Despite the importance of Buddhism to Lao Loum and some Lao Theung groups, animist beliefs are widespread among all segments of the Lao population. The belief in phi (spirits) colors the relationships of many Lao with nature and community and provides one explanation for illness and disease. Belief in phi is blended with Buddhism, particularly at the village level, and some monks are respected as having particular abilities to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick person or to keep them out of a house. Many wat have a small spirit hut built in one corner of the grounds that is associated with the phi khoun wat, the beneficent spirit of the monastery.
Phi are ubiquitous and diverse. Some are connected with the universal elements--earth, heaven, fire, and water. Many Lao Loum also believe that they are being protected by khwan (thirty-two spirits). Illness occurs when one or more of these spirits leaves the body; this condition may be reversed by the soukhwan--more commonly called the baci--a ceremony that calls all thirty-two khwan back to bestow health, prosperity, and well-being on the affected participants. Cotton strings are tied around the wrists of the participants to keep the spirits in place. The ceremony is often performed to welcome guests, before and after making long trips, and as a curing ritual or after recovery from an illness; it is also the central ritual in the Lao Loum wedding ceremony and naming ceremony for newborn children.
Many Lao believe that the khwan of persons who die by accident, violence, or in childbirth are not reincarnated, becoming instead phi phetu (malevolent spirits). Animist believers also fear wild spirits of the forests. Other spirits associated with specific places such as the household, the river, or a grove of trees are neither inherently benevolent nor evil. However, occasional offerings ensure their favor and assistance in human affairs. In the past, it was common to perform similar rituals before the beginning of the farming season to ensure the favor of the spirit of the rice. These ceremonies, beginning in the late 1960s, were discouraged by the government as successive areas began to be liberated. This practice had apparently died out by the mid1980s , at least in the extended area around Vientiane.
Ceremonies oriented to the phi commonly involve an offering of a chicken and rice liquor. Once the phi have taken the spiritual essence of the offering, people may consume the earthly remains. The head of a household or the individual who wants to gain the favor of the spirit usually performs the ritual. In many villages, a person, usually an older man believed to have special knowledge of the phi, may be asked to choose an auspicious day for weddings or other important events, or for household rites. Each lowland village believes itself protected by the phi ban, which requires an annual offering to ensure the continued prosperity of the village. The village spirit specialist presides over this major ritual, which in the past often involved the sacrifice of a water buffalo and is still an occasion for closing the village to any outsiders for a day. To liang phi ban (feed the village spirit) also serves an important social function by reaffirming the village boundaries and the shared interests of all villagers.
Most Lao Theung and Lao Sung ethnic groups are animists, for whom a cult of the ancestors is also important, although each group has different practices and beliefs. The Kammu call spirits hrooy, and they are similar to the phi of the Lao Loum; the house spirit is particularly important, and spirits of wild places are to be avoided or barred from the village. Lamet have similar beliefs, and each village must have one spirit practitioner (xemia), who is responsible for making all the sacrifices to village spirits. He also supervises the men's communal house and officiates at the construction of any new houses. When a spirit practitioner dies, one of his sons is elected by the married men of the village to be his successor. If he has none, one of his brother's sons is chosen. Ancestor spirits (mbrong n'a) are very important to the Lamet because they look out for the well-being of the entire household. They live in the house, and no activity is undertaken without informing them of it. Ancestor spirits are fond of buffalos; thus buffalo skulls or horns from sacrifices are hung at the altar of the ancestors or under the gable of the house. Numerous taboos regarding behavior in the house are observed to avoid offending ancestral spirits.
Hmong also believe in a variety of spirits (neeb), some associated with the house, some with nature, and some with ancestors. Every house has at least a small altar on one wall, which is the center of any ritual related to the household or its members. Annual ceremonies at Hmong New Year renew the general protection of the household and ancestral spirits. The spirit of the door is important to household well-being and is the object of another annual ceremony and sacrifice. As with other Lao groups, illness is frequently attributed to the action of spirits, and spirit practitioners are called to carry out curing rites. Two classes exist: ordinary practitioners and shamans. Ordinary priests or the household head conduct the household ceremonies and ordinary divinations. The shaman may be called on to engage in significant curing rituals.
According to Hmong belief, spirits reside in the sky, and the shaman can climb a ladder to the heavens on his magical horse and contact the spirits there. Sometimes illness is caused by one's soul climbing the steps to the sky, and the shaman must climb after it, locate it, and bring it back to the body in order to effect a cure. During the ritual, the shaman sits in front of the altar astride a wooden bench, which becomes his or her horse. A black cloth headpiece covers vision of the present world, and as the shaman chants and enters a trance, he or she begins to shake and may stand on the bench or move, mimicking the process of climbing to heaven. The chant evokes the shaman's search and the negotiations with the heavenly spirits for a cure or for information about the family's fortune.
Hmong shamans are believed to be chosen by the spirits, usually after a serious or prolonged illness. The illness would be diagnosed by another shaman as an initiatory illness and confrontation with death, which was caused by the spirits. Both men and women can be summoned in this way by the spirits to be shamans. After recovery from the illness, the newly-called shaman begins a period of study with a master shaman, which may last two or three years, during which time he or she learns the chants, techniques, and procedures of shamanic rites, as well as the names and natures of all the spirits that can bring fortune or suffering to people. Because the tradition is passed orally, there is no uniform technique or ritual; rather, it varies within a general framework according to the practice of each master and apprentice.
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