The U.S. accorded refugee status to the Hmong people of Southeast Asia in 2003, and today, approximately 260,000 Hmong lived here by 2010. Traditional Hmong religion is a form of animism, which holds that spirits inhabit everything, even seemingly inanimate objects, and that these spirits are all interrelated and can act upon each other. A specialist priest, called a shaman, can help ordinary people understand these interrelationships; via trances and rituals, shamans guide believers in establishing balanced, healthy relationships among the spirits in and around them.
One of a shaman’s gifts is the ability to transcend daily existence by entering a trance state. Doing so permits shamans to solve a variety of problems, such as finding lost items or healing disease. A cloth mask disguises the shaman from evil spirits and helps him to concentrate as he enters the trance, where he directly contacts the spirits. Because it is easy to get lost on these voyages between the physical and spirit worlds, a shaman may use a string-tying ritual to ensure his safe return; the colored strings bind the soul and prevent its being lost or taken by evil spirits.
Healing disease or injury is one of the most important tasks for a Hmong shaman. Using a trance state to communicate with spirits, the shaman-healer must negotiate on behalf of the patient’s own spirit, explain Dr. Gregory A. Plotnikoff, et al., in a paper for the Minnesota Medical Association. This process is not a power struggle, rather, the shaman’s goal is to “make peace” and restore balance. The family may ease this process and propitiate the spirits with ritual sacrifice, which can encourage the spirits to return to the patient’s body, restoring spiritual balance and health.
Just as spirits govern the body’s health or illness, Hmong believe they also control the stages of life itself. According to Hmong tradition, a newborn baby does not have a soul until the family observes the proper rituals after three days. Sacrifices encourage a soul to enter the child’s body, and the family then names the child ceremonially and introduces her or him to the household spirits. The placenta has a special significance, explains Trisha Halvorson, writing for the Minnesota Medical Association; the family buries the placenta near the home’s central post or near the bed, depending upon gender.
Hmong funerals mark the passage of the soul from the body, and without a proper send off, the soul may not prosper in the underworld. A key feature of this passage, Hmong believe, is resuming the “jacket” of the placenta, and such rituals as sacrifice and music help the bodiless soul to return to the burial place of the placenta so that it may regain the placenta and complete its journey. The entire funeral ritual may last several days.
- Cultural Orientation Resource Center: Cultural Profile No. 18, The Hmong; John Duffy, Roger Harmon, Donald A. Ranard, Bo Thao, and Kou Yang
- Hmong American Partnership: 2010 Census Hmong Populations by State
- Encyclopedia.com: Animism
- PBS, The Split Horn: Hmong Rituals
- Minnesota Medical Association, Clinical and Health Affairs: Hmong Shamanism, Animist Spiritual Healing in Minnesota; Gregory A. Plotnikoff, Charles Numrich, Chu Wu, Deu Yang and Phua Xiong
- Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Medicine: Pregnancy and Birth in Minnesota’s Hmong Population, Changing Practices; Trisha Halvorson
- Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images