Possessed by the Spirits, 7-9. [Vietnam]


pp. 127-142 – 7. Nguyen Thi Hien : "Votive Paper Offerings of Len Don Rituals".

pp. 127-128 votive offerings

p. 127

"Votive offerings (hang ma) are generally paper representations of useful things that are promised by vow and/or dedicated to the deceased, gods, or saints."

p. 128

"The offerings ... and their use have ... religious ... meanings in contemporary Vietnam. ... The reciprocal relationship between the adherents (givers) and the spirits (receivers) that develops through the offerings and the spirits’ returns of "favors" contains religious ... meanings."

pp. 129, 131 ritual use of paper replicas

p. 129

For "votive offerings ..., under the T>ang dynasty, (618-907), Chinese people began using fake money instead of real gold and silver ingots, and they burned the money as a way of conveying it to the spirits. Later on, votive clothes and other objects were added to the monetary offerings." [But (according to p. 177, fn. 81,) votive paper clothing is older (at least in Xin-jian) than is votive paper money.]

p. 131

"basic sets of paper offerings for an initiation include

five small-sized horses to be given to the spirits of the five directions;

hats for the spirit father, household spirit, tutelary spirit, and north and south star spirits;

four manikins for each of the four palaces of the Mother Goddess religion;

eight forest mandarins;

forest trees;

a mountain with five peaks;

gold and silver treasuries;

a big life-sized red horse and a yellow elephant;

three sets of mother goddesses and their ladies; and

gold and silver ingots."


"Votive offerings are thought to fill certain basic needs of the spirits because the spirits need

vehicles to travel,

a place to dwell, and servants to help them.

Manikins in the form of maids are expected to be transformed into the spirits’ assistants;

horses, elephants, and ferries provide transportation to the spirit realm.

The burning of the offerings sends these gifts to the spiritual realm."

131, n. 11

"Offerings of food and drink are transformed {transsubstantiated} and handed back to those who make them after the spirits have "received and tasted." The people making the offerings are then free to consume the food and drink. ... By eating the transformed spirit food, they are then assured of receiving the favor of the spirits regarding their good health, luck, and prosperity."

p. 137, fn. 22 an initiatrix-medium

"She suffered from insanity before the spirits called her to mediumship. After initiation, she was healed of her affliction. Eventually she built a shrine to the Mother goddess religion and was endowed with abilities to open gates to spirit possession on behalf of her clients and to perform spiritual healings and divinations."

pp. 132, 140 written petitions to spirits

p. 132

"At an initiation ritual, ... there could be a tray of petition sheets to spirits (so) on which religious masters write in Sino-Vietnamese ideographs the name, address, and requests of the initiate. Four notebooks, a writing brush, an ink slab, and a pen symbolize the knowledge with which the spirits will endow the initiate."

p. 140

"Traditionally, a ceremony master must know the ancient writing system of Sino-Vietnamese manuscripts, which allows him to write petitions to spirits and to perform the chants in this archaic language."

p. 140 votive replicas with 9 tusks or 9 spurs

p. 140

Among votive replicas, " "an elephant with nine tusks and a cock with nine spurs," ... are seen as the most precious gifts".

p. 140, fn. 24

"According to the legend, "The Genie of the Mountains and the Genie of the Waters" (Son Tinh Thuy Tinh), ... Genies of the Mountains and Waters both fell madly in love with the princess. The king told the two suitors that he woujld give his daughter to the first one who would bring him ...

an elephant with nine tusks,

a cock with nine spurs, and

a horse with nice red hair.

The Genie of the Mountains arrived first to the palace with the required presents, and he won the princess."


pp. 143-160 – 8. Viveca Larsson & Kirsten W. Endres : "Children of the Spirits, Followers of a Master".

p. 143 ritual praeparations for a modern religious service in Hanoi

"An elderly spirit priest (thay cung) is reading prayers from a book written in Sino-Vietnamese characters while one of the male chau van musicians is beating a drum to add emphasis. [A female] medium ... is sitting cross-legged in the middle of a low platform in front of the altar, her head bowed in prayer. In preparation for her len dong (spirit possession) ritual, the thay cung invites the spirits to "witness the offerings" (chung le) that have been decoratively arranged on ... trays and placed on the altar. The ritual assistants (hau dang) are busy with preparing the spirits’ robes and accessories according to the order in which the spirits are going to descend during the ritual."

pp. 143-147 firm belief of devotees; a medium’s fate; ritual acceptance of discipleship

p. 143

"Mediums, regular devotees of the Four Palace religion, chau van musicians, and ritual assistants gather in a public temple (den) or in a private shrine (dien) of a temple master in order to arrange, perform, or

p. 144

witness the ritual embodiment of the spirits associated with the four palaces (Tu Phu). ... they strongly believe in the spirits’ efficacy in bestowing health and material well-being, and many of them share a medium’s fate (can dong) of having been summoned into the spirits’ service (hau thanh)."

"In contrast to the situation of ordinary believers, who visit the temples associated with the Four Palace religion in order to present small sets of offerings and pray for

p. 145

their own and their families’ well-being, a medium’s fate (can dong) centers on the notion of a destined relationship with one or more spirits of the Tu Phu pantheon. When a destined medium’s sufferings have reached a critical stage, he or she usually seeks the help of a reputed fortune teller (thay boi) or a fortune-telling medium (gong boi) who – depending on what this reading holds – decides whether or not it would be advisable, or even imperative, for this person to enter into the spirits’ service. If the destined person for some reason ... does not yet wish to be initiated as a medium, then he or she is given the option of having a special ritual organized in order to ask for a delay."

"A destined person becomes a medium with the help of a master (dong thay). Master mediums either operate in their own private shrines (dien) or in public

p. 146

temples (den) in their custody."

"The master-follower relationship is sealed with a ritual called doi bat nhang, which literally means "carrying an incense holder on one’s head." It involves a petition or "decree" (lenh) written in Sino-Vietnamese characters with the name and age of the initiate, votive money, areca nuts, fruits ... as offerings, and an

p. 147

incense holder. The new follower sits down in front of the altar and coveres his or her head with a red veil (khan phu dien), the most important ritual insignia of a medium. The master then invokes the spirits to accept the new follower. A sign of divine approval is sought by throwing two ancient coins (xin dai). Then the votive money is burnt, and the decree is placed upon the altar – it symbolizes the new "incense child" (con nhang) of the temple and is kept there for life. ... temples kept an incense holder for each follower, and when these came to worship in the temple on the first and fifteenth {= Kalendae & Ides, respectively, in the Roman kalendar} of the lunar month, they lit a joss stick. ... The initiation ritual is called "the opening of the palaces" (mo phu) ... . ... During the initiation ritual, the four palaces (symbolized by four large bowls covered with votive paper in the colors of the palaces) are opened by the mandarin spirits embodied by the master. Then the Second Lady is summoned to "hand over the role of the medium" to the initiate. ...

Mediums usually feel that their lives ease noticeably after entering into mediumship."

pp. 149-150 initiator & initiatrix : teaching by them

p. 149

"novice are required to perform exclusively at the temple of their initiation during the first three years. During this time, the master teaches his novice followers the proper rules of ritual performance and monitors their progress during their len dong rituals. Most masters take their followers on pilgrimages to famous temples throughout the northern region. These temples are usually dedicated to a certain spirit of the Tu Phu pantheon, and the masters "present" their novice mediums to these spirits by conducting a short introduction ritual called trinh giau. After three years, mediums are considered to have had sufficient training and may perform at any temple of their choice."

p. 150

"A proficient master has to set an example for his followers ...; if a master likes telling dirty jokes, his students will do no as well." {Red-turban Taoists often tell scatological jokes, even while possessed b a spirit.}


pp. 161-182 – 9. Laurel Kendall : "Do the Four Palaces Inhabit an East Asian Landscape?"

pp. 170-171 music, fun, play, dance

p. 170

"Len dong mediums describe what they do as "fun" (vui) for both deities and humans; incarnated in the medium, the deity listens with pleasure to the musicians and is inspired to shower them with money ... . Mediums speak of how deities who are pleased with beautiful costumes, music, and offerings make a beautiful (dep) performance.

Similarly, in Korea, the ability to entertain is a core attribute of the shaman; dancing and feasting gods "play" (nolda), and their satisfaction gives the ritual an auspicious outcome."

p. 171

"in ancient China intermediaries with the spirits were called wu (Korean mu). "Some wu danced, and they are sometimes defined as people who danced in order to bring down the spirits."

... there ... were ... lively (sometimes described as "ecstatic") mansin of northern Korea ... .

Royal god play is also evident in possession rituals in Laos and Cambodia."

p. 177 votive paper

p. 177

"the oldest known examples of votive paper coins were found in China’s Xinjiang province in a Tang dynasty tomb dated to 667 CE."

p. 177, fn. 81

"Votive paper clothing was also found was also found in a fifth-century grave in Xingjiang, and its use is documented from eighth-century China. Production flourished in twelfth-century China when votive paper was sold in specialized shops in the northern Sung capital of K>aifeng."


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.