The phenomenon of Mountain God Worship and Vietnamese atitudes

An international conference on mountain culture

Mountains are a common natural phenomenon of the geological and tectonic processes and located in most areas, regions, or countries around the world. Mountains are familiar with all nations, but the behavior towards mountains of each nation is pretty unique and imbued with cultural nuances of psychology and personality of each nation. The behavior towards mountains in Vietnam deeply characterizes personality, spirit and conditions of the Vietnamese; it is the manifestation of spirituality and consciousness, a source of inspiration for composing poetry and thinking about the country; an aspiration and desire for survival; also cultural codes as well as a way to apply local knowledge into exploitation and protection of the nature.
  1. High mountains with common basic features
The social sciences of high mountains in the world have represented the typical characteristics of mountain as follows:
  • Static and immovable (Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant 1997: 703), belong to Yang element and have a supreme origin;
  • In terms of spirituality, they symbolize the residence of the Sun Gods; the beautiful virtue of the soul, the super consciousness of vitality, and the opposition between basic elements which are fighting to creat the world (Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant 1997:71-73).
  • In Bible and Christian Arts, mountains have three main symbolic significances: 1) is a point of junction between heaven and earth; 2) the sacred mountain is located at the center of the world and is the image of the world; 3) the temple is identical to the mountains.
Natural sciences point out that biological areas on mountains are rich in natural resources especially pharmaceutical ingredents, homes to many rare animals, and places that conserver strange genes. Tam Dao National Park and Mau Son Tourist Resort in Vietnam are typical examples.
Thanks to these features of the mountain, from the primitive age, people knew to seek livelihood from the nature. Therefore, rare and valuable genes are subject to be preserved by the ancient to serve their life and transmit to the future generations. For these goals, people in the world had many ways and strategies to protect mountains. Each strategy bears specific characteristics of each nation. In Vietnam, this behavior is originated from personifying the mountains, embedding a soul for each mountain and making the mountain sacred so that it is home to gods.
  1. Mountainous culture of the Vietnamese
Vietnam is located at the continental shelf and hills and mountains take three fourth of its total area. There are mountains in all parts in Vietnam, and this fact makes the mountainous culture quite rich, especially where large mountains located.
    With the characteristics of the rock (rigid, sharp, hard, raising high, etc.), according to the philosophy of Yin and Yang, mountains bears the Yang characteristic, but most mountains in Vietnam are associated with legends of women or related to women. All the systems of high mountains in Vietnam are closely related to a legend or a thrilling and fascinating story with the tricky and impeditive motifs, and the ends of stories are always sad and sorrowful and that souls of the main characters are transformed into the souls of the mountains. The mountains assigned Yang characteristic would be home to male gods but they still had the image or presence of one or more goddesses. For example, at the temple for the god of Tan Vien mountain - the ultimately responsive god of the Vietnamese Four Places cult - we can also find altar for Saint Tran Hung Dao (Great Lord Hung Dao) on the left hand side and alter for the Goddess of the Highlands on the right hand side. There is also an altar for the Goddess of the Heaven outside the temple.
There are many mountains which bear Yin characteristics and worshipping places for such goddesses throughout Vietnam. In the far north, one can find the Mau Son and To Thi in Lang Son (see Nguyen Ngoc Mai 2014), the down towards the Red River's delta is the Quyen Son (where located a temple for a Queen's Mother with surname Duong); towards the North there is Tea Mountain (worshipping Tea Goddess in Bac Giang); in the West of lowlands there is Tam Dao mountain range (worshipping the Goddess of the Heaven); in the Middle there are Nhoi mountain (also known as Vong Phu in Thanh Hoa), Ngoc Tran Mountain in Hue, Dai  An in Nha Trang where Poh naga - the Mother of the realm (also called Thap Ba) is worshipped, and the temple for Mother Goddess in Bien Hoa. In the South, there are Ba Den Mountain in Tay Ninh where the Goddess of Sacred mountain is worshipped and Sam Mountain where one can find temple for the Goddess of the Realm, etc. This is a difference from many large mountains in the world. The embedded female dimension in mountain worship makes mountainous culture in Vietnam different from many other places in the world.
There are different explanations for the Goddesses of mountains phenomenon. There is an opinion stating that mountain looks like the breast of the Mother Earth. Meanwhile, other researcher puts that this phenomenon was originated from the classification of labour since the period when people lived in isolated clans. In this period, women undertook gathering and hunting. With diligence, patience and care for health and food for her family, everyday women went into deep forests and wandered up high mountains. With prolonged presence of matriarchy culture, women held power for a rather long time in the history, especially in Vietnam this lasts longer since agricultural culture is influential up to now. Position in the community and discoveries in working and production helped them find out the way to preserve and transmit their knowledge and experiences for their future generations from which stories of mountain goddess were created. The stories of the origin of the mountain goddesses partly reflect Vietnamese women’s life and their position within family and community through centuries.
Existing in the world with the names such as Mother Goddess of the Country (Tam Dao Mountain Range) (see Lê Kim Thuyên and Lê Kim Bá Yên 2008) or Mother Goddess (Mountain in Bien Hoa), Goddess of the Realm (Sam Mountain), Mother Goddess of Sacred Mountain (Ba Den Mountain), etc., these legends represent a Vietnamese cultural code. Some mountains were burial places of thousands of bushrangers (Cam Mountain/Ha Giang); some mountains were places where the mother was calumniated by the servant or killed under unfaithful suspicion of her husband (Mau Son Mountain/ Ha Giang); some mountains were place where the woman sat and petrified because of exhaustion for seeking her husband (Sam Mountain/ An Giang), etc. The stories related to the Mountain/Mountain Goddess reflected an undeniable fact about Vietnamese women’s conditions in many phases of the history such as being lost the husbands in wars, being calumniated, persecuted and extremely savagely punished due to faults that they never committed. Their wish to live and their faithfulness became immortal and turned into the essence of the mountains.
In the Vietnamese's belief, unjust deaths always make the dead bear the anger in the world of the dead, thus their souls are very responsive yet often intolerant. A series of folk tales surrounding mountain areas had prevented people to approach and destroy the mountain. Courts of many feudal regimes also had to respect these gods and in the name of the king entitled them as State gods in the hope that they would protect the longevity of the dynasty. Mountain gods thus became entities with immeasurable power. This makes the sacred mountains last and become the ideal residence for all of animals and plants without any protective belt or statutory institution. Only smoke of the incense and belief in the power of gods make mountains last over the time.
Cultural exchanges between the lowlanders and highlanders, between the Kinh in the plain and the ethnic minorities in the highlands have enriched the mountainous culture of the Vietnamese. In addition to the familiar mountain god belief, the Vietnamese also adopt the worship of gods of forest from the mountainous ethnic minorities. Forest-mountain is a couple. The forest is the hair of the mountain and makes mountain more powerful in its expression of vitality ( Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant 1997: 787). Symbolizing unconsciousness and also the source of the terror, the couple mountain-forest gods makes the authority and powers of the Goddess of the highlands in the cult of Four palaces today. The Goddess of the highlands became the Goddess ruling the entire highlands.
  1.  Mountains in Vietnam as Chief Mountains
Based on traditonal worship of mountains and under the influence of Chinese fengshui culture, any residential region or important administrative areas in Vietnam would look for fundamental factors such as protective places in the front, in the back, and on both sides, etc. With the belief that the mountain positions form the good underground streams which will generate sustainable vitality for the dynasty or people's peaceful life, any old cities in Vietnam would locate themselves within protective space of a mountain and it was called a chief mountain.
On the other hand, in terms of geography, Vietnam is the region which has been suffered a lot of storms and tonardos thus planning of administrative or residential regions practicaly needs mountains and forests to shield them from such natural disasters. A chief mountain shall help reduce natural damages and losses. Chief mountains and the fusion of water streams such as rivers' intersection became the indispensable criteria for establishment of capitals or residential areas. There are plenty of examples throughout Vietnam. Ba Vi range is the chief mountain of the Thang Long Citadel. Mau Son peak is the chief mountain of Lang Son region. Tam Dao range is the major mountain of the lower-highlands. Ma Yen is the chief mountain of the old Hoa Lu capital city. Hen island and Huong river are seen as protective places in the front of the old Hue Citadel. In addition to the protetion, a chief mountain was also believed to contribute to circulation of energy for the capital city which would determine the longetivity of a dynasty. The Vietnamese also have the conception that the shape and position of mountain decide their fortune or misfortune. With these accumlated significances and important functions, no force or individuals were allowed to infringe or destroy the chief mountain.
  1. The Worship of Gods of Mountain as Represenstation of local knowledge in behaviors towards the nature
An object will be responsive when it is worshipped and because an object is worshipped it is responsive. These two clauses always suppport each other thus the worship of gods of mountains have never been interrupted. Passed by myths from generations to generations of magics, responsiveness of gods, or the ways they punish those who dared to destroy the sacred mountains created special effects for the safety of mountains in Vietnam. Women, with their creativity, played an important in this way of protection of mountains without the need for any complicated civil institutions. This can be seen as application of indigenous knowledge into protection and safe exploitation of natural heritages.
Sacred mountains in Vietnam are never alone but always embedded with temples for gods. These temples act as a vehicle to recognize people's belief and places for them to come and seek compensations, fortunes, and blessings. To bring into full play the benefits and the height of the mountain, military leaders of Vietnam used mountains in their strategies. Under many dynasties in Vietnam, especially the Tran dynasty, many Tran kings chose to stay in a cave on a mountain to become bonzes. However, besides using caves to study of Buddhist doctrine for enlightenment, they also used these places as the outpost of Thang Long Citadel. Yen Tu mountain (Quang Ninh) and Con Son (Hai Duong) are such outpost. From there they could observe the whole Northwest region detect any signs of the foreign instruders when the nation at war. Yet the form of Buddhist temples acted perfectly as a secrect outfit to disguise the enemies. Many eminent monks of Vietnam contributed significantly in timely noticing the Court for danger of being instruded. In this aspect, worshiping gods of mountains is not just a matter of belief or rituals but also contributed significantly to military arts of the Vietnamese.
With wisdom, the ability of observation, the harmonious behavior towards nature, the exploitation of the nature in sustainable ways, Vietnamese ancestors left a whole heritage of the arts in dealing with mountains, including designing strategies of exploitation based on specific characteristics and making strategies of preservation based on psychological feaures of the local people.  Mountains in Vietnam had been used, exploited, and taken advantage of their functions to realize aims of economy, politics, military, medicine, environmental spirituality, and literature, which altogether formed the whole mountainous culture.
Behavors towards mountains in recent years in a number of localities in Vietnam have not inherited the indigenous knowledge in the protection of the natural heritages. At the same time, many local people are exploiting mountains without following any rules for sustainable development and we can see this problem through specific cases of the Tô Thị mountain in Lạng Sơn or the Vọng Phu mountain in Nghệ An. “Learning new lessons from understanding the past” is an intelligent way to deal with the nature. Humanizing mountains, empowering them and making them sacred were the ancient Vietnamese's effective methods to protect and preserve mountains.
These old lessons are invaluable until today, thus they need to be studied and publicized so as to reduce and prevent the deforestation and destruction of mountains which are taking place not only in Vietnam but also in many other nations in Southeast Asia.
Being the precious national treasures which benefit local residents, mountainous ecologies are playing important roles in protecting the environment, facilitating scientific research, tourism, recreation, and providing water resources, forestry products and herbal medicines. At the same time, these areas have high lelvels of biological diversity and are the storage of precious and rare genes of fauna and flora. These invaluable natural resources have to be protected to help maintaining the world biological diversity.
Nguyen Ngoc Mai
PhD, Institute for Religious Studies,
Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences
Báo thể thao và văn hóa phỏng vấn TS Nguyễn Ngọc Mai
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