Lên đồng (Vietnamese: [len ɗə̂wŋm], "to mount the medium", or "going into trance") is a ritual practiced in Vietnamese folk religion and the mother goddess religion Đạo Mẫu, in which followers become spirit mediums for various deities. Also known as hầu bóng ("receiving incarnations of the deities"), hầu đồng, or đồng bóng, sessions involve a number of artistic elements, such as music, singing, dance and the use of costumes. The invocation songs (Vietnamese: hát văn) used to induce a trance in mediums have been described as a "particularly noteworthy expression of the performing art of the Kinh people"; the lên đồng ritual itself is considered to be an element of Vietnam's intangible cultural heritage.
The date of lên đồng rituals are typically planned to coincide with a festival, anniversary, or the inauguration of a Mother house, although rituals may also be performed at more informal occasions. Rituals are generally held in temples, pagodas or similarly sacred locations. Votive offerings—which may range from flowers, cakes and sweets to alcohol, cigarettes and jewelry—and, on certain occasions, even Coca-Cola cans[nb 1]—must be purchased. Mediums generally also purchase a number of different costumes to be worn during the ritual. Before the main ritual takes place, mediums undergo several days of purifying rituals, involving abstention from sexual intercourse and eating meat.
The main ritual, which may last from two to seven hours, begins with petitions to Buddha and to the deities for permission to carry out the ritual, after which the medium seats him or herself (both men and women may act as mediums) in the middle of four assistants, whose job it is to facilitate the medium's incarnation of different deities and spirits. Specially trained musicians and singers will perform invocation songs to induce a trance in the medium, at which point he or she will be ready to incarnate different spirits.
Assistants will help the medium don different costumes to match the particular gods they are incarnating; for example, if a practitioner is acting as a medium for a god who takes the form of a general, he or she may wear a general's robes, and perform a dance incorporating swords or other weapons. A medium may incarnate several gods during one session, changing his or her costume and adapting his or her movements to each. Musicians—singers and instrumentalists—accompany the practitioner, and shift from one musical style to the next depending on which god is being incarnated. When the dance is finished, the audience is allowed to approach the still-possessed medium to make offerings, petition the deity being incarnated in exchange for favours, or to have their fortune told. The medium offers sacred gifts in return, often in the form of joss sticks.
During early Communist rule, the practice of lên đồng (and Đạo Mẫu in general) were seen as forms of superstition and proscribed, although practitioners continued to perform rituals in secret. In 1987, after a period of prohibition, the Vietnamese government relaxed restrictions on the practice of lên đồng, and it gradually saw a recurrence in popularity; in 2001, it was the subject of an international conference, and a foreign delegation was allowed to attend a festival at Phủ Giày in Nam Định Province. While practitioners are generally allowed to practice in private, government opposition to the practice still exists; in 2010, for instance, a government circular was enacted to curb certain forms of lên đồng practice, specifically formal lên đồng festivals.[nb 2]
Lên đồng is performed throughout Vietnam, and also in places with significant populations of Overseas Vietnamese, such as the United States (notably in Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, California), Italy, France and Australia. Lên đồng can also be seen as the Vietnamese version of East Asian spirit mediumship practiced in places such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
The word 'đồng' or 'toŋ' is believed to be an Austroasiatic lexicon. It mean 'to dance (as if) under demonic possession' or shaman in Mon. In the Munda languages, it mean ‘to dance' in Sora and 'a kind of dance, drumming and singing connected with wedding ceremony' in Santali 
Notes and references
- Coca-Cola cans are used particularly for their colour, as noted in Kendall (2003): "The medium pays special attention to the color of the votive offerings, so that each spirit receives offerings that are the same color as the realm with which she or he is associated." (p.261) Red is a colour associated with the "celestial sky palace", therefore the red cans are "appropriate offerings for spirits from the Heavenly Realm". (p. 260–261) Ngo Duc Thinh (2003). "Chapter 13: Len Dong: Spirits' Journeys". In Nguyen Van Huy, Laurel Kendall. Vietnam: journeys of body, mind, and spirit. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23871-0.
- Circular No. 04/2009/TT-BVHTTDL, issued on December 16, 2009, sets forth regulations on "cultural activities" that expand on Decree No. 103/2009/ND-CP on the same subject. Clause 4, Article 3, Chapter II of the Circular states: "Cultural activities and services with superstitious contents [which are prohibited in the Decree] are those with contents of unnaturally bewitching others to adversely affect their consciousness, including making offerings to expel evil spirits, treating diseases through incantation, going into trances to make orders, telling fortune, resorting to sortilege, shaking divinatory wands, spreading prophesies, reciting incantation, exorcizing amulets to harm others for self-interest, burning votive papers in public places and other forms of superstition." The Circular and Decree have been interpreted as forbidding the practice of len dong in formal public festivals. (Vietnam News Service (2010-09-30). "Culture Vulture". Vietnam News Service. Retrieved 2011-01-17.)
- Philip Taylor (2007). Modernity and re-enchantment: religion in post-revolutionary Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 981-230-438-X.
- Ngo Duc Thinh (2003). "Chapter 13: Len Dong: Spirits' Journeys". In Nguyen Van Huy, Laurel Kendall. Vietnam: journeys of body, mind, and spirit. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23871-0.
- Benedict J. Kerkvliet, Russell Hiang-Khng Heng, David Wee Hock Koh (2003). Getting organized in Vietnam: moving in and around the socialist state. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 981-230-165-8. Retrieved 2011-01-17.
- "Len Dong Dance (shaman dance)". Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU). 2007. Retrieved 2011-01-16.
- Vietnam News Service (2010-09-30). "Culture Vulture". Vietnam News Service. Retrieved 2011-01-17.
- Karen Fjelstad, Thị Hiền Nguyễn, eds. (2006). Possessed by the spirits: mediumship in contemporary Vietnamese communities. Southeast Asia Program, G - Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects. 23. SEAP Publications. ISBN 0-87727-141-0.
- The Austroasiatics in Ancient South China: Some Lexical Evidence http://tlmei.com/tm17web/1976a_austroasiatics.pdf
- "Lên đồng" (English)