Ethnologists find that gods are often present in unlikely places

Ethnologists find that gods are often present in unlikely places

(29-07-2006)

Supernatural in the mundane: The ritual tree from the Thai ethnic group in central north Thanh Hoa Province is one of six typical objects researched by experts at the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology. — File Photo

Objects are imbued with an important spiritual significance, said Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology researchers at a scientific conference held in Hong Kong.

Scientists from the museum and Dr Laurel Kendall from the Museum of Natural History in New York researched six typical objects from different Vietnamese ethnicities, as part of a project carried out from 2003 to 2005,

The objects studied include the Ritual Pole of the Thai ethnic group in Nghe An central province; Mrs Then’s dan tinh, from the Tay group in Lang Son northern province; a worship flower tree of the Thai group in Thanh Hoa; the statue of the genie Doc Cuoc (One-eyed God), which is important to the Kinh or Viet; Mau (Mother Godness) statues offered by the Phu Giay Temple in Nam Dinh Province and the amulet of the Kinh sorcerer.

The stringed dan tinh of the Tay shaman of northern Viet Nam, for instance, enables the shaman to journey to a spirit realm in pursuit of a client’s wandering soul. These dan tinh are animated by spirits and their use is hedged with precautions and taboos.

At the same time, secular dan tinh have become signature performing arts instruments of the Tay and other northern ethnic minorities. La Cong Y from the museum, when talking about the marvellous and sacred musical instrument of the Tay people, describes distinctions that Tay shamans make between sacred and secular dan tinh, then discusses how the shamans have recently begun to negotiate these distinctions in bringing their own rituals into secular public performances.

Like religious dan tinh, amulets are spiritually charged. Amulets, widely used in Viet Nam, are produced through complex ritual processes intended to call gods and spirit armies into hand-painted amulets or into woodblock used to make printed amulets. Ritual masters are expected to observe a variety of precautions when making amulets.

But times are changing. Most of the amulets used in Viet Nam today are produced in bulk through a process of metal stencilling. The current market reveals a hierarchy of value, with hand-made amulets as the most expensive, followed by wood-blocked amulets, followed by inexpensive mass-produced amulets, which still retain some value.

Through the process of commissioning a ritual pole for a museum display, Vo Thi Thuong discovered that the pole produced for the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology was made by the leader of a performing arts troupe rather than a shaman and its construction had been modified to eliminate the critical design elements that facilitated the descent of the spirits in a ritual setting. Un-sacred rituals poles have been used in folk performances and artistic displays, becoming icons of Thai culture removed from the context of ritual practice (where fully sacred poles are still deployed).

In 2002, three Mother Goddess Statues were donated to the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology by a temple that had commissioned them following all artisanal and ritual procedures for votive statue production, with the exception of the final step, ritual animation as the goddesses themselves. In the manner that a spirit medium, between rituals, is not the goddess but is not vacated of her or his identity as the goddesses’ potential vehicle, the statues remained something more than decorative carvings.

Nguyen Van Huy, the museum’s director, said that the most important aim in the project is to make people understand that many objects have an importance beyond the obvious, and when people hold them in their hands, they shouldn’t only pay attention to appearances, but also to the spiritual value it holds when used.

Researchers from the museum came to Hong Kong to present the results of a research project on the spiritual life of objects at the annual conference entitled "East Asian Anthropology/Anthropology in East Asia," hosted by the Society for East Asian Anthropology.

Scientists carefully studied the objects, with a particular emphasis on their composition, rituals associated with use and ways to preserve them.

The trip is sponsored by the Wenner Gren Fund and the Ford Fund. — VNS

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