The Lisu concept of the Soul1 พิมพ์ อีเมล
เขียนโดย E. Paul Durrenberger   





                                   THE LISU CONCEPT OF THE SOUL1


                                               E. Paul Durrenberger*

The Lisu are a Tibelo-Burman people who live in parts of Northern
Thailand, Burma, eastern  India  and  Yunnan. The group whose concept
of the soul I discuss here live  in  Chiang  Mai  province  in  Northern Thai-
land. These Lisu produce  rice  for subsistence and poppies  for  a  cash
crop of opium by means of swidden agriculture (for a general description
and photographs see Dessaint, 1972; for a bibliography of  sources, see
Dessaint, 1971).

According to Lisu belief, every person is composed of two aspects,
a body and a soul. Although the soul is often spoken of as a  single thing,
it is held to be multiple. Women have  seven  souls and  men  have  nine.
If a person's souls are absent from the body  for  an  extended  period  of
time, he cannot remain alive, and while the  soul  is  gone, he  will  suffer
from insomnia, anorexia,bad dreams,listlessness, and general malaise.

When a person dies, the survivors spend much effort to get the soul
to go to the land of the dead and not to linger among his or her  kinsmen
on earth. If an adult is  about  to  die,  seven or  nine  pieces of  unbroken
husked rice and seven or nine pieces of silver are put in the mouth depen-
ding on whether the person is a woman  or  a  man. The  person  is  told
"You do not want-to stay here, go on. Do not be lonely, go on."


1) The fieldwork on which this paper is based was financed by a contract from the
United States Army Medical Research and  Development  Command, Office  of
the Surgeon General (Contract No. DADA-17-69-C-9026). The fieldwork  was
conducted between November 1968 and September 1970.

      Many people helped me greatly when I was in Thailand. Khun Wanat Bhruk-
     sasri, Director of the Hill Tribes Research Centre, Chiangmai, was very helpful
     in many ways throughout the study. Khun Prasert Chaipigusit of the Hill  Tribes
     Research Centre, Chiangmai, also contributed to the study. Sala A  Yi assisted
     me throughout the study. Mr. Garry Oughton of the  Hill  Tribes  Research  Cen-
     tre helped in many ways. All of these and others gave of their time and advice
     while.I was in.Thailand.
* Department of Anthropology, University of Iowa.






64                                           E. Paul Durrenberger


I observed a child  dying  of  malnourishment. There  had  been  a
lengthy course of ceremonial and  medical  treatment. The  parents  put
cooked rice into the mouth of the still living but comatose child and said,
"If you want to stay here, come  back; if  you  want  to  go  away, go  away
now." Later that day the child died.

If the dead person is an adult, the song of the dead may be sung for
him. The intent of  this  song  is  to  instruct  the  dead person's soul to join
the rest of the dead and not to linger among the living :

Today you have died. The   sky  takes  your  strength, the  earth
takes  your  bones. To  die is   your  grandfather's  custom, you
must   follow   this  custom.  God  made  you  die. The   time  is
right. God makes  the  sky  take  your  strength, he  makes  the
earth take your bones. Your grandfather and  greatgrandfather
also died like this, so you also must go there.Do not be lonely
for this life. You go straight.

The song goes on to describe the path to the land of the dead and cautions
the person's soul not to deviate from  the path. The  other  funeral  cere-
monies are also to induce the soul to leave the realm of the living  and
move to the realm of the dead and to caution it not to return and cause

If the dead person has descendants who regard him as an ancestor
spirit, then the descendants must also  separate  their  souls  from  that  of
the dead and establish  a  place  on  the  household  altar  for  the  spirit. In
all of these ceremonies, people  repeatedly say, "The  sky  has  taken  your
breath  (strength,  soul), the  earth  has  taken  your  bones."  They  confirm
the final separation of the soul from the body in death.

All  departures  of  the  soul  from  the  body  are not, however, final.
One's soul may be discontented  and wander  away, it  can be frightened
away, it may want  to  stay  in  a  place  for  nostalgic  reasons, or  a  spirit
may capture it and hold it prisoner. If one of these events should happen,
the person exhibits characteristic symptoms, and the obvious remedy  is
to return the soul to the body.

The conclusion that an illness is the result of soul absence may be
reached through inference from the symptoms or through one or more of
several diagnostic procedures which include shamanistic seance and con-






                                THE LISU CONCEPT OF THE SOUL                              65


sultation of various "oracles". Once  the  diagnosis  of  soul  absence  has,
been made, several therapeutic procedures  are available. Unless a spirit
speaking through a possessed  shaman, has  indicated that  a  particular
procedure is appropriate, any of them may be employed.

Perhaps the simplest technique is to put an egg into  a  bowl  of  un-
cooked rice, wrap a string  around  the  egg  and, holding  the bowl, to call
the person's soul to return. The string is  then  tied  onto  the  person  with
a prayer that the  soul  has  returned  from  wherever  it  was  and  that  the
person  enjoy  good  fortune  in  the  future.  Everyone's  soul  is  called  in
this way just before the  beginning  of  a  new  year  so  that  everyone  will
start the new year with his soul.

There is also a set of spirits whose members may be  called  on  to
help return a lost soul. One of these is the  bridge  spirit. When  this  spirit
is invoked, a bridge must be constructed. The bridge may  simply  be  two
sticks stuck into the ground with a string tied onto their tops and a scratch
in  the  earth  to  connect   their  bottoms. Or  it  may  be  a  large  elaborate
bridge across a  stream. It  may  be  any  sort  of  "bridge"  between  these
two extremes. If  it  is  a  small  bridge  that  does  not  cross water, then  a
chicken is sacrificed; if it   is  a  large  bridge, a  pig  is  sacrificed  and  the
bridge spirit is asked to take the soul of the pig to whoever is  holding  the
soul and trade the two.

The spirits of the rest house and path bench  are  members  of  this
class of  spirits. To  invoke  them  one  simply  constructs  the  appropriate
structure, but no sacrifices are required.

Another pair of  spirits  are the " spirit of  two  tables " and  the "spirit
of three tables". To invoke the aid  of  one  of  these  spirits, one  prepares
either two or three tables inside the house and sacrifices a pig.

All of these  ceremonies  are  similar  in  pattern. In  addition  to  the
soul bringing spirit, the village guardian spirit, lineage  spirits,  greatgrand-
father spirit, and   hill  spirits  may  be  invoked  to  help  the  soul  bringing
spirit. The other spirits are asked  to help  find  and  deliver  the  soul, and
the soul bringing spirit is requested to  take  the  offerings  and  exchange
them   for   the   soul, or   to   find   the  soul  and  induce  it  to  return. If  an






66                                           E. Paul Durrenberger


animal is sacrificed, it is  offered  first  alive, then  it  is  killed  and  cooked
and offered again cooked. At the conclusion of ceremonies which  require
animal  sacrifices, the  cooked  meat  is  eaten. If  a  pig  has  been  killed,
there will be a feast.

More than one of these ceremonies can be performed on the same
occasion — e.g., a bridge ceremony with a pig sacrifice, a sacrifice for the
two table  spirit, and  one  for  the  three  table  spirit. When  this  happens,
there is a large feast after the ceremonies are concluded.

If a particular  ceremony  is  not  prescribed, many  factors  influence
the choice of which ceremony will be performed. Giving feasts  is  a  major
way of establishing social status  and  prominence. With  the  means  and
the desire to gain prestige, one will  sacrifice  pigs. If  one  does  not  have
the assets for a feast but wants to make a modest contribution to his pres-
tige, he will build a rest house and a bench. A person who does  not  want
to gain prestige on a particular occasion,or who does not have the means
to do so, will perform a minor ceremony. If the condition  of  soul  absence
persists, people may conclude that a larger ceremony is needed.

When  animals  are  sacrificed,  they  are  examined  for  information.
The livers of pigs and thigh bones of chickens which have been sacrificed
are studied to ascertain whether  the  offerings  have  been  sufficient  and
whether   the  soul  has  returned. If  these "oracles" are  negative  and  the
symptoms persist,then other ceremonies may be tried or other diagnoses

Often, then, soul calling ceremonies are something more than simple
curing   rituals. They   may   involve  distributions  of  pork  and  liquor  and
may indicate attempts to gain prestige. In this sense  they  are  economic
and political acts as well as curative and religious.

In addition to being an important aspect of the Lisu theory of disease
and eschatology, the notion of the soul is  a  component  of  a  very  perva-
sive dualistic  system. I  have  already  mentioned  relations  that  can  be
characterized : man : woman : nine : seven

Relative altitude (higher : lower)  is  important  in  this  scheme. On
ridges or hills overlooking Lisu villages are fenced compounds which con-
tain   an   altar   for  the  village  guardian  spirit. If  the  village  has  one, a
similar altar for  the  mountain  spirit  will  be  even  higher  on  the  same






                                  THE LISU CONCEPT OF THE SOUL                                67


ridge or  hill. Below  are  the  houses  of  the  people. Inside  each  establi-
shed house is an altar at the back of the house, opposite the  door. Since
houses are built with the doors on the  downhill  side, the  altar   is  above
the living space of the house. We see, then, that spirits are above  people
or spirits : above : people : below.

Left and right are  also  important. To  establish  left  and  right  one
faces downhill; in a house, the door. On house altars the  more  powerful
spirits are placed on the left side of the altar and the weaker ones on  the
right. This arrangement is also  to  be  observed  in  the  arrangement  of
altars for outdoor ceremonies. We can  therefore  say  that  left : powerful :
right : less powerful. This is also indicated in the construction of  houses
when the "big" (trunk) end of the  ridgepole  is  placed  at  the  left  end  of
the house and the small end on the right.

Since more powerful spirits are placed above less powerful  ones,
and more powerful spirits are placed to the left of less powerful ones,we
can see that above : left : below : right.

A desire that people enjoy wealth and health is expressed in many
prayers. The desire for wealth is often  indicated  by  the  phrase, "Let  the
left  hand  hold  gold, let  the  right  hand  hold  silver."  This  follows  from
the face that gold is more valuable than silver and  that "left" is  the  locus
of the higher degree of value or  power. Furthermore, gold  is  counted  to
be a "male" metal and silver is classed as "female".

Only men may have direct dealings with spirits. Women  may  not
make ceremonies or sacrifices nor may they enter the compound of the
village guardian  spirit  or  the  mountain  spirit. Women's  relations  are
thus confined to the realm of  the human. We  may  thus  conclude  that
Spirit : human : men : women.

This dualism is pervasive and more examples could be cited. But
the important one here involves the soul and the  body. When  a  person
dies, his soul is said to go to the sky (above) and his bones (body) to go
to the earth (below). Furthermore, when  soul  bringing  spirits  are  invol-
ved, they are asked to search "The 7 levels of the earth and the 9 levels
of  the  heavens." We  can  conclude  that  soul  :  body  :  above : below.

      We may tabulate these relationships in the following form :






68                                               E. Paul Durrenberger


man                                                                                     woman

nine                                                                                      seven

higher                                                                                  lower

spirits                                                                                   people

left                                                                                         right

strong                                                                                   weak

soul                                                                                       body

sky                                                                                         earth

We can conceive of these lists as indicating items with negative and
positive qualities somewhat along the lines of the Chinese  theory  of  Yin
and Yang. If the positive and the negative  are  combined, a  neutral  state
results.  Thus  if  women  (negative)  enter  a  spirit  compound  (positive),
the place would be in a neutral state inappropriate for the spirit  (positive).
Of humans, who are negative relative to spirits, the men are positive, and
so it is they who interact with the spirits.

It follows, along this logic, that a unit composed of a soul (positive)
and a body (negative) would be in a neutral stale. It  is  this  neutral  state
which defines the state of  general  vigor  and  health. If  the  soul  is  sub-
tracted   from   this  unit,  it  becomes  negative,  unhealthy,  and  finally, if
deprived of the balancing positive animate  element  long  enough, dead.

The idea that one ought to be sick if one's  soul  is  gone  therefore
follows quite logically from the  supposition  that  there  are  positive  and
negative qualities which can combine to produce neutral states,and  that
the soul is positive and the body is negative.

This thesis receives further confirmation from the observation  that
certain preparations are ingested not to cure patients  but  to  produce  in
them "super  vitality". These  preparations  are  compounded  of  parts  of
animals that are thought  to be  especially  vigorous-monkey  blood, deer
horns, leopard  bones. If,  on  some  scale  of  vitality, these  animals  are
considered  to  be  positive relative to neutral human capacities, humans
could only become "super  vigorous" if  the  preparations  are  thought  to
have an additive effect. Thus if  a  positive  element  is  combined  with  a
neutral one, the neutral one becomes more positive. In general, then, the






                                    THE LISU CONCEPT OF THE SOUL                                  69


things that are thought of as positive and negative combine  in  an  additive
way so that a positive and   a  negative  result  in  a  neutral;  a  neutral  and
a positive result in a positive, etc.

I suggested earlier that if one has descendants, he becomes one of
their ancestor  spirits. How is  it  that  a  human  soul  can  be  transformed
into a spirit?  Recall  that  the  soul  is  thought  to  go  to  the  sky  and  that
the soul  and  the  sky  (above)  are  both  positive  entities. By  the  additive
nature of this logic, it  follows  that  the soul  should  be  doubly  positive;  it
should have more power than a  soul  located  in  neutral  territory  (neither
above nor below). Thus it follows that after a person d ies, his  soul  ought
to become a spirit   by  the  accretion  of  power  entailed  in  being  located

Not all people who die proceed to  the  land  of  the  dead,  however.
The Lisu recognize two types of death : normal death and death that invol-
ves unnatural swellings, bloodshed (e.g., gunshot, childbirth),  and  drow-
ning. The latter class  of  deaths  are  called "bad  deaths"  in  contrast   to
normal ones. Spirits of peoples who have died under these conditions of
"bad  death"  join  a  group  of  spirits   called  "bad   death  spirits" . There
are several of these spirits called by  different names  depending  on  the
relation of the dead person  with  the  living one — whether  they  were  of
the same lineage and whether the living person knew the dead one.

Human souls can, then, become either ancestor spirits or bad death
spirits. Ancestor spirits  ultimately  become  lineage  spirits  as  they   be-
come more remote  from  the  living  generation. The  great - grandfather
spirit is the most junior of the lineage spirits. It  is  these  lineage  spirits
who look after their descendants and aid people in contacting the  other
spirits by speaking  through  the  shamans.  Lineage  spirits,  like  other
spirits, can be offended by people and cause people to  fall ill  until  they
make an appropriate offering. They are represented  on  the  household
altars  and  are  "fed"  (given offerings)  on  different  occasions such  as
thanksgiving for rice, for corn, and at the new year, depending on lineage

Bad death spirits, unlike other spirits, cannot be offended. They do
cause disease and misfortunes, but not because they have been offended.
Since these spirits do not reside in the land of the dead, no one  constan-






70                                        E. Paul Durrenberger


tly makes offerings to them; they have to  extort  offerings  by  inflicting
misfortunes on people. If they cause great trouble, they can be driven
away by invoking the aid of other more  powerful  spirits.  The  reason
that they are thought to act  in  this  capricious  way  follows  from   the
general  logic  of the spirits. Those spirits with a location, in the spirit
land or land of the dead, can be given offerings and can be  offended.
The spirits without a locale cannot be given offerings and therefore must
extort them on an ad hoc basis.

So far I have indicated the idea that soul absence results in a cate-
gory of disease follows from a quite general dualistic logic. I have  also
argued that the idea that human souls are to the bottom of the   field  in
the first hard rain; the plants are not planted so   early  that  they  wilt  in
the sun before rain comes,and so on.One's power depends directly on
one's production of wealth; it is a consequence of the  productive  capa-
cities of the person.

From the Lisu prayers addressed to spirits, it is evident that these
spirits are thought to have power in the same sense people do. If this  is
the case, it ought to follow that each  spirit  represents some  productive
capacity or potential. This is by and large the case.

For each ecological domain that is used by the Lisu (e.g., jungle,
field, stream, etc.), there are spirits for  each  of  the  evaluative  criteria;
for selecting a field site (e.g., amount of sunlight, tree growth, soil type),
there are spirits; for each of the political  divisions  into  which  lowland
kingdoms have been organized (e.g., kingdom, province, county, township,
village), there are spirits. The ecological areas are productive  and  are
used by the Lisu. The criteria for field selection are likewise  agents  of
production. The political domains, although they are not  an  aspect  of
contemporary Lisu life, are known to be productive in terms of taxes and
prerequisites. In general, it is the case that spirits do  represent things
that enter in production or which are productive in some way.

The qualifications are necessary because there are some spirits with
no obvious productive capacity, e.g., the spirit of  the  bitter-fleshed  por-
cupine burrow. There are not many of these spirits, and 1 suspect that all
of them could be accounted for by reference to specific experiences  of






                                THE LISU CONCEPT OF THE SOUL                                      71


individual Lisu. If someone is subject to a misfortune which is remedied
by an offering to a spirit which has been offended,  then  the  spirit  must
exist. If something behaves in a spirit-like way, and  a  shaman confirms
it in a trance, it is considered to be a spirit.  Such  was  the  case  for  the
spirit of the bitter-fleshed porcupine burrow.

The point is that spirits are generally entities posited  by  the  map-
ping   of   the   notion   of  productivity  to  some  entity  with  power. If  this
argument is correct, then it would follow that human  beings, insofar  as
they are productive, have an occult component, a soul. Can  we  adduce
any evidence aside from the argument to support this contention ?

When  people's  souls  have  left  them, they  exhibit  characteristic
symptoms of malaise and do not go about their business of  production.
The Lisu make this connection quite  explicitly  and  suggest  that  if  one
does not work to produce wealth, he looses power by loosing wealth.So
when the soul is absent, a person looses  his  productive  capacity. It  ap-
pears, then, that the idea that people have souls  is  a  specific  instance
of a much more general logic under which there is an occult entity which
represents productive aspects of environments.

This analysis of the Lisu concept of the soul indicates why, for the
Lisu, it is reasonable to suppose that people have souls, why people should
be ill if their souls leave their  bodies,  why  it  should  be  an  efficacious
therapy to return the soul to  the  body, and  how  it  is  plausible  to  infer
that human souls ought to become spirits. It also shows how  the giving
of wealth for status at  feasts is informed by the same logic  that  makes
it reasonable to infer that certain spirits exist.



Dessaint, Attain Y.

  1. Lisu Annotated Bibliography. Behavior Science Notes 6 : 71-94.

  2. The Poppies are Beautiful This Year. Natural History 81 ; 30-36.




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