Possessed by the Spirits, 0-1. [Vietnam]








Fjelstad & Nguyen



"Mother Goddess Religion"

Ngo Duc Thinh



"Tran Hung Dao"

Pham Quynh Phuong



"Music in Vietnamese Mediumship"

Barley Norton



"Spirit Performance in Vietnam"

Kirsten W. Endres



"Transnational Spirit Possession"

Karen Fjelstad



"Gifts from the Spirits"

Lisa Maiffret



"Votive Paper Offerings"

Nguyen Thi Hien



"Children of the Spirits"

Viveca Larsson



"The Four Palaces"

Laurel Kendall


pp. 183-186 Vietnamese terminology









faith, religion









communal house





















wooden slit drum






to incarnate



bamboo clappers





sa’o, tie^u

bamboo flutes












pity, compassion



small-head drum


pp. 7-17 – 0. Karen Fjelstad & Nguyen Thi Hien : "Introduction".

pp. 7, 12-14, 16-17 spirit-mediumship generally

p. 7

"len dong (spirit possession rituals) ... are associated with the Mother Goddess religion (Dao Mau) ... . ... Practitioners of the len dong ritual worship the goddesses of the four palaces of the universe (Tu Phu) – sky, earth, water, and mountains ... . ... During the len dong ritual, approximately thirty-six spirits possess or descend into mediums over the course of several hours."

p. 12

"Followers of Saint Tran, a high-status group, were male practitioners of exorcism. The predominantly female followers of Tu Phu practiced spirit mediumship, and their status was much lower."

p. 13

"The music of female and male spirit is quite distinct and is differentiated by melody, rhythm, and syncopation".

p. 14

"Whereas some mediums say they are completely possessed, ... others ... describe themselves as feeling they are looking out the window of a car".

p. 16

"Dao Mau altars require representations of the spirits, and incense, flowers, and foods, and len dong ceremonies require music, clothing, spirit gifts, and votive offerings."

p. 17

"wealthy mediums and temples may have a ... status of ... "buying and selling spirits" (buon than ban thanh)."


pp. 19-30 – 1. Ngo Duc Thinh : "Mother Goddess Religion".

pp. 19-21 goddesses

p. 19

"some Vietnamese goddesses were active in the creation of the universe ... . These include the sun goddess, moon goddess, and lady Nu Oa (and her esquire Tu Tong) who created mountains and rivers and patched up heaven with stones."

p. 20

"Even the five elements are called Lady Metal, Lady Wood, Lady Water, Lady Fire, and Lady Earth."

"Mother Au Co, Rice Mother, and Mother Sugar Cane are examples of mother goddesses."

"A mother goddess presides over each one of the four realms or "palaces" (tu phu) : Heaven (thien phu), Earth (dia phu), Water (thoai phu), and Forest and Mountains (nhac phu)."

"the Granary Queen became popular among urbanites who seek to "borrow" her money, represented by gold and red papers, at

p. 21

the beginning of the year.

... another goddess, the Lady of the Realm (Ba Chua Xu) ... has also "come to be seen as a spirit of financial increase.""

pp. 21, 29 political dynasties

p. 21

"In the times of the Dinh (968-80), early Le (980-1009), Ly (1010-1225), and Tran (1225-1400) dynasties, ... kings appointed Taoist priests ... . Numerous members of the royal court practiced Taoism, ... and other members of the royal family became Taoist priests. ... During the Le dynasty, Confucianism prevailed over Taoism".

p. 29, fn. 17

"Hung Vuong, the first Hung king, established the coutry of the Kinh or Viet, Van Lang, about 2,000 to 2,500 years ago. During this period, there were eighteen reigns of the Hung kings."

pp. 22-23 Mother Goddesses (Thanh Mau)

p. 22

"the Mother of Heaven (Mau Thuong Thien) reigns over the sky ... . ... She can bring good luck and bestow blessings on her followers if she is properly worshipped."


"the goddess Au Co became identified as the Mother Goddess of Mountains and Forests. In the ... Kinh myth of the origin of the ethnic groups ..., Au Co – kidnapped and married by the Lac Dragon Lord, Lac Long Quan – took fifty of her children to the mountains (... Mount Tan Vien) where they became the founding ancestors of the different ethnic minorities."

p. 23

"the Mother Goddess of Water (Mau Thoai) ... takes care of rivers, lakes, and seas".

p. 23 the 5 Great Mandarins (Ngu Vi Quan Lon)

"The Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven, ordered the First Mandarin to come down to the earth to protect people from evil spirits and

the Second Mandarin to guard over forests and mountains.

the Third Mandarin was the son of the Eighth Ocean King.

Legends surround the Fifth Mandarin, called Quan De Ngu, ... depict him as originating as a snake living on the Do Tranh River in Hai Hung province."

pp. 23-24 Ladies (Chau Ba); Princes (Ong Hoang); Princesses (Co); Young Princes (Cau Be)

p. 23

"There are twelve ladies of the pantheon ... . The first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and the youngest are often incarnated by spirit mediums."


"Spirit mediums often incarnated six of the ten princes, especially the Third Prince (Ong Hoang Ba), Seventh Prince (Ong Hoang Bay), and the Tenth Prince (Ong Hoang Muoi)."

p. 24

"The twelve princesses serve as handmaidens of the mother goddesses. When incarnated, these cheerful figures ... perform graceful, fluttering dances. The proper names of some princesses derive from the places where they are worshipped, such as

the Youngest Princess (Bac Le) (Lang Son province), or

the Second Princess (Cam Duong) (Lao Cai province). ...

When they are incarnated in spirit mediums, they dress as women of the Tay, Nung, Dao, and Muong ethnic groups."


"Among the ten to twelve young princes, ranging from one to nine years old, mediums often incarnate the third and youngest princes. Being mischievous children, when incarnated, the children usually wear bizarre clothing and speak a childish language."

p. 25 Animal Spirits

"Animal spirits, those of tigers (Quan Lon Ngu Ho) and the snake (Ong Lot) ... rarely incarnate ... . ... When communicating with the five tigers, the medium pretends to spit fire by chewing burning incense sticks. He (or she) mimics the tiger".

pp. 25-26 Complementary Opposites

p. 25

"The female goddesses of the religion are in even-numbered {multiples of 4} groups –

four mothers,

twelve ladies, and

twelve princesses.

Conversely, the male gods appeared in odd-numbered {multiples of odd #s} groups –

{five or ten mandarins,}

five princes, and

ten (a multiple of five) young princes.


... odd numbers as "fixed" (so co) or stable and closely connected with the Yang, or male principle,

whereas the even numbers are "nonfixed" (so ngau), unstable, and associated with the Yin, or female principle."

p. 26

"young princesses and princes are the incarnations of boys and girls who die young (ba co, ong manh). Parents often worship their {own} deceased children and dedicate altars to them."

p. 26 principal temples

the principal temple of __

is situated in

the Mother Goddess Lieu Hahn

Phu Giay in Nam Dinh province

the Mother Goddess of Mountains and Forests

Bac Le in Lang Son province

pp. 26-28 "Len dong (going into trance) rituals, also called hau bong (service to the spirits) or hau dong (medium’s service)"

p. 26

"In this ritual, the mediums represent only the "skeletons" {cf. opacity of skeletons only of the h.uri^ female in Muslim afterlife paradise; apparency of woman as skeletons only to arahan-s (arhant-s)} (cot) or empty bodies, or "seats" (ghe), into which the souls or shades

p. 27

of the goddesses and gods are incarnated. ... spirits of the Mother Goddess religion ... descend (giang) or incarnated (nhap) in to mediums. Spirit mediums are obliged to perform one or two len dong rituals a year. ...

The journey of a spirit into the body of the medium is called incarnation (gia). The process includes the spirit’s coming down and either hovering briefly or moving into the medium and the medium’s changing costumes to indicate which goddess or type of attendant has arrived and then burning incense sticks, dancing, granting favors, and listening to songs about the spirits (chau van). The spirit then leaves.


Before a len dong ritual, the spirit mediums ... must choose an auspicious day for the ritual and invite a ceremony master (thay cung) for a petition ceremony, singers for performing chau van, and friends and relative to attend. ... During the performances, ritual assistants (hau dang) and musicians specializing in chau van music (cung van) assist the medium. Hau dang help them to burn incense sticks, ... and change the medium’s costume before the medium proceeds to the next incarnation. Cung van play musical instruments and sing religious songs throughout the ritual. The ritual involves a minimum of two musicians – one who plays a two-stringed, moon-shaped lute (dan nguyet) and a percussionist. The percussionists might also use bamboo clappers (phach), a small two-headed drum (trong), or a small cymbal (canh). The musicians place the percussion insturments on the floor and strike them with wooden beaters. Additional percussion instruments include a small gong (thanh la), a large barrel drum, and a small wooden slit drum (mo). ...


The opening and closing of a red veil (khan phu dien) signals the arrival a departure of a spirit. Spirits manifest themselves in two ways : the descend and briefly hover over the medium or they take possession of, and are incarnated into, mediums. Because the mother goddesses descend and hover but do not incarnate, mediums do not open the red veil. Only ... the spirits of the ranks below the goddesses actually take possession of the mediums. From the entire pantheon of spirits, between ten and forty of the deities either descend and hover or incarnated into mediums, in hierarchical order from the mother goddesses to

p. 28

mandarins, ladies, princes, young princesses and princes, and then sometimes to the spirits of the five tigers or snakes.

When the spirits enter (nhap) or leave (thang), the mediums signal with their fingers – right fingers for female spirits and left fingers for males – and then open the red veil. Then the hau dang help the medium to change costumes to suit the appropriate spirit. ... On the whole, spirits of the same rank dress in the same style, but the costumes differ in color and details, which indicate their origins in different ethnic groups.

Female mediums offer incense sticks by going down on their knees and kowtowing three times, whereas male mediums merely kneel when raising the incense sticks. The sounding of a bell accompanies each kowtow. ... Burning incense sticks, wearing perfume, and offering fragrant fruit ... delight the deities ... . ...

As well as changing costumes to indicate specific spirits, the mediums dance in a style appropriate to each spirit. Some of the spirits dance with oars {cf. the toting, by Odusseus, of an oar to Thesprotia} as if rowing a boat {cf. shamanic performances featuring pantomimic rowing of a fictive boat occur amongst tribes in British Columbia} or engage in actions suggesting the gathering of herbs or fishing with nets. Other dance with {as done by female performers in Korea} fans. After dancing, the medium sits while the singers perform songs telling the history of the spirit who has descended and praising his or her beauty and merits. For princes, for example, the singers declaim old verses, and the princes manifest their satisfaction by giving the singers some money as a reward. The medium’s assistants offer the spirit ... betel nuts and areca leaves, or tea. At this point in the ritual, members of the audience move closer to the spirit medium to listen to the messages she utters pertaining to the future or to pray for protection, wealth, or recovery from illness.

The visiting spirit grants favors while listening to the religious music. The attendees ... might offer a tray of fruit, candy, or money to the spirits. With the help of the attendants, the medium redistributes these and other items as "blessed gifts" (loc) in the form of a burning incense stick, ... a betel nut, an areca leaf, a cake, a piece of fruit, a mirror ... . These previously mundane objects are now imbued with the power of the spirit, having gained meaning and potency {transsubstantiation} by passing through the hands of the spirits.

When the medium sits motionless, starting slightly, with her hands joined before her forehead or with a fan covering her head, the audience recognizes the moment of the spirit’s departure. Assistants then cover the medium’s head with the red veil, and the singers ... sing the song, "The spirit come back again to his palace." ... After the last spirit has left, the medium takes off her spirit costume and thanks both the divinities and the audience. Following the len dong ritual, the medium invites the audience to join eating the meal consisting of the dishes already offered to the spirits. {prasada} Returning home, the participants take a bag of loc for good luck."

p. 29 Great King of 8 Seas

"the eighth month ... Bat Hai Dai Vuong (the Great King of Eight Seas) died on the twenty-eighth", commemorated in "festivals ... at Dong Bang, ... the Great King of Eight Seas ... are worshipped."

"The biggest snake turned into a human being ... to lead his ... dragons, crocodiles, and snakes. ... the king granted the snake the title of the Great King of Eight Seas."

pp. 29-30 boat-race festival; legend of release of goddess from trap

p. 29

festival on 20th day of 8th month : "hundreds of boats from the local villages travel in procession on the Dong Bang River ... . After the procession, the villagers hold a boat race. The village that wins is granted spiritual good luck, good health, and prosperity for the whole year." {In honor of marshal Wen, in Hu-nan "the boat race is commonly held to avert calamities." (DHBB, p. 68)}

p. 30

"instead of the procession of boats that commemorates the anniversary of the Father’s death, on the anniversary of the Mother Goddess’s death, people march from her temple to ... where she took her vows. As one story goes, in a battle ... the Mother Goddess ... fell into a trap." She was released by goddess Kwan-yin.

DHBB = Paul R. Katz : Demon Hordes and Burning Boats. S.U.N.Y. Pr, 1995. http://books.google.com/books?id=os3Qz6_NU3wC&pg=PA68&lpg=PA68&dq=


CORNELL UNIVERSITY, SOUTHEAST ASIA PROGRAM SERIES, No. 23 = Karen Fjelstad & Nguyen Thi Hien (editrices) : Possessed by the Spirits : Mediumship in Contemporary Vietnamese Communities. Ithaca (NY), 2006.