The Mois 2

Apart from being used to store rice-wine, jars are accumulated in the hope that spirits will take up their residence in them. When a spirit moves into a jar, the fact is revealed to the owner in a dream, but official recognition is only accorded after an examination by experts for certain external signs. The jar thus honoured is not necessarily an antique, although the spirits usually show artistic discrimination. In any case the jar becomes a valuable piece of property and may be sold, complete with spirit, for a large number of buffaloes. As the spirit, or talismanic virtue, is thought of in some way as being divisible, a handle is frequently broken off when a jar is sold, and worshipped in the same way the complete jar was before. A considerable inter-tribal trade exists in such jars, and expert appraisers and negotiators carry out the transactions. They are said to exact large profits.
According to scientific investigators, such as Doctor Jouin, the most extraordinary thing about the Mois is their unique racial memory. It is even suggested that a concerted study of their sagas (which are on the point of perishing), might throw an unprecedented light on man’s existence in prehistoric times. The Rhades, one of the least degenerate of the tribes, possess, according to the doctor, a name for and a description of the mammoth and the megatherium as well as the hippopotamus – which has been extinct in the Far East in the historic epoch.
The unique value, it would appear, of the Moi saga resides in the fact that it is ritual and sacrosanct. It may be recited only in certain specified circumstances, and without the slightest modification. Even if words and phrases have lost their meaning, are mutilated or incomplete, no attempt, under powerful religious sanction, must be made at restoration. The sagas, therefore, although involving great interpretational difficulties, have remained a treasure-house of information relating to the remote past. Events of the last thousand years or so seem to have made little impression on the Moi imagination. The brilliant Indianised civilisations of the Khmers and the Chams are hardly referred to. Angkor Thom is the work of‘strangers recently arrived in the country’. The sagas describe the Mois own establishment in Indo-China after leaving their island homes at an unknown period, which must antedate the fifth century BC, since at that time they are already referred to in the annals of the kingdom of Fu-Nan.

The non-scientific visitor appears to be most impressed by the in¬numerable rituals with which the Mois surround their existence. The most onerous of these are concerned with death. Those which are associated with good health are the least important and tend to be quite perfunctory because to die of sickness is a sign of the spirits’ favour and ensures a comfortable hereafter in the bowels of the earth. Doctor Jouin had the greatest difficulty in persuading the Mois to accept any kind of medical treatment, as they pointed out to him that he wanted to deprive them of the chance of a ‘good’ death, exposing them therefore, when cured, to the possibility of a ‘bad’ death by accident or violence. Such a ‘bad’ death condemns the ghost to wander in eternal wretchedness in the heavens.
Lepers are regarded as having been born under a lucky star, as they do no work, are fed by the tribe and are certain of an exemplary end.
The death rites, on the contrary, are prolonged over two years and are so costly that a single death may exhaust the equivalent of the village income for one month, whereas an epidemic, by causing it to use up in sacrifices the whole of its reserves, is certain to bring starvation in its train.
In arranging their ceremonies the Mois pay great attention to the type of death the defunct has suffered. There are specially complicated and expensive rites for those who have died from various kinds of violence, who have died in a foreign country, have disappeared and are presumed dead, for young children, lunatics and, of course, for women dead in childbirth who are believed to turn into revengeful demons. The village is surrounded by open tombs, the occupants of which are ‘fed’ daily and kept informed of all family affairs.
From the sheer multiplicity of the rites, all of which require alcoholic consumption, the intriguing side-issue emerges that respectability and drunkenness are allied. The upright man gives evidence of his ritual adequacy by being drunk as often as possible, he is respected by all for his piety, a pattern held up to youth. The words nam lu uttered in grave welcome to the stranger in a Moi village, and meaning let us get drunk together, have all the exhortatory value of an invitation to common prayer. Moi villages are said to be one of the few places in the world where the domestic animals, dogs, pigs and hens, having fed in the fermented mash from the sacred jars, are to be seen in a state of helpless intoxication. Conviviality is the rule; a norm of polite conduct. Passers-by are begged to join in Moi orgies of eating and drinking and it is bad taste – that is offensive to the spirits – to eat or drink less than is provided by the fearsome liberality of the hosts. To prevent any possibility of the visitor’s unwittingly committing this kind of discourtesy, or remaining in a state of disreputable sobriety, an attendant squats at his side keeping a careful check on his consumption and ensuring that he drinks at least the minimum measure of three cow’s horns.

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