The Way of the Mother Goddesses:  Spirit Possession Rituals in Vietnam and California

In each ceremony, a spirit medium goes into trance when a red veil is placed over her head as she sits in front of an altar.  The spirits of the three Mother Goddesses come down to her head, but they do not incarnate in her body to “do spiritual work”.  The first spirits who “work” are the great mandarins, dressed in the ceremonial robes of the imperial court.  They are solemn and dignified, dancing with swords and flags. Next come the ladies, incarnating the ethnic minorities who live in the highlands of Vietnam.  They wear heavy silver jewelry, embroidered headdresses, and dance to lively, rhythmic music.  Members of the audience usually clap as they dance and for the sixth lady they may even get up to join in.  Then come the princes, who engage the audience more directly than the mandarins.  The princesses  that follow dance with feather scarves and oars and may distribute flowers. The final spirits are the young princes, who dance with rattle sticks, play with the bow and arrow, and like candy and impish tricks.

“The Spirits You See in the Mirror”

This offers a condensed view of a sequence of spirit possessions, broken down into the stages of (1) covering the head with the red veil and gesturing with the hands to show which one has come down, (2) being dressed by attendants in the appropriate costume, (3) incarnating its personality in a dance, using flaming incense bundles for the male spirits and rope candles for the female ones, and (4) receiving requests from the audience, and distributing gifts (crisp banknotes, steamed rice cakes in banana leaves, fruits and flowers).  Male spirits smoke and drink alcohol while incarnated, and female ones may chew betel or sip tea. The mirror is always used for this style of spirit possession, since it is said that it reflects the shadow of the deity (bóng thánh).  At the end of the ceremony, the young woman medium removes her costume and bows to the altar and to the music (a DVD player), and is praised for how well she presented the Ninth Princess in Pink. This is the standard format for ceremonies in northern Vietnam, but this ceremony was filmed in Orange County, California.

“The Spirits You Don’t See in the Mirror”

In central Vietnam, near Hue, a somewhat different style of spirit possession is practiced, in which the medium “does not change in front of the Mother Goddess”, but is dressed as she stands.  This video clip shows an initiation ritual in which a young woman starts to feel the spirit descend as watches an older ritual master move through a possession sequence.  She then has a lock of hair singed off with incense, to bind her to the temple and store a part of her there, and prepares to receive the spirit from the older ritual master. He dances in a very violent, aggressive way, choking his neck with a scarf, making his eyes bulge and his face red.  Then he covers her with the red veil as she stands and tips over towards her.  When he touches her and the spirit leaves him to go into her, she starts to sway violently and he falls limply into the arms of the attendants.  She is then dressed in the costume of the First Mandarin, and comes to incarnate him fully.  The First Mandarin blesses paper horses and signs paper degrees, and shows his power and authority as he dances fiercely with a halberd (combined spear and battle-ax).

Exploring Religious Identities in a New Land
An interview with Janet Hoskins

Tim Sato recently interviewed Janet Hoskins, professor of anthropology, a member of CRCC’s Academic Advisory Council. She is author/editor of five books, including Fragments from Forests and Libraries (2001), Anthropology as a Search for the Self (1999), and The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives on Calendars, History and Exchange (1994). With Macarena Gomez Barris, Prof. Hoskins will convene a CRCC seminar on “Transnational Charisma and Traveling Spirits: How Religion Moves across a Global Landscape” during the 2009-2010 academic year. She is currently engaged in a National Science Foundation project, “Ethnic Resilience and Indigenous Religion: Vietnamese Immigrant Congregations in California.”



2011     “What are Vietnam’s Indigenous Religions?” for the Newsletter of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, No. 64: p. 3-7  Kyoto University, Japan.