The phenomenon of Mountain God Worship and Vietnamese atitudes

Thứ ba - 13/03/2018 01:40
International Mountain Culture Conference
International Mountain Culture Conference
International Mountain Culture Conference
Nguyễn Ngọc Mai
(The article was published in the magazine: Mountains and Humanities; ISSN 2465 - 8162. Institute of Mt. Jirisan Region cultural studies, Sunchon national University, Korea...September 2015)
Mountain is a common natural phenomenon of the geological tectonic process and located in most areas /regions /countries around the world. Mountains are familiar with all nations, but the behavior towards the mountains of each nation is pretty unique and imbued with cultural nuances of psychology and personality of each nation. The behavior towards the mountain in Vietnam deeply characterize personality, spirit and condition of Vietnamese people; is manifestation of spirituality and consciousness; is a source of sudden inspiration for composing poetry and thinking about the country; is an aspiration and desire for survival; is also cultural codes as well as a way to put local knowledge into exploitation and protection of the nature..
  1. High mountains with common basic features
The social science researches on high mountains in the world showed the characteristics of mountain as follows:
  • Immovable, untransferable [i], positive and is the supreme origin
  • In terms of spirit significance, it symbolizes the residence of the Sun Gods; the beautiful virtue of the spirit, the super consciousness of vitality and opposition between the origins fighting each other for creating the world. (Jean chevalier: 1997)[ii].
  • In Bible and Mountain Christian Art, the mountain has three vital symbolic significances: 1) is a point of junction between the heaven and earth; 2) the sacred mountain is located in the world center  and is the image of the world; 3) the temple is identical to the mountain
Natural sciences also pointed out that survival areas on the mountains are rich in natural resources such as abundant vegetation, especially pharmaceutical resources; this is also home to many rare animals, is a place that conservers strange genes[iii]  in which Tam Dao National Park and Mau Son Tourist Resort (Lang Son are typical ones.
Thanks to these features of the mountain, from the primitive age, people knew to rely on the nature to survive; 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 mountain, creating the soul for the mountain and making the mountain sacred so that it becomes magic.
  1. Mountain culture of Vietnamese people
Vietnam is located at the continental shelf and ¾ of its total area is hills and mountains. Mount exists throughout the localities and in all parts in Vietnam, and this makes the mountain culture in Vietnam become quite concentrated, especially in areas that have big mountains.
          With the characteristics of the rock (rigid, sharp, hard, high, etc.), according to the negative – positive conceptions of the Southeast Asian culture, the mountains bears positive characteristic (+), but most mountains in Vietnam are associated with the legend of women or related to women. All of the high mountain ranges 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 hallowed memories of the victims are embodied the mountains.  The mountains which are assigned positive characteristic (+) and home to the God still have the image and presence of one or more the Goddess. For example, the worship of the God of Tan Vien Mountain, the temple in Tan Vien Mountain worships the Mountain Genie - the most sacred God in “The Four Immortals” of Vietnam’s traditional religions, but it also worships Saint Tran Hung Dao (Great Lord Hung Dao) in the left side of the altar and Three Mother Goddesses (The Goddess of the highlands) in the right side of the altar. The outside of its shrine, there is also a Goddess of the upper sky[2] altar.
There are many mountains which bear negative characteristics and are place of worship of such Goddesses in Vietnam Nam. We can mention famous mountains located from Ca Mau Cape to the country’s border area. The North Pole has Mau Son (Lang Son), and back down to the plain there is Quyen Son Mountain (where there is a temple of Queen Mother of the surname Duong); towards the North there is Tea Mountain (worshipping Tea Goddess, Bac Giang); in the West of lowlands there is Tam Dao Mountain Range (worshipping the Goddess of the upper sky) in the central area there is Ngoc Tran Mountain (Hue), Dai  An Mountain, place of worship of Pohnaga Country Mother (also called Thap Ba Nha Trang)[3]; Bien Hoa has Worship Mountain of Mother Goddess[iv]; and in the South there is Ba Den Mountain (TayNinh), when going down the Southwest there is Sam Mountain place of worship of Xu Goddess, etc. This is a difference from many big mountains in the world. Therefore, the sacredness not only is assigned to the mountain but also bears negative characteristic, or womanlike. The Mountain Goddess made mountain culture in Vietnam different from many places in the world.
There are also lots of different explanations for this Mountain Goddess phenomenon. There is an opinion that Mountain is like breast of the Mother Earth, there is also an opinion that this phenomenon was originated from the distribution of work from the Clan period. In this period, women undertook gathering and hunting. And with diligence, patience and worry about health and food for her family, everyday women strived to go into the deep forests and wander up the high mountains to find food and drug for their children and community, so they discovered the valuable products and genes which the nature gave special treatment to people on the mountain tail. With prolonged presence of matriarchy culture, women held power for a rather long time in the history, especially in Vietnam this last longer when agricultural culture is decisive up to now. Position in the community and discoveries in working and production helped them find out the way to preserve and transmit it for their future generations to create thrilling stories of Mountain Goddess. The stories of origin of the Mountain Goddesses partly reflected Vietnamese women’s condition.
Existing in the world with the names such as Mother Goddess of the Country (Tam Dao Mountain Range) or Mother Goddess (Mountain in Bien Hoa), Xu Goddess (Sam Mountain), Linh Son Mother Goddess (Ba Den Mountain), etc., but these sacred legends belong to Vietnam’s cultural cryptography. Some mountains were burial places of the 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)[v]; 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 a undeniable fact about Vietnamese women’s conditions in many phases of the history such as being lost the husbands in the wars, being calumniated, persecuted and extremely savagely punished due to faults that have never been crime or they have never committed, and then their aspiration for life and faithfulness became immortal and finally turned into the essential part of the rock.
In the concept of Vietnamese people, unjust deaths always make the objects swallow an insult in the other world, so their hallowed memory is very sacred, severe and intolerant[4]. A series of folk tales surrounding mountain areas make no individual dare approach to sabotage; The Court also had to respect and invest them with an office to wish their hallowed memory to help and protect the lasting survival of the dynasty; therefore, Mountain God has become a character with immeasurable power, etc. This condition makes the sacred mountains exist sustainably and these mountains become the ideal residence for all of animals and plants without any protective belt or statutory institution, only incense-smoke and belief in the sublimity and power of the Gods of the surrounding people make the mountain become more and more challenging before the time.
Cultural exchanges between the lowlanders and highlanders, between the Kinh people in the plain and ethnic minority people in high regions has made the mountain culture of Vietnamese people more abundant. In addition to the familiar Mountain God system, Vietnamese people adopt the worship of Forest God. Forest - Mountain is a couple, forest is the hair of mountain and make mountain have more powerful expression of life[vi](Jean Chevalier:1997). Symbolizing unconsciousness and the source of the terror the couple of Mountain-Forest Gods makes the sublimity and powers of Gods become strong and they crystallize to metamorphose into the Goddess of the highlands in the religious system of four pagodas today. The Goddess of the highlands became the Goddess ruling the entire highlands.
  1.  Mountain in Vietnam as the major mountain
With the essence of thinking and worship of the mountain and under the influence of Chinese fengshui culture, any residential region or important administrative areas in Vietnam need the factors such as protective place in the front side, protective place in the back side and protective place behind, etc. With the notion that the mountain position forms the good layer of earth to create sustainable vital force for the dynasty or peace of people, so any former urban in Vietnam had land position leaning on the mountains or protected by huge mountains, and such mountains are called the major mountain.
On the other hand, in terms of geography, Vietnam is the region which has been suffered a lot of storms; therefore, planning administrative or residential region really needs mountains, forests to shield. Forest and mountains shall help reduce damages and losses caused by storms, tornados, etc. Therefore, the major mountain becomes an absolutely essential criterion when urban areas are planned. From here, the major mountains and river intersections have become the system of indispensable criteria for tectonic process of capitals or residential areas with belief that the good layer of the major mountain will create sustainable position for the dynasty. Ba Vi Mountain is the major mountain of Thang Long Citadel; Mau Son Mountain is the major mountain of Lang Son Region; Ba Vi Mountain is the major mountain of the midland region; Ma Yen Mountain is the major mountain of Hoa Lu Capital City; Con Hen and Huong River are a protective place in the front side of Hue Citadel, etc. In addition to the shielding effect, the main mountain also contributes to circulate the vitality for the capital city; this decides the everlasting dynasty. Influenced by Chinese culture, Vietnamese people also have the conception that the shape and position of mountain decide happiness and misfortune of humans. With the main mountain’s meaning and importance, any influences are not allowed to harm or destroy the main mountain.
  1. The worship of Mountain God - expression of local knowledge in the behavior towards the natural
 “If there is the worship, there will be sacred” and “If you want to have supernatural power, you must have the worship”. Those two clauses complementing each other make the worship of mountain god uninterrupted. Miracles, the epiphany of gods or god’s the punishment of for those who dare to abuse the sacred mountain region handed down by many generations through oral story telling. This traditional method has created special effects for the safety of the mountain in Vietnam. If a place has God, that place has the sacred miracles. Consequently, it has created the sacred space for mountains and that sacred space created an invisible power. It can control and enforce unconscious behaviors by the spirituality or create barriers to prevent acts of sabotage or excessive exploitation affecting the rare genetic resources or loss of natural landscapes which should be preserved.
Sacred mountains in Vietnam are not alone, they are always exist as a tangible heritage such as temples where mountain gods seated in a stately way on spiritual realization and this is also a destination for pilgrims who want to be blessed and contemplated the vastness and grandeur mountains and forests. Therefore, it can be seen the stature of our mountains and rivers. To bring into full play the benefits and the height of the mountain, military leaders of Vietnam used mountains in military strategies. In many dynasties in Vietnam, especially under the Tran dynasty, with the regime of two kings Tran kings retired to hide on the mountain to become erudite bonzes. However, in addition to the study of Zen to enlighten the spirituality, this location is also the outpost of Thanh Long Capital City and Yen Tu Mountain (Quang Ninh) and Con Son (Kiep Bac) is such outpost. From here we can observe the Northwest region of homeland and identify dynamics of the enemy when the country has the rick of war. With the legendary of divines on the mountain, outposts which hide under the shadow of temples, pagodas are completely kept secret. Many eminent monks of Vietnam contributed significantly in noticing for people being in the capital city when there were unexpected problems from such outpost. In this aspect, worshiping mountain god is not just a matter of belief, rituals but also contribute positively to Military art of Vietnamese people.
With wisdom, the ability of observation, harmonious behavior with nature, the exploitation of the nature in sustainable ways, the Vietnamese ancestors left a whole heritage of the arts in dealing with mountains, such as: designing strategies of exploitation basing the specific characteristics; and designing strategies of preservation basing 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, they exploit 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
[1] Dr. Institute for Religious Studies, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences
[2] The other call about sun god
[3] Phan Thanh Gian carved his signature on the stele erected at Goddess Temple with the main significances such as creation, preservation and development 
[4] Stories about punishment of Mountain God with lots of details related to the character of women
[i] Jean Chevalier A lain Gheerbrant: Dictionary of world cultural symbol (Da Nang Pulishing House, Nguyen Du School, 1997, 703.
[ii] Jean Chevalier A lain Gheerbrant: Dictionary of world cultural symbol (Da Nang Pulishing House, Nguyen Du School, 1997, 71-73.
[iii] The Forest Inventory and Planning Institute (FIPI) counted 904 useful plants in Tam Dao Mountain Range. In the above plants, there are 42 endemic species and 64 rare species that need to be preserved such as Dendrobium daoensis, Camellia longicaudata, Camellia petelotii, Asarum petelotii, Molas tamdaoensis and Paris delavayi, etc. Vietnam's Red Data Book , (Viet Nam, Science and Technology Publishing House, 2007);
[iv] Trinh Hoai Duc: Gia Dinh thanh Thong Chi,  …….2005.
[v] Mau Son – Wikipedia: Stories of the Gods in Mau Son Mountain/Lang Son
[vi] Jean Chevalier A lain Gheerbrant: Dictionary of world cultural symbol (Da Nang Pulishing House, Nguyen Du School, 1997
1. Mai Thi Ngoc Chuc, Do Thi Hao - The Goddess of Vietnam
2. Ngo Van Doanh (2009) Thien Y Na Na Tower - Journey of a goddess
3. Vuong Ngoc Duc (1996) The mystery of Feng Shui - Cultural Information
Publishing House
4. Jean Chevalier A lain Gheerbrant (2010) Dictionary of world cultural symbol – Da Nang Pulishing House, Nguyen Du School.
5. Nguyen Ngoc Mai (2014): Mau Son - LangSon Tourist Area - Indigenous cultural and spiritual values. Summary record of scientific conference named “Mau Son tourism – the actual situation and solution” - Lang Son Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism
6. Ngo Duc Thinh (1996) The Worship of Mother Goddesses in Vienam - cultural and information publishing house
7. Le Kim Thuyen - Kim Ba Le Yen (2008) Quoc Mau Tay Thien in Vinh Phuc – Vinh Phuc Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism
8. Le Kim Thuyen - Kim Ba Le Yen (2009) The Worship of Mother Goddesses in Vinh Phuc
9. Vietnam Red Book (2007) – Vietnam Science and Technology Publishing House
10. Mau Son – Wikipedia

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