The Month of the Holy Mothers

The third lunar month this year begins 7 April. In northern Vietnam it is associated with ceremonies and ritual dances honoring Liểu Hạnh, the chief deity in the pantheon of Holy Mothers. This cult, unique to Vietnam, originated in the 16th century, when civil war ravaged the Red River Delta and local village protector deities seemed to have lost their efficiency. Hence arose a new protector deity, to whom anyone from anywhere could appeal, who would reward the virtuous and punish the wicked.

Liễu Hạnh is supposed to be the daughter of the Jade Emperor. For an infraction at a celestial banquet he punished her by exiling her to Earth for 21 years. Upon her return, Liễu Hạnh confessed she liked it there and wanted another round. She was reborn in Nam Định and when she grew up she traveled to various temples in the north and occasionally met Confucian scholars and composed poems with them. Buddhists consider her a goddess of fertility and among the other Holy Mothers some are members of animist ethnic minorities in the north.

Thus the cult is connected to all the major belief systems in northern Vietnam. But it is not a religion, for it has no organization, no bureaucracy, no missionaries. It just has its practitioners, who come into their role the same way shamans do, by a mysterious illness that will resist all remedies until the afflicted one agrees to go to work for Liễu Hạnh. Usually these are women, but can also be men. Their job is to perform a lengthy set of dances impersonating, one by one, the Holy Mothers of the pantheon.

Performers have assistants who help them change costumes and props. Devotees bring offerings and money for the dancer to distribute to the crowd. A small band of singers and musicians play throughout the ritual, enhancing the atmosphere. And the performer keeps herself or himself going by taking periodic breaks to smoke cigarettes or drink rice spirits, even though they abstain from both in ordinary life.

You will learn more about this, and hear a sample of the music, on our trip to the Women’s Museum. As our next trip to Vietnam begins 9 April, we will also have a chance to observe a performance at a temple in Hanoi or the vicinity. For more on the cult of the Holy Mothers, see the article To Dance as a Goddess at http://blackeagleflights.blogspot.com/2013/06/to-dance-as-goddess.html

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