Professor Trinh Sinh

Muong shamans still recount traditional epics and perform age-old ceremonies

A unique intangible cultural heritage of the Muong ethnic group, the Mo Muong is a collection of epic tales passed down orally for generations. Upon witnessing this form of storytelling for the first time in 1948, the French ethnographer Jeanne Cuisinier expressed her amazement. Her research, published as “Les Muong”, shed wider light onto Mo Muong practices, Mo shamans, and other Muong ceremonies.

A Mo shaman ties a string around a girl's wrist to wish her good fortune

Years later, many ethnographers, including Professor Tu Chi, also looked into the world of the Mo Muong epics. Professor Tu Chi encapsulated his understanding of this tradition in his book “Muong People in Hoa Binh”, published in 1996. In 2016, Hoa Binh’s Mo Muong tradition was inscribed into the list of Vietnam’s National Intangible Cultural Heritages for its contribution to “Social customs and religious practices”. Recently, the Vietnamese government has submitted a dossier on the Mo Muong epics to UNESCO in the hope that this tradition might be added to the list of Intangible Heritages of Humanity.

Muong gongs

This tradition is unique to Muong people, an ethnic minority group who have long resided in the valleys of Hoa Binh, Phu Tho, Thanh Hoa, and other provinces. According to ethnographers, the Muong and Kinh people share the same bloodline, with both groups descended from the ancient Hoa Binh people who lived here thousands of years ago. It is not so strange that the religious practices of the Kinh people during their historical expansion into the Northern region and the North Central coast are reflected in the Mo Muong epics.

The Mo Muong epics tell stories about life and secular affairs, and customs. Recounted around the fire, it’s only recently that these tales were properly recorded. Currently, Mo practitioners from the Mo Muong Club have collected around 115 “Roóng Mo” (similar to chapters or acts) with over 44,000 lines of Mo verse, requiring 23 consecutive days for a full telling.

Locals attend a "house-cooling" ceremony

The Mo epics are romantic and lyrical. The tale “Bearing earth, bearing water” is well known in the community. This story tells how earth and heaven were separated by a “Great Flood”, and all beings were under the reign of the “Heavenly King”. Three people who were the ancestors of all humankind lived on earth: the eldest, Ta Cai, his younger brother Ta Can, and their little sister Gia Kit. The younger brother took his sister in marriage, and they became the world’s first husband and wife.

The Muong universe includes various realms, including heaven, the realm of the living, the realm of the dead, and the underwater realm, among others. Mo Muong epics are usually recited during 23 different ceremonies, including but not limited to funerals, prayers for wealth, exorcisms, and New Year celebrations. Among these ceremonies, the “house-cooling” ceremony remains popular among Vietnamese people as they pray for peace and hope to dispel bad luck.

Offering trays in the “house-cooling” ceremony include a variety of items

The “house-cooling” ceremony is often organized at the beginning of a new year to pray for a bountiful harvest and familial peace, or whenever a family faces illness or adversity, to relieve them of bad luck. Mo shamans play a critical role in this ceremony, acting as a bridge between the heavenly realm of the gods and the secular world of humans. They know the lengthy Mo verses by heart and recount Mo epics during the ceremony while pouring water into a bowl. The Muong believe that water is a medium for cooling and reinvigorating nature, which effectively chases off evil forces. Shamans use a cloth bag called a “tui khot” to hold their sacred and precious tools such as an old stone axe (that “wields the power of lightning and thunder”), wild boar fangs, stone bracelets, and rare stones, among others. These tools are placed within the bowl of water that will be sprinkled around the house.

Mo shamans perform the ceremony

Offering trays are also indispensable to the “house-cooling” ceremony. The house owner must prepare two trays: one for the dead and the other for the gods. Duck meat is always included because gods ride ducks on their way to earth. Other dishes include grilled fish, multi-colored sticky rice, chicken, various types of cakes, and wine. The offering tray for the dead is placed at the main entrance to provide ghosts with a scrumptious feast so they will not enter the house and cause later disturbances.

A Mo shaman's precious and sacred tools

The ceremony is hosted at the most sacred place in the stilt house: the open space opposite the primary window, where the realms of the living and the dead cross. The Mo shaman will first ask the senior shamans in his family to come to witness the ceremony, then invite the village guardian, land genie, and the god of farming to have the first bite. The Mo shaman usually wears a hat and a red dress, waves a fan to ward off evil spirits, and welcomes fresh and pleasant air into the house. After the ceremony, the shaman ties a colored thread around everyone’s wrist as a symbol of blessing.

The “house-cooling” ceremony is one of over 20 ceremonies involving Mo shamans that are still being practiced among Muong people today.