Shamanism is well-known a spiritual practice of the H’mong people in Vietnam, in which a shaman is reaching an altered state of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world. The shaman then channels these transcendental energies and knowledge into this material world, to conduct ceremonial rituals, or to give a divination, or to heal members of their community.
Therefore, H’mong shamanism is also known as a healing tradition, especially among the H’mong people in the mountains of Sapa, northern Vietnam. In a broader view, Shamanism is believed to be one of the oldest and earliest forms of religion in the world, it is also seen as an ancient healing tradition.
In a recent trip to Sin Chai village in north western Sapa town, our travel consultant Buffalo Joe met and talked to Mr. Ly Van May - a local respectful H’mong shaman. This was what he learned about the H’mong shamanism, the tradition is not only practiced in Sin Chai, but also among many other H’mong communities through Vietnam, and may be also in Laos.
H’mong hill tribes hold tight to their traditional spiritual practices that include shamanism, and ancestor veneration. They believe that it is very important to revere and honor the ancestors for guidance and protection, and the spirits of their deceased ancestors influence and dictate what happen to their health and illness.
Individuals perform rituals which include the offering of food and spirit money, and burning incense to appease the spirits will earn their favor. Rituals performed by the head of the household “in honor of the ancestral spirits” are for individual benefits, which are usually done during H’mong New Year celebrations and on the first day of every month. It is mainly to call upon the spirits of the house to protect the house.
According to a H’mong belief, each person has 12 main souls. Each soul has specific roles, and they must remain in harmony to remain healthy. After death, one of the 12 main souls is reincarnated, while another soul returns to the home of the ancestors. Another soul stays near the grave of the deceased.
The souls of the living can fall into disharmony and may even leave the body, and the loss of a soul or souls can cause serious illness. The number of souls lost determines how serious the illness. A soul-calling ceremony can be performed by shamans, because they are the ones who have special access to the souls or spirits in the otherworld. Rituals are usually performed to restore the health of an individual, or call his/her wandering spirit back home.
When a baby is born, within the first couple of days, his/her soul must be called “home”. Usually, the head of the household would be the one to call the baby's soul “home”, which is understood as a sign of welcoming the baby to their family.
However, that's not the end to the process of welcoming a new baby into their home. There is still the ritual the shaman must perform. The shaman performs this ritual, which usually happens a month or two after the baby is born, to notify the ancestors of the arrival of a new baby. The shaman tells the ancestral spirits that they must protect the baby's soul in the spirit world, because he/she is a new member to the family.
H’mong Shamanic Practices
They say that, in ancient times, humans and the spirits used to live with each other. However, due to conflict between the two very different beings, the deity Saub had blinded the two from being able to see each other. However, there is this good and evil in both worlds, so humans are harmed by the evilness of the otherworld, a Shaman is needed to perform rituals to rescue or call back the sick person’s spirit, and/or look for the reason why & how the person got sick to help him accordingly.
Treatment rituals might include herbal remedies, or offerings of joss paper money, or livestock. In cases of serious illness, the shaman gets to enter a trance and travels through the spirit world to discern the cause and remedy of the problem. If the shaman observes something seriously wrong with the person, such as a soul having lost its way home or got caught by some spiritual being, the shaman will negotiate with the spiritual being to release the soul. After that, the shaman would lead the soul to its home.
How to become a Shaman?
Not everyone gets to become a shaman, a shaman is chosen by the shaman spirit and normally "called" by dreams or shamanic signs.
According to a H’mong shaman I met in Sapa, the shaman-to-be has gone to the Land of Death and returned with shamanic powers from such a fatal journey. This explains why the shaman has special ability to understand and communicate with the dead, or spirits, after coming back from the world of death.
Who can become a Shaman?
In H’mong shamanism, a shaman can be a man or a woman. Typically, there is a good chance for a person to become a shaman if his/her family history contains shamans. This is due to the belief that ancestral spirits, including the spirits of shamans, are reincarnated into the same family tree.
Once blessed with the powers of a shaman, the person then has to seek a teacher (who is a shaman) and begin years of training to become an official Shaman. Usually the amount of time for a shaman-to-be to finish with the training depends on the teacher who guide him or her in the process of performing the rituals, which may take many years.
People that inherit the skills to become a shaman often experience symptoms of unexplained physical illness, bipolar personality, and multi-personality/ schizophrenia. According to traditional H’mong beliefs, these symptoms are the result of shamanic spirits trying to get through to the Shaman-to-be.
For those that practice Shamanism, they're able to recognize these symptoms and cure their loved ones by helping them develop into full-fledged Shamans. For those that are blessed to become a Shaman but do not want to practice Shamanism, they often turn to Christian exorcism, western medicine, and psych wards. For the few that accept becoming Shamans, it is considered an honor to help their own.
In the Hmong community, shamans are highly respected.
What does a Shaman use?
A shaman may use several shamanistic tools such as swords, divinity horns, a gong, drum or a bell. All tools are used to protect the spirits from the eyes of the unknown, so that the shaman can guide the soul back to their owner. He/she may wear a white, red, or black veil to disguise the soul from its attackers in the spiritual dimension.