The practices related to the Vietnamese worship of Mother Goddesses, notably the len dong mediumship ritual, have been inscribed on UNESCO's list of intangible heritages of humanity. However, apart from practioners and cultural enthusiasts, the cult remains something of a mystery. In this essay, we will walk you through the most notable features of this folk belief, from its history to its Gods to its main rituals.
Mother Goddess Worship is a traditional practice in Vietnam which has been around for centuries and which has truly stood the test of change alongside the Vietnamese people. The Mother Goddess religion is a distinct faith that evolved from the generalised worship of goddesses. In the beginning, goddesses depicted representations of nature such as the goddess of the Earth, the sun, the moon, thunder, lightning, water and mountains. Later, powerful female historical figures that drove away foreign invaders as well as those who reigned over the country and founded craft villages were also honoured and worshipped by local people as goddesses. A number of goddesses have been elevated to the rank of Mau (Mothers). Mother goddesses are distinct from other goddesses in their higher rank and their association with creation and regeneration. Mother Au Co, the mother of the Vietnamese nation, along with the Mother of Rice and the Mother of Sugar Cane are prominent examples of mother goddesses. Over time, the Mother Goddess religion in Vietnam has developed into the worship of the Mother Goddesses of the Three and Four Realms or Palaces (phu), which has been practiced in numerous northern mountainous provinces across the nation since the 16th century. The religion contains a number of elements from Chinese Taoism, including the identification of humankind with nature, the implantation of Taoist divinities (such as the Jade Emperor in addition to the northern and southern stars) in its pantheon, the practices of exorcism and the concept of the four realms. The concept of realms refers to the three or four domains of the universe: heaven, earth, water and mountains/forests. Each of the four realms corresponds to one of the four directions of the universe and is represented by one of the four primary colours: red for the realm of heaven, white for water, yellow for the Earth and green for mountains and forests. The Mother Goddess religion also incorporates some aspects of Buddhism. However, with the appearance of Lieu Hanh, a figure in the 16th century who is considered the daughter of the Jade Emperor born in the village of Van Cat in present-day Nam Dinh province, the three to four realm religion has become a truly unique Vietnamese belief. She is one of the Four Immortals of Vietnam, with the others being Chu Dong Tu, Son Tinh and Thanh Giong.
The UNESCO acknowledgement for the traditional practices related to the Vietnamese people’s belief in the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms brings a source of pride to the Vietnamese people, particularly among cultural experts and managers as well as the practicing community, who have maintained and promoted the practice for generations.”Tran Thi Hoang Mai
Deputy Director-General of Vietnam National Committee for UNESCO
Distinct from other religious folk beliefs, the Mother Goddess religion has its own individual and well-articulated hierarchy. Mother Goddesses (Thanh Mau) Mother worship can appear in many forms. There is the Rain Mother, the Cloud Mother, the Mother of Thunder, the Mother of Lightning, and mothers of the five basic elements – Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. Among the mother goddesses, the Mother of Heaven (Mau Thuong Thien) reigns over the sky and controls the clouds, the rain as well as thunder and lightning. The incarnation of this mother is identified as Lieu Hanh, the major and the most venerated figure in the collection of Goddesses. The Mother Goddess religion pays particular respect to the creative and productive power of the Mother Goddesses in nature, similar to the Earth Mother seen in western Stone-Age religions. It uses the figure of the Mother in a myriad of forms to pray for luck and protection and reflects a main feature of Vietnamese life – appreciation for the value and role of women in the family and community life. Five Great Mandarins (Ngu Vi Quan Lon) In the folk beliefs of the Mother Goddesses Religion, ten mandarins rank below the mother goddesses. Among them, five great mandarins, depicted as either heavenly or human divinities, have close connections with the mundane world. The first four mandarins carry out tasks of the Mother Goddess in the Four Realms, the fifth one is believed to be a captain of the Tran dynasty, and worshipped in Cua Ong Temple of Quang Ninh province. Holy Dames (Chau Ba) There are twelve holy dames of the pantheon, who are said to be reincarnations of the mothers. The first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and the twelfth are often incarnated by spirit mediums. The first four holy dames represent incarnations of the four mother goddesses. Princes (Ong Hoang) The ten princes are often identified with mortals as well as with famous generals who have fought against invaders and contributed to the independence of the country and its people. Spirit mediums often incarnate six of the ten princes, especially the Third Prince (Ong Hoang Ba), the Seventh Prince (Ong Hoang Bay), the Tenth Prince (Ong Hoang Muoi). Mother Goddess worship reflects endurance of the nation’s traditions. In the pantheon of the Mother Goddess religion, folk belief also recognises a realm of the Tran dynasty (Phu Tran Trieu) associated with the worship of General Tran Hung Dao, the Supreme Commander of Vietnam during the Tran Dynasty, commanded the Vietnamese army to repel the Mongol invasions in 1258, 1285 and 1288. Royal Damsels (Co Be) The twelve royal damsels serve as handmaidens of the mother goddesses. When incarnated, these cheerful figures dress colourfully and perform graceful dances. As a group, the royal damsels are native to upland areas and thus belong to the realm of mountains and forests. When they are incarnated in spirit mediums, they dress as women of the Tay, Nung, Dao, and Muong ethnic groups. Young Princes (Cau Be) Among the ten or twelve young princes, ranging from one to nine years old, mediums often incarnate the third and the youngest princes. Being mischievous children, when incarnated, the princes usually wear bizarre costumes and speak in childish languages.
The religion of Mother Goddesses advises people to live with a warm heart and remember their ancestors. Worshiped figures are often national heroes or heroines, who devoted their lives to the people and the country.”Le Thi Minh Ly
National Cultural Heritage Centre
On the green hills, there are butterflies and flowers, In the forest, the Royal Damsel descends to flirt with passers-by Her garments and shoes are so elegant, Her two lamps are bright in the sky, As a halo, In her belt holds a comb and flowers, Her lamps shine everywhere.”
Hymn to the Second Royal Damsel
The ritual of len dong (spirit mediumship), also known as hau bong or hau dong in Vietnamese, is performed throughout Vietnam. When conducting this ritual, a medium is put into a trance which is believed to provide practitioners with a way to rid themselves of their troubles, relieve stress and strain as well as achieve a sense of balance in their life. Some people also find a sense of security and belief in spiritual life via the ritual. The followers believe that the supernatural world of gods and spirits will grant them their earthly aspirations for good health, success, prosperity and good fortune.
In the ritual, ong dong and ba dong (male and female mediums) serve as empty bodies for the spirits and gods to be incarnated into. No-one can voluntarily become a medium as the person is selected by the gods themselves. There are around 70 spirits of the Mother Goddess region, but not all of them can descend (giang) or incarnate (nhap) into the mediums. The mediums must make thorough preparations before a len dong ritual takes place. They must abstain from sexual intercourse and eating meat or consuming any animal products in order to purify themselves. They must also select a favourable day to stage the ritual, prepare offerings for the spirits, and invite singers and instrumentalists to conduct chau van (spiritual singing) performances. During the len dong ritual, the mediums receive support from four assistants (hau dang), who help them to burn incense, offer them with cigarettes and alcohol, and change into their costumes. On the selected day for the ritual, the medium firstly greets participants and then sits down on the mat. The four assistants cover the mediums head with a red veil (khan phu dien), which is an important rite repeated many times during the len dong ritual as it signals the moment when a sprit enters or leaves the medium The journey of a spirit ‘entering’ into the medium’s body is called an incarnation (gia). An incarnation starts when the spirit ‘enters’ into the ‘empty body’ of the medium. The divinity’s journey to the world via the medium’s body is expressed via a number of ceremonial procedures, such as burning incense, dancing, delivering blessings to participants, and observing chau van performances. After this, the spirit leaves the medium’s body and is replaced by another one. The medium then changes the medium’s costumes in order to suit the new spirit. The costumes, which vary in styles and colours, are beautiful and imitative of the garments of ethnic minorities. Throughout a len dong ritual, the medium is alternately possessed by different spirits and go on to become their incarnations.
The Ninth Royal Damsel fans to create winds To ensure everybody, male and female, old and young, are happy To help flowers bloom in the hills To cool the hearts of the common people”
Hymn to the Ninth Royal Damsel
As bright as a mirror without any dust, Carrying a sacred wine gourd and a bag of poems, Wearing the royal white robe and yellow belt rewarded by the King, With a pair of military shoes under his feet and two wooden sticks on his shoulders”
Hymn to the Third Prince
Each incarnation is characterised by invocation songs praising the merits of the spirit and dances impersonating their appearances and gestures in an either solemn or joyful atmosphere depending on who manifests into the medium.
A chau van hymn performed by Khac Tu
When the last spirit leaves, the medium takes off the spiritual costume and expresses their thanks to the divinities and the audiences, who are then invited to enjoy the dishes that were previously offered to the spirits. The participants are also given a bag of blessed gifts (loc), which can may include a mirror, a comb, a set of incense sticks, some betel nut or an areca leaf. Each len dong ritual may include up to 36 incarnations featuring different deities of the Mother Goddess religion ranging in level, such as Mother Goddesses, Great Mandarins, Holy Dames, Princes, Royal Damsels and Young Princes. A len dong ritual also involves instrumentalists and vocalists (cung van), who sit on the right of the stage. They sing spiritual hymns (van chau) and play traditional musical instruments, including the moon-shaped lute (dan nguyet) as well as drums and small wooden sticks used to beat a small bamboo box for percussion (phach), of which the moon-shape lute is an indispensable instrument. The band’s performance is required to portray the medium’s mystical body language. In each incarnation, the band performs pulsating rhythms and invocation hymns praising the merits of the spirit. They must perform in a proper way; otherwise performers will be ‘punished’ by the spirits.
A len dong ritual combines artistic aspects: music, singing, dancing, flower arranging, martial arts, sculpture, origami, fashion, and food. This belief teaches humans to be kindhearted and friendly. People believe their prayers for favourable weather, peace, and happiness will be heard.”Ngo Duc Thinh
Director of Vietnam Belief and Culture Research and Preservation Centre
Worship of the Mother Goddesses of the three Realms is practiced in a number of provinces and cities throughout Vietnam. Major centres dedicated to Goddess Lieu Hanh, the supreme spirit of the spiritual belief, are associated with the legend of her descent on earth. Nam Dinh province is one among several localities home to prominent centres dedicated to the Goddess. Currently, there are a total of about 400 temples and palaces dedicated to Mother Goddesses in the province, including Phu Giay (Giay Palace) in Vu Ban District where she descended on Earth for the first time. Phu Tay Ho (West Lake Palace), the largest centre dedicated to Mother Goddesses in Hanoi, is associated with the legend of Goddess Lieu Hanh’s meeting with writers, including doctoral candidate Phung Khac Khoan, where they composed poetry. The holiest space, which was used to worship Goddess Lieu Hanh, is located behind the area for honouring the Mother Goddesses of the three Realms. The statue of the Goddess who dresses in red and sits cross-legged is situated on top of a gilded altar which is carved with patterns of dragons and others. Song Temple in Thanh Hoa province is also a major centre worshipping the Mother Goddesses. The Mother Goddesses are worshiped in the innermost room in three separate spaces. The altar for Goddess Lieu Hanh dressed in red was painted in red-lacquer trimmed with gold and put in the central space. The two sides are dedicated to the Mothers of Water, Mountains and Forests. This majestic room was rarely opened, except during the festival honouring Mother Goddesses in the second lunar month. Bac Le Temple in Lang Son province was dedicated to Mother Goddesses of the four Realms of Heaven, Earth, Waters, and Mountains/Forests. Here, Goddess Lieu Hanh waited for and welcomed doctoral candidate Phung Khac Khoan after his visit abroad to China as the King’s envoy. The beliefs have spread widely across different provinces including the provinces of Ha Nam, Hung Yen, Hai Duong, Hai Phong, Thai Binh, Quang Ninh, Vinh Phuc, Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Tuyen Quang, Hoa Binh, Bac Ninh, Bac Giang, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Thua Thien Hue and Ho Chi Minh City.
Unlike other beliefs, the Mother worshipping religion did not dwell on guiding people in the world after death, but tended to focus on the present world in which people were living in – and their needs for health, wealth and prosperity.”Ngo Duc Thinh
Director of Vietnam Belief and Culture Research and Preservation Centre
In Vietnam, aside from mediumship associated with the spirits of the Four Palaces, the other main form of mediumship is the mediumship of Tran Hung Dao, a national hero and military genius honoured as Saint Tran, who is best known for commanding the Vietnamese armies to defeat three Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century. As a highly esteemed warrior, he is often called upon by the Vietnamese people for protection against both worldly and spiritual dangers, a practice that has existed for centuries. Women who are infertile or suffer from obstetric diseases also pray to him to be cured as it is believed that such conditions were caused by a ghost called Pham Nhan, who was killed by Saint Tran. While mediumship in the Mother Goddess religion is a beautiful and joyful theatrical performance which is meant to bring about prosperity, success and good fortune to its participants, Saint Tran mediumship is violent, solemn and intended to bring its participants good health and protection from demons. Saint Tran mediums usually perform acts that bear mystical elements such as piercing skewers through their cheeks, cutting their tongues with knives and smearing blood onto a sheet of paper or placing it into a cup of alcohol. Blood-stained sheets of paper and alcohol mixed with the blood of Saint Tran are said to have the power to dispel evil spirits. Temples dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, his family and subordinate generals have been erected in many places throughout Vietnam but the most prestigious one is Kiep Bac Temple in Hai Duong province, which was built on the land where his army base once stood.
It clearly reflects the patriotism which has become a source of the people’s spirit and belief. This is shown by the fact that almost 50 deities worshipped by the Mother Goddess religion are historical celebrities who have rendered great services to the nation, such as Tran Hung Dao who is worshipped as Saint Tran.”Ngo Duc Thinh
Director of Vietnam Belief and Culture Research and Preservation Centre
Production manager: Dieu Thuy Photos: Trung Hung Web development: NVS Content: Khanh Binh, Kim Linh, Thuy Linh, Thu Hang, Nham Toan
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