Few things have so fired the imagination of contemporary anthropologists as the Vietnamese cult of the Divine Mothers (Thánh Mẫu), as the reading list at the bottom of this page suggests. Note: Thánh Mẫu Is also translated into English as “Holy Mothers,” but I prefer to use “Divine Mothers” as relatively devoid of connotations.

The most dramatic expression of the “mother religion” in Vietnam is the lên đồng (“raising the spirits”) performance, in which a medium goes into a trance state and is possessed by one or more of the spirits of the “Four Palaces.” Once banned by the government as a superstitious practice, lên đồng performances are now not only permitted, but are hailed as a unique expression of Vietnamese culture. The related practice of “fortunetelling” is still officially outlawed, though it is actually very common for people to seek a medium for occult advice on auspicious days, investments, etc.

Anthropologists have written extensively about the socio-psychological aspects of the Divine Mothers tradition, with a great deal of attention given to lên đồng performances. As I’ve become more familiar with lên đồng, I have been drawn to speculate that it serves the same cathartic function as psychotherapy in western cultures. This may help explain why psychiatrists are a very rare species in Vietnam. Another important aspect of the lên đồng performances is that they provide a venue where the participants can explore alternate sexual identities. Many of the performers are, as we now say, gender-fluid; for instance, Barley Norton discusses music and mediumship in terms of the public perception of “effeminate men” and “hot-tempered women.”

Ceremony at the temple to Liễu Hạnh in Nam Định; assistants cover
the medium's face with their fans while he sips from a cup

A medium reenacts the adventures of one of the princes;
Đền Hồng Sơn, city of Vinh, province of Nghệ An

By 1999, Vietnamese Studies (a journal published by the government publishing house) was able to publish a special issue devoted to “The Cult of the Holy Mothers in Vietnam.” The contributors took a generally sympathetic view of the "Mother's religion," pointing out that it gave due respect to the feminine principle in nature and in society. (The argument not-so-subtly contrasts this egalitarian “indigenous” attitude with patriarchal religious practices, said to have been imported from China and adopted by the “feudal elites.”)  


At first, three goddesses were worshipped in the cult of the “Three Palaces” (Tam Phủ): the Mother/Goddess of Heaven, the Mother of Waters, and the Mother of Earth. Altars to the Tam Phủ are still common, identified as the “Three Seats of the Divine Mothers” (Tam Tòa Thánh Mẫu).

The “Mother of the Lofty Forests and Mountains” (Mẫu Thượng Ngàn) was subsequently added, creating the “Four Palaces” (Tứ Phủ). The addition of Mẫu Thượng Ngàn may have been a way to incorporate a separate tradition—at many temples, I have seen a separate altar dedicated to the similarly-styled “Lady of the Trang Mountain” (Chúa Sơn Trang).

A depiction of the "Four Palaces" (Tứ Phủ) in the "Hàng Trống” style.
This Taoist grouping is quite different than that found in temples.
According to Professor Phan Ngọc Khuê, the topmost figure is Quan Âm,
the Taoist / Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. The four Divine Mothers are 
shown beneath the four "Father-Kings," figures rarely seen in temples, 
where the top or rear row is always occupied by the goddesses.


Liễu Hạnh is the best-known of the goddesses, and is regarded as the Mother of Heaven, a position superior to her three companion goddesses.

Stories of the goddess Liễu Hạnh, daughter of the Jade Emperor, can be traced back to the 15th or 16th century in the north of Vietnam. She is something of a temptress with a literary following, appearing to the scholar/envoy Phùng Khắc Khoan on the banks of the West Lake (Tây Hồ) in the royal capital (modern-day Hanoi).

She is celebrated as a local goddess at the Phố Cát temple in Thanh Hóa province, and the Phủ Dầy  (Phủ Giầy) temple in Nam Định. As Olga Dror notes, these two sites are in an area that was contested between the Mạc emperors in Hanoi and the Lê loyalist forces (led by the Nguyễn and Trịnh lords) in Thanh Hóa province.

However, some of the stories of Liễu Hạnh place her along the Hoành Sơn mountain range, another border zone. Traditionally the Hoành Sơn mountains marked the boundary between the Đại Việt and Champa; by the 17th century it had become one of the dividing lines between the Trịnh lords who ruled the north and the Nguyễn lords who had created a kingdom-in-exile in central Vietnam. (Originally located near Quảng Trị, their royal capital was eventually moved to Phú Xuân, modern day Huế).


Like folk forms of Taoism, the cult of the Divine Mothers has a dazzling array of spirits, arranged in elaborate hierarchies. 

According to Ngô Đức Thịnh, the “Five Great Mandarins” are “presented as deities with noble, knightly or humane characters; they commit good deeds but they are also redoubtable...they carry arms and wear warriors’ costumes, the colors of which correspond to those of their palaces....” 

The third and fifth mandarins are the ones most often reincarnated in the body of the spirit-medium, and they are sometimes worshipped as the primary figure in their own temples. Both of them are associated with the region of Ninh Giang in Hưng Yên province.

There are Divine Mothers have an entourage of twelve female attendants, sometimes known as the “Divine Ladies" (Thánh Bà), but only the first six and the smallest are likely visitors to a medium.

Despite their relatively low place in the hierarchy, the Ten Princes are popular and are frequently incarnated in mediums. The Seventh Prince (Hoàng Bảy) is said to guard the northwestern highlands of Lào Cai and Yên Bái, while the Tenth Prince (Hoàng Mười) is found in Nghệ An province. (In our travels, we have seen altars to Hoàng Mười at several temples in Vinh and along the coast of Nghệ An.)

The Tenth Prince (Hoàng Mười) takes to the waters on a dragon-boat with pavilion (Đền Côn Trong, Nghệ An).

There are also 12 palace “handmaidens” and 10-12 “pages.” As with the “Divine Ladies,” the best known of the handmaidens and the pages are the smallest, “Cô Bé” and “Chầu Bé” (the twelfth). Chầu Bé is worshipped at the famous temple in the district of Bắc Lệ in the northern border province of Lang Sơn.

The "littlest" handmaiden (Đền Côn Trong, Nghệ An) and page (Đền Bảo Hà, Lào Cai)



Though goddesses are foremost in the cult of the Divine Mothers, prestigious male figures have been included in the pantheo. Given that Liễu Hạnh is said to be the daughter of the Jade Emperor (Ngọc Hoàng), it's not surprising to find him at a temple. But statue of Ngọc Hoàng is not accorded the highest position on the main altar—he is usually found in front of that altar or as part of a smaller altar off to the side. 

Trần Hưng Đạo, the warrior-prince who defeated the armies of Kublai Khan, is often also found in a supporting role in the Divine Mothers cult. Renowned as a healer in his homeland of Kiếp Bạc (east of Hanoi), he is often invoked in trance-practice to drive out evil spirits troubling a supplicant. Like the Chinese god Quan Đế, Trần Hưng Đạo also seems serves as a guardian figure in some temples.

In their role as "interested parties," Ngọc Hoàng and Trần Hưng Đạo seem to lend support and legitimacy to the Divine Mothers, but they do this without undermining the authority of the mothers. 

Trần Hưng Đạo is usually portrayed as a prominent figure on a side altar 
in the main chamber, or in an adjacent chamber, surrounded
by his famous liegemen, Phạm Ngũ Lão, Yết Kiêu, and Dã-Tượng


One of the clearest signs of the presence of the Divine Mothers is the hats that are suspended in front of the altar. These can be three, four, or five in numbers. 

Three of the four hats hanging from the rafters of the Đền Cờn Trong in Nghệ An Province:
Green (Mountains and Forests), Yellow (Earth), and Red (Heaven).
White, not shown above, represents Water.

Another of the distinguishing attributes of Divine Mother temples is the snakes curled through the rafters. Two particular snakes are recognized; one of the forest and the other of the waters.

A snake in the rafters of the Đền Bắc Lệ, Lang Sơn Province.

According to Ngô Đức Thịnh, the Five “Tiger-Mandarins” are different from the Five Mandarins (discussed earlier). Figures of the Five Tigers are usually placed in an open compartment beneath the main altar. According to Phan Ngọc Khuê, the tiger-figures are associated with “mountains of the five directions,” with the most important being the one in the center. 

Tigers prowl under an altar to the Divine Mothers in a small chamber adjacent to the main hall of Chùa Dâu,
a Buddhist  pagoda in former Hà Tây province.



The cults of the three and four “Palaces” are typically found in the northern provinces, though some are starting to appear in Huế and further south. Different goddess traditions developed as the Vietnamese moved into the former Cham territories of the central coast and later into the Mekong Delta. As early as the Lý dynasty, official recognition was granted to the Cham goddess Po Nagar under her Vietnamized name of Thiên Y A Na. As the Nguyễn lords established themselves in the regions of Thuận Hóa and Quảng Nam in the 17th century, they continued this process of assimilation and adaptation.

By this time, the evolving religious traditions of “Đàng Trong” were also being strongly influenced by the influx of Chinese immigrants, the first wave being the refugees form the Qing conquest of southern China. These newcomers brought later generations of Chinese spirits to the south (see “Chinese Temples”) and perhaps the seeds of the “Goddesses of the Five Elements” (Bà Ngũ Hạnh)

The Goddesses of the Five Elements (Bà Ngũ Hạnh) represented in human form, in the Điện Hòn Chén on the Perfume River in Huế.


Entering the Mekong and Đồng Nai regions, we also find goddesses who seem to be derived from Khmer figures. In Goddess on the Rise, Philip Taylor examines the Khmer origins of the “Lady of the Realm” (Bà Chúa Xứ) and the “Divine Mother of the Magical Mountain” (Linh Sơn Thánh Mẫu), associated with the “Black Lady” of Bà Đen mountain, in Tây Ninh province.

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