by Linda Heaphy April 28, 2017

Spirit locks are metal padlock or hook shaped pendants worn around the neck or on the body as personal protective amulets.  They function to 'lock' the soul of a person into his or her body in the case of illness, accident or spiritual malaise. Spirit locks are primarily worn by the Hmong and Akha hilltribe people of Thailand, Burma and Laos.

The Hmong are spirit worshippers, otherwise known as animists, who believe that every animate and inanimate object has one or more souls, inhabiting spirits or phi, some of which are inherently good and some which are bad. The spirits of deceased ancestors are also thought to influence the welfare and health of the living. All these spirits need to be placated with offerings and prayers to ward off sickness and catastrophe. Hmong shamans play a central role in village life and decision-making and every household has an altar where spirits are supplicated and protection for the household is sought.

Human beings in particular are believed to be inhabited by several souls. These can potentially fall into disharmony and might even leave the body, for example if a person were to be badly frightened or find themselves under great physical or mental stress.  External manipulations might also cause a foreign spirit to enter a person's body, causing disharmony and malaise. In an animist culture for which until relatively recently opium was the only available palliative drug, these beliefs were used to explain, rationalise and attempt to control sickness, disease and mental illness such as depression and schizophrenia.

To redress these imbalances and aid in curing ill patients, community elders led by the shaman performs a Soul Calling ceremony, casting out unwanted spirits or luring good spirits back into the patient's body as required. The wearer's souls are then protected from escaping the body and from further manipulations by the placement of a spirit lock amulet.  The size of the amulet traditionally indicates the seriousness of the illness or the problem to be cured.

Spirit locks have a secondary, preventative amuletic function within Hmong and Akha culture. It is considered good luck to give newborn babies spirit locks to protect them from evil spirits and these are worn throughout their entire lives, often on the back.  It is still common in Thailand to see children wearing three of four spirit locks at a time.  Spirit locks are usually fastened by chains to neck rings, which may be solid or hollow and worn either singly or in sets of up to 6 tiers.

Silver jewellery is valued highly by the Hmong people and spirit locks are usually made from very high grade silver (95% or above).  They are decorated with traditional tribal motifs that may once have related to the illness or malaise originally targeted.  They are created in many sizes and shapes, including square, rectangular, half round and triangular.  A lesser-known shape is the asymmetrical fish hook style.

spirit lock
Rectangular silver spirit lock, contemporary. Photo credit: Kashgar

Information on the origins of spirit locks is scarce and anecdotal in nature, so it is difficult to say how long they have been in use by the Hmong.  Individual pieces can be dated to at least the turn of the 19th Century, however older amulets may be simply have been melted down as trends change and original owner's die, allowing the silver to be recycled within the village community.  

Today Hmong, Akha and Karen silversmiths make spirit locks.  They provide a charming and wearable type of modern tribal silver jewellery with the added value of protective symbology. Old locks, particularly larger ones, are now relatively rare and are very collectable, representing as they do a set of tribal values that are fast disappearing from the modern world.

spirit lock earrings
The lesser known fish hook style of spirit lock. Want to buy these earrings? you can do so right here. Photo credit: Kashgar

 

References

Hmong Customs and Culture.  Last modified 17th March 2009.  Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hmong_customs_and_culture

The Hmong in Laos Duncan Booth, Laos and Thailand Coordinator for Amnesty International UK (26 November 2004, updated 24 August 2008) http://humanrightsletters.com/LaoHmongMore.htm

People of the Golden Triangle  Lewis, P and E (1984) Thames and Hudson Ltd, London

Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy


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