Muong - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Muong are mostly animists and believe in the existence of a multitude of spirits and in the transmigration of the soul. Spirits are thought to exert at will a benevolent or malevolent influence on human events. The religious universe is a vertical, three-tiered structure. The middle tier is the "flat land," which represents the terrestrial world. The upper tier is the "celestial land," the abode of the all-powerful ruler, the king of heaven. The spirits perform various functions under the king of heaven. The chief spirit maintains a register regarding that king's decisions on the fate of each soul leaving the earth. The influence of Taoism is obvious here. The lower tier is divided into two parts, one under the ground, which is in essence a miniature of the middle tier, and the other under water, the abode of snakes that can change their forms at will.

Ceremonies. The Muong have several cults, but the cult of ancestors is common. Almost all have a permanent altar dedicated to the souls of the dead members of the family. Food is offered on the death-anniversary days. An Earth Genius, who is supposed to ensure good health for family members and domestic animals, is worshiped. The cults of king, guardian spirit of the hamlet, and the spirit of the ancestor of the hamlet head are also worshiped. The cult of Buddha, a very rudimentary Buddhism, is contradictorily grafted on the archaic linga cult.

Religious Practitioners. The Muong also practice the occult through the shaman, who channels the reaction of the deceased soul. The sorcerer is still a healer and respected for his occult powers. Before treating the sick, he traces the malevolent spirit and performs a ceremony of exorcism. Muong also have a whole range of superstitions and taboos and a number of agrarian rites. Rice-planting season begins with the Khung Mua rites, entailing the sacrifice of a pig. The newrice harvest celebration is pompous; offerings of steamed fish are mandatory. The lunar New Year (Tet) is a great occasion for annual celebration, and so on.

With the dissemination of free and compulsory education, the relative improvement of living conditions, and the introduction of modern medicine, many superstitions have declined. The traditional roles of ong thuos and me thuoc (medicine man and woman) and priest-sorcerer are now insignificant. Sorcery and witchcraft have become things of the past. Accusations of being possessed by the devil are unknown. Feasting and religious rites organized during marriages as well as funeral and housewarming parties have been reduced to the minimum. Nonetheless, invocations to the genie, charms for treating illness, taboos concerning travel, absolute respect for superiors, and expensive marriages still prevail and constitute a serious impediment to sociocultural development.

Arts. The cultural policy of independent Vietnam has encouraged the aesthetic sense and manual dexterity. The unique house style, decoration and architecture, embroidery patterns, traditional costumes, delicious dishes, musical instruments, spicy popular songs, the famous sap dance, and the heritage of trust and cooperation are highly admired, renovated, and popularized across ethnic groups and in schools.

Death and Afterlife. Death is considered a passage of the soul of the deceased from this body to another. Every living person has ninety souls. Good souls transmigrate into the bodies of happy men, whereas bad souls enter into the bodies of the poor subjects and even those of animals. The Muong soul travels to the celestial land to hear the verdict of the king of heaven, and visits the ancestors with whom he or she will live and his or her hamlet to bid farewell. The notion of punishment is nowhere explicit, while affections for family and hamlet are reiterated.

In the past, the corpse was often left in the house for several days, up to twelve nights, until the near and distant relatives had arrived. The funeral required the sacrifice of an ox, buffalo, or pig, and feasting for several days by the relatives. The coffin carried the provisions for the dead man's journey into his new existence. The buffalo sacrifice was thought to send the draft animal to join the deceased and continue to plow for him. The funeral song, "The Creation of Earth and Water," recited by the shaman ( po mo )—a priest specializing in funeral liturgy—refers to the origin and evolution of the universe, to mythical ancestors, and to civilizing heroes. The long series of funeral rites only concludes after a few years. At present the rites are restricted and expenses are greatly curtailed.

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