Journeys to Other Worlds

Part of the Vietnam exhibition.

The Rites of Shamans

Robes worn during Len Dong rituals reflect the classic court dress of premodern times.
AMNH / D. Finnin

A medium or shaman—someone who can communicate with the spirit world—is a vital presence at many rituals in Vietnam. Sometimes this spiritual master must journey to another realm and wrestle powerful demons for possession of a human soul. At other times the medium invites the spirits to our world, where they possess his or her body and speak through the medium's voice.

Shamans preside over some rituals in many of the religious traditions that coexist among the majority and minority populations of Vietnam. In all shamanic rituals, music, dance, special garments, and offerings enhance the awe, mystery and sheer pleasure of performance that surround the spirit journey.

Restoring Peace and Harmony

Restoring harmony to a life out of balance is one purpose of a ritual known as Ky Yen. The practitioners of Ky Yen—the 1.5 million Tay people living in northeastern Vietnam—hold this ritual for several reasons. A Ky Yen can prolong one's life or restore good health by finding missing souls and bringing them back to the body. It can counteract bad fortune foretold by an inauspicious horoscope or a bad dream. A birthday may call for a preventive ritual, if it ushers in one of the ages Tay people consider unlucky—every twelfth year after the age of seven. On happier birthdays, such as when someone turns 60, a family may host a Ky Yen to insure continued good health.

During a Ky Yen, which lasts all through the night and into the next day, a huge spirit army journeys through three levels of heaven and battles a titanic monster. The heroic shaman who leads this spiritual campaign is most often an elderly woman.

Spirits Journey to the Hear and Now

Votive horse. Paper, bamboo. Kinh people; Tien Tuong Truc village, Hanoi; 2001
AMNH / C. Chesek

The Len Dong "going into trance" ritual concerns health and prosperity in this world rather than evil in the world beyond. Spirits who possess the medium's body are asked to provide good health and auspicious enterprises. Performed all over Vietnam, Len Dong rituals are popular with the ethnic majority Kinh people, especially those who are eager for success in the new market economy.

An element of the folk religion known as the Mother Goddesses, a Len Dong ritual can draw on more than 60 spirits. Only a few are invoked during any given ritual, however, and some spirits never possess a medium. Those who do appear will interact with the hosts of the ritual and enjoy the songs and offerings they provide.

Invoking the Spirits

During Len Dong rituals, mediums put on the costume of the spirit they are invoking. The garments reflect the classic court dress of premodern times: kings, queens, courtiers, and pages might have worn them. The pages wear old-fashioned children's clothing. No longer worn in daily life, these styles—and the textile crafts required to make them—survive to clothe the gods.