When first-time travelers to the hills of Northern Thailand hear that the tribe they are about to visit is ‘animist,’ their comprehension faculties often go on immediate pause. Animist? They don’t have gods? They worship spirits? No, not really. Traditional religion among the hill tribes is animist, to be sure, but animism is a complete belief-system, just like that of the organized religions like Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. In fact the two have many similarities. Hill tribe animism is a regulated way of life, with a code of behavior and a sense of ethics in every way comparable to that of the organized religions of the region. It has its religious specialists and its own set of time-honored rituals to deal with matters beyond the mundane aspects of daily life. It has some concept of an afterlife, for which ritual funerals are a requisite preparation.
The primary difference lies in its attitude to the unseen world of forces and influences. Animism sees the many varieties of these as different kinds of spirits. Some are good ones, like the various guardian spirits of the house or village and the benevolent ancestral spirits. People invoke their blessings and call on them to deal with the bad spirits, the ones that seem to have a permanent grudge against humans. These bad spirits are legion, most of them specializing in a particular type of affliction.
Then there are the neutral spirits, in that they don’t normally interfere in the affairs of humans. Most of them are nature sprits, governing the land, sky, water and weather phenomena. But they can be provoked into causing trouble, which happens when they consider humans guilty of disrespect. Then they can be just as nefarious as those bad sprits that make a career out of being nasty.
According to the tribal mind, spirits have been around since the dawn of time. Unlike humans they cannot reproduce, but their numbers are constantly augmented by the souls of people when they die. If people die a “good death,” meaning one from natural causes, they become ancestral spirits with a tendency, so long as they are properly beseeched, to do what good they can for their progeny. If people die a “bad death,” however, one from violence or accident, for examples, then they become wandering bad spirits, forever resentful of the way they left this world and eager to do harm to the living.’
As for the guardians and nature spirits, to keep them contented all the people have to do is periodically manifest their respect for them, generally in a ceremonial way. These spirits rule the elements and like all rulers love flattering ceremonies. The Karen, Akha and Hmong believe in a Lord of the Land and Water, who presides over the area in which they live and these people perform an elaborate annual ceremony honoring this Lord. They make offerings of food and drinks, decorate the Lord’s shrine with ornaments of split bamboo and fire guns in salute. The Lisu honor their village protective spirits several times a year by preparing a big feast for them at the main village altar on the edge of the settlement.
Equally important are the spirits in control of the land. Hill people supplement what they obtain from agriculture with hunting and gathering, but agriculture is at the core of the culture. Since it is the land that must provide them their basic sustenance, as well as the space they live upon, it is essential to be on good terms with land spirits. They are quite numerous and people like the hill tribes, who practically every year farm different strips of the land, cannot be sure how far the jurisdiction, so to speak, of any one of them might extend.
So every year wherever they plant a new crop they precede the action with a small ceremony to the field spirit, asking its permission to use the land, apologizing for disfiguring it, presenting the field spirit with a small offering and acknowledging its authority. Such attention pleases the field spirit, who refrains from causing any trouble. Not to first honor the field spirit is to risk having a poor harvest or even worse things, like a landslide or a plague of voracious insects.
In the same way it is necessary to appease the ground spirits at whatever site one chooses to construct one’s house. Such rituals always accompany house construction in the hills and indeed of any building, like the Akha swing frame and village boundary gates. This usually involves the presentation of eggs or small sacrificial animals, along with a bit of liquor and some shavings of silver. To neglect this courtesy is to risk having the house catch fire or mysteriously collapse one night while all the family is inside sleeping.
Guardian spirits, land and field spirits, not to mention the Sky God, who is also the Creator to the Lahu and Akha, all have to be publicly given their due respect. Then they will be pleased and do their part in maintaining the harmony of man and nature that makes for a successful existence in the hills. But unfortunately, they are not omnipotent and lots of things can still go wrong in daily life, from minor aggravations to major crises, that have nothing to do with nature, the weather or the state of the crops. Nothing upsetting happens without a cause, so the reasoning goes, and the culprit is always one kind of spirit or another. Caution must always be at the forefront of one’s thoughts.
Now the easiest way to avoid problems with these other spirits is not to do anything that might upset them. That entails following the tribal code of behavior, for breaches of it cause disharmony and make opportunities for spirits to cause trouble. But spirits are spiteful by nature and many of the minor ones, though not very powerful, can be nuisances all the same. Ever have a sudden twitch in the face as you were walking through the forest? The Akha would say a spirit slapped you. Ever forget something important at a crucial moment? Most hill folks would blame a spirit that, for some reason was jealous of you.
There’s really nothing you can do about pesky little spirits like these, any more than you can insure yourself against mosquito bites. But more dangerous spirits lurk in the shadows, ones responsible for sickness, lassitude, disease and epidemics. These have to be appeased before they can wreck too much havoc. Fortunately, these cultures have long ago devised ways and means of handling such calamities. Ritual specialists deal with the problem with prescribed rituals designed to mollify the angry spirits and persuade them to desist from causing harm.
The particular affliction could be one affecting the entire village, such as an epidemic disease that kills off their domestic animals. In that case the village spiritual leader will call for an animal sacrifice—a pig or a dog, for example—to mollify the spirit at fault. The carcass, or at least the head, will subsequently be mounted on a special altar on a path just outside the village. This will remind the perpetrating spirit, and any like it, that the village has paid its tribute and should be spared any further ravages.
More frequent are the attacks spirits make on individual people, making them very sick. Any illness that persists for any length of time is attributed to a nasty spirit. To counteract its baleful influence the specialist, to augment his own prayers and magical acts, may order up an elaborate sacrifice, such as two or three small animals, with a feast prepared as well, the whole offered to the spirits causing the disease. The spirits are invisible, so they only consume the invisible essence of the offering. The people, especially the patient, consume this nourishing repast themselves.
In recent years the animist outlook has come under great pressure. Outsiders ranging from government servants and teachers, missionaries and NGO personnel have all been trying to persuade the hill folks to drop that interpretation of life. There are no such things as ancestral spirits, they say, and those other ones are just germs, viruses or meteorological phenomena. Hygienic living habits and modern medicine will deal with them, not rituals and animal sacrifices (never mind who eats the meat afterwards).
This argument has worked to a certain extent. In the history of received ideas in the tribal world, though, it is relatively recent. Just as modern is the end of tribal isolation, for rare is the village that does not have road links with a small town that has a drugstore and a hospital or clinic. Hill folks nowadays go to the markets to buy pills, syrups and ointments to treat their ailments, gradually abandoning use of their own jungle drugs in the process.
But sometimes the modern medicine doesn’t work. The sickness persists. Even the traditional herbs have no effect. In such circumstances the tribal mind is apt to attribute the problem to a bad spirit, who has perhaps captured the soul of the patient. The solution is to call on the services of a shaman, the specialist who can communicate with such spirits, find out what’s bothering them and what it takes to persuade them to give back the captured soul.
The spirits also want an intermediary with the human world, if only to arrange for their demands to be met. They themselves select who that will be by afflicting their choices with ailments or sickness until he or she finally agrees to become a shaman. They might get a meal and some refreshment from the family that employs them, but otherwise shamans are not paid for their services. For them it is a burdensome role those nasty spirits have forced them to carry out.
To communicate with them the shamans must go into a self-induced trance, without the aid of alcohol or any kind of drugs, and make the journey to the spirit realm. There they locate precisely which spirit caused the problem, the nature of that spirit’s displeasure and what it takes to resolve the problem. The shaman then returns to the normal world, narrates the details of his journey to the family of the patient and they then carry out the requirements of the remedy. So powerful is the belief in the efficacy of the shaman against unexplainable, untreatable illness that even Christianized villages, that have otherwise abandoned all aspects of traditional spiritual culture, still, when the prayers aren’t working either, call on the services of the traditional shamans.
Despite the abundance of nasty spirits in the tribal world the people do not live in constant fear of them. The know that as long as they follow their own tribal codes, regularly honor the major spirits and take the usual precautions against the bad spirits life will proceed tolerably and smoothly. It will be easiest within the perimeters of the village itself, for this is a ritually protected area. Among the Akha this is announced by the erection of a pair of gates, annually rebuilt, at either end of the village, as a boundary between the world of spirits and that of the humans. The gates are ritually endowed with the power to repel any spirits that try to sneak into the village by, for instance, riding in one of the pack baskets the farmers carry home.
But these two trails are not the only way into the village and the Akha assume that during the year some spirits probably managed to make surreptitious entries. So near the end of the rainy season, usually in October, they stage a festival, unique in the hills, specifically designed to chase out those sneaky evil spirits. Although Ka-ye-ye, as they call it, includes rituals and ancestral offerings, the main actors in this event are the boys. Wielding painted wooden swords they romp through the village, shouting and waving their weapons. They charge into each house from the women’s entrance and go out the men’s entrance, stomping up and down on the balcony as well. The household gives them a pumpkin or big cucumber, supposedly containing the hiding spirits, which the boys take outside, throw on the ground and then stab and slash it to pieces with their swords.
After they have made the circuit and swept the demons out of every house the boys take their swords to one of the village boundary gates and insert them into the ground alongside the path. Throughout the day villagers have set off firecrackers and homemade explosives in bamboo mortars to frighten the spirits. At dusk the last major act in the festival is to stage a shooting match, the noise of which will scare away any spirits seeking to return to the village.
Excessive worry about what all those nasty spirits might do can lead to a pretty gloomy existence, ruled by paranoia. Elaborate rituals, rules of proper behavior and various sacrifices keep the human world relatively safe from spirit interference. And a festival like Ka-ye-ye demonstrates one more aspect of the hill tribes’ continuous battle with the spirits–that a great victory over their nemeses can also be great fun.
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Text and photos by Jim Goodman © Jim Goodman – All Rights Reserved
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