When one talks about Hmong, the topic of spirituality and shamanism easily comes to mind. In the West, the spirit is often referred to as the soul, and it is common for people to believe that every human being has a soul. Yet, the Hmong believe that each of us has either three or five souls (according to different opinions). Some Hmong believe that one soul occupies the head area, one the region of the torso, and one the lower body or the leg area. Other Hmong believe that a person has five souls; each of them named after an object in nature: reindeer, running bull, chicken, growing bamboo, and shadow.
In any case, according to Hmong tradition, these souls usually act in harmony, produce a happy and healthy life for the human being. However, when one of these souls begins to exhibit a lack of harmony with the others, troubles would follow, and life may become unpleasant and difficult. Indeed, illness may be the result of this spiritual discord, and in extreme cases, it may lead to death. Thus, the harmony of a Hmong’s souls is vital, and when this harmony is disarrayed or lost, it must be restored promptly and correctly.
The Hmong believe that one or more souls may sometimes not only fall out of harmony with the others, but it may also decide to leave the body altogether and go elsewhere. This “soul loss,” or poob plig, as it is called in the Hmong language, is a dire and serious situation that requires urgent measures to call the straying soul back. These activities are collectively known as “soul calling,” or hu plig. The missing soul may have wandered away to someplace nearby, or it may have wandered far – even to the spirit world, a place similar to our world, but inhabited by spirits and other disembodied beings. In such a case, calling back the soul may be problematic. This soul calling, which sounds difficult if not unfathomable to some notwithstanding, is a fairly common ceremony among all Hmong at an early age. It is usually performed by an elderly person, a Hmong shaman, or another variety of medical professional or healer. Although it is required when an individual falls ill, soul calling may be performed to prevent illness and promote good health as well. In addition, the ceremony is performed at auspicious occasions, the Hmong New Year celebration (for the entire family), three days after the birth of every new Hmong baby (for the infant), the third day after the wedding (the new couple), and may even for a family member who is about to undertake a long journey or who has just arrived home from such a journey.
A shaman is a spiritual healer. While it is more common for a man to become a shaman, both men and women may assume the role. Certainly, the shaman is one of the most important members of Hmong society, and there are several different categories of shaman. All of these, however, fall into two main types.
The first of these, the traditional Hmong shaman (neeb muag dawb), is selected by circumstance, fate, or destiny. In fact, no one may become this sort of shaman simply by his or her own choice. On the contrary, it is the residents of the spirit world who will make the selection. For the most part, this is accomplished by rendering him (or her) ill and refusing to allow the person to get well until he or she agrees to become a shaman. If he or she does not oblige, the illness will continue an become more serious. Accordingly, the person realizes it is his or her destiny to become a shaman and thus will have no choice except to begin the apprenticeship and training. When a shaman performs healing ceremonies, he or she will always go into trance; a kind of mixture of sleep and wakefulness.
The second, and more recent, type of shaman (neeb muag dub) assumes this career merely by desiring to do so. Such shamans, after their training is complete, can begin the work, which will not necessarily enter a trance state in order to perform their duties. Although it would seem that, in some sense, a shaman who has been selected by the spirits for his or her qualifications of temperament and character might be superior to the other variety, either of these two types of shaman can be expected to be capable of diagnosing and treating illness.
The Hmong shamans, thus, in their role of healer, are responsible for two things: first, the shaman must join the patient in the fight for life and health; and, second, the shaman must restore the wholeness of the patient’s self by bringing back the patient’s wandering soul or souls. The shamans thus take responsibility for their clan’s physical and spiritual well-being as they serve as a bridge between this material world and the spiritual world.
It is clear, then, that the clan’s shaman is a very important person. Yet, there is still more a shaman can do. The shaman may also perform other valuable functions both at weddings and at funerals. By custom, if a shaman engages in these ritual activities, he or she must have additional qualifications beyond those required for the performance of these rites, including singing, playing certain musical interludes, and performing specialized tasks at the funeral, which, have to be learned from an expert and experienced shaman mentor.
Cha, Dia, Mai Zong Vue, and Steve Carmen. Field Guide to Hmong Culture. Madison, WI: Madison Children Museum, 2004.