Spirit Locks: Spiritual Beliefs of the Hmong Hilltribe People of Northern Thailand

Added over 6 years ago

A contemporary silver spirit lock made by Karen hilltribe silversmiths

Spirit locks are metal padlock shaped pendants worn around the neck.  They function as amulets to 'lock' the soul of a person into his or her body in the case of illness, accident or spiritual malaise. Spirit locks are primarily worn by the Hmong and Akha hilltribe people of Thailand, Burma and Laos.

The Hmong are spirit worshippers, or animists who believe that every animate and inanimate object has a soul, spirit or phi, some of which are inherently good and some which are bad. The spirits of deceased ancestors are also thought to influence the welfare and health of the living. All these souls need to be constantly placated with offerings and prayers to ward off sickness and catastrophe. Shamans play a central role in village life and decision-making and every household has an altar where spirits are supplicated and protection for the household is sought.

Humans are believed to have several souls. These can fall into disharmony and may even leave the body. A person could lose a soul if badly frightened or in times of great stress.  External manipulations might also cause a foreign spirit to enter a person's body causing disharmony and malaise. In an animist culture for whom until relatively recently opium was the only available palliative drug, these beliefs were used to explain, rationalise and attempt to control sickness, disease and mental illness such as depression and schizophrenia.

To redress these imbalances and aid in curing patients, community elders led by the shaman would perform a Soul Calling ceremony, casting out unwanted spirits or luring good spirits back into the patient's body as required. The wearer's souls were then protected from escaping the body and from further manipulations by the placement of a spirit lock amulet.  The size of the amulet traditionally indicated the seriousness of the illness or the problem to be cured.

Spirit locks also have a preventative amuletic function within Hmong culture. It was considered good luck to give newborn babies spirit locks to protect them from evil spirits and these were worn throughout their entire lives, often on the back.  It is still common to see children wearing three of four spirit locks at a time.  Spirit locks are usually fastened by chains to neck rings, which may be solid or hollow and worn either singly or in sets of up to 6 tiers.

Silver jewellery is valued highly by the Hmong people and spirit locks are usually made of high grade silver (95% or above).  They are decorated with traditional tribal motifs that may once have related to the illness or malaise originally targeted.  They are created in many sizes and shapes, including square, rectangular, half round and triangular.  A lesser-known shape is the asymmetrical fish hook style.

A Hmong spirit lock

Information on the origins of spirit locks is scarce and anecdotal in nature, so it is difficult to say how long they have been in use by the Hmong.  Individual pieces can be dated to at least the turn of the 19th Century, however older amulets may be simply have been melted down as trends change and original owner's die, allowing the silver to be recycled within the village community.  

Today Hmong, Akha and Karen silversmiths make spirit locks.  They provide a charming and wearable type of modern tribal silver jewellery with the added value of protective symbology. Old locks, particularly larger ones, are now relatively rare and are very collectable, representing as they do a set of tribal values that are fast disappearing from the modern world.


References

Hmong Customs and Culture.  Last modified 17th March 2009.  Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hmong_customs_and_culture
The Hmong in Laos Duncan Booth, Laos and Thailand Coordinator for Amnesty International UK (26 November 2004, updated 24 August 2008) http://humanrightsletters.com/LaoHmongMore.htm

People of the Golden Triangle  Lewis, P and E (1984) Thames and Hudson Ltd, London

 

Next: Stories from the Silk Road: Sunday Markets

Previous: Turquoise