Practices relating to the Vietnamese belief in the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms were recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage in December; the eleventh such recognition in Vietnam.
Unlike previous cases, this latest recognition from UNESCO hasn’t triggered any concerns over a lack of practice due to changes in social context or a lack of related materials and human resources. Other concerns, however, have arisen.
The practice is found in almost every locality in Vietnam, as part of rituals known as hau dong. But the difference between authentic belief and ‘superstitious services’ linked to the belief is quite vague.
Hau dong, which means ‘to mount the medium’, is where the practitioner becomes a medium and deities take over his or her body to perform actions in the real world.
A single session of the ritual may last several hours and the practitioner changes costumes in each stage.
During a session, the practitioner performs dances and risky stunts with embers or sharp metal pieces. At the end of each session, audience members approach the practitioners to make offerings and have their fortunes told.
Many make use of this to develop superstitious practices, in which the practitioners earn profits from the activities while audience members spend a great deal of money on offerings to trade with the deities for position, wealth, health, and, sometimes, children.
Authentically, the belief in the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms is the worshipping of nature or giving the highest respect to nature.
The Realms represent the deities of heaven, water, and mountains and forests. They are said to originate from legend. The mysterious figure of Lieu Hanh, who was a nymph that descended to earth and lived as a human as a Buddhist nun, represents heaven. Au Co, who was an immortal mountain fairy that gave birth to the ancestors of the Vietnamese people, represents the mountains and forests, and Vuong Mau, who was the legendary Mother of Saint Giong, represents water.
The practice of the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms has been a traditional worshipping ceremony in Vietnam for centuries. It has remained close to historical and mythical legends about the development of Vietnam over 4,000 years.
The worship of the Mother Goddesses in general is also said to be part of the respectful traditions of Vietnamese people towards their mothers and provides significant appreciation of women and their role in society.
Thanks to the tradition, the belief’s practice is conducted in almost every community in the country.
Experts have sought measures from cultural authorities to prevent any unexpected consequences from misunderstandings of UNESCO’s recognition of the Practice of the Belief of the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms.
They have called for a public campaign to educate both practitioners and audience members of the belief about its real values as well as to stop anyone making improper use of the belief’s practice.
The Centre for the Study and Promotion of the Belief of the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms has said that the UNESCO recognition is aimed at preserving the cultural values of the belief and is an attempt at preservation by communities that have practiced the belief through generations.
‘The primary value that made UNESCO honour the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms practice is the custom of worshipping deities representing nature, including land, water, fire and flora,’ said the centre’s director, Dr Le Thi Minh Ly.
The honour also included artistic performances relating to the practice, she added, such as music, songs, dance, costumes, and musical instruments, as well as the traditions of areca nut chewing, wine offerings, incense burning, and gestures performed by practitioners.
Practice of the belief is conducted in an order similar to a professional play, performed in single stages with a harmony of gestures, music, lyrics, rituals, costumes and instruments.
The belief’s practice also showcases the skilled crafts of sculpture in worshipping buildings, tailoring and embroidery, and wood and terracotta carving.
From the community side, the UNESCO recognition also honours the creativity of communities and their attempts to preserve the practice over the centuries.
Practitioner groups include temple guardians, ritual priests, spiritual mediums and their assistants, and musicians.
The guardians take care of the temples, offer daily incense and flowers to the spirits, instruct worshippers and pilgrims in ritual acts, and play an active role in organising spirit possession rituals and festivals.
Priests perform ceremonies, which involve conveying the wishes of the devotees and communities to the Mother Goddesses and spirits through prayer and petition sheets.
Other figures that have been worshipped together with the deities include legendary figures or real historical figures, and this has helped to express the appreciation of Vietnamese people towards the contributions of their predecessors to the country.
The wrongful practice of the belief, therefore, would have a negative impact on the younger generation and would be a waste of the financial and material resources of society.
Shows presenting the practice are open to the public at the Temple to Emperor Le at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi from 8pm on weekends or during traditional spring festivals in the northern part of the country.