Ua Neeb: Healing via the Spirit World

When a family member falls ill, the head of the household calls upon a local shaman to determine the cause of that family member's illness in what is called an ua neeb. Specifically, the shaman journeys to the spirit world to see what has happened to that family member's spirit and to learn if it has been lost or stolen.

On a crisp Saturday morning, Yer, Jess and I (Koua) traveled to the home of Ia Vang to attend the ua neeb ceremony for her five-month-old niece who had been very sick for the past couple of weeks. I was raised in a very traditional home, so I had prior knowledge of what this event entailed. Since I would be observing a ritual in a private home of strangers, I felt very nervous and uneasy during the ride. Eventually the butterflies in my stomach disappeared as I dozed off in the backseat with the warm sun on my face.

As we walked from the parked car up to the house, the feeling of butterflies in my stomach returned.  A petite elderly woman with wrinkle lines on her eyes and forehead greeted us as she sprinkled little salt crystals onto the icy sidewalk, “Tuaj los. Mus hauv tsev os.” She gestured for us to enter through the front door. The first thing I smelled was the steam from fresh cooked rice mixed with the distinct scent of incense that is particularly unpleasant to the eyes, as well as smoke from burnt spirit paper money. There was a gutted pig right in the center of the living room. Above the pig was the shaman’s wooden bench, which was approximately five feet long and stained a dark mahogany. Next to the bench by the wall was a small square table where two candles and multiple cups and bowls were placed in two rows. They were alternately filled with rice, water and incense.

On the wall next to the table lay a sheet of spirit paper money. This spirit paper money is called xwm kab. The xwm kab spirit is very important; it protects the family from spiritual harm and brings health and wealth to the family through ancestors and guardians. Still standing at the entrance of the house, I tried to absorb and take in any information I could, as if I was a lost child surrounded by unfamiliar faces. I noticed there were some alert but tired looking elderly men who sat on a couch to my left. Straight ahead on a loveseat with a man in his late 20s holding an infant. I later learned he was the father, holding the infant for whom this ritual was being performed.

To my left sat another elderly man and apetite  full-figured and round-faced woman with short hair, dressed in a comfortable loose black outfit. I later learned that she was the shaman; she was the only woman in the living room. The others were either in the kitchen or outside cooking. As a guest and a Hmong man, I walked around the house and greeted and shook hands with the elderly men who were there. The family and their guests were very welcoming and directed us to seat ourselves to the left of the shaman’s bench, right next to the loveseat where the father and infant were.

Ia, the Carleton student who asked her parents to give us permission to visit her home, brought us water and some fruit to eat as we sat and observed the event. When we sat down, Yer went up to ask the women in the kitchen if she could help in any way, but they insisted that she sit.

As we sat in the living room, people did not mention anything about the strangers, the three of us, who were in the room. However, I did see several women in the kitchen poking their heads into the living room to see who we were. As we sat there quietly, the shaman prepared herself for the ritual. As she got up, another man in his early 40s got up to address the shaman and asked her to perform the ritual for his granddaughter, the infant who had been sick. He thanked her after he made his request.

Then the shaman directed the father and the infant to the bench. While they settled down, she started to chant and hit on her nruas neeb, or gong, and moved in a semi-circular path from one end of the bench to the other. The sound of the gong was so intensly powerful that it could probably be heard from blocks away. When she stopped using the gong, I could still hear the buzzing sound in my ears. She replaced the gong on the front table and grabbed a bowl filled with water. After saying several verses and chants, she drank from the water and spit it out on the infant and the father. This water was a sign of protection, and was meant to ward off evil spirits.

Afterward, she draped spirit paper money on the collar of the infant, and placed her ntaj neeb, her sword, on the shoulders of the baby girl, then to the sides of the pig. She removed the spirit paper money and placed it on the pig to inform the spirit world that the pig and the spirit money were being used as an exchange for the soul of the infant. As soon as this part of the ritual was over, the shaman gestured to the father that it was all right to leave the bench. He returned back to his seat on the couch, next to us.

I could hear voices of kids running up and down the stairs and around in the kitchen. Eventually, they made their way into the living room. They stared at the pig and then gradually made their way back outside. While we sat patiently, the shaman carefully prepared for the next part of the ritual.

Specifically, the shaman made ready to enter into an ecstatic trance. She began the process by covering her face with a small black veil and immediately starting to chant. During this process, her husband, who I later learned is also a shaman, began to strike the gong. This time, the sound of the gong was to warn the house spirits of the family that the shaman was going to be entering an ecstatic trance and would need their support to enter the spiritual world. The shaman’s chanting combined with her husband hits of the gong in a rhythmic pattern produced an intriguingly musical sound.

Throughout this entire process, the shaman was chanting and bouncing up and down on the bench, representing her journey through the spiritual world while traveling on a horse. While she was in a state of trance, her husband observed, watching and listening to her and burning spirit money when necessary. As this ritual continued, no one was allowed to go in front of the shaman because this would disrupt the process, explaining why the husband and other men were in such close proximity to the shaman. As this process occurred, a little boy came into the living room and stood next to me, observing the shaman’s actions in complete silence. Since I knew that it was not good for anyone to cross in front of the shaman’s way, I kept a close eye on this boy. He paused for just a moment and then immediately moved closer to the shaman. His movements caused me to react quickly and I grabbed his arm and carried him over to the couch with me.

By this point the shaman’s journey had been going on for quite sometime. In order to fully reach the spiritual world, the shaman has to undergo twelve different steps and complete twelve different verses.

After she completed her journey, the shaman negotiated again with the spirit world using the kuam (the divination horns). She was able to compromise with the spirits and raise the girl’s spirit back. The shaman seemed exhausted and very tired. The infant’s grandfather offered the shaman warm tea to quench her thirst. The men immediately took the pig out back and into the garage to cut and prepatre the meat for the meal.

While the other people prepared the food, we had the opportunity to talk to the shaman and asked her any questions that we had. I was able to ask her about the different types of shamans and different languages that they spoke during their ecstatic trances. She told us about her experiences at hospitals and clarified that the process of the kuam involved negotiations in the spirit world.

When the food was cooked, two long tables were connected and placed in the living room. Most of the elder men were seated at the tables along with the shaman and her husband. In Hmong culture, it is disrespectful for women to eat at the same table as men. Men eat first, before the women. This is a tradition that is still practiced today. As everyone was seated, the man of the house thanked the shaman once again for her help. All the younger men lined up and bowed twice to thank the shaman. Shortly after, a lovely meal with delicious dishes was enjoyed by everyone, including us guests.

Read more about Hmong shamans here