A shaman is an intermediary between humankind and the spirit
world, occupying a role similar to that of a priest: a religious
specialist, possessing the ability to communicate with spirits,
to appeal to them to dispel evil, to explain turns of fate,
and to transmit the instructions of spirits. He or she usually
has healing and magical powers, and can influence the spirits
to bring about good and evil.
The practice of shamanism
There are several elements of shamanism in Taoism. Killing
and expelling demons with the aid of charms and incantations,
invoking spirits, holding ritual offerings, and presenting
written memorials to spirits with the aid of a medium are
all shamanistic practices.
Shamanism is not unique to Asia. Most of
the long-established religions have elements of its beliefs
and practices – the rite of exorcism in Christianity, for
example, in which a priest attempts to communicate with,
and expel, an evil spirit from another person, an animal
or an inanimate object such as a house.
Shamanism in Vietnam
Although shamanism exists in mainstream religion in Vietnam,
it is mostly found in the traditions of the country’s ethnic
minority groups, many of whom retain a shaman in each village.
To invoke the spirits, a shaman uses songs and dances, spells
and talismans leading to the induction of a trance-like
state during which he or she is in direct contact with spirits.
In theory, such activities are labelled
as superstition and are illegal. However, the law is largely
ignored, and even the authorities recognise the tourism
potential of such rituals. As an example, one ethnic group
in the Central Highlands has a traditional annual festival
in which the highlight is the ritual slaughter of a buffalo
as a sacrifice to the spirits. This gory spectacle is now
being promoted by the tourism department of the area and
has become very popular.
Another type of shaman specialises in divination, a common
practice throughout the country. Vietnamese people believe
that there are good days and bad days, and one’s future
welfare depends upon choosing the most propitious date and
time before undertaking any significant venture or activity.
Divination by astrology is the main tool
to be used to determine what day a person should move house,
apply for a job or get married: in each case, the verdict
of the fortune teller is taken very seriously. The recommendation
is almost invariably followed to the letter. The cost of
this service is seldom cheap, sometimes running into hundreds
of dollars – a large sum in a poor country.
Sometimes the outcome is highly inconvenient
– having to move house in the middle of the night, for example.
In other cases, the advice can lead to major life changes
– an ‘unsuitable match’ verdict upon a couple (or one of
the sets of parents) seeking guidance upon a possible marriage
almost inevitably leads to a break-up.
A man will sometimes consult the shaman
to ask how he should deal with what he considers his wife’s
unsuitable behaviour (deep-rooted Confucian subservience
inhibits women from doing the same). Sometimes, this leads
to divorce. Young people sometimes spend several months’
salary seeking a way forward after rejection by a girl or