by Jim Goodman
|Akha rite for the Lord of the Land|
The primary difference lies in its attitude to the unseen world of forces and influences. Animism sees the many varieties of these as different kinds of spirits. Some are good ones, like the various guardian spirits of the house or village and the benevolent ancestral spirits. People invoke their blessings and call on them to deal with the bad spirits, the ones that seem to have a permanent grudge against humans. These bad spirits are legion, most of them specializing in a particular type of affliction.
|'reading' portents from the sacrificial chicken bones|
According to the tribal mind, spirits have been around since the dawn of time. Unlike humans they cannot reproduce, but their numbers are constantly augmented by the souls of people when they die. If people die a “good death,” meaning one from natural causes, they become ancestral spirits with a tendency, so long as they are properly beseeched, to do what good they can for their progeny. If people die a “bad death,” however, one from violence or accident, for examples, then they become wandering bad spirits, forever resentful of the way they left this world and eager to do harm to the living.
|altar to the Lord of the Land|
So every year wherever they plant a new crop they precede the action with a small ceremony to the field spirit, asking its permission to use the land, apologizing for disfiguring it, presenting the field spirit with a small offering and acknowledging its authority. Such attention pleases the field spirit, who refrains from causing any trouble. Not to first honor the field spirit is to risk having a poor harvest or even worse things, like a landslide or a plague of voracious insects.
|shrine to the rice spirit|
|honoring the spirits at Lisu New Year|
There’s really nothing you can do about pesky little spirits like these, any more than you can insure yourself against mosquito bites. But more dangerous spirits lurk in the shadows, ones responsible for sickness, lassitude, disease and epidemics. These have to be appeased before they can wreck too much havoc. Fortunately, these cultures have long ago devised ways and means of handling such calamities. Ritual specialists deal with the problem with prescribed rituals designed to mollify the angry spirits and persuade them to desist from causing harm.
|"hawk eye" signs to ward off bad spirits|
In recent years the animist outlook has come under great pressure. Outsiders ranging from government servants and teachers, missionaries and NGO personnel have all been trying to persuade the hill folks to drop that interpretation of life. There are no such things as ancestral spirits, they say, and those other ones are just germs, viruses or meteorological phenomena. Hygienic living habits and modern medicine will deal with them, not rituals and animal sacrifices (never mind who eats the meat afterward).
|Akha village entry gates, old and new|
But sometimes the modern medicine doesn’t work. The sickness persists. Even the traditional herbs have no effect. In such circumstances the tribal mind is apt to attribute the problem to a bad spirit, who has perhaps captured the soul of the patient. The solution is to call on the services of a shaman, the specialist who can communicate with such spirits, find out what’s bothering them and what it takes to persuade them to give back the captured soul.
The spirits also want an intermediary with the human world, if only lo arrange for their demands to be met. They themselves select who that will be by afflicting their choices with ailments or sickness until he or she finally agrees to become a shaman. They might get a meal and some refreshment from the family that employs them, but otherwise shamans are not paid for their services. For them it is a burdensome role those nasty spirits have forced them to carry out.
|carved human figure next to the gate|
|offerings at a Lisu spirit altar|
After they have made the circuit and swept the demons out of every house the boys take their swords to one of the village boundary gates and insert them into the ground alongside the path. Throughout the day villagers have set off firecrackers and homemade explosives in bamboo mortars to frighten the spirits. At dusk the last major act in the festival is to stage a shooting match, the noise of which will scare away any spirits seeking to return to the village.
Excessive worry about what all those nasty spirits might do can lead to a pretty gloomy existence, ruled by paranoia. Elaborate rituals, rules of proper behavior and various sacrifices keep the human world relatively safe from spirit interference. And a festival like Ka-ye-ye demonstrates one more aspect of the hill tribes’ continuous battle with the spirits--that a great victory over their nemeses can also be great fun.