are certain points of similarity between this creation myth and some others of Southeast Asia. . . . Nevertheless, many other features seem to be original" (25). He lists one of those features as being the "creation in addition to man and woman of a ‘neuter’ human being, sexless and unloved; the first cult of the dead, resulting from the first murder (i.e. of the first father)" (25).

It is clear from their firm positions regarding ethnic ownership that both Peltier and Guillon have ignored the cultural interaction and borrowing between the Tai and Mon populations which began taking place over a thousand years ago and have continued up to the present day. For instance, scholars recognize the influence of Mons on the "cultural and religious history of Thailand" (Swearer and Premchit, 1998:18). On the other hand, as Tai society slowly became the more dominant cultural force, a large proportion of the Mon assimilated into Tai families through intermarriage (Smalley, 1994: 264). It is particularly telling that Peltier’s Yuan version of the Pathamamulamuli was taken from a monastery in the city of Lamphun, which served as the capital of the Mon kingdom of Haripunjaya between the 9th and 13th centuries CE. Indeed, the Lan Na script in which Peltier’s text of the Pathamamulamuli is written is derived from the Mon alphabet (Smalley: 81).

Yet the question remains: Did Mon beliefs influence Tai creation mythology? Or was it the other way around? For help I turned to the work of Siraporn Nathalang, a Thai researcher from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. As part of a Tai folklore project (1997), she analyzed and compared approximately fifty versions of creation myths that she collected from Tai peoples living in northeastern India, Burma, southern China, Laos, northern Vietnam, and north and northeastern Thailand. Siraporn gathered much of her data by directly interviewing people living in Tai villages. She divided Tai creation myths into three main categories. The first is the Puu sangkasaa-jaa sangkasii type, in which two creators produce the first humans. The examples Siraporn provides in her paper of different versions of this myth are similar to the Pathamamulamuli and Mula Muh, except that the first people do not include hermaphrodites. Siraporn found that this mythic theme predominated among Tai groups in southern China, northeastern Burma and northern Thailand.

The second kind of origin myth featured a giant gourd, out of which came the earth’s first humans. Likewise, the figure of the hermaphrodite is absent from this myth, which is found mainly in Laos and northern Vietnam.

The third theme is of the "fragrant soil" type. According to this myth, there was a fire which consumed the entire world. After it burned out, the soil on the earth became fragrant. A male and female, both divine beings, came down from heaven because they were attracted by the soil. They could not resist tasting it, which resulted in their being forced to remain on earth, where they gave birth to the first human beings. This myth is mostly found in northern Thailand.

It is notable that Siraporn’s examples of Tai creation myths did not include any hermaphrodites. Curious about this omission, especially because of the major role the hermaphrodite plays in the Pathamamulamuli - which Peltier claims is a widespread Tai myth - I wrote to Siraporn and asked whether she had ever come across any origin stories which mentioned a kathoey. Siraporn replied that most of the Puu sangkasaa-jaa sangkasii (i.e. Pathamamulamuli) type stories which she collected contained male and female creators who have twelve children, six sons and six daughters. However, she did collect one northern Thai myth in Payao, in which the creators have seven offspring: three males, three females and one hermaphrodite (personal communication, 4/19/01).

Can Siraporn’s research offer any clues which can help us begin to resolve the apparently contradictory claims of origin put forward by Peltier and Guillon? It appears that the basic story of the creation of humanity as told in both the Pathamamulamuli and Mula Muh is found both among a wide range of Tai-speaking peoples as well as among the Mon. However, that some of the Tai living in southern China - who did not necessarily undergo the cultural influence of the Mons that those Tais living in northern Thailand did - have a Pathamamulamuli-type myth indicates that the this legend did not necessarily originate with the Mon. On the other hand, it is also significant that the figure of the hermaphrodite is not found in most of the Tai versions of the Pathamamulamuli collected by Siraporn. Therefore, one could speculate that the inclusion of the hermaphrodite in Peltier’s version is actually a Mon-based influence, a conclusion which makes sense since Peltier’s manuscript was found in Lamphun, a former Mon center of civilization. If the hermaphrodite were a salient factor in the original Pathamamulamuli legend, then I believe Siraporn would have found more Tai myths with its inclusion than the single one found in Payao, which, being in northern Thailand, could also have been influenced by Mon culture. Of course, one could counter this supposition by arguing that the hermaphrodite did originally exist in Tai versions of the Pathamamulamuli, but over time was, for any number of reasons, dropped or excised from the myth.

In failing to reach any kind of definitive conclusion in this matter, certainly enough questions have been raised to make it clear that future research needs to be carried out about Mon and Tai folklore. Regarding ownership claims, Guillon’s assertions of Mon origin need to undergo further scrutiny. As it stands, we don’t have enough information to evaluate his argument. On the other hand, it seems to me that Peltier’s assertions of Tai origin of the Pathamamulamuli can go either way. That is, it is certain that this myth "prevailed" among many Tai ethnic groups. However, an important aspect of this myth – the hermaphrodite – appears not to have been a necessary inclusion. Does this mean that transgenderism was more culturally salient among the Mon rather than among the Tai peoples? Again, following Siraporn’s lead, more research needs to be done regarding this issue. Nevertheless, we are still left with a significant cultural artifact: the inclusion of a hermaphrodite in at least some southeast asian creation myths. But as we shall see in the next section, there are present-day researchers who unquestioningly believe that Peltier’s version of the Pathamamulamuli was the dominant version found among the Tai, and - ignoring the negative role assigned to the hermaphrodite – have used it as evidence to support claims about the historical place of kathoey in Thai society.

Creative Myth-Making

In writing about transgenderism in Thai society, two academic researchers have employed

"The Tai Creation Myth" (as found in Peltier) in order to rationalize the apparently institutionalized/tolerated existence of kathoey in contemporary Thai culture. Chris Beyer (of Johns Hopkins University) is the author of War in the Blood (1998), a book which investigates the spread of the HIV epidemic throughout South East Asia, and the effect of the virus on specific at-risk populations. In a chapter entitled "Other Genders" Beyer discusses the acceptance of kathoey in Thailand, and presents the northern Thai origin story. I reproduce his version in full below:

The great mother created three beings, the first man, the first woman, and the first katoey. The katoey was jealous of first man's love for his wife, and killed her to have first man for his own. Because the katoey was also male, the marriage with first man was childless. The great mother killed them both and started again, creating second man, second woman, and second katoey. This time the second katoey felt his male energy, and was jealous of the man. He killed him, but wanted to live with the second woman as a sister, not a wife. Again the union was childless and again the great mother killed them both. When she created third man, third woman and third katoey, she pulled the third katoey aside and told him that he must let the man and woman live together and produce children so that creation could go on. The katoey would have a special role, but had to accept this marriage. The katoey agreed, and the Lanna people came into being, filling the valley with their offspring. (164)

Beyer comments, "It is a strange story to western ears. The katoey is an ambiguous and potent figure, who must be compelled to make peace with both men and women so that the world can be populated. (S)he is something of a wild card, a dangerous element, but creation is not complete without her/him. Each time the genders are made anew, there are three" (164).

Although Beyer's text does not contain any citations for his version of the creation story, Peltier's book is listed in the bibliography. A personal communication with Beyer confirmed that Peltier alone was his source for the myth (2/29/99). However, a comparison of Peltier and Beyer's versions produces startling discrepancies. The differences cannot be due to Beyer's reliance on the Thai version, because Peltier's English translation is relatively faithful to it. Yet there are major differences between Peltier’s and Beyer’s versions, which include the order of killing and who is murdered. In Peltier, the hermaphrodite kills the male first, whereas in Beyer it kills the wife. Beyer also states that the hermaphrodite "married" the male, which is not indicated in either of the Thai or English versions in Peltier. Nor does Peltier’s version mention that the first generation of beings was destroyed by the great mother. In addition, it is not clear on what basis Beyer is able to assert that the hermaphrodite wanted to live with the second generation female as a "sister" instead of as a "wife", since this information is not found in Peltier either. Additionally, in Peltier the second generation of three beings are offspring of the first, while in Beyer they are the creation of the great mother. Interestingly, Beyer tells of a third generation of male, female and hermaphrodite, something also clearly not present in Peltier. Finally, there is no mention in Peltier of the great mother taking the hermaphrodite aside and giving it a "special role".

For what purpose did Beyer construct a myth which is so at odds with what is found in both the English and Thai texts of the Pathamamulamuli? Perhaps it is related to Beyer's assertions that kathoey are an accepted part of Thai society and have an important, though ambivalent, role in its cultural history. That is, in his discussion of katoey, Beyer constructs a picture of "tolerant Thailand" (169), in which kathoey have the uncontested freedom to live as women (164). By doing so, Beyrer follows a popularly-held discourse in which Thailand is posited as a paradise for gay and transgendered men. Nowhere does he mention the discrimination and harassment which can make life "a living hell" for sexual minorities in Thailand (Rattachumpoth, 1999: xii). At any rate, Beyer’s creative retelling of the Pathamamulamuli story is misleading, irresponsible, and simply inaccurate.

Another example of myth reinterpretation is found in Rosalind Morris’ influential academic article, "Three Sexes and Four Sexualities: Redressing the Discourses on Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Thailand" (1994). This paper discusses how the Thai sex and gender system has changed over time, from one which originally had three sexes (male, female and hermaphrodite/kathoey) to one consisting of "four sexualities"(different combinations of heterosexual and homosexual). Morris begins by arguing that her study represents a departure from previous examinations of male/female relations in Thai culture, claiming that studies of Thai gender and sexuality have been limited by a reliance on Buddhist ritual texts. "To be sure, such idealizations have local currency and considerable ideological force, but they are not universally accepted and they are not without counterpoint" (18-19). However, it turns out that much of Morris’ own argument about Thai gender and sexuality is itself based on a single text: Peltier’s version of the Pathamamulamuli.

As evidence for her claim that sexual identity sexual identity was originally conceptualized in Thailand by means of a "system of three," Morris relies mainly on Peltier, and follows his assertion his rendering of the Pathamamulamuli was found among the Tai living in the Shan states, Laos, northern and northeastern Thailand (20). Morris provides a brief, incomplete summary of Peltier’s version of the Pathamamulamuli, in which she states that "[t]he hermaphrodite fades in and out of the narrative, coupling with both the female and the male, and is referred to as both father and mother by the children of their unions" (20). Yet Morris’ summary is problematic on two accounts. Frist, it is not stated in the Pathamamulamuli that the hermaphrodite had sex with either the male or female. Being referred to by the children as "mother" or "father" does not necessarily indicate that the hermaphrodite was having sexual relations with either the male or female. For, in addition to their literal meanings, the words for "father" and "mother" can be used as terms of respect, affection or close kinship. Secondly, by claiming that the hermaphrodite "fades in and out of the narrative" Morris makes it appear as if this figure appears more often than it does, and under conditions which actually are not present in the text. In fact, the hermaphrodite actually appears at two specific points in the myth – first as a member of the first generation of humans, then as a member of the second generation of humans. After that, according to the myth, the earth is peopled only with males and females. The disappearing and reappearing of the hermaphrodite suggested by Morris’ choice of words simply do not occur in the text.

A second problem with Morris’ retelling of the legend is that she does not inform the reader about the murder which the hermaphrodite carries out. Instead she notes, "In some instances, she/he is jealous of the affections between the male and female. In others, he/she suffers neglect. Yet, while the pain and the pathos of the hermaphrodite’s position seem to be a function of her/his existential condition, it is never suggested that he/she should or could be otherwise. Nor is there a discourse that impugns his/her moral integrity" (20-21). It is difficult to understand how being responsible for the world’s first murder has no bearing on one’s moral integrity. Nor does Morris fully engage with the negative light in which the hermaphrodite is placed in the myth: in both generations of humans, it is the hermaphrodite who is spurned and treated with disdain. Therefore, I would argue that the original teller/writer of this myth was making a definite statement regarding the moral integrity of the hermaphrodite.

Morris continues by stating,, "In stereotypically Buddhist terms, the Pathamamulamuli attributes to every sex and gender a particular form of suffering (Pali, dukkha): men with the dissatisfaction that comes from unfulfilled physical desire, women with the agonies of childbirth and the loss of children, hermaphrodites with the emotional discomforts that visit the too-sensitive heart" (21). This is a curious claim which I have not been able to substantiate, as Morris fails to provide the reference for where exactly in the Pathamamulamuli she found the description of the particular sufferings for each sex. Indeed, my own careful re-readings of the text have failed to locate any evidence on which she could have based her conclusions. Thus, the assertions regarding suffering which Morris objectively presents as having been specified in the Pathamamulamuli actually are found nowhere in the myth. Rather, they appear to be based on her own personal subjective interpretation of the text.(See Endnotes)

In order to support her assertion that a system of "three sexes" existed in premodern Thailand, Morris positions the hermaphrodite as a major character in the Yuan creation myth and asserts that it enjoyed the same status as males and females in "Thai" gender ideology. She argues, "Nor can the hermaphrodite be seen as a secondary identity [in the story]. Rather, it possesses the same ontological status as the male and female characters" (22). She notes,"It is, of course, unlikely that there ever existed a period in accord with the completely triadic vision of the Pathamamulamuli" (22). Yet, "The system of three in Thailand is, on the other hand, an essential one in which all three sexes are of equal materiality" (22). Indeed Morris goes on to claim, "the trinity of genders exists in the Thai tradition as an imaginary possibility…" (24). As mentioned above, assertions that the hermaphrodite enjoyed the same status as the male and female are suspect for two reasons: first, this character is portrayed in an extremely negative light, and second, it quickly drops out of the narrative, leaving only male and female descendents to continue in the story. Thus, according to the sex/gender system as articulated in the Pathamamulamuli myth itself, once the hermaphrodite disappears, only two sexes are left to continue populating the earth: males and females. This, then, is difficult to reconcile with Morris’ assertion that a "three sex" system actually existed in pre-modern Thailand, as such a claim runs counter to the internal logic of the very source Morris is using to support her argument.(See Endnotes)

Another problematic issue is Morris’ use of the terms "Thai tradition" and "Thailand," which makes it appear as if she is discussing the unchanging sex/gender system of a country whose borders and ethnic composition have remained constant over time. As I made clear in the first part of this chapter, it is impossible to talk about "Thailand" prior to the twentieth century because the conception of its nationhood was not yet in existence. Likewise, "Thai tradition" is only a recent invention, and not a monolithic set of beliefs which, holding true for an entire country, can be traced back indefinitely into the past. That is, the Tai cultural context(s) in which the Pathamamulamuli first developed and circulated were specific to a particular region of southeast asia which housed different cultural contexts from those found in the Chao Praya valley, the area from which the Siamese, and later the Thai state, emerged. By anachronistically collapsing regional differences into a singular mass called "Thailand" imbued with a "Thai tradition" Morris ignores cultural, social, and temporal variations.

But even if the Pathamamulamuli tells us about the cosmogony of those Tai who lived in what today is northern Thailand, it does not necessarily follow that such beliefs were culturally salient or played an influential role on lived sex/gender ideologies in that region, or in other regions such as central, northeastern or southern Thailand, all of which have their own distinctive ethnic compositions and cultural beliefs. Nevertheless, Morris believes that the "system of three" existed as an "imaginary possibility" in "Thai tradition." Webster’s Dictionary (1996) defines "tradition" as follows:

1.Transmittal of elements of a culture from one generation to another, esp. by oral communication. 2. A set of customs and usages transmitted from one generation to another and viewed as a coherent body of precedents influencing the present: heritage. 3. A time-honored practice or set of such practices.

Certainly, in order to prove that the third gender occupied a major ideological role over a long period of time throughout the region today known as Thailand, Morris must provide more evidence than a single myth which, according to Siraporn’s findings, does not appear to have been the most popularly accepted version.

I must admit that at one point in her article Morris does acknowledge the paucity of evidence regarding the "three sexes" system. Nevertheless, she goes on to say, "However, what texts we do have suggest a tradition of sexual and gendered identities incompatible with Western binarism" (22). However, the only sources Morris cites to support her assertion of a "tradition" of three genders are, besides the Pathamamulamuli, two texts produced by Westerners writing in the nineteenth century: Anna Leonowen’s sensationalistic "expose" of Siamese life in the Palace of King Mongkut, and Carl Bock’s account of traveling through northern Thailand. These sources, which are unclear about the role of "hermaphrodites" in Thai society (Bock’s mention of them is restricted to a single line) are separated by Peltier’s origin myth by at least four hundred years, probably much longer, and offer little evidence to support an institutionalized, unbroken "tradition" of transgenderism in "Thai society" as claimed by Morris.

Finally, in light of our discussion above regarding the Mon versus Tai origins of the Pathamamulamuli/Mula Muh myth, it is worth noting that Morris draws attention to a section in Peltier’s version which I believe suggests that the hermaphrodite character might have an Indic, rather than Tai or Mon, source. She writes,

For reasons that are never specified in the text, the hermaphrodite disappears from the Pathamamulamuli fairly early, but his/her form is echoed in other scenes of generation and other aspects of human existence. In chapter 3, for example, the origin of language is discussed in similar terms: ‘The consonants are combined with vowels to form words of three genders: the feminine, the masculine and the neuter.’ In this context, I think the image of tripartite gender entails more than abstract fantasy. Although it expresses the idealizations of the mythic order, it presents identity as something that is highly elastic and subject to ideological manipulation. (21)

There are three points of interest regarding what Morris has written. First, my own reading of Peltier’s text finds no "echoing" of the hermaphrodite’s existence in other sections of the myth. The only other time anything connected with hermaphroditism appears is the section on grammar which Morris mentions. Thus Morris gives the hermaphrodite a larger role in the myth than is actually the case, perhaps because this figure is central to her argument regarding the "three sexes" system. Second, neither Tai nor Thai nouns are gendered. On the other hand, Sanskrit words are. Perhaps this aspect of the myth reflects Indian influence, which would make sense if it were originally Mon, as this group of people were in close contact with traders and monks from India, particularly Ceylon. Third, I feel it is a bit of a stretch to correlate identity issues with grammatical gender. Perhaps if a single word could change from feminine to neuter or masculine to feminine, then one could perhaps make an argument for an elastic worldview. Yet, as far as I know, words do not change their gender. Hence it is difficult to see how this grammatical point indicates elasticity. In addition, if one follows Morris’ argument through, it would have to be argued that other societies whose languages have nouns consisting of one of three genders, such as Latin or German, would also have conceptions of identity which are "highly elastic." That, of course, would be ironic, considering the discourse currently in favor among Thai studies scholars which posits "Thai identity" as extremely malleable in comparison with rigid, unchanging "Western" identities (see, for example, Van Estrik 2000).

A Concluding Thought

We have seen how some Westerners have used the Pathamamulamuli to trace and explain the place of kathoey in Thai society. I believe that at this point in time we simply have too little information to adequately address this issue. Aside from the Mon and Yuan myths, we possess only fragmentary evidence of transgenderism in this part of the world prior to the twentieth century. But until further research is done, we should hold off on positing a link between mythological hermaphroditic figures and the construction/layout of the "Thai" sex/gender system.

In addition, we should pay more attention to regional and ethnic differences, especially when postulating about the framework of sex/gender systems in pre-modern "Thailand." The "Thai people" are not a homogenous population which has existed statically through time and space. Accordingly, beliefs and attitudes found in one area of "Thailand" do not necessarily mirror those in other parts, and we should be wary of generalizations which collapse Thailand’s varied ethnic populations (such as Siamese, Chinese, Mon, Lao, Malay, etc.) into a singular mass.

Our desire to know more about kathoey in pre-contemporary times and how "Thai" notions of gender and sexuality have changed over time would be better served by engaging in something other than literary interpretation, such as in the collecting of oral histories of elderly kathoey living in villages, suburban areas, and cities. Doing so would allow us to gain a deeper understanding of what it has meant to be a kathoey since the early twentieth century. Interviews with elderly non-kathoey from different ethnic backgrounds about attitudes towards kathoey and how they have changed over time can also provide clues to help us better appreciate the place of transgenderism in "Thai" society, at least in the last sixty or seventy years.


Bock, Carl. Temples and Elephants. 1885. Bangkok: White Orchid, 1985.

Beyer, Chris. War in the Blood: Sex, Politics, and AIDS in Southeast Asia, Zed Books, 1998.

Conner, Randy, et al. Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit, Cassell: London, 1997.

Guillon, Emmanuel. "The Ultimate Origin of the World, or the Mula Muh, and Other Mon Beliefs," Journal of the Siam Society v.79, part 1, 1991: 22-29.

Morris, Rosalind. "Three Sexes and Four Sexualities," Positions 2(1), 1994: 15-43.

Nanda, Serena. Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations, Waveland Press: Illinois, 2000.

Peltier, Anatole-Roger. Pathamamulamuli: Tamnan Khao phi Lanna [The origin of the world in the Lan Na tradition]. Chiang Mai: Suriwong, 1991.

Rattachumpoth, Rakkit. "Foreword." In Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand, ed. Peter Jackson and Gerard Sullivan. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1999.

Siraporn Nathalang. "Tai Creation Myths : Reflections of Tai Relations and Tai Cultures" Tai Culture, 2(1), June 1997: 56-66.

Smalley, William A. Linguistic Diversity and National Unity: Language Ecology in Thailand. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Suwannathat-Pian, Kobkua. Thailand’s Durable Premier: Phibun Through Three Decades 1932-1957. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Swearer, Donald K. and Sommai Premchit. The Legend of Queen Cama. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Van Estrik, Penny. Materializing Thailand, Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2000.

Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.


[1] In a telling example of the politics of knowledge and the manner in which information travels, consider the entry for "kathoey" in Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit (1997).  Morris was the only source on which the encyclopedia's compilers relied for their information, which perhaps is understandable, considering that she is a professor at Columbia University and as such is considered an "authority" figure. The encyclopedia’s entry starts off by stating, “In the premodern spiritual system of Thailand, humans were thought to belong to three basic gendered groups: males (phuuchai), females (phuuying), and the transgendered or third gender (kathoey)” (199). In this instance we can see how easily information contained in a far-from-universal myth located in a specific area of southeast Asia has been uncritically applied to Thailand as a whole. That is, the encyclopedia makes it appear as if it is an unquestionable fact that “kathoey” was a normative, accepted category in premodern Thai society, when actually there is little evidence to support such a claim. In addition, I hope this chapter has demonstrated the problematic nature of making generalizations about the culture of a nation (i.e. Thailand) which did not exist in “premodern” times.

In addition, because Morris wrote about the particular sufferings of the three original beings in the Pathamamulamuli as if she were quoting directly from the text, so in turn does the anonymous author of the encyclopedia entry assert as fact that, "Each type of mortal was bestowed with a kind of suffering; that given to the kathoey or third gender person, was the burden of a 'too-sensitive heart'" (199). I remind the reader: the idea that kathoey suffer a “too-sensitive heart” is nowhere found in the actual text of the Pathamamulamuli. Nevertheless, Morris’ unsubstantiated interpretation is presented in the encyclopedia as the truth.

[2] Relying on Morris’ claims, academic Serena Nanda writes in a book about gender diversity in cross-cultural contexts: “The kathoey has a long history in Thailand. Buddhist origin myths describe three original human sex/genders – male, female, and biological hermaphrodite or kathoey. . . . This system of three human sexes, with the kathoey as the third sex, remained prevalent in Thailand until the mid-twentieth century” (2000:73). Here we see how a local legend which actually emphasizes the primacy of two sexes has become the basis for asserting that a three-sex system actually existed in everyday life for hundreds of years. Nanda’s claims (which she presents as facts) are distressing because we simply do not have evidence regarding the “history” of kathoey in the pre-modern “Thai” sex/gender system. Thus, her definitive statements are actually conjectures based on the slimmest of evidence (i.e. Morris’ questionable interpretation of the Pathamamulamuli).