Yao of Thailand - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Evidence for the centuries of Yao association with Chinese civilization is most clearly seen in their religious beliefs and practices. There is a cult of the ancestors. They celebrate the lunar New Year. They also have a pantheon of spirits believed to have an influence on human beings. The Yao recognize eighteen principal deities whose finely painted portraits they preserve on scrolls. These are usually kept rolled up on the spirit altars in their houses and are displayed on important ritual occasions. Most of these are believed to derive from Chinese deities, the Jade Emperor, the Three Celestial Ones, the earth god, Tichu, and even the deified Lao Tzu. In Thailand, some Yao have converted to Christianity. Like the Chinese, Yao propitiate a host of minor supernaturals, gods, deceased heroes, and even spirits of natural phenomena. Considerable attention is paid to evil spirits in exorcistic and propitiatory rites, which are carried out on such occasions as harvest or when there is illness.

Religious Practitioners. The position of priest-exorcist is important in Yao society. Although these practitioners are skilled at divining with chicken bones and bamboo sticks, their real power lies in their knowledge of incantations taken from books written in Chinese characters. During their teens boys are given special instruction in this art and they may become shamans when they grow up. Yao shamans are called in on occasions of illness and also officiate in various village ceremonies. These shamans are of crucial importance to the maintenance of harmony between the world of the living and the supernatural world beyond.

Ceremonies. Boys between 12 and 20 years of age go through a coming-of-age ceremony lasting several days. There are communal rites as well as an individual rite. The ceremonies performed in honor of the village guardian spirit and the mountain guardian spirit are activities shared by the whole village. The individual ceremonies include the Souls calling ceremony, the initiation ceremonies, and all kinds of merit-making ceremonies. The older generation invests in merit-making ceremonies and marriage on behalf of the younger, expecting recompense before or after death. Prosperity and health attend the living who make offerings to and merit for their forebears, while illness and misfortune are often attributed to dissatisfied ancestors.

Arts. Singing is very popular among the Yao, but dancing is never seen. Songs have been recorded in books. Traditional musical instruments such as the gong, clappers, drums, and cymbals are used only for ritual purposes.

Medicine. The properties of herbs are widely understood by the Yao; plants are used to cure sickness and especially to restore a woman to health after she gives birth. Because Yao believe that most illnesses are caused by evil or malevolent ghosts and spirits, however, most curing rites are exorcistic in nature. Illness is thought to be the result of soul loss; the function of the shaman is to placate the ghost responsible for this condition, thus restoring the patient to health. The rituals performed usually involve blood sacrifice and the burning of strips of paper on which the names of offending spirits are written. Ceremonial instruments are sacred knives, bells, and sticks.

Death and Afterlife. Death is always announced by gunshot. The indigenous method of disposing of the corpse is cremation. The body is washed, dressed, and placed in a wooden coffin in front of the altar, with the funeral usually lasting for two to three days after death. The Yao in Thailand usually cremate their dead. The burial place for the ashes is selected by the shaman after consulting the sacred book on burials. Some old people may select their own burial place before death. Periodic ceremonies are held for the souls of deceased ancestors one year after death; their purpose is to purify the souls, enabling them to ascend into the spirit world.

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