And would you like to know more?
Ever since first learning about the Hmong, I have been fascinated with their traditional stories and beliefs. Over the years, as I have learned more about them, I realize how much I still have to learn. That said, I wish I had known back when what I know now about traditional Hmong beliefs. It would have helped for us to understand each other better. I have since come to think it best practice to understand another’s beliefs first before sharing your own with them.
A blog post is hardly room enough to address the traditional Hmong religion adequately, so consider this a summary of what I understand about it.
Traditionally, the Hmong believe that supernatural spirits animate everything. There are spirits of the household and of the forest. The former are to be revered and propitiated, while the latter, found in caves, crags, or isolated groves, are mostly feared. (These make for some great ghost stories.)
The male head of the household propitiates and “feeds” the household spirits. In Hmong, this is called “ua dab.” These spirits protect the household and are considered to be the household’s ancestral spirits on the male side. In this respect, “ua dab” is similar to the ancestral worship of the Chinese. There is a spirit for the central house post, the cooking and the ritual hearths, the loft, the lintel of the front door, the marital bedroom, and the overall wealth of the household. The male head of the household propitiates these spirits at the birth of a child, during the New Year, at death, and throughout the year at various times.
If for any reason these spirits are displeased, or the spirits of the forest have been angered, then someone in the family or village may become sick. The Hmong attribute the sickness to one of the person’s spirits having become frightened and lost. Only a shaman can enter the spirit world, pay the ransom, and bring the wandering spirit back.
It is said that “ua dab” is done for yourself and the family, but that “ua neeb,” or shamanism, is done for others.
To be a shaman is a prestigious calling in the Hmong community. The shaman is the mediator between the world of men (Yaj Ceeb) and the world of the spirits (Yeeb Ceeb).
A shaman can be male or female. Some shamans practice a less intensive version of “ua neeb” called “ua neeb muag dawb.” Here the shaman administers to the sick person while staying in this world, the yaj ceeb. The other type of shamanism that requires all the energies of the shaman and his/her spiritual familiars is called “ua neeb muag dub.”
The shaman visits the house of the sick person and conducts a séance. During the séance, the shaman enters a trance, shaking bell rings and rattle while one assistant beats a gong behind him and another supports the shaman as s/he performs flips on a board that represents his/her spiritual horse (see photo above).
While in the trance, the shaman enters the yeeb ceeb with his/her spiritual familiars, cavalry-like, to go after the lost spirit. They will look in the holes and caves and other hiding places in that world. Once the lost soul is found, the shaman will bargain with the captors of the spirit until the parties agree upon an acceptable ransom price. This price is paid by burning paper spirit money and/or sacrificing a pig or chicken, whose soul then takes the place of the sick person’s soul.
If successful in his/her negotiations with the other world, the shaman will reunite the lost spirit with its body and the sick person will recover.
For those of you familiar with Christianity, you can see how the Hmong shaman could be considered a Christ figure.
For the Hmong who now live in Western societies, like the United States, what constitutes their religion has broadened to include Christianity. Perhaps the identification of Christ as a type of shaman is one element of Christianity that has attracted so many of these believing Hmong. Here we have the Catholics, the Protestants, and the Mormons.
Depending on the version of Christianity a Hmong family embraces, they can often find themselves at odds with their relatives who still practice the “old way.” Many Hmong Christians will not associate with their traditional brothers and sisters. This has led to a rift in the Hmong community between Christians and non-Christians.
Whether one practices the old way, the new way, or no way, what it means to be Hmong today seems to be less about following a traditional verses a modern culture than it is to live good, productive lives and leave a legacy within your family and community.
“Phem zoo, yus yog Hmoob! (For better or worse, one is Hmong!)”
Read, write, execute!
Featured photo credit: Mr. Theklan, flickr.com