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Burma's nats have formed part of that country's spiritual and material culture for centuries, and first came to the attention of the West via traveler and colonial memoirs. The most notable of these such accounts is undoubtedly Sir Richard Carnac Temple's The Thirty-Seven Nats: A Phase of Spirit-Worship Prevailing in Burma, published in 1906 and still cited by scholars today.
This article argues that the reliance by Western (and some Burmese) authors on Temple's book has led to several misconceptions concerning the nats. These include, for example, that the pantheon known in the West as "The Thirty-Seven Nats" is a royal pantheon constituted by Anawrahta in the 11th century, under the leadership of Thakya Min (Sakka), in order to enfold the nats into Buddhism. Yet primary sources, including Burmese court documents, paint a much fuller picture of the nats, detailing three separate pantheons of 37. Each pantheon contains very different types of nat, each of which played a specific role throughout Burma's history.
Following a clarification of these pantheons, this paper draws on extant primary sources to suggest a different interpretation of the "Thirty-Seven Nats" and their role vis-à-vis Burma's kings. The source material available to R.C. Temple is also considered, which reveals significant information which Temple overlooked when writing his book. This led, in turn, to wrongly identified illustrations included in his book, which obscured the identity of a "Thirty-Eighth Nat." These errors have also had an impact on how one of the most prominent nats is depicted in more recent publications.