“The stature of today of these commerce-oriented goddesses (of Vietnam) is bound up in the societal contributions made by women who, during the postwar years, were involved in a vast but informal economic movement that defied and perhaps helped transform from within the patriarchal political economic orders dominated by the state. Thus the goddesses are collaborators in and agents of an unrecorded history. They represent a popular reworking and retelling of history, where women’s activity is considered socially central, where commercial progress is highly valued, where smugglers are the epitome of efficiency and where flight from the country is granted to the virtuous and is rewarded by prosperity. They celebrate informal social and economic initiatives that the government has labeled criminal, negative and treacherous or has habitually overlooked.” Goddess on the Rise by Philip Taylor 2004, p.107.
You can tell a lot about country and its culture by its ceremonies and celebrations. In some communist countries there is nothing but ‘patriotic’ parades, rallies and displays of martial power. Ordered ranks of soldiers, athletes and other military hardware march before the visages of Great Leaders past and present. Emotions are martialed to maintain the might of the state. Everyone is either part of a passive audience or a puppet on parade. But there are exceptions as celebrations and ceremonies are older than governments. And these exceptions can change rules, even in Vietnam.
For religious ceremonies and celebrations from ancient times can survive and evolve into important movements and events large and small. People persist in the hope of blessings from the cosmos or nature and its seasons. They are the survival of popular and profound rituals of drama and joy. These happenings allow the survival of the people’s psyche during long, difficult times such as the calamity of governments and other disasters.
Here in America as well many of our celebrations and ceremonies also revolve around the state and its bloodletting. Here people also passively watch military parades of power and patriotism with the pop of its fireworks. More likely we go to a party. And we also have ancient seasonal pagan celebrations from ancient times such as Easter (Eostre), Christmas (Yule) and Halloween (Samhain) where we share frivolity and blessings from the deity and nature with its seasons. It is now mostly mediated by corporate commercialism. And there are other celebratory events that are more subversive.
For we have also borrowed from the past and created new ones. Arts festivals and huge music concerts have brought new ways of thinking as well as new ways of income. We can be justifiably proud of the way of our abilities to be creative and our economic prowess to make historical changes here. Examples are the Renaissance Fair, Burning Man and some protests.
But in communist lands ancient and modern celebrations and ceremonies have become instruments of liberation. The pilgrimages to Pope John Paul’s appearances in Poland attracted huge crowds during the Soviet occupation. The Singing Revolution in Estonia is another example. Here 300,000 people in a country of a million drove out the Soviets by massive rallies where songs were used to show unity and transcendence. These people were fortunate in that the ruling communist government of Gorbachav was old and ready for reform.
But what can one do in a new communist country, freshly red in its radical blood of its newly won revolution? For decades Southeast Asia had been ravaged by colonialism from the French. And then the Second World War came with an invasion by Japan whose colonial attitudes were even worse than their predecessor. After they left there came an anti colonialist war against the French and the Americans that divided the country. This civil war took violent decades to resolve and ended in the Communist takeover of South Vietnam.
Even in America on the other side of the planet from that land the word Vietnam has scarred the memory of two decades. Every American family it seemed saw the war on their TV and knew someone fighting there. The war was the country’s dominant issue and the cause of countless demonstrations and even rioting. It was seen as the American empire’s first defeat.
In Vietnam there were more bombs dropped on that land by Americans than on Germany during World War II. American bombing campaigns and other military involvements lasted over 30 years. At the end of the Vietnam War came a bloody revenge and communist tyranny arrived in southern Vietnam as well. The conquerors were on the brink of an even greater disaster. Cambodia, its neighbor, fell into an even deeper chaotic charnel pit. A communist, who was even a greater psychopath than all the others, ran this land. Pol Pot killed over 30% of Cambodia’s people and drove the economy and morality back to the Stone Age. Mao in China had killed over 60 million.
Yet Vietnam drew back from that nightmare to a more liberalized economy. How did common sense with faith, tradition and just plain fun, surround communist dogma and tame it? The answer in great part is in ceremony and celebration of a people’s pilgrimage. This is described in Philip Taylor’s well-researched book Goddess on the Rise and in other works. His book contains over seventeen pages of bibliography alone. It is also well reviewed in academic journals. He has written five books and many articles in academic magazines on Southeast Asia. He has a doctorate in anthropology and teaches in the Asia Studies department at Australia National University.
Economic change is usually accompanied by cultural, spiritual and technological change as well. Spiritual change is the hardest and takes the longest to accomplish since these roots are the oldest. Changes here also affect other parts of a person’s life. The sacred aspects of people’s lives are the strongest, deepest and arouse the most commitment. Even if you do not have such a commitment yourself this area deserves serious study. What is more is that even though this is a deeply profound matter it has ironic, commercial and popular culture aspects.
Now I have seen some wonderfully strange exotic, festivals. I’ve been to Burning Man. This has been described as Mad Max on acid or the most dangerous and outrageous arts festival in the world. With over 30,000 in attendance and growing it becomes the 5th biggest town in Nevada. It is said that Silicon Valley closes down during its 10 day run. During this time there is more creativity and fun here than anywhere else in the US.
Then there are the Rainbow Gatherings, which are a time warp of the 60’s in the prime of the primeval forest. These hippie happenings have been going on for almost 40 years yet still have confrontations with the US Forest Service. Both of these events are peaceful and environmentally aware yet still attract much police monitoring and interference.
I’ve also been going to numerous rock festivals for over 40 years and can still taste the artwork on the blotter paper. There are still parts of this country where these kinds of events are either illegal or circumscribed. I was expected to attend interesting and exotic events as part of my business lifestyle. I was a well off dealer in psychedelics and located in New York City. I was well connected to the cultural and technological cutting edge that I could choose the creme in clientele who let me know of such events.
And they were a bunch of, oh so cool, cosmopolitans designing the next wave of tech and fashion. They were swinging from the data vine from trend to tech and from coast to boast. I would arrive with the right buzz, aware and prepared for any aspiring act of avant-garde art and terrific toy of tomorrow. Nothing would faze me from the next phase. As a libertarian I see electronic enterprise and street theater as the cool kissing cousins that they are. And if they were to do it in public I would shout encouragement from the sidelines. I even helped put on the show and sold tickets made from blotter paper.
I’m also a profound Pagan, a creator and sponsor of serious, sober Goddess worshipping events and ceremonies. I write for Pagan media and have been to many ceremonies in America and abroad. I acknowledge that ceremony is the unacknowledged, under appreciated art form of our time. I have traveled around the world to be in them.
The same can be said as well as its flip side, celebration. Having roots in many ancient ways is the best way to reach into the future. Some really amazing stuff is happening here to acknowledge the great shifts of our time. This attracts high tech visionaries as well as well as media shamans and profound party goers.
All of this is allowing great changes in our social attitudes in both ceremony and celebration. It has changed my own time in one particular way. Now I have no problem with drag queens get on a main stage (No, I don’t get into it) or ladies of the evening (Yes, I’ve had my share) plying their sloe-eyed trade. But in all my life experiences I have never even heard all of the above weirdness in one spiritual event. This is something I one day want to see since I’ve read about it.
Try to get your head around this; a glorious spiritual festival that has started from lasting weeks to now over five months! This salubrious spectacle has a sideshow alley, carnival games, roller skating, magic acts, a house of horrors, acrobatics, restaurants, cafes, shops, gambling, karaoke, opera and brothels. There is a merry go round where people sit on oversized boxes in the likeness of supermarket products. It is a carnival of capitalism where Christmas lights and swirling swastikas (there a Hindu symbol) beckon you to a wanton wonderland. The ceremonies will go from bathing and changing the Goddess’s garments in somber ceremony to spiritualist drag queens channeling Her voice to folk opera.
It also has all-singing, all-dancing and beauty drag queen contests. They sell lottery tickets as the price of admission. Among this transcendent transvestite crowd this event is the highlight of the year. They participate as mediums as well, when they can get away with it.
Oh yes, this is also at the same time and place where this religious pilgrimage to a goddess takes place. There are also astrologers, geomancers, palm readers, mediums, joss tick readers, sorcerers, clergy and fortunetellers of all types. This is a pilgrimage of over a million people come in a year. They come by bicycle, motorbike, bus and boat to one of the most remote, war-ravaged corners of the earth. Think of this pilgrimage as spontaneous order. As this comes from the love for a goddess it also has a spontaneous ardor. And it has been going on for many years.
This area has a long history of grass roots prophets, peasant rebellions and unorthodox religious movements. It is a wild borderland where mountains and the fertile delta marsh meet. We are talking of the corner where Vietnam and Cambodia meet along the Mekong River. This area has always been close to a smuggling route and was along an escape route. The Goddess is a cultural border marker in polity and consciousness.
For the shrine of this goddess is on the border of the Heart of Darkness and the tropical sun. You may know it as where they set the location of the most famous film set in Vietnam ‘Apocalypse Now’. It is a justly acclaimed masterpiece, the best movie ever made about the war in Vietnam. It shows the upriver excursion of the US military into the headwaters of hell searching for a renegade icon. The film was actually shot at a river in the Philippines where there are now condos but that’s another story. There was no exit there, until now. Today it is a laissez fair, a cultural counterpoint to communism.
Don’t think about this as an exceptional, isolated movement. There are many goddesses in Vietnam that are likewise venerated. There are shrines to gods too and even ghosts, mountains, trees and even whales that are worshipped all over the land. There are other goddesses that also attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. Some of these goddesses even have franchise shrines in other areas of the country. People ask here at this festival for the faithful for success at exams, for love, children, help in escaping Vietnam and most often success in business. This widespread phenomenon has also resulted in more freedom in northern Vietnam as well and even for Buddhists and Catholics as of the writing of this book.
This is all happening under the eyes of a Marxist Leninist government, who did not like it at all at first and even tried to stop it. (As history shows these types of states have butchered tens of millions of people who have opposed them even on just religious grounds). Today they are here at the pilgrimage straining under their tight police collars. They make sure that the drag queens don’t do their medium shtick channeling the Goddess while in the shrine (in front of Her for Goddess sake!). And all of these fortunetellers rattling their joss sticks and reading palms are just superstitious frauds and they are under strict orders to stop all of this. Yes, they have put up signs saying they will do just that and more. No, they don’t know why people come year after year to come see them. The glorious defenders of the revolution and victors of the war against American imperialism are brave and watchful. They also count their money and look the other way. Fortunes and fortune-tellers change. They learned a long time ago in fable and forecast about killing geese that lay golden eggs.
The urbane academic folklorist of this land will grimace and would want you to look somewhere else, as well. This pagan pilgrimage with its profound political implications was not in the books taught to them by their European or communist teachers. So how can this be happening? This denial is an old ancient custom of academics everywhere. Their academic research and scientific ideology both predict one day this will die out. However they are not yet as good as the fortunetellers. So until then they write books for the tourists about what a wonderful cultural treasure goddesses are.
The newly emerging elite of middle class corporate field hands copying the decadent denizens of the West would say the same. This is just some uneducated, rural or petty bourgeois women traders and all. They just find it interesting to see so many people from Ho Chi Minh City here (over 40% of the attendees are). HCM City, formerly Saigon, is now the thriving cosmopolitan center of Vietnam In fact, Vietnamese from all over the world come here They come back to thank the Goddess in helping them escape from communism.
(The festival for Bà Chúa Xứ, the Lady of the Realm)
A network of formerly poor women traders who were committed to the Goddess ran this pilgrimage or celebration. Some of them were struggling smugglers and sex workers supporting their families. Many were breaking the law every day at that time as a means of making a meager living to support their families. This was a dangerous time as people went on the Long March of enterprise between the abysses of bankruptcy and concentration camps on the road to prosperity and respect.
The Chinese who were the traders in Vietnam beforehand were much involved in the pilgrimage as well as in business. Then they were kicked out of the country for possibly being loyal to capitalism and China rather than communism and Vietnam. Who then would take over the role of traders between cities and country? Who would continue the tradition of continuing the pilgrimage? At the time only a few thousand would do go for a two week festival.
But continue it did. This pilgrimage stands as a living monument to the commitment and energy of the women in the informal economy. And they would credit the Goddess Ba Chua Xu, known as the Lady of the Realm. Welcome to the glorious return of goddess gatherings and also the righteous return of traders and markets. For in this Communist state a revolution has transpired without headlines, violence, armies or even protests. This shrine to the goddess and its pilgrimage is a monument to this miracle. This Goddess is widely known for guiding and protecting poor women who are engaged in trade. Under the eyes of a communist state this goddess has inspired a spiritual movement that has grown from a few thousand to over a million in about twenty years. They have become wealthy, respected and powerful and accomplished great change within old powerful forms. They have ignited a change in economics, culture and attitudes toward women that even feminist academics are unaware of. How did all this happen?
Religion was the first act of differentiation from the state. Think of it as a mother protecting her young from the anger and ignorance of a bad father figure. The Great Mother represents nurturance and protection and goddesses were the first deities all over the world. These fertility figures were later transformed into shrines to define cycles of planting, of culture and relationships. From the festivals of the fertility of the fields and family came the newer call for help in trade and business. The goddesses worked in occult or hidden ways like the women who worshipped them. The worshippers offer gifts and pilgrimage in a symbolic exchange to get prosperity, help and justice. Archaeologists may one day discover a place of worship where the arch of such worship was taken from the rib of the king’s fortress.
There are lands where this way of belief never died out. Vietnam is mostly Buddhist, a philosophy that tolerates such worship. I have seen shrines to the Goddess on the grounds of Buddhist temples. Sometimes the goddesses were in fact real women who had been known as benefactors to the community when they were alive. Some were poor virgins, others wives of important people. Some died tragically or were martyrs. Some left their families others never left their land. Some were economically powerful all helped the poor. For many, like the Lady of the Realm, we just don’t know. They were known for their wisdom, other for their acts of kindliness. Of all the 75 Goddesses are worshipped in Vietnam the Lady of the Realm is by far the most popular and is the focus here.
Her history is a nest of myths. Her statue may have been from India and perhaps was once Shiva, an Indian God. This makes sense in that since this deity is now a goddess and attracts many transvestites and women. It is a cult that attracts people of all ethnic groups in the area, as well as people from city and country. It definitely attracts more women than men. The Goddess helps in all types of personal matters such as love, fertility and even in escaping Vietnam. People here see it primarily as a women’s and as a business Deity. In her book China’s Motor – A thousand years of Petty Capitalism Hill Gates gives the pithy phrase: “Women reproduce, so in the appropriate political economic context does money.”
(Ancient Matriarchal Society: The original Lady of the Realm stone statute stands at the base of Sam Mountain in the Mekong Delta dividing South Vietnam & Cambodia. Also believed to be a Khmer version of India’s goddess Shiva, Ba Chua Xu accepts all ethnic traits bestowed upon her.)
CONTINUED IN PART 2
Goddess on the Rise, Philip Taylor University of Hawaii Press (March 1, 2004). ISBN 978-0824828011
Don Meinshausen in an act of ceremonial magick helped launch the Libertarian movement in 1969. He is the creator and admin of Libertarian Pagans, Psychedelic Pagans and Pagans against a US attack on Syria. He is currently writing a novel that deals with winter solstice traditions of over a dozen cultures from ancient times to 1989.
This article appeared in Penton magazine in August 2010. The above article is revised. With thanks to Damon Leff.