Story: Nguyen Chi Ben
Photos: Nguyen A

No one knows when the cults of the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms arose in Vietnam. Ancient Vietnamese people worshipped natural phenomena like clouds, rain, thunder and lightning, humanizing them into the Four Deities: the Cloud Deity, the Rain Deity, the Thunder Deity and the Lightning Goddess. These four deities were worshipped in four pagodas in Luy Lau, now in the Thuan Thanh District of Bac Ninh Province.

Folk artist Nguyen Thi Hue performs the incarnation of deities from pantheon “Chua Ba De Nhat”

Vietnamese people also worshipped Heaven, the Water and the Forests, which they believed were ruled by three goddesses, known as the Mother Goddesses. Ruling the Forests is a goddess in a green tunic known as the Lofty Mountain Mother. Dressed in a white tunic, the Platform Mother rules the Water. Ruling Heaven and dressed in a red tunic is the Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh or the Heavenly Mother, a fairy descended to earth.

The legend of the Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh was adopted from Confucian literature. Literary works on this topic include the New Record of Oral Legends by Doan Thi Diem (1705-1748), a compilation of Chinese tales, including the Tale of the Goddess Van Cat, the Account of 27 Fairies by a group of scholars named Thanh Hoa Tu, and the Transliterated Tale of Princess Lieu Hanh in the Nom language by Nguyen Cong Tru (1778-1858).

Some medium performances have been recreated on stage as theatrical production

Accounts about the Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh written by Confucian scholars vary but follow a common plot: the Mother was a fairy in Heaven, who made a mistake and was exiled to the mortal world. After her period of her exile expired, she begged to return to earth to promote Buddhism. The tale celebrates the generosity and self-sacrifice of mothers. The Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh is a central figure in the cults of the Three Realms.

The cults of the Three Realms arose alongside the cults of Saint Tran (General Tran Hung Dao). In places devoted to the worship of the Three Realms, there is usually an altar dedicated to Saint Tran. A folk idiom states: “The memorial day of the Father is in August and the Mother’s is in March”. This refers to the memorial days for Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh and Tran Hung Dao. The Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh was considered the mother of the mortal world. Feudal regimes including the Le Dynasty and Nguyen Dynasty honored the Mother Goddess with various titles. Around the 17th century, the Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh was recognized as an immortal saint among the Four Immortals (the Mountain God, Heavenly Saint of Phu Dong, Chu Dong Tu and Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh) by people in Vietnam’s northern delta. Each of the Four Immortals demonstrates the values and traditions of Vietnamese people and their history.

Jewelry shows the luxurious beauty and character of the deities

Over time, the cults of the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms absorbed different elements. People in rural areas set up various shrines and temples dedicated to the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms. The highest concentration of these temples is in Nam Dinh province, the legendary birthplace of the Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh. The three most famous sites devoted to the Mother Goddesses in Nam Dinh are the Tien Huong Shrine (alternatively known as the Main Shrine), Van Cat Shrine in Vu Ban District and Nap Shrine in Y Yen District. Nam Dinh boasts over 400 sites dedicated to figures affiliated with the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms and cults for Mother Goddesses. The Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh is also worshipped in other major shrines and temples including Tay Ho Shrine (Hanoi), Song Temple (Thanh Hoa) and Bac Le Temple (Lang Son). Worship of the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms has spread to Hanoi, Ha Nam, Hung Yen, Hai Duong, Haiphong, Thai Binh, Quang Ninh, Vinh Phuc, Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Tuyen Quang, Lao Cai, Hoa Binh, Bac Ninh, Bac Giang, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Thua Thien Hue and Ho Chi Minh City.

Musicians perform van chants

The Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh is a popular figure in cultural festivities and formal rites. A key event is the Festival of Day Shrine (Phủ Dầy), now held in Kim Thai Commune, Vu Ban District, Nam Dinh. This festival takes place between Lunar March 3 and March 10, which is said to be the memorial day of Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh. Along with a procession, hundreds of villagers in colorful outfits make formations to spell out the Chinese characters for: “Long Live the Holy Shrine”, “Mother of the Mortal World”, “Reign of Peace Across the World” and “Peaceful Nation – Harmonious People”.

While such large festivals take place once a year, followers of the Mother Goddess may attend trance rituals all year long. Before starting a trance ritual, mediums perform solemn rites. A stage is arranged with altars dedicated to 36 incarnations of deities who are historical figures such as Mother Bo, Mr. Hoang Muoi, the Second-rank Mandarin or the Grand Officer of Tuan Tranh, etc. As musicians perform van chants and sing, the mediums dance and present lists of wishes to the Mother Goddesses. During the ritual, the mediums are possessed by various incarnations of the deities. Each incarnation has a corresponding van chant that reflects the character, deeds and background of the deity. There can be no successful trance ritual without van music. Van singers must master signature chants and various musical instruments including the moon lute, flute, big drum, chant drum, percussion bars, bronze chimes and cymbals.

The spirit medium Nguyen Thi Giang performs a trance ritual in Bac Le, Lang Son

Van singing is always changing, which makes it endlessly fascinating. Professional musicians have incorporated melodies from van chants to produce mesmerizing songs. Some medium performances have been recreated on stage as theatrical productions. Vietnamese people feel deep respect for the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms, a cultural tradition passed down for generations. On the 1st of December 2016, UNESCO honored Vietnam’s cults of the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms as an “Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.