(No.5, Vol.6,Jul-Aug 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Photos by Vu Quang Ngoc

Once outlawed, spirit
possession has come roaring back

Trance, also called audience with shadows, is a ritual in which the spirits of Four Edifice Mother Sect enter the body of a medium. It’s an ancient ritual for health and wealth.
Those who volunteer to be a medium do it because of personal circumstances, family genetic capacity, or congenital karma. Those who have the ‘karma,’ yet have not presented themselves to the Spirit usually suffer incurable otherworldly illnesses as if punished by the Spirits. As they offer themselves, their health is restored and their business goes smoothly. The mediums are normally overly sensitive and moody. Many of them are ‘half man, half woman’.

As servants of the Spirits, depending on the seasonal regulation of each year’s lunar calendar, especially on the occasions of ancestry worship in ‘8th month for Father, 3rd month for Mother,’ the mediums have to conduct a Trance ritual to receive the Spirits from different domains of the cosmos into their body. During the ritual, the mediums wear dresses of different colours, each representing a domain of the cosmos; red colour represents the heaven’s domain, yellow the earth’s, white the water’s, and green the forests’ and mountains’.
The Spirits from those four domains, in hierarchical order, include: Mothers (Four Ladies,) Lords (Five Big Men,) Audiences (Four Ladies,) Kings (Five Tutelaries,) Misses (Twelve Highnesses,) Masters (Ten Highnesses,) etc. There are 50-60 Spirits in total. On average only about 20 of them come to each trance ritual.
The rituals are conducted in temples and shrines where the Spirits of Four Edifice Mother Sect are worshipped. Under mystic Van music and mythical lyrics, the mediums in blinding bright dresses get more and more ecstatic in their dancing. The dresses show which Spirit is coming. The Lords are majestic, the Audiences ethnically colourful, the Kings elegant, the Misses graceful and the Masters mischievous. Even the colours of the offerings must also match the colours of the Spirits’ domains.
The liveliest part of the ritual is when the Spirits give godsends and utter prophecies. The godsends are simple things like fruits, food or utensils etc. but ‘a bit from God is a load of wealth.’ The prophecies about the past and the future, coupled with a relieving action make each attendant feel safe and confident in the face of what’s coming. Trance rituals always end with a feast of sympathy shared among those who are present. It too is a godsend.
Trance rituals are typical of the Viet people. They originated in the North during the Late Le Dynasty (XVI Century), then followed the waves of migration to the Highlands and the South. Solemn, strict and canonical in the North, they becomes cheerful and light-hearted in the South, especially in Saigon. In Hue, there is also collective trance ritual, called fun trance.
There was a time for some reasons the Vietnamese banned trance rituals. Today, the tradition has made a triumphant come back, because many consider this a good way to relieve their stress and anxiety caused by the ever-quickening rhythm of modern life.
At the end of the day, the trance is exactly the way to help those knocked out of psychological and physiological balance to reunite with the community. Beside this cultural value, the tradition may also have adverse effects as it may be misused by some for their own benefit.
The Vietnamese have spread trance ritual to many countries in the world.

Text by Bao Khanh