Home Institution

Swarthmore College

Publication Date

Spring 2011

Program Name

Vietnam: Culture, Social Change and Development

Abstract

Len Dong is a spirit possession ritual practiced in the mother goddess religion of Tu Phu. Tu Phu roughly translates to “Four Palaces” or the sacred homes of the four spirits of the earth, heaven, water, and mountain or woods[1]. As there is no formal organization of the religion, there is much freedom in its expression among practitioners. For example, the styles, designs, and intricacy of the costumes may vary, or perhaps the size of the accompanying ritual orchestra. Yet there remains one very important element of spirit possession ritual: loc or lucky gifts from the spirits of the mother goddess pantheon.

The gifts themselves are of among the two categories of tangible and intangible. Tangible gifts include lucky money, votive paper, fruit, food, stones, amulets, and other items that may have been imbued with the favor of the spirits. The intangible gifts, though, are some of the most interesting—and will be the topic that this paper will seek to explore.

Practitioners of len dong speak of increased mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health, in addition to financial opportunities. Kirsten W. Endres explores the construction of personal identity through the practice of spirit possession in the way it manifests itself in the pattern of events that lead an individual toward becoming a medium. In two interviews that Endres relates, both Ms. Huong[2] and Ms. Hang mention experiencing reoccurring hardship related to health, physical ability, and money. In both cases, it is advised that the two women become initiated as mediums in Tu Phu. After initiation, making prayers to the spirits, and performing len dong ceremonies, both women profess a noticeable change in their lives.

The research of Karen Fjelstand and Lisa Maiffret also explores the transformations of lives through spirit possession. Their focus, in the essay “Gifts from the Spirits”, is on the function of spirits to teach lessons and to guide individuals through their daily lives[3]. Their focus on the functionality of religion, of its usefulness and the ways in which it is utilized, is helpful in assessing spirit possession—in defining what it is, what it is not; what it was and what it has potential to be.

To further aid my research, I seek help from Endres’ understanding of Catharine Bell and Victor Turner’s theories of ritual performance and social action. Through Bell and Turner, Endres develops a framework with which to look at spirit possession rituals as a means of reproducing and reshaping lives in a Vietnamese social and cultural environment[4]. Phillip Taylor speaks to this theory in his research of mother goddess religions, as he is especially concerned with the post-Doi Moi proliferation of popular religion such as len dong spirit possession as a way of making sense of a capitalist oriented economy in the age of globalization, modernization, and development.

[1] Introduction. Possessed by the Spirits: Mediumship in Contemporary Vietnamese Communities. P. 7

[2] Not to be mistaken with interview alias “Ms. Hong” used later in this paper.

[3] Fjelstad, Karen. Maiffret, Lisa. “Gifts from the Spirits”. P.121

[4] Kirsten W. Endres. “Spirit Performance and the Ritual Construction of Personal Identity.” P.79

Disciplines

Asian Studies | Place and Environment | Religion | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion