Saturday, August 22, 2009

Spirits and the Village gate of Akha

Although formal aspects of the Akha Way are based primarily on the Akha relationship with the ancestors, in everyday life they are continually concerned about unseen spirit forces. According to Akha myth, human beings and these 'spirits' originally lived together in an idyllic relationship. All animals, wild and domesticated, also lived together in perfect harmony. Human beings tilled their fields in the daytime, and spirits tilled theirs at night. Trouble broke out, however, when spirits began to steal chicken eggs from people, and people began stealing cucumbers from spirits. As the conflict grew it was finally decided they should separate-people living in villages and spirits in the jungle. In order to provide a clear demarcation between the human and spirit realms, it was decided that 'village gates' should be erected at the upper and lower ends of an Akha village.

In compliance with this myth Akha still maintain such village gates. If they follow the ritual requirements fully, they pass through one of the gates each time they enter the village, in order to decontaminate themselves from the spirit powers in the jungle. The gates are sacred, and must not be defiled by anyone, whether villager or outsider. Should someone do so the elders will fine him, since such contamination necessitates a special offering to purify the gates.
The main gate is usually located on the path at the upper part of the village. The primary function of the gate and the wooden figures associated with it is to 'protect the village from hawks and wildcats, leopards and tigers, illness and plague, leprosy and epilepsy, vampires and were tigers, and all other bad and wicked things'

The village gates are renewed each year under the direction of the village priest. Young men go out, cut timbers, and erect two new posts and a crossbar just beyond the posts erected the previous year. Through time a tunnel of progressively rotting timbers accumulates from the earlier gates leading into the village. Wooden replicas of guns, crossbows, and birds, along with several bamboo taboo signs are placed on the crossbar of the new gate to prevent spirits from entering. Some Akha have modernized their gates with the addition of miniature airplanes and helicopters. Visitors should not touch these gates or anything related to them. If not planning to enter at least one house, one should not go through the gate or walk through the village, but travel, if possible, on a path which leads around it.

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