Wednesday, 6 May 2015

POV: The Women Mediums of Hầu Đồng

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
During the past few months reading up on Đạo Mẫu (Mother Goddess worship), the syncretic religious tradition that mixes elements of traditional goddess worship of Vietnam, along with Hầu Đồng as one of its one of the main rituals, I realized that it's not only one of the oldest religions in Vietnamese history, but that its mediums and spiritual shamans -irrespective of their gender- were the linchpins of this divine feminine worship.

Surprisingly, the more well-known mediums are not women but males, who impersonate (or are reincarnated in) female goddesses during these lengthy rituals. These men "cross-dress" as divine female deities within the Vietnamese Buddhist pantheon of goddesses.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
For centuries, Đạo Mẫu temples have been the one place where gays and bisexual men were able to practice their religiosity, artistry and spirituality as mediums in this predominantly conservative country. In such traditional temples, they were able to express their sexuality and femininity, blurring the distinctions between genders. Consequently, male mediums (known as ông đồng) have attained a well earned reputation to be some of the best in their community.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
That said, I have witnessed many Hầu Đồng ceremonies during the weeks of my stay in Hanoi that were entirely conducted by women (female mediums are known as bà đồng). Although I expected their ceremonies would be more authentic than those by their male counterparts since they incarnated female spirits, both were equally captivating; at least to my uncritical eyes.

Setting the ceremonial and 'technical' aspects aside, I thought that the female mediums were much more photogenic than the men. However, it seemed to me the male mediums had more of a following, had more "stage" presence...and were quicker in getting the audience in the right state of mind.

I was struck at how young and attractive these bà đồng were. Very well groomed, professionally manicured, with fingers frequently covered in jewelry, these women were answering a calling to become mediums. Some were full time professionals, and earned a living from it, while others were part-timers. Most were also fortune-tellers (cô đồng) and had other careers.

For instance, Ms. Dương Trà My (middle photograph) is a 22 years old who started a career in cosmetics, but exhibited a spirituality conducive to become a medium and answered the call. Training under other male mediums, she recently conducted a ceremony and was profiled on a Vietnamese newspaper.