Vietnam has a rich collection of sacred animals, including those created by Vietnamese people and those adopted from external cultures. Sacred animals were considered embodiments of natural forces or possessed of supernatural abilities that allowed them to preside over humankind and the universe. We present some favourites
Sacred totem animals in Dong Son Culture
At the dawn of the Van Lang – Au Lac State, ancient Vietnamese people founded the Dong Son Culture (approximately 2,000 to 2,500 years ago) and banded together to form a nation-state. At that time, awareness of the nation arose, and ancient Vietnamese people began to create their own myths to explain their ancestry and the fatherland through the cults of sacred totem animals. Lac birds are portrayed on most Dong Son bronze drums. The name is used in nouns such as Lac Viet, Lac Generals, Lac people and Lac lands, denoting that the bird was an ancestral mascot of ancient Vietnamese people. These people worshipped more than one totem mascot. As well as Lac birds, they venerated Water Dragons (adapted from crocodiles), Deer and Toads. These symbols are also prevalent on Dong Son bronze wares.
The Four Sacred Animals
The most popular sacred animals for Vietnamese cults are the Four Sacred Animals: Dragon, Kylan, Tortoise and Phoenix. These are also key sacred animals in other Asian cultures. In Vietnam, the Four Sacred Animals were constantly featured in a wide range of art genres, from folk art to court art. Each animal has different symbolic meanings. For instance, the Dragon is a sacred symbol associated with ancestry and the nation’s origins through the legend of “The Children of the Dragon and the Fairy”. The Dragon was also a symbol of divinity and royal power. The Kylan embodied benevolence. Its presence was thought to herald the birth of a divine man or revered ruler. The Phoenix represented a peaceful and prosperous era and was a symbol of virtue and beauty. The Tortoise symbolised stability and eternity. When presented together, the Four Sacred Animals gained a more holistic significance, representing the wish for peace and affluence, a stable society, favourable weather, bumper crops, prosperity and longevity.
Other legendary sacred creatures
Apart from the Four Sacred Animals, Vietnamese people recognise other sacred animals including Sau, Winged Horse, Garuda, Dragon-transforming-into-a-fish, Dragon Horse, Pulao Dragon and Si Van Dragon Fish, etc. These fictional sacred animals feature one or more body parts of real animals. Unique to Vietnam, the Sấu has a lion’s head, a weasel’s body and a squirrel’s tail and is usually laid on steep doorsteps of pagodas or towers. Winged horses, or Pegasus, are mythological creatures in Western cultures that were adopted in Vietnam in the 15th century when they were depicted on ceramics ordered by foreign merchants for export. Garuda are sacred birds that originated in India and are frequently depicted as human birds. In Vietnamese Buddhist arts, Garuda are mascots that stand guard at the corners of towers or altars or on the gables of pagodas. The Garuda reveals cultural exchange between the Dai Viet and Champa. Dragon-transforming-into-fish are associated with the Confucian legend “Fish overcoming the Heavenly Gate”. This legend advises scholars that perseverance and diligence can pay off.
Other sacred animals common in different Asian cultures were adopted by the Vietnamese. The Dragon Horse is a sacred animal with a dragon’s head and a horse’s body. It is paired with the Sacred Tortoise in the I-ching, a philosophical interpretation of the rule of changes. The I-ching was widely applied across various fields including astronomy, meteorology, geomancy, irrigation and Asian anthropology.
According to legends, Pulao Dragons are marine creatures that are very afraid of Fish Monsters. When chased by Fish Monsters, they emit terrifying screams. Ancient people typically carved Pulao Dragons onto bells and modelled the mallets to look like Fish Monsters to ensure that the struck bell’s peals would carry. In Vietnam, Pulao Dragons were generally depicted as having two heads.
Legends state that Si Van are marine creatures with round curving tails that cause rain to fall. Ancient people often carved these creatures onto roofs in order to prevent fire. In Vietnam, Si Van were colloquially called Kim, and came in various forms that looked like dragon or fish.
Immortal real animals
Ancient Vietnamese people also gave divine symbolic meaning to many real animals with great strength and noteworthy characteristics. These animals were carved and displayed in places of worship, on architectural decorations, or set before royal palaces, temples, pagodas and tombs to stand guard and stave off evil spirits. Examples include Lions, Tigers, Elephants, Monkeys, Horses, Dogs, Cranes, Snakes and Mandarin Ducks. These sacred animals trace their roots from folk cults, Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism. The mixed use of religious figures in Vietnam was fairly prevalent. The Lion has one of the most complicated evolutions in terms of its name, physical features, functions and symbolism. In our February 2017 issue we plan to reveal the fascinating story of this sacred animal.