Possessed by the Spirits, 4-6. [Vietnam]


pp. 77-93 – 4. Kirsten W. Endres : "Spirit Performance and the Ritual Construction of Personal Identity".

p. 78, fn. 6 degrees in mediumship

"the term "ong dong / ba dong" ... used as a ... term for male / female mediums ... should only be applied to master {/ mistress} mediums who have acquired enough knowledge and expertise to initiate followers into the practice of len dong (spirit possession ritual).

In contrast, ... a person who simply practices mediumship ... is referred to as

a "follower" or "disciple" (con nhang de tu) of a ... medium,

a "novice medium" (thanh dong),

a "chair" (for the spirits) of the four palaces (ghe cua bon phu),

a "person having the fate of a medium" (nguoi do dong),

or simply "a servant" (nguoi hau)."

p. 78 popularity

"Master mediums (dong thay, also ong / ba dong) in Hanoi enjoy an ever-growing clientele of devoted followers, and famous temples dedicated to the Tu Phu pantheon receive a constant stream of pilgrims during the festive season."

p. 78 why persons become inducted into spirit-mediumship

"An illness that cannot be medically cured,

a streak of bad luck in business or personal affairs, or

haunting dreams

may indicate the spirits’ calling. With the help of an experienced master medium or a fortune-teller (thay boi), the underlying cause of these misfortunes is identified.

It is important to note that a person qualifies as a practitioner not because of his or her free will to follow the Tu Phu religion but because that person has a "spirit root" (can), meaning that he or she is fated for mediumship."

pp. 79-81 why one woman became a spirit-medium

p. 79

"When she was sixteen, a friend suggested that she have her fortune told, and ...

p. 80

she agreed. The blind man who gave her the reading told her that she was fated to become a medium and that she would go mad if she refused to accept this as her destiny. ... She decided ... she would eventually become a medium."


[She said :] "At night I often had strange dreams; I dreamt of leeches and centipedes squirming and crawling all around me and clinging to my legs and of snakes wrapping themselves around my body. {cf. the dream, ascribed to the Buddha, wherein worms were crawling up his legs} I dreamt I was flying across a river and falling down."

p. 81

"she started preparing for her initiation ceremony (mo phu, literally, "palace opening"). ... [She] says : "... after the palace-opening ceremony, I was very gentle ...""

pp. 83-84 how another woman became a spirit-medium

p. 83

When she was a child, "A neighbor finally convinced [her] mother of the necessity to seek the advice of a fortune-teller, who revealed that [she, the daughter] had a medium’s fate. As a temporary solution, her mother organized a special ritual to appease the spirits and prevent them from afflicting her child."

p. 84

[She said that when she was ten years old :] One day when I was playing in front of the family altar, suddenly thirty-six spirits possessed me in succession. ... From then on, at the beginning and at the middle of each year, my mother had to organize a petitioning for me to ask [the spirits] for a delay [of calling me into their service] until I "presented myself as a medium" [trinh dong] at the age of twenty."

pp. 85-87 goddesses; worlds; idealism

p. 85

"Goddesses like the Lady of the Realm (Ba Chua Xu) in Southern Vietnam or the Lady of the Storehouse (Ba Chua Kho) in the Red River Delta have emerged ..., with whom people for economic and other this-worldly benefits."

p. 86

"an idealistic person believes that there is a Yang world [duong] and a Yin world [am]; the Yang is the world of the living, the Yin is the world beyond, the world of the spirits and the deceased."

p. 87

" "idealism" (duy tam)" : "the Vietnamese term for "idealism" is a compound word consisting of "duy" (-sim) and "tam," (heart). ... "In front of the altar, the most important thing is that I have heart [co tam]. Once I am ‘true-hearted’ [that tam], once my heart is with the spirits [co tam voi thanh], then the spirits will see to it that I am steady and kind.""

pp. 88-89 effects, on one’s mood, of one’s becoming a spirit-medium

p. 88

[a male spirit-medium said :] "After the palace opening, after I started following the spirits, I felt at ease and untroubled; I felt very happy, and I felt that many activities went absolutely smoothly. ... Now I can carry out all my plans, I have confidence in myself. So whatever I do, I do it accurately; I am always steady. I am not confused anymore like before, before the palace opening I was about to be ruined, and now suddenly I can sail in smooth waters [thuan buom xuoi gio]. ... This is because the spirits sort out the yin and the yang; the spirits relieve me from my bad luck."

p. 89

"a fated medium can attain a more balanced temperament only through performing len dong rituals. ... len dong ritual practice offers ... therapy that enables ... leading a "normal" married life and having children."

p. 90 distinction between effects by male spirits from those by female spirits

gendre of spirits




"heaviness in the head and/or shoulders, of "hotness in the guts" (nong ruot)"


pp. 90, 92 "obsession" vs. "possession"; "serving"

p. 90

"only a "controlled medium is possessed by the spirits" (dong tinh la dong thanh),


whereas an "uncontrolled" or "obsessed" medium is "possessed by ghosts" (dong me la dong vong)." {here, "controlled" would mean ‘self-controlled’, not ‘controlled by spirits’.}


[for a given female medium,] "the only sequence that makes her "forget everything" and fall into a state of trance {oblivion} is the sequence of [her own spirit-root] for whom she is most intensely destined :"


[that female medium said :] "when the spirits descend I only provide a kind of loudspeaker for them, they don’t descend completely; if they descended completely, then I would be obsessed [dong me]. This only happens to me when [my own spirit-root] enters me [op vao], but like only for five minutes ... that’s all; after [the spirit-root] has passed by I am quickly aware again."

p. 92

"the chau van songs (literally, "serving literature") "invite the spirits"". ["mediumship practitioners rather speak of "serving" (hau) than of performing or performance." (p. 90, fn. 35)]

{Actually, the usual plain dictionary-definition of "obsession" would an incomplete process of taking-possession (laying siege to a city, where surrender of the city is not-as-of-yet accomplished), whereas "possession" would imply a complete process (of fully-accomplished ownership) – just the reverse of the significations implied by the translatrix!}


pp. 95-110 – 5. Karen Fjelstad : "Transnational Aspects of Spirit Possession".

pp. 97-98 becoming a spirit-medium

p. 97

[one woman’s experience :] "The Young Prince (Cau Be) had possessed [her] after she lost an infant in childbirth, causing flue-like symptoms and a loss of interest in life. She tried different types of treatment, but nothing worked until she turned to Tu Phu. Learning that she had the spirit root ["Individuals who become spirit mediums are said to have can, which means to have the "calling" or the "spirit root." (fn. 6)] of the Young Prince, [she] made an agreement with him – she would honor the spirit with yearly ceremonies, and in return, he would stop making her ill."

p. 98

"Although a medium’s health and well-being are reportedly enhanced by a relationship with a spirit, many people resist becoming spirit mediums. In addition to sponsoring yearly rituals, mediums must build altars in their homes, present spirits with daily offerings, and purchase food and spirit gifts for possession ceremonies."

pp. 99-100 social nature of possession caerimonies

p. 99

"Friends of family members chat with each other, spirits visit with mortals, and in some cases (for example, when several mediums are possessed

p. 100

at once), spirits visit each other. Although almost any topic of conversation is open, mediums and participants often discuss their personal lives and concerns with each other and with the spirits."

pp. 102-103 importation of ritual paraphernalia

p. 102

"People often purchase votive offerings, drums or gongs, and spirit clothing in Vietnam – ritual objects and supplies unavailable or of lesser quality elsewhere. ... Music is an essential component of len dong rituals; a specific song greets each spirit, and the pattern of possession corresponds to the pace of the music. Until recently, taped songs accompanied spirit possession ... because there were no local musicians."

p. 103

"mediums import a number of ritual items from Vietnam. these include statues representing the spirits, votive offerings, and plaques inscribed with Han characters that are placed over altars and the entrances to temples. In addition to these there are instruments like drums, gongs, and bells and many types of clothing and accessories, such as fans and hair clips. In a typical ceremony, a medium might hau for many spirits. each time a new spirit possesses her, she must change into a different outfit, so mediums must have many clothes. The music performed during ceremonies in Vietnam is also brought to the United States in the form of cassette tapes."


pp. 111-126 – 6. Karen Fjelstad & Lisa Maiffret : "Gifts from the Spirits : Spirit Possession and Personal Transformation".

p. 112 enthusiasm for spirit-mediumship

"their spiritual exuberance is expressed in the length of their len dong, which often last twelve hours or longer, and the frequency and intensity of possession outside the context of spirit possession ceremonies (len dong). Mediums of the temple are likely to be possessed by Tu Phu spirits while attending len dong, watching videos of possession ceremonies, or even driving down the road!"

pp. 112-113 reason why people join in spirit-mediumship

p. 112

"While all mediums acknowledged their callings as destiny, and all felt they had been the subjects of a particularly heavy fate (can nang), sometimes there were precipitating events. Several

p. 113

individuals became mediums in response to life crises – such as the loss of a loved one ... . These crises caused grief, mental and physical illness, stress, and generalized anxiety."

pp. 113-114 how one group of women began practicing spirit-mediumship

p. 113

A woman "was overcome with grief until Cau Be, the spirit of a young prince, came to bring the gift of divination. Although she did not become a spirit medium for several years after that visitation, [she] felt that Cau Be brought peace and contentment and helped her to continue with her life. [Her daughter] was the first in the family to become a spirit medium. ... [The daughter] began to see spirits. She consulted her mother, ... who in turn sought advice from a temple medium who advised her that [the daughter] possessed the spirit root. ... [The mother] did not consider becoming a medium until Cau Be caused her to be ill. ...

p. 114

Finally, she realized that her illness was Cau Be’s way of forcing her to become a medium. ... [The daughter] started the temple with two friends ... after a series of disagreements over ritual practices at the old temple. ... [Daughter] and [mother[ each have the gift of divination – their spirits have given them power to see into the future and read the fortunes of others – and people from the temple often congregate in [the mother]’s small apartment to talk with the spirits."

p. 115 how one man became a spirit-medium

"he was on his knees, praying to one of the spirits, when the snake, which looked "just like an anaconda," wrapped itself around his lower legs [cf. "snakes wrapping themselves around my body" (on p. 80)], preventing him from moving. At that moment, [he] felt that he was called to mediumship. ...

[His] life was full of difficulty before he became a spirit medium. ... Everything changed when he became a spirit medium. His physical health improved".

pp. 116-120 how spirits are experienced in spirit-mediumship

p. 116

"Spirits may influence a person during normal day-to-day life, during a possession ceremony, and through spontaneous possession. The spirit is though to be constantly "around" the medium. Some believers claim the spirits reside inside the body of the medium {this is the usual Taoist belief}, while others say they hover somewhere near the head. ... [One female medium] says she feels the spirit of Cau Be enter her body through her head [but "evil spirits come up from the ground through the medium’s feet." (fn. 8) {this feet-first process being the usual West African mode of achieving possession by a spirit}], at which point she begins to feel light and "feathery." {cf. Taoist attainment of immortality, commonly experienced as sprouting feathers all over one’s body}


Some mediums report that they continue to be aware of their surroundings because they are possessed "from the neck down." Others {these same?} say that they can see what is happening around them, but have no control over it."


[a female spirit-medium said :] "When the gods come in me, then it’s like I’m put in a car in a box. I can see you, but I cannot talk to you. It’s like I’m in a car driving {being driven?} and you’re in a car in the next lane, and you can see me but I cannot communicate with you. So I’m

p. 117

behind, and the god’s in front of me. {meaning, that the god is the chauffeur of the medium, who is the passenger in the back-seat?} Actually he’s in me {in my physical body}, but my soul is put behind me. ... Sometimes they are not in you completely, so you are still able to control yourself and control a little bit of what the god says ... but when the god comes in you completely, then you have no control. If they are in you half way, then you have some control."


"Some ... mediums express possession in terms of percentages. A medium might say, for example, "I was 40 percent," meaning the spirit controlled less than half of the individual. The degree of possession during a len dong varies from individual to individual and spirit to spirit. ... Mediums often feel possession more completely in temples with which they are familiar, and they tend to be more responsive to spirits with whom they have a particular affinity. ...

Often associated with divination, spontaneous possession is usually "complete" or "100 percent," and [certain divineresses] read fortunes while spontaneously possessed."

p. 118

"Each Tu Phu spirit has a personal history, palace, color, and style of dancing. ... Often, a devotee will experience an urge to perform an action associated with a particular spirit. For example, ... the Seven Prince (Ong Hoang Bay) ... loved drinking tea and smoking ... opium. [A certain female medium] knows that she has the root of the Seventh Prince because she likes to smoke and drink tea whenever he is incarnated in a possession ceremony. ... Normally she would not be able to smoke or drink dark tea, but when she is possessed by the Seventh Prince, she finds smoking to be pleasant and very dark tea is tasty."

p. 119

"Other spirits, particularly the mandarins, are stern – they often frown when incarnated in a medium. Reading facial expressions of mediums is one way that devotees discern which spirit has been incarnated. ...

One of the quiet spirits, Co Be Den, rarely speaks, even when asked a question. ... Co Be Den is quiet because she has a limp in one leg and is ... embarrassed, because of her disability. Whereas Co Be Den is quiet, Co Bo is an especially kind-hearted spirit. With such empathy .., she often ... ends up crying. ...

In some temples, the tiger spirits growl and harmful ghosts scream, Co Bo cries, mandarins throw their swords, and Cau Be giggles with glee, all in a single afternoon."

p. 120

"Spirits not only influence a medium’s personality, they also cause short- and long-term physical changes in the people they possess. ... it is not uncommon to see several people yawning during a len dong."

pp. 121-122 personal transformation through spirit-mediumship

p. 121

"A function of the spirits is to teach the mediums certain lessons and guide them in their daily lives. ... Whenever [a certain female medium] gets too hot tempered, the Fifth Mandarin possesses her so that her body shakes, her face turns red, and her mouth gets frozen and bloated. ...


Spirits can endow mediums with certain skills. The Third Prince (Cau Bo) taught [a certain female medium] to develop better study habits. She had asked Cau Bo, whom she described as "the god of education," to help her with her graduate studies. A few nights later she dreamed that he had transformed into a beast and she rode on his back {dreams of riding on a spirit-animal’s back are commonplace in Siberian shamanism} as they crossed the oceans {this is a theme in Irish myth} – he was taking her to a school in London."

p. 122

"Many of the Tu Phu spirits are exceptionally talented ... . Mediums change their own lives and circumstances through the imitation of these highly valued spirit behaviors."

p. 122 doing divinations and setting priorities with assistance from spirits

"Several spirit mediums have received gifts of divination. Trusting that they are able to see into the future, these mediums counsel individuals with specific concerns. ... [A certain divineress] used to practice this in her home. Once a month she would rise in the morning a go immediately to an altar that she had dedicated to Cau Be. Possessing [her] in a solitary ritual, Cau Be would drink warm milk, play with his toy horses, and then go downstairs to read fortunes."

"Several ... mediums report that the process of becoming a medium helps them to establish priorities. .. Many learned such lessons when spirits "tested" them during the process of initiation. ...

The spirits provide hope and meaning to mediums’ lives by allowing them to believe that certain things happen for a reason."

pp. 123-124 self-healing by becoming a spirit-medium

p. 123

"many mediums say their lives have been transformed following healing by Tu Phu spirits. In some cases, the illness was the main symptom of {needfulness to achieve} spirit possession, but in others the illness was just one of many different symptoms.


... mediums distinguish between yin and yang illnesses. Yin illnesses are caused by spirits ["the Yin is the world beyond, the world of the spirits" (p. 86)], whereas yang illnesses are considered to have "natural" or "biological" causes. ["the Yang is the world of the living" (p. 86)] Although yang disorders can be treated with secular medicine, yin illnesses can only be cured in the supernatural world. When unusual experiences or behaviors result from the work of spirits, they can only be treated after one discovers who the spirit is and what it wants.

If Tu Phu spirits are making a person ill because they want that person to serve as a medium, then ... mediums feel that psychiatric medications are harmful and dangerous and will only exacerbate the problem."


[One medium said :] "They gave me some prescription anti-psychotics ... . I would never give that to anyone because it’s traumatic to this day. ... I couldn’t even walk ... . ... Another thing, there [were] always a lot of mental side effects. I would always get serious paranoid thoughts that would not leave {psychiatrists deliberately praescribe paranoia-inducing drugs, so that they can then accuse the drugged patients of paranoia, and use that accusation as an excuse for keeping those patients incarcerated} ... and suicidal thoughts too {ditto, for psychiatrists deliberately praescribing suicidal-thought-inducing drugs} while I was on these prescription drugs. ... Just to function daily using my mind, to do daily things, I couldn’t do it on those drugs. I was also depressed and pulled down {likewise by the same drugs}. I couldn’t exercise. ... Paralyzed!"

p. 124

"many ... spirit mediums experienced tremendous grief, confusion, and depression prior to becoming mediums".

pp. 124-126 friendship and mutual social benefits through spirit-mediumship

p. 124

"a core group of mediums meet with each other every weekend and several times during the week. ... they spend most of

p. 125

their free time with each other. Much of this time involves planning ceremonies, shopping for the spirits, and talking about Thanh.

p. 126

... becoming a medium can contribute to the family finances ... because members of a temple often share resources and loan each other money."


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.