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When making l ove was exalted

(No.4, Vol.3, May 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

To maintain human existence, an abundant crop is required. To develop human life, fertility is required. From this general reality, the thinking of the agricultural inhabitants of South Asia is developed along two directions: (1) bright minds searched for scientific rules to interpret reality and they built up the philosophy of yin and yang; and (2) popular minds recognized in that reality a supernatural force, and consequently worshipped it as a divinity, resulting in the cult of fertility. In Vietnam, the cult of fertility took two expressions; the cult of male and female sexual organs and the cult of the reproductive act of mating.
The cult of male and female sexual organ worship is widespread in agricultural cultures all over the world.


Frogs in the sex act on Tan Do bronze drum, Dong Son culture, at Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi.

At the site of Van Dien, Hanoi, a stone statue dated 1500 to 2000 BCE was found-the carving of a man with an enormous phallus.
Figures of males and females with aggrandized sexual organs are also found in old-stone carvings in the valley of Sapa. In the decoration of tombs in the Central Highlands, male and female statues with aggrandized sexual organs are prevalent.


Tomb wooden statues of Gia Rai people at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi Photos: Nguyen Anh Tuan

In Ha Tinh Province and other places there is the cult of nõ and nường. Nõ is the wedge, symbolizing the male sexual organ; and nường is the areca spathe (palm leaf), symbolizing the female sexual organ. In the festival at Dong Ki Village, Ha Bac Province, the sexual organs made of wood are paraded in a procession. At the end of the ceremony, these two figures are burned and the ashes are distributed among villagers to spread over rice fields as a magical means to create reproduction of the crop. In many localities in Vinh Phu, Ha Bac and Ha Son Binh Provinces, formerly during village festivals, 18 sets of sexual organs were on parade for worship and at the end of the ceremony, people fought among themselves to capture these items, because they believed they would bring them fortune and prosperity all year round.


A bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks for the dead, a symbol of fertility cults.
Photo: An Thanh Dat

The cult of the reproductive organs is also represented in the worship of all kind of poles (natural stone columns, or carved poles with chiselled characters on them placed at the gates in front of shrines and pagodas) and clefts (in trees, on rocks, in caves, and in fissures of stone). In the pagoda of Đạm in Ha Bac Province in the north, there is a stone column in the shape of phallus with two coupling dragons carved in it. Fishermen in Hòn Đỏ (Red Island) in Khanh Hoa Province have the custom of worshipping a large crack in the mountain rock called Lỗ Lường (a variant of the name of the vagina).
The inhabitants of wet rice farming also worshipped the act of mating, creating an unique form of fertility cult, particularly widespread in Southeast Asia.
On the cover of a bronze jar excavated in Đào Thịnh Village, Yen Bai Province and dated 500 BCE, there is the design of the sun radiating its rays from the centre and four figurines of human couples in the position of intercourse in the four directions; at the bottom of the jar there is a bas-relief with a circle of interlinking boats with the bow of the following one touching the stern of the preceding one and the dragons-crocodiles on them are also locked into a mating posture. Images of birds, animals, and toads in intercourse are also present. We should take notice of the symbolism of the toad as a form of prayer for rainfall and good harvest and the intercourse image of toads is clearly significant in fertility cults.


Dao Thinh bronze jar depicts a love-making couple, at the Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi.

On the occasion of the festival at the Shrines of the Hùng Kings in Phu Tho Province, the style of “tùng dí” dance is performed: boys and girls in couples dance and hold in their hands the symbols of lingam and yoni to represent male and female sexual organs. With each striking of drums (tùng), they put (dí) the lingams and yonis in contact.
People in the villages of La Cả (presently in Ha Tay Province) formerly kept a particular custom at the end of the spring festivals. The presiding elders of the ceremony struck three rolls of drums, then three rolls of cymbals and during that period of time, all lights and torches were completely extinguished, and all ordinary taboos temporarily abolished – male and female youths were entirely free to engage themselves in love-making on the grass. This behaviour was regarded as a magical act to promote the harvest and remind nature of the primal function of reproduction. From ancient times, the pestle and the mortar – the set of essential instruments of paddy grinding in Southeast Asian agriculture – have been considered as the symbols of reproductive organs, male and female, and the pounding of rice as the symbol of the sexual act. It is not accidental that among the myriad methods of detaching the hulk of the grain from the kernel, the peoples of Southeast have chosen this one; on borne drums there are numerous images of males and females pounding rice in couples.
In the past, there was the custom of “rice-pounding to welcome the bride”: the groom’s family displayed a mortar and a pestle in front of the door of the house; when the bride and her family arrived, a member of the groom’s household struck the empty mortar several times with the pestle. That is the rite to wish for the fertility of the marriage. In many villages of the past, it was very popular for male and female youths to alternate their love songs while performing the striking of the pestle in the empty mortar – in addition to rhythm-keeping this custom also represented a prayer for marriage and fertility.
The game of shuttlecock capture is a specific game of Vietnam widely popular in the ancestral region of Phong Chau in Phu Tho Province and its surroundings. In this game both sides fight for a red shuttlecock (yang) and put it in a hole (yin) on one’s side. The wish and expectation for fertility, fortune, and happiness is also represented in various other games.


Hoang Ha bronze drum depicts the sun with radiating rays, a symbol of the generative male organ. Between the rays of the sun, there are leaves with clefts right in the middle to symbolize the female reproductive organ. The artefact is from the Dong Son period (800 BC-200 AD).
Photos: Nguyen Anh Tuan

The bronze drum – a symbol of force and power of the ancient people – is simultaneously a total symbol of the cult of fertility. First, the method of drumming with the long pestle hitting the surface of the drum is carved right on bronze drums and it is still preserved among the Mường ethnic minority nowadays as an imitation of the pounding of rice – and the act of love-making. In the centre of the drum surface, there is the sun with radiating rays, a symbol of the generative male organ. Circling the drum surface there are usually attached the figurines of toads – in the consciousness of the Vietnamese people, the toad is seen as the maternal uncle of the sky-god (con cóc là cậu ông trời).


A sex act on an ancient sword
Photos: An Thanh Dat

Between the rays of the sun, there are leaves with clefts right in the middle to symbolize the female reproductive organ.
Finally, the echoing sounds of bronze drums imitate the thunder at the beginning of the rainy season of monsoon – particularly important to the cultivation of wet rice.
Even the seeming remote phenomena of the One-Column Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột) in Hanoi (yang) built in the middle of a rectangular lake (yin); the stupa of the Pen (yang) raised over the ink well at the gate of the Shrine of Ngoc Son (yin) in the Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi, are definitely related to a fertility cult. It is also not accidental that we find in many sacred temples there is a wooden fish (wood element) on the left and a bronze bell (metal element) on the right. This simple fact represents the philosophy of the Five Elements as well as the cult of fertility. The wood element (yang) is put in the East and the metal element (yin) is put in the West. The four buttons on the bell are called the bell nipples, where the stick of wooden block strikes.


A sex act on an ancient sword
Photos: An Thanh Dat

The cult of fertility is widespread among all agricultural peoples in general and in the Southeast Asian region in particular. But while other people only worship the reproductive organs, the Vietnamese people also worship the mating act as well. And with a way respectful living, aware of the balance between yin and yang, the female and the male, they worship both the male and the female organs.
The fertility cult sometimes penetrated the royal palace. According to the Essentials of the Vietnam’s History Mirror (Việt sử thông giám cương mục) in 1252, when King Tran Thai Tong offered a feast to the court officials, the commander of the drinking order was a mandarin with a hat made of areca spathe (a symbol of yoni) and holding in his hands a wooden stick (a symbol of lingam).

By Tran Ngoc Them, from the book ‘Discovering the Vietnamese Culture’
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