A Ladder to Heaven

Every culture tells a different story about what it means to die. 

Textiles play a significant role in the conversation around death in northeastern Laos, and many of the objects in Religion, Imagery, and Cloth: Lao-Tai Textile Traditions, now on view at the de Young, are used in ceremonies that mark the end of life.

We asked Ellison Banks Findly, the Scott M. Johnson ’97 Distinguished Professor of Religion at Trinity College and donor of the works in the exhibition, to tell us a little about a shaman’s route to the afterlife, how textiles assist on that journey, and the surprising way that her father’s contribution to the Vietnam War led her to this subject.

Q: The dead make a complicated journey in Laos, and you’ve talked with shamans about how they escort spirits to the afterlife. Can you explain that trip?

A: The journey really begins at the home of the recently deceased, and from there the shaman’s spirit leads a group to heaven, where the dead’s spirit joins his family lineage. If this doesn’t happen properly, the deceased will return as an evil spirit. The story of the journey is a combination of history, and practice, that stretches far back into time.

The first part of the journey is along the surface of the earth, following known roads and riding a boat along a river.  In some accounts, as the earthly journey ends, the entourage enters the larger area around Dien Bien, from where many of the Tai peoples dispersed into Southeast Asia.

When the funeral group meets a stopping point on the earth – at a bridge or mountain – they walk up an “air road,” or fly up on the back of a bird.  Once they’ve reached heaven, and have traveled through a jungle of dangerous animals, the voyage ends as the shaman delivers the deceased’s spirit to his family’s village in heaven.

Funeral banner (tung), mid 20th century. Laos, Xiang Khuang, Tai Moei?, Silk; discontinuous supplementary-weft patterning, 690.9 x 35.6 cm (272 x 14.5 in.). Gift of Ellison Banks Findly.

Q: Can you explain some of the roles these textiles play during this journey?

A: Traditionally, a funeral banner [image above] is hung outside a home to mark that there’s been a death. The images on the banner illustrate the story of the shaman’s journey: animal vehicles of the shaman (serpent, elephant, horse), light needed for the passage, and ancestral spirits.  Thus, the images on the banner make the funeral process something the mourners can understand.

The banner also plays some specific roles during the journey.  It can be a ladder for spirits to climb up to heaven, or a rope for them to use as a swing.  Some banners show the dangerous animals in heaven, who are now protective because they’ve been woven into a textile.

The shaman is protected in other ways as well. Because he’s vulnerable to evil spirits while in a trace, he guards his trance consciousness by wrapping his head in textiles of protective animals like the serpent. The textiles, then, aren’t just clothes – they’re materials of the ritual imbued with special shamanic power.

Coffin cover (paa pook long), mid 20th century. Laos, Hua Phan, Tai Daeng.  Cotton, silk; discontinuous supplementary-weft patterning, 30.5 x 58.4 cm (12 x 23 in.). Gift of Ellison Banks Findly. 

Q: Where do these images come from and why are they so important to preserve?

A: When the shaman is in a trace, he envisions the animals in his head and enlists their power.  In the trance, he chants out loud a description of the animals, and the women listening to the ritual collect information they will later weave into a textile. In this way, a canon of designs is produced, but one that allows each weaver to use her own creative interpretations.

One of the reasons that I’ve collected these textiles and given them to museums, is so that Lao-Tai peoples will be able to see and reference them in their current weaving. My hope is that the textiles spark the imaginations of those living today, helping to extend and preserve not only this beautiful weaving tradition, but the shamanic tradition of spirits as well.

Shaman's hat (muu), 1920–1950. Laos, Tai Daeng. Silk, supplementary-weft patterning, applied fringe, 33 x 17.8 cm (13 x 7 in.) not including rags. Gift of Ellison Banks Findly. 

Q: I know that your family history has played a role in your work; can you explain that connection?

My father was in Naval Intelligence and had been involved in developing strategies and policies for wars in the Pacific.  During the Vietnam War, I was active as a protester and was aware that he’d planned bombing campaigns. During the years of my career, I’d been studying Buddhist monastics in the region, and how they were involved in activism on behalf of AIDS victims in Laos.

Eventually, I found myself slipping over to Lao-Tai textiles, buying them first from dealers and then from weavers in the field I met while on trips to Laos. This project came full circle when I realized that the textiles I most loved were woven by weavers whose family members had been victims of the bombing during the “American” war.

My father died before he saw any of this work, but I feel that I’ve somehow responded in my own way to the devastation of the war years.  The textiles, however, speak for themselves, and I hope the decade of my work that’s resulted in museum gifts and exhibitions, and two books – one on religion and textiles, and the other on shamanism – will encourage further conversation about this beautiful region of the world.

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