The Moso and their Goddesses


The Moso believe in numerous goddesses and gods. For them most phenomena of nature have their own spirits. They worship the Goddess of the Mountain and the Goddess of the Water as their main deities. They consider all the deities of the mountains to be feminine. Mountain Goddesses are by no means unique to the Moso. They are found among many other minorities of China and in other lands as well. Cults of the mountains have likely existed in China from time immemorial. Chinese people today still worship some sacred mountains that, although now considered masculine, were in earlier times feminine.

The Moso also believe that the sky and the earth, the sun, moon and stars, the wind and the rain, the lightning and the rays of the sun, fire and other natural phenomena all have their own spirits. They believe that when people die they become ghosts. They have such a rich spiritual world that some researchers say that they believe in "800 gods and 3,000 devils". With so many divinities they must carry out ceremonies frequently to honor them. The Moso believe that the first and fifteenth day of every lunar month (or in some cases the 5th and 25th) are the favorite days of the gods to be active in the world; and they so choose these days to worship them.

The most common activities to the Moso participate in to worship their deities are "to walk around the mountains" and "to walk around the lake".

For the ceremony of "walking around the mountain" each family goes to a fixed place in the forest. Each family has their own particular spot, called suokuaku, along the waist of the mountain. There they burn pine leaves and perform obeisance or koutou to honor the goddess of the mountain, while reciting the appropriate prayers. They remain there until the incense is consumed, after which they extinguish the fire and return home.

The activity of "walking around the lake", to worship the Mother Lake, is in honor of the Goddess of the Lake. When walking around the lake, they also stop at fixed places where they usually burn incense and revere the goddess. They usually spend about 10 hours in their circumambulation of the Lugu Lake, half of the time worshipping the goddess and the other half enjoying the festival.

Among their mountains, the most sacred is Gemu Mountain, which is variously known as the Mountain of the Girl of the Sacred Eagle, or simply the Mother Mountain; or for her shape, the Lion Mountain.

There is a myth explaining the origin of this cult. It relates that many, many years ago, a girl named Gemu lived among the Moso. She was famous for her beauty, and renowned for her ability to embroider. It is said that at the moment she saw a bird, a flower, or a butterfly; at once she could embroider them accurately. Such was her fame that numerous suitors arrived at her door each day requesting her love. But she was not interested. Her fame grew to the point that it reached the sky, and there even a god fell in love with her. He came down to earth riding on the wind, and took Gemu away with him to the sky.

People on earth, surprised, asked him to liberate her. But the god demanded an offering of 9,000 pairs of white goats and another 9,000 pairs of black goats. We see the symbolism of the numbers here, because nine is the masculine number, and this was the offering demanded by this god, while seven is the feminine number. The people made this enormous offering to the god, only to discover that the god had deceived them and Gemu did not return to the earth in human form. She now resides in Lion Mountain and her soul became a goddess. In order to remember her, from then on people referred to Lion Mountain as Gemu Mountain, and honor her, especially when they make the ritual circumambulation of the mountain. It is said that sometimes she appears riding on a white horse.

Traditionally the Moso walked around Lugu Lake on foot or by horse, but nowadays people can be found riding bicycles or even motorcycles.

Of the ceremonies involving walks around the mountain by far the most important is celebrated on the 25th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, to worship Gemu Mountain. On that day, everywhere on the mountain you can find the Moso, finely dressed for the festival, carrying food to celebrate with a banquet. Some walk, others ride horses. After making a circle of the mountain, each one goes to their suokuaku place, where they burn incense and carry out reverences to the mountain. They will hang a portrait of the Goddess of the Mountain, and they will pray to the goddess Gemu, asking her to liberate them from all misfortune, to let their grain grow, and to allow the people and livestock to prosper. They also worship the Goddess, offering her fruits, clean water, wine, and meat.

When the religious rites finish, a great banquet begins, during which men and women, old and young, dance together in the Jiachati dance, enjoy horse racing, or take advantage of the festive atmosphere to find new love partners, with whom in the future they may establish an Azhu relationship.

The festival goes on for several days. During those days people leave the village in groups for the mountains, dressed in their festival finery, accompanied by their Lamas and Daba priests. Every time they arrive at a suokuaku spot, they revere their goddesses, burning incense and pine leaves, spreading water and milk, and offering meat and wine to them. Then they hang on the branch of a tree some image of their totem and some prayer flags and papers. The Daba priest will recite poems and songs to the Goddess of the Mountain, and the Lama will also read some prayers to the mountain, playing the drum with one hand and ringing a bell with the other, while some younger men blow the conch.

All these sounds mix in the festive air. Men and women should perform koutous to the four directions and the eight directions. When they have performed this ceremony in each of the soukuaku places, they return home.

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