Akha - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Akha religion (zah v ) can be characterized as animism with an ancestor cult. "Blessing" ( gui v laha v ), evidenced by fertility and health in people, rice, and domesticated animals, is sought from ancestors. The being who began everything, including first the sky and then the earth, also gave Akha their zah v , the rules they live by. Although crucial to the cosmic order, this supernatural is not directly invoked in ceremonies. Rice rituals are addressed to the Rice Mother. Spirits and people are said to have been born of the same mother and to have lived together until a quarrel led to their separation, when the spirits went to the forest and people remained in the village. Since then, spirits have caused illness and other disruptions of human social life. The Akha year is divided into the people's season (dry) and the spirits' season (wet). During the latter, spirits wander into the village, so they must be driven out as part of a yearly ancestor offering. Game have spirit-owners, honored in hunting rites. People and rice have souls, whose flight causes disease. Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries have been active among Akha and have won converts, who typically live apart from traditionalists in Christian villages.

Practitioners. First among these is the village leader, whose ritual responsibilities include initiating the annual rebuilding of the village gates and the swing. Ranked below him is the blacksmith, who plays a yearly ritual role. And below him in ranking is the ritual specialist ( pi ma; boemaw ), who apprentices to learn by rote the vast corpus of chants for various ceremonies, the three-day funeral being the most important. Offerings to patrilineal ancestors are made by a male family member unless the senior woman has undergone a special initiation, which makes her responsible for annual rice rituals as well. Shamans are held to have been chosen by the spirits.

Ceremonies. The annual ritual cycle consists of nine or twelve ancestor offerings, rice rituals, and other rites such as the building of the village gates. Family ancestor offerings are made in the women's side of the house, whereas hunting ceremonies are held on the men's side. Life-cycle rites include birth rituals, weddings, and funerals. There are also curing and corrective ceremonies of numerous sorts, such as soul calling.

Arts. Jackets, shoulder bags, and women's hats are works of art. Blacksmithing is the only craft with specialists. Many Akha are accomplished singers; indigenous musical instruments include drums, cymbals, and Jew's harps.

Medicine. Numerous botanical medicines are known, such as effective coagulants for wounds. Illness is also treated ritually by specialists in chants and by shamans. Western medical treatment is eagerly sought, though not to the exclusion of traditional cures.

Death and Afterlife. Funeral ceremonies are different for adults survived by at least one son than for adults without male issue or children. Only the former become ancestors and receive offerings after their deaths. Husband and wife become ancestors together in his patriline. Unlike their Buddhist lowland neighbors, Akha bury rather than cremate their dead.

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