Đạo Mẫu, the worship of mother goddesses, has helped destabilise gender norms and stigma towards the queer community in Vietnam. The tradition is often regarded as a safe space for Vietnamese queer people to express their authentic selves, as the belief transcends social stigma against queer people.
Lavish make-up, colourful clothes, sparkling candles, happy dancing, and cheering smiles. That is all we can imagine about a session of “lên đồng” (mediumship), one of the most prominent rituals within Vietnamese traditional Đạo Mẫu (The Worship of Mother Goddesses). This has helped destabilise gender norms and stigma towards the queer community in Vietnam, making it a safe space for Vietnamese queer people to express themselves, as it includes mediums assigned male at birth to dress up and mimic the feminine traits of a goddess.
Đạo Mẫu – Celebrating Women within the Patriarchy
Starting from the 16th century, The Worship of Mother Goddesses was an agricultural and folk belief among Vietnamese farmers, as they attached various natural elements to the image of a Mother. Mother is the root of procreation, the shelter, is the blessing for good fortune and prosperity. The mother protects and heals them from diseases and dangers.
As a traditional folk belief, Đạo Mẫu has the advantage of being more flexible and diverse, compared to other structural religions like Buddhism or Christianity. Through time, it has spread throughout the country, becoming one of the most significant cultural traits of Vietnam, with a vast number of devotees.
Đạo Mẫu was divided into four “realms” (phủ), symbolising different elements: Heaven (controlled by Mẫu Thượng Thiên or Mẫu Liễu Hạnh), Water (Mẫu Thoải), Earth (Mẫu Địa), and the Highlands (Mẫu Thượng Ngàn).
The act of sanctification of nature, like Đạo Mẫu, can be seen in other beliefs, such as Hinduism and Shintoism. Other deities in the divine system include Guanyin Buddha, Jade Emperor, the Holy Ladies, Big Officials, Princes, and many more.
With the majority of the divine system being female goddesses and deities, Đạo Mẫu was seen by Vietnamese citizens throughout history as a powerful message for women—who have suffered from sexism and gendered norms in patriarchal Vietnam.
It enhances the voices of the unheard, empowers women’s rights with their blessings, and becomes a spiritual shelter for sexual minorities. It is their inspiration and burning desire for freedom, health, and happiness in their lives. Not only mythical characters but actual heroines were regarded as goddesses, those who have led the fights against invaders such as Võ Thị Sáu, who was a Vietnamese martyr that resisted the French colonial forces at the age of fourteen, became one of the most prominent heroines.
There have been discussions if Đạo Mẫu can develop as a religion as it also has a stratification of divine systems and rituals. Ngo Duc Thinh—one of the first scholars who studied Đạo Mẫu— indicated that this folk belief has “no scripture, no formal organisational structure, and no hierarchy of đồng”, so it can stay as a folk belief. With those special values among generations of Vietnamese worshippers, Đạo Mẫu was recognised by UNESCO in 2016 as an intangible cultural heritage. To date, there are more than 1000 temples of Đạo Mẫu in Ha Noi and more than hundreds in different cities all over the country.
Lên đồng – A Vehicle for the Goddesses
In Đạo Mẫu, “lên đồng” (mediumship, or translated as “mount the medium”) is the most significant ritual. According to Ngo Duc Thinh, “lên đồng” is an equivalence to Shamanism, in which the spirits possess the medium’s body, causing changes within the persona, gait, speech, and behaviour. A medium, or “đồng”, refers to the people whose bodies become vehicles for deities to imbue.
Lên đồng ceremonies are held in various locations such as temples, palaces, and sanctuaries throughout the year for different occasions. The person in charge of a particular temple, known as a chủ đền, is responsible for conducting ceremonies like the first footing of the temple after the new year, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, the beginning and end of summer, the end of the year and washing of the seals. The most common times for lên đồng ceremonies are in the third lunar month to honour the death of the Holy Mother (Liễu Hạnh) (Tháng 3 giỗ Mẹ) and in the eighth lunar month to honour the death of the Holy Father (Tháng 8 giỗ Cha) who is also known as the Jade Emperor.
Before conducting the ritual, the medium must carefully plan and prepare, including selecting a propitious day that aligns with their horoscope, selecting the location of the ceremony, and inviting other mediums and worshippers. Additionally, there should be four assistants and singers present for the ritual. They also have to find suitable garments for their performances.
During the central part of the ceremony, the medium is dressed in various coloured silk robes to symbolise different deities, who are believed to grant blessings such as health, luck, wealth, and protection. During the “lên đồng” session, the medium can use cigarettes, betels, and the music of Văn singing (hát văn) to get into the trance. It can make the possession process easier.
The medium becomes an intermediary that connects the deities and the worshippers, giving them blessings for fortune and curing diseases. Each time a deity possesses the medium’s body, the medium will mimic and behave accordingly. However, not everyone can be a medium. Ngo stated that they were “forced to serve the deities” (thánh đày” or “cơ đày”). Most of the mediums were believed to have experienced deadly diseases or accidents that led them to become the vehicles for the goddesses.
A Safe Space for the Vietnamese Queer Community
The medium can be assigned any gender at birth. Therefore, worshippers mutually understand that male mediums can dress up and act feminine while being possessed by a goddess. These male mediums face various social stigmas due to the correlation of sexual orientation and gender identity, in which it is stereotypical to attach certain traits, expressions, and appearance with labels of sex and gender.
Ngo Duc Thinh, in his book, “Lên đồng: The Journey of Spirit and Fate” (2019), stated that male mediums are often ashamed of serving the goddesses, as they have to handle prejudice from other people, assuming their gender identities. At the same time, male mediums strive to balance their double lives: one being a man within the heteronormative Vietnamese society, one being a “woman” during lên đồng rituals.
Many male mediums identify themselves as queer people. However, as Ngo indicated, they have negative attitudes toward being queer and, subsequently, experience internalised homophobia.
Many queer mediums felt that being homosexual is a disease instead of sexual orientation. They conceal themselves under the protection of Đạo Mẫu and fully express their feminine side only during the lên đồng rituals.
Ngo also suggested a hypothesis that queer people, among all gender identities, are more prone to become the medium. They balance between the traits and roles of masculinity and femininity (although these concepts are socially constructed), as well as not conforming to the binaries of man/woman or yin/yang. Moreover, queer people are believed to be more “light-hearted” (nhẹ vía) and more sensitive to changes, making it easier for the spirits to enter their bodies.
It is important to recognise that the Đạo Mẫu primarily centres around female deities. Therefore it makes sense that the medium used for communication would be a woman or someone who embodies femininity. The tradition is often regarded as a safe space for Vietnamese queer people to express their authentic self, as the belief transcends social stigma against queer people.
A few media publications have mentioned queer people under the shadow of Đạo Mẫu worshipping belief. A male medium, Mr Ngoc, said that even though he was married and had children, Đạo Mẫu gave him a safe space to reveal his sexual orientation and femininity in an interview with Zing News. During the ritual, he could stay true to his authentic traits of being a queer person, giving him peace and empathy towards others within the queer medium community.
Moreover, in “Love men, love women”, a short documentary by Nguyễn Trinh Thi (2007), Thầy Đức (Master Đức), a queer medium, felt comfortable sharing about his affairs with other homosexual men, with support and positive responses from other worshippers. Among the Đạo Mẫu community, his feminine traits and demeanours become a norm, without any external judgments or limitations. Added up to this openness towards queer people, Annalise Frank (2015) argued that, as Đạo Mẫu is a female-dominated religion and the fact that there is no oppression or regulations regarding who can be medium, it welcomes sexual minorities and allows them to perform their gender fluidity.
What Comes After?
As Judith Butler, the American philosopher who wrote the book “Gender Trouble”, has mentioned, gender is performative, and our bodies are subjected to gender identities due to assumptions. Vietnamese queer men have faced discrimination and stigma regarding standards of how to be a real man in society.
Đạo Mẫu erases the barriers between worshipping belief and gender norms, allowing queer people a place of practice, of making a fortune, and of being themselves. Within Đạo Mẫu, the conversations about gender identities now included other sexual minorities, creating acceptance among the worshippers towards queerness and providing a safe space for Vietnamese queer people in general.
This has lit up a spark of hope for the queer community to be more positively represented within the Vietnamese cultural scene. However, outside of Đạo Mẫu, will this remain the same?
If you’re interested in this issue, you can read it further on The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE) of Vietnam’s website. They cover information with articles and reports about sexual minorities in Vietnam. Their materials are available in Vietnamese and English.
You can also read more about other queer traditions in Southeast Asia, such as this recent feature on the Bissu in Sulawesi. Southeast Asia has a rich history of indigenous queerness, and you can always help the cause by spreading awareness that we have always been here.