I was reading a review of Keith Taylor’s A History of the Vietnamese that appeared in the journal Sojourn (29.3 : 738-53) in which an historian argues that Taylor went too far in his book in deemphasizing the threat of “Chinese aggression” throughout “Vietnamese” history, and says “. . . when foreign aggression has occurred in Vietnamese history, it has most often come from the north, and the pantheon of Vietnamese heroes and heroines before the French colonial period is largely composed of those who fought Chinese enemies.”
Taylor has a response to this same journal in which he note that “‘the pantheon of Vietnamese heroes and heroines’ is the object of a national cult constructed over time, an ideology, not a representation of history.”
It is also a topic that desperately needs to be researched, because I keep coming across references to “the pantheon” as if it is something so obvious and common sense that it requires no further discussion.
However, Taylor is correct. “The pantheon” is an ideological construction. What is more, most of that “constructing” took place in the twentieth century, a topic which Benoît de Tréglodé has examined in detail.
What existed before the twentieth century? Many people today look to works like the Việt điện u linh tập, a fourteenth-century collection of “biographies” of spirits that were given official titles by the Trần Dynasty.
In the twentieth century the Việt điện u linh tập was translated from classical Chinese into vernacular Vietnamese and published. Prior to that time, however, it never appears to have been published, and today there are only a few manuscript versions of the text.
So if the figures discussed in the Việt điện u linh tập represent a “pantheon,” then how did people learn about it? How does some information that is in a manuscript in some scholar’s or government official’s home or office make it into the minds of “the people,” or even into the minds of his colleagues?
Perhaps the clearest evidence for a pantheon prior to the twentieth century might be a temple that was built by the Nguyễn Dynasty to honor “emperors of succeeding generations” (Lịch đại đế vương miếu).
The list of “emperors” that were honored there began with the following: Fu Xi, Shen Nong, Huang Di, Yao, Shun, Xia Yu, Shang Tang, Zhou Wen Wang, Wu Wang, Kinh Dương Vương, Lạc Long Quân, Hùng Vương, Sĩ Vương (i.e., Shi Xie), Đinh Tiên Hoàng, etc.
This was clearly an “ideological construction.” It was also very different from “the pantheon” that people today assume has always existed.
So where was “the pantheon” prior to the twentieth century? Perhaps it was in “the villages.” If it was, then how can we find it?
I think one good way would be to examine which deities were worshipped in villages prior to the twentieth century. There are texts that record such information, but I don’t know of anyone who has systematically attempted to determine exactly which spirits were worshipped where and when.
However, it is obvious that there was no “pantheon” that was recognized in temples and shrines across the land. Instead, while you might have some deities that were worshipped in a few places, for the most part, each village worshipped a distinct spirit.
So it’s clear that “the pantheon” that is so common sense today did not exist prior to the twentieth century. Determining what exactly did exist and how it was transformed into something resembling a pantheon is a fascinating topic that deserves to be researched and written about.