Shape-shifters in Colonial Burma

I’m currently reading a novel by a British judge called Arthur Edgar titled The Hatanee: A Tale of Burman Superstition published in 1906. According to Edgar, the Hatanee is a terrifying, shape-shifting, half-tiger-half-human creature that hunts people when they are alone in the jungle. The novel was inspired by the apparently ‘real life’ murder of a Burmese woman by her neighbours after she had been accused of being a Hatanee – although Edgar’s source for this is a sensationalist newspaper report. What interests me about Edgar’s portrayal of this beastly supernatural being are the links he makes between fear, guilt and superstition.

Burmese watercolour painting of a Beloo and Belooma, Burmese ogres, some of whom shape-shift to kidnap children. (From 'Watercolour Painting of Burmese Life' c.1897, available at the Oxford Digital Library.)
Burmese watercolour painting of a Beloo and Belooma, Burmese ogres, some of whom shape-shift to kidnap children. (From ‘Watercolour Painting of Burmese Life’ c.1897, available at the Oxford Digital Library.)

The lead character’s fears in the novel are exacerbated by a guilty conscience. The Hatanee hunts hunters; those who have knowingly breached the Buddha’s teachings not to kill animals. The Burmese protagonist’s fear is made worse by his guilty feelings at having hunted a deer. The connection between fear and guilt is laid out in the poem, composed by Edgar, that introduces the story:

Lives of men They value lightly

As the lives of other creatures:

Hapless men who rouse their anger

Meet a swift and dreadful fate:

Death in many forms, awaits them-

Stealthy tiger, lurking cobra-

And the death has added terror

When the conscience is oppressed.

Similar explanations for Burmese beliefs in supernatural entities can be found in other colonial writings. James ‘Elephant Bill’ Williams (who I’ve written about a couple of times on this blog) also linked guilt, fear and superstition. He  viewed claims that his working elephants had been killed by forest spirits (Nats) as expressions of his Burmese staff’s remorse about the deaths. But Williams also admitted to occasionally entertaining beliefs about Nats and shape-shifters himself, particularly when isolated in remote parts of the jungle. This too might have been linked to fear and guilt. He wrote of his belief that the British desire to hunt game was an attempt to suppress an underlying fear of the jungle. He also expressed his own personal guilt about hunting game. These feelings of guilt and fear suggest a deeper ambivalence about his relationship with Burma’s wildlife: the desire to conquer it, sentimental attachments to it, and the fear of being overcome by it.

So whose fear and guilt is it in Edgar’s novel? In writing about the Hatanee was he attempting to project his own anxieties onto the Burmese? Whatever the case, shape-shifters seem apt vessels for amorphous and unidentifiable fears of the jungle and its hidden dangers.

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