(Continued from Lên Đồng 2: Mounting the Medium)
Folk beliefs are all the rage nowadays. Everybody wants to go tribal. It is the hottest new trend. The Japanese have their Shinto. The Chinese have their Zhōngguó mínjiān xìnyǎng. And us Việts, we have our Đạo Mẫu.
I am not surprised that this is so. Remember, we were a matriarchal society, which meant women were valued very highly—just as highly valued as men were, and in some cases, even more so. The divine female was so valued that the common people created their own religion to satisfy their demand for a mother worship. They called it Đạo Mẫu (the worship of mother goddess).
Now, it may seem odd that, in this day and age of mobile phones and video chats, there is such a thing as the worship of a mother goddess. After all, aside from Đạo Mẫu, we still had the very respectable Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, and a plethora of other religions which are mostly if not entirely, androcentric. But the strangest thing is this. If you ask any self-professed Đạo Mẫu adherent WHO Mother Goddess actually is, they would give you half a dozen mystical sounding names like Shakti, Thiên Y A Na, Po Nagar, etc. etc. etc.
And they would be wrong.
I can’t say I blame them though. This is the ragged patchwork product of censorship in the very fabric of society, when to say or do something that has been banned could mean extradition or even death by tortuous means, you know…like cutting off the hands and feet, and flaying alive, and then buried (also alive). It was scary as fuck back then!
So what do you do when you are not allowed to say who the Mother Goddess is?
You do all this so you can hide something incredibly important. If books are banned and burn, how do you keep your civilization’s history alive? Why, you embed them into the most common denominator.
You go tribal!
You would utilize oral traditions and storytelling to ensure that the most important aspects of your history would remain safe from outside influence and the ravages of time.
If the people were still alive, the customs and traditions would also hopefully survive. It didn’t have to survive forever, only until the progeny was able to write down the information again, thereby insuring that it did not get erased from the memories of the living.
In the days before my people could write, they had an oral tradition where songs and dances kept alive the traditions of an entire civilization. Once we advanced a bit, we wrote all this down on bamboo, and paper, and copper. We smeared our written history everywhere. But then everything was systematically destroyed. From a culture who had a high level of civilization, we were forced to regress back to a time of mass illiteracy.
We went back to singing and dancing and turning what should have been historical accounts into superstitions and deification, all for the sole purpose of of ensuring that future progeny (that would be me and others like me) would be able to have something left behind to comprehend the magnitude of their history. .
It was a brilliant plan but the key was to keep this information out of the general educated elite, while at the same time embed this information into the collective memory of the common folks, those who worked the mines, tended the animals, and toiled in the fields from sun up to sun down.
Their job was not to learn how to read and write because that was too dangerous. All those who were literate would have been summarily executed or driven into exile, but singing songs in the field about fairies and heroes? Who pays attention to that? Certainly not the high and mighty overlords cracking the whip over the subjugated slaves.
If you wandered out into the fields or around their camp fires, you would hear folk songs, sung in that high pitch singsong manner that was tribal af. Everyone knows it’s just what the common field serfs do to make their back-breaking physical labor go faster. They were simply singing songs about some fairies in the sky who were going to come down and save them from all this misery.
But what these overlords didn’t know was that these common serfs had been charged with a sacred duty. They were to memorize (very long and complex) songs and continue that tradition in a way that would ensure future progeny would have to learn those songs as part of a religious ceremony which consists of dressing up like the individuals named, and singing a song about each individual.
This is not as revolutionary as it sounds. Vietnam has one other religion which most people don’t focus on because it is something that exists within the very psyche of Vietnamese people. Ancestor Worship.
Ancestor Worship is not about deifying all your dead relatives. That’s a huge misconception which I will clear up right now, once and for all.
First off, some of our very ancient ancestors are already deities. They don’t need to be deified. I’m talking about the ones who are designated as Immortals (Tiên, Chúa), the ones who came down from the heavens.
Secondly, the mortal ancestors we do have, if all goes well and according to the natural laws, have already passed on to the next iteration in their Tao path. We aren’t trying to keep them here in this reality, wandering around, stalking us and trying to make sure we are ok. That’s the last thing we would want—for members of our previous generations to turn into wandering ghosts, unable to reincarnate.
Since each family group (Vương, Triệu, Trưng, Lý, Ngô, Đinh, Lê, Trần, Hồ, Trịnh, Nguyễn…) normally kept their own records, they had information for their family lineage, but they would not have access to any of the other families lines.
These were the days before the internet, so information tended to be kept in secret hoards within a family clan.
FYI: Those names I highlighted are previous lineages of Viet kings. There are many other Viet surnames, but most are not of the royal lineage. And for the record, my family name is not on the kings’ list either.
Anyway, there had to be a way to record the names of the important heroes of the day and the Family Houses could not be the place to do so because no one else would have access to that information. The only other way to preserve this type of historical information was to ‘record’ it faithfully into living memory and hope that it would survive through the ages. How does one go about doing that?
One of the strangest things about Đạo Mẫu is that it is an amalgamation of Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, regional folk beliefs, and the worship of ancestors and nature spirits, all rolled into one. All the flamboyancy surrounding the core of the faith is just the flashy fluff that screams out HEY! I’M DOING THIS CRAZY COLORFUL FLAMBOYANT THING. WANNA JOIN?
It is a good way to discourage outsiders from joining in the revelry.
Those who have a deep understanding of ancient Việt history know that Đạo Mẫu’s roots come from Tiên Giáo, loosely translated as Immortal Teachings aka our well-known, well-loved Taoism. They also know that there are many layers of this seemingly supernatural cult-like faith, and at the core of the faith is this.
The real Mother Goddess is the Divine Feminine
Mother Goddess is a very familiar term to us Taoists. We represent her thus:
Lao Tzu also wrote about the Divine Feminine in his best selling book Tao Te Ching:
Tao Te Ching: Chapter 6
The valley spirit, undying
Is called the mystical female
The gateway of the mystical female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth
It flows continuously, barely perceptible
Utilize it, it is never exhausted
Translated by Derek Lin
We also added the structure of the I Ching into the number of deities to be worshiped.
SURPRISE!!! There are 64 of them. One of them is the Divine Feminine, the other is the Divine Masculine.
It starts off with the four Sky Lords and three main goddesses who live in the four palaces called Tứ Phủ. The four palaces consist of Heaven, Earth, Water, and Mountain. After these deities come the lower court. There are 42 high beings of various ages, both male and female. After these beings come ten more minor figures.
And then after that, they threw in every single female deity or demi-god they could think of, and any historical figure they could remember from history books…it was all good as long as the numbers add up to 64. I kid you not. They even had to combine members and do all sorts of creative mathematics to make it work, but they managed it.
All these figures are people of particular importance in the history of ancient Vietnam, and their presence within the folklore and the folk beliefs insulated them from the ravages of the intellectual destruction that had obliterated most traces of our civilization.
In my next post, I will make an attempt at nailing down all 64 entities. Please forgive my lack of depth in the descriptions of each deity. I am one, and they are many, and I don’t have a wiki to do this, so I do what I can, given the restrictions of a blog type of format.
(continue to Lên Đồng 4: The Royal Court)