The ancient people
of Asia believed that the world was populated with
spirits that resided in plants, animals and natural
phenomena. They worshipped them and made sacrifices
to gain their favour.
A shaman is an intermediary between humankind and
the spirit world, occupying a role similar to that
of a priest: a religious specialist, possessing the
ability to communicate with spirits, to appeal to
them to dispel evil, to explain turns of fate, and
to transmit the instructions of spirits. He or she
usually has healing and magical powers, and can influence
the spirits to bring about good and evil.
There are several elements of shamanism in Taoism.
Killing and expelling demons with the aid of charms
and incantations, invoking spirits, holding ritual
offerings, and presenting written memorials to spirits
with the aid of a medium are all shamanistic practices.
Shamanism is not unique to Asia. Most
of the long-established religions have elements of
its beliefs and practices – the rite of exorcism
in Christianity, for example, in which a priest attempts
to communicate with, and expel, an evil spirit from
another person, an animal or an inanimate object such
as a house.
Although shamanism exists in mainstream religion in
Vietnam, it is mostly found in the traditions of the
country’s ethnic minority groups, many of whom
retain a shaman in each village. To invoke the spirits,
a shaman uses songs and dances, spells and talismans
leading to the induction of a trance-like state during
which he or she is in direct contact with spirits.
In theory, such activities are labelled
as superstition and are illegal. However, the law
is largely ignored, and even the authorities recognise
the tourism potential of such rituals. As an example,
one ethnic group in the Central Highlands has a traditional
annual festival in which the highlight is the ritual
slaughter of a buffalo as a sacrifice to the spirits.
This gory spectacle is now being promoted by the tourism
department of the area and has become very popular.
Another type of shaman specialises in divination,
a common practice throughout the country. Vietnamese
people believe that there are good days and bad days,
and one’s future welfare depends upon choosing
the most propitious date and time before undertaking
any significant venture or activity.
Divination by astrology is the main
tool to be used to determine what day a person should
move house, apply for a job or get married: in each
case, the verdict of the fortune teller is taken very
seriously. The recommendation is almost invariably
followed to the letter. The cost of this service is
seldom cheap, sometimes running into hundreds of dollars
– a large sum in a poor country.
Sometimes the outcome
is highly inconvenient – having to move house
in the middle of the night, for example. In other
cases, the advice can lead to major life changes –
an ‘unsuitable match’ verdict upon a couple
(or one of the sets of parents) seeking guidance upon
a possible marriage almost inevitably leads to a break-up.
A man will sometimes
consult the shaman to ask how he should deal with
what he considers his wife’s unsuitable behaviour
(deep-rooted Confucian subservience inhibits women
from doing the same). Sometimes, this leads to divorce.
Young people sometimes spend several months’
salary seeking a way forward after rejection by a
girl or boyfriend.
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