Hua Miao spirit worship.
1. The Spirit Zu-gi-za and the ancestors. 3.

Compiled by Wang Ming-ji.


With the somewhat cynical proverb contrasting the relative merits of the advice given by the shaman-healer and the zu-mu, set out in M353, Wang Ming-ji’s account of the worship of the Spirit Zu-gi-za and the ancestors apparently closed. However, three and a half pages further on, it was reopened with further descriptions, explanations and incantations which must now be considered .

The rituals known as zi were very seldom performed because they concerned only the extreme situation in which the whole of the extended family was in danger of dying out, and also because they were very costly. The climax of zi was reached in the sacrifice of the "niu lao". Translated literally this means "old bull/cow/ox", but in this context "old" means best, not ancient or decrepit. The creature was, in fact, the one trained for ploughing, and was probably the family’s most valuable asset. Without it, all the work on the land would have to be done manually, in which case it might not be possible to grow enough to feed everybody. To offer the "niu-lao" was a sacrifice indeed. However that was not all. A large pig had to be offered first to the Spirit Zu-gi-za. After that there were offerings to the ancestors, one animal for each of the surviving brothers, then finally the ploughing ox was sacrificed. Many guests came, and all had to be lavishly entertained, so that large quantities of grain and of wine, made from grain, were also consumed. A comparatively wealthy family could be reduced to poverty in a few short days by undertaking the zi rituals.

The Miao placed their dead in simple boxes and buried them in shallow graves with mounds of earth on top. When the wood of the coffins rotted, the graves would collapse with holes appearing in the mounds. Also, unprotected burials on the hill sides were often subject to the attention of wolves, and it was not unusual to see a new burial which had been dug out by them. Sometimes the people would fill in the holes, but frequently fear prevented them from doing anything. Might not the wolves themselves be the agents of some powerful spirit? So the pig was sacrificed to do what the people were afraid to undertake.

In the translation of the incantation the word "tomb" has been used merely as another word for "grave" since there are two words in the Miao. It does not signify a different or more elaborate burial. Also in the incantation the use of the word "ndlai" which means "tongue", is a little obscure. Probably it is a ritual code word used instead of the word "sword". In the incantation in an earlier paragraph in M353, where the same expression is found, the word is "sword".

In the ancestral worship the first sacrifice had always to be offered to the Spirit Zu-gi-za. After that offerings to the ancestors might be made. To ascertain if indeed this was necessary, the zu-mu used divining sticks and the appropriate incantation. Wang Jian-guo, son of Wang Ming-ji, supplied the following explanation. "Two pieces of bamboo about as thick as your finger and some seven inches long, were required. One piece, uncut, was laid on the ground. The other piece was cut down the middle. The two pieces so formed were held face to face and dropped from no great height, about nine inches, on to the uncut stick. A positive answer was given by the cut bamboo falling, one piece face up one piece face down. If they fell both face up or both face down, the answer was ‘no’".

The forms of words to be used in sacrificing to the ancestors were apparently identical to those used in the worship of the Spirit Zu-gi-za. When the incantations had been completed the meat of the sacrifice was consumed in a ceremonial meal. Wang Jian-guo’s explanation of this practice was that, though the family ate the animals which had been slaughtered, the spirits of the creatures had been released for the ancestors to take back to their abode.

In the translation of the incantations the word "escort" refers to the common practice of travelling out a little distance with a departing guest to see him safely on his way.

At the zi sacrifice, after the zu-mu had recited the prayers which were always used at the worship of the Spirit Zu-gi-za and the ancestors, there followed two special incantations. In the first the ancestors were assured of the great change in their circumstances that the zi would bring about. Before they had been so poverty stricken and ashamed that they hid themselves under the bed and in the cattle pen, but now, they were the proud possessors of "the great horned one", a creature capable of ploughing both earth and sky. The second incantation was a prayer that the people and their flocks and herds might multiply greatly.

At the end of a festival Miao people would travel home in their ordinary, every-day clothes, carrying their best gowns and skirts, which had been worn during the festival, in bundles on their backs. The ritual incantations assumed that the spirits of the ancestors would do the same.

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