(Continued from Lên Đồng 1: Ancient Ceremonial Spirit Possession Ritual)
Throughout the ages, there have been endless claims of spirit possessions. As early as 1500-1100 BCE, we have Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi. There is also Dodona, and the Trophonius. And of course, who can forget the shrine maidens of Sibyl from 5th century BC, whose oracles are still being consulted to this very day, as reported by an ancient Greek writer by the name of Heraclitus.
The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god. ~ Heraclitus
The idea that Vietnam would have oracles is something that makes perfect sense, especially since we had working knowledge of the I Ching for thousands of years, not to mention plenty of chemically active psychedelics of the herbal persuasion.
In fact, anyone who knew the secret to I Ching divinations would be called an oracle as well.
Hmmmmm…does that make me a Taobabe oracle? Well, I sincerely hope not, as most of those oracles were ‘frenzied women from whose lips the god speaks’ ~ Walter Burket.
Apparently, much like the Sibylites, their brains had been juiced with either poisonous fumes or some types of drugs so that they could pierce the veil between the worlds and hear messages coming through loud and clear. Some are also mad as hatters.
I hasten to assure you that I don’t take anything stronger than coffee. I don’t even burn incense when I do a I Ching divination (it sometimes sets off my smoke alarm). I prefer perfumes. One of favorite divination scents is D’or. I Also use Versace Oud Pour Femme because I love the scent of agar wood (Trầm Hương).
Sorry. I’m rambling and digressing. I need to get back to spirit possession.
Modern day oracles
Modern day oracles and wannabes intermingle at religious events and secret night time ritualistic gatherings. If you go, you can see people speaking in tongues and flailing around. It almost looks like demonic possession, but to them, their god is speaking through them and guiding them.
So we go back to the practice of Lên đồng (mounting the medium) also known as hầu đồng, hầu bóng, đồng bóng, and we see that eastern practices are not as different from western practices as we think they are. In fact, I will go on a limb and say that those who go to the Lên đồng ceremonies will think that the people speaking in tongues need some help from the temple monks for that bad case of demonic possession.
You see, Vietnamese ceremonial spirit possession is a highly structured event. There’s none of that random flailing, or unwarranted possessions-out-of-the-blue. The medium who is allowing the spirits to possess them knows in advance who is going to possess them and when the possession will occur—and frankly, so does everyone else. They know in advance because they have extensively prepared in advance for the possessions to occur.
As you can see, in this video, there is a huge amount of preparation that must be done in advance. Some folks do their own medium work. Others who do not have the knowledge or ability to do this hire mediums to help out. Some mediums, like this guy in the video above, are paid handsomely to lend his body for the purpose of spirit possession.
It is a fairly expensive event. In fact, it has sometimes been called a culture vulture because there have been people who have lost fortunes following this cult-like folk belief. Special clothing needs to be created for each entity because each entity has his or her own color-coded outfits. When it’s that entity’s turn to take over, they wait for the medium to change into the clothes that are designated for each spirit, and they don’t possess the medium until they hear the first strains of their special music being played by professional musicians. It’s basically a possess-by-number sort of deal. They have to wait their turn.
Meanwhile, everyone else treats it like a festivity. They go to watch the dancing, listen to the music, and support their favorite deity.
They will cheer and laud the god of their bias when it is his or her turn to Lên đồng. The atmosphere is festive and cheerful, and it is not scary in the least.
At first, I thought it was because everyone who participated in the event thought it was just a show and there was no possession going on, but that is not true at all.
There really is a belief in this type of possession, and people feel that the ones doing the possessing are respected deities who will do them no harm. In fact, they are given blessings and other such good fortunes if they attend the events. Even a piece of ‘hell money’, if blessed by the deities, brings a person good fortune.
The word bóng in hầu bóng, or đồng bóng means shadow (as in spirit shadow). It can also mean flaming queen, as in an ostentatious flamboyant gay man. I never understood the terminology and the connection between the two until I saw my very first Lên đồng ceremony. Then it made perfect sense.
There is a very large group of gays and trans who do the ceremonial Lên đồng partly because it is not only accepted but warmly welcomed by the community as a whole. Over time, the word bóng began to take on the same meaning as homosexual, and used as such, in a slang way to denote those very flamboyant queens who are part of the gay community.
It may seem as if it is a slight to the gay lesbian community, but there is a different in Vietnam. To the vast majority of the Vietnamese population, gays and lesbians are not shunned or considered mentally ill. They are accepted and have their own standing within the community.
It is extra special, however, for the gay bóng. To them, these Lên đồng ceremonies give them the opportunity to dress up in ancient drag queen style, so to speak. They get to reenact all sorts of female deities, borrowing upon the strength and power that a beloved deity can bestow upon the person who is generous and brave enough to allow the possession to occur. This in turns, give them love and acceptance from their own community, which is the rarest form of blessing that any deity can bestow on their loyal worshipers.
In my next posting, I am going to go into detail about the hidden aspects of Lên đồng.
(Continue to Lên Đồng 3: Mother Goddess)
2 thoughts on “Lên Đồng 2: Mounting the Medium”
Mounting the medium. There’s a concept.
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LOL George. I think the literal translation should have given way to the more poetic one: ‘rising of the spirit to inhabit the child’. ‘Lên’ means to rise, to go up, to mount, to go forward. I could have chosen any of those synonyms. Đồng means ‘a child’. Why child? It is easier for spirits to possess children as they don’t have such a strong grip on their various souls yet.