A shaman is an intermediary between humankind and the spirit world, occupying a role similar to that of a priest: a religious specialist, possessing the ability to communicate with spirits, to appeal to them to dispel evil, to explain turns of fate, and to transmit the instructions of spirits. He or she usually has healing and magical powers, and can influence the spirits to bring about good and evil.
The practice of shamanism
There are several elements of shamanism in Taoism. Killing and expelling demons with the aid of charms and incantations, invoking spirits, holding ritual offerings, and presenting written memorials to spirits with the aid of a medium are all shamanistic practices.
Shamanism is not unique to Asia. Most of the long-established religions have elements of its beliefs and practices – the rite of exorcism in Christianity, for example, in which a priest attempts to communicate with, and expel, an evil spirit another person, an animal or an inanimate object such as a house.
Shamanism in Vietnam
Although shamanism exists in mainstream religion in Vietnam, it is mostly found in the traditions of the country’s ethnic minority groups, many of whom retain a shaman in each village. To invoke the spirits, a shaman uses songs and dances, spells and talismans leading to the induction of a trance-like state during which he or she is in direct contact with spirits.
In theory, such activities are labelled as superstition and are illegal. However, the law is largely ignored, and even the authorities recognise the tourism potential of such rituals. As an example, one ethnic group in the Central Highlands has a traditional annual festival in which the highlight is the ritual slaughter of a buffalo as a sacrifice to the spirits. This gory spectacle is now being promoted by the tourism department of the area and has become very popular.
Another type of shaman specialises in divination, a common practice throughout the country. Vietnamese people believe that there are good days and bad days, and one’s future welfare depends upon choosing the most propitious date and time before undertaking any significant venture or activity.
Divination by astrology is the main tool to be used to determine what day a person should move house, apply for a job or get married: in each case, the verdict of the fortune teller is taken very seriously. The recommendation is almost invariably followed to the letter. The cost of this service is seldom cheap, sometimes running hundreds of dollars – a large sum in a poor country.
Sometimes the outcome is highly inconvenient – having to move house in the middle of the night, for example. In other cases, the advice can lead to major life changes – an ‘unsuitable match’ verdict upon a couple (or one of the sets of parents) seeking guidance upon a possible marriage almost inevitably leads to a break-up.
A man will sometimes consult the shaman to ask how he should deal with what he considers his wife’s unsuitable behaviour (deep-rooted Confucian subservience inhibits women doing the same). Sometimes, this leads to divorce. Young people sometimes spend several months’ salary seeking a way forward after rejection by a girl or boyfriend.