Growing up, I’ve always seen altars when we visited homes. It was very common, however, I guess it wasn’t until my father-in-law started his path on becoming a shaman that I was fascinated by what everything on the Hmong Shaman altar meant.
My father-in-law has been in training for a few years now, but as in my last “Shaman” writing, Being Taken To Spirits, once one is called upon to become a shaman, you must have a mastered shaman teaching you the steps so you may one-day master your own skills. A new shaman should have a mentor.
History of Clan
He does not have a mentor, he had tried before but his spirits and the other shaman’s spirits did not align. In other words, my FIL’s spirits would not let him be mentored by the shaman who wanted to help him.
History goes that my FIL’s great-great-grandpa was a very powerful shaman that possessed very highly sought out skills that few shamans ever gets to have. It was said that during his shaman practices, his ritual and the events he held were so powerful that other villages miles away felt his presence and heard the sounds of the gongs as it took place. The story is still talked about to this day by relatives. Great-great-grandpa was a great leader to the clan and the Hmong people. With that, the position bestowed jealousy and hate from others. Great-great-Grandpa’s life ended too soon as he was murdered.
Hmong believe that being a shaman is genetic. My father-in-law is now becoming one and perhaps one day one of his sons (my husband), or my son will be one.
The Articles Placed on Altar
Please note that these are my own findings of what I had asked. I could be wrong on a few items by being shorted on answers given to me. Shaman practice has been going on for centuries that I feel even the elder generation may have lost the meanings to them as well. (Or it could be because I am a woman of an entirely different generation, questioning something that isn’t ever really talked about)
The entire altar is covered in joss paper, also known as ghost money in other cultures. It represents exactly what the images appear to be, silver and gold bars. Most items are offerings to ancestral spirit guides of a Shaman. Going from left to right, the items that are displayed,
- Split Horn – the horns are needed to call the spirit another means of communication indirectly with spirit.
- Joss – individual cut sheets of joss paper to be burned, an offering of money to spirit.
- 2 Jars – filled with rice. One holds an egg (sorry, I forget what the egg is for, will update when I find that one out) and the other a silver bar. The rice also holds incense in place as they burn during a ritual. These don’t necessarily have to be tube-shaped jars, but you could also use bowls or containers that could hold up the items.
- 3 Glass – the glasses are filled with water. These glasses should be filled at all times. It represents a drink offering. There should be 3. It’s said that when there are only 2, in Hmong it’s translated as a “pair”, “two-of-a-kind” or “even” which is why there must be 3 glasses to not disturb any negative feeling of jealousy/competing. When filling the glasses, you should only use hot water (not boiling).
- Rice – the rice in bowl is a food offering.
- Water – the bowl of water, used to be splashed on the shaman. During the trance of a shaman doing ritual he may wander off course and spraying the water will wake him to go back into his position.
- Finger Bells – The four round finger bells with strips of red cloth tied on to each symbolizes a power to proceed with the practice. The bells are placed onto a Shaman’s fingers and are needed in order to begin the trance for rituals. (you will see them being used below)
This display is of the entire altar up against the wall. Once a year, the displayed altar must be redone for a new year. All the joss will be taken off and new joss will be placed surrounding it. The branch that hangs above is also a part of the altar.
Beneath the altar is a sword, in Hmong called “rab ntaj” (da thah, my own pronunciation guide). The sword will be used as what it is, a defense tool. Rab Ntaj is for the negative bad spirits that come in the way of the Shaman during the trance.
In front of the altar, a bench will placed for the shaman. The bench, made out of wood represents a horse for the shaman. During the trance, a shaman will travel in the world by way of his horse.
Hmong Shaman History
Comparing the history to biblical stories for better understanding.
A story of how Shaman begins with one called Saub. Saub, a spirit, you may say, is the one who started the reproduction of mankind. (like God)
Ntxwj Nyoog (the devil) began to kill mankind. People were dying faster than created. Saub bestowed a human called Siv Yis (Jesus, son of God) with healing power to heal illness and disease. Siv Yis fought against all evil that Ntxwj Nyoog had placed. However, one day Ntxwj Nyoog tricked Siv Yis and Siv Yis made a mistake move during battle and had to leave the world back to Saub.
The people who remained worried about who will help them from the evil, who will cure them of illness and diseases. Siv Yis came to them in spirit form and said that he would appoint people on earth to share his power. That’s how shamans (apostles, pastors, preachers, men and women of faith) came to be.
Siv Yis is like the “Holy Spirit”. If you ever listen to a Shaman’s chant, you will hear the name Siv Yis. During the trance, Hmong Shamans will address themselves as, or to Siv Yis when going to the other world in a ritual trance.
Prior to a shaman starting, one is in charge of placing and setting the altar. A mistake in a setting of the tools and other preparations will not allow a shaman to begin a ceremony. The misplacement or un-routined preparation will cause the shaman’s spiritual guides to be unhappy (more like concerned) and will not agree to guide the shaman to begin.
I have much left to learn but wanted to share a bit of my last weekend with you. After my father-in-law was finished with his ritual, I finally got to sit down with my mother-in-law to ask her the various questions in between making food. I know there are a few items I was able to write about today, but there’s always the next time.
I love learning about this stuff and post it here so that perhaps one day, one will learn something new about Hmong culture too.
Until next time, be careful where you enter, where you travel, or whose home you visit, as spirits are beside you.