Animism and Ancestor Worship

Hmong traditionally practice a combination of animism and ancestor worship (Cha, 2003; Rice, 2000, Symonds, 1991, Tapp, 2001). This intricate belief system has important implications for the perception of health and illness.

To further explain, the Hmong traditionally believe that the cosmology is divided into yaj ceeb (the seen world of the living) and yeeb ceeb (the unseen world of spirits, including ancestral spirits) (Cha, 2003).

Within yaj ceeb there is the animistic belief that all natural objects (i.e., rock, tree, streams) have a spirit. These spirits may have either a positive or negative influence. Upon birth a human being is released into yaj ceeb (seen world or world of the living) by its spiritual parents (Dab Pog couple) (Cha, 2003-04). Humans are believed to have multiple souls. Personal beliefs regarding the exact number vary, but it is generally agreed that there are three primary souls.

The first of these souls stays with the body, the second wanders at night during sleep causing the person to dream, and the third soul protects the person from harm (Livo & Cha, 1991). It is believed that these souls must remain in harmony to sustain health. Within yaj ceeb (seen world), there is an interconnection between all its inhabitants (humans and natural objects) (Symonds, 1991). Maintaining a positive interconnection is essential to maintaining a person’s health and well-being.

It is believed that Ntxwy Nyug (a celestial being) grants each person a txoj hmoov (mandate of life) that determines the length of time the person will remain in yaj ceeb (seen world). At the time of death, the person returns to yeeb ceeb (unseen world or world of the ancestors) for completion of this life cycle. There is a strong interdependence between persons residing in yaj ceeb and their spiritual ancestors residing in yeeb ceeb (Gerdner, Cha, Yang, & Tripp-Reimer, 2007, Symonds, 1991). For example, an offering of food and money provided by living relatives to their ancestors in an effort to maintain good fortune is one ritual that is maintained.

Influence of Other Cultures

Importantly, the Hmong have also been influenced by the religious beliefs of the dominant cultures in China, Laos, Thailand, and the U.S. Although no statistics are available on the number of Hmong who have converted to Christianity or Buddhism, it is estimated that 70% of Hmong Americans continue to practice the traditional beliefs of animism (Pfeifer & Lee, 2005). Importantly, some Hmong who self-identify as Christians may, to varying degrees, continue to believe in the influence of spirits on their lives and health. A person’s spiritual status may also change over time.

For example, someone may be raised with animistic beliefs, convert to Christianity, and later (possibly during a time of crisis) appeal to some form of animism in an effort to obtain spiritual assistance (Plotnikoff, Numrich, Wu, Yang, & Xiong, 2002). A smaller number of Hmong in the U.S. have been influenced by Buddhism. Those who sought refuge at Wat Tham Krabok prior to coming to the U.S. may have stronger Buddhist ties than people who arrived earlier and did not have that experience.