Institutt for sosialantropologi

Healing with herbal medicine and shamanism - the healing practices of the Hmong of Northern Thailand


By Oda Agnethe Fjørtoft Arnesen

Supervisor: Professor Olaf H. Smedal


The main objective of this thesis is to provide a comprehensive account of the conceptualisation of illness and its etiology among the Hmong of Northern Thailand.

By exploring how illness is experienced, expressed and legitimised, I aim at illustrating how the Hmong concept of illness follows other lines of causality than those of biomedicine. While it is recognised that illness is caused by natural and bodily imbalances, illness can also be the result of spirit intervention. Hence the Hmong employ two categories of illness: illnesses of the body and illnesses of the soul. This categorical distinction, separating between the natural and the spiritual, and between the known and the unknown sources of illness, further dictates the necessary form of healing.

Illnesses of the body are the domain of the Hmong herbal doctors while illnesses of the soul are the domain of the Hmong shamans. Illnesses of the soul imply a spiritual imbalance described as soul loss. The Hmong concept of soul entails that a person is in possession of plural souls. If one or more are missing the loss of soul will manifest as illness. To restore balance, the lost soul must be retrieved through the performance of a soul calling ritual in order to call back the wandering or fallen soul. Such rituals are typically performed by either a knowledgeable elder or a non-possessive shaman, called the white-faced shaman.

In cases where a soul is perceived to have wandered into the Otherworld, been captured by an evil sprit or has transformed in order to reincarnate itself in another being, the skills of the possessive shaman, the black-faced shaman, are needed. Through trance aided by his/her auxiliary sprits, the black-faced shaman will enter the Otherworld to bargain for the lost soul. However, the vocation of the shaman is only concerned with healing. The shaman does not guide the souls of the dead to the Otherworld. This is the responsibility of other Hmong specialists: the funeral chanters, ceremonial leaders, and the qeej and drum players. Through song and music, the souls of the dead are guided towards reincarnation. To better understand the Hmong concept of soul, I also address the transitional powers of the funeral rituals.

The central focus of this is thesis is first to explore how specialised knowledge in Hmong society is acquired, shared and legitimised. How does one become a ritual specialist, a shaman, or an herbal doctor? Can these vocations be combined? Secondly, how are the healing therapies applied? Are there any differences in healing abilities between the white-faced and the black-faced shamans? If so, does this result in competition or conflicts? Does herbal medicine entail contact with spirits? Thirdly, what are the socio-cultural impacts of Hmong conversion to Christianity? Has the adoption of a new religion lead to abandonment or redefinition of traditional Hmong customs? And finally, has Christian conversion affected the concept of illness and the traditional healing therapies?