Goals of the Festival

Inhabitants of Canton Bo (6,000+ in 1985), like many other ethnic communities of this forest region, cultivate their small rice fields on land of fragile fertility. After an adequate rice harvest, elders of one or two families (kin groups) join to announce they will sponsor a harvest festival between November and February. The sponsoring elders invite their ancient ancestral spirits from the forest to participate in the joyous festival in their honor, in exchange for their blessings. Long buried in the forest, the spirit ancestors harbor the fertile essence of the surrounding forests.

Taking place over two to several weeks, the post-harvest masked festival is a crucial part of the inhabitants’ efforts to assure the future fertility of the fields and women and to obtain spirit protection against the unknowable threats of the next year. These two goals, prosperity and protection, affect the behavior and actions that take place during the festival.

Ancestral spirits are normally invisible. For any one spirit to interact as a performer within the human community, an ancestral/forest spirit first inspires a family member, through dreams, to create the visible and behavioral form in which the spirit wants to appear. A carver is then commissioned to produce the mask in wood secretly in the forest.

Manifested in a costume of headdress, facemask, and a bulky skirt of dried leaf strips, the overall shape of the masked spirit differs sharply from the man within the costume—one of the numerous distinctions made between spirits and humans. The invisible ancestor spirits are neuter, but all facemasks and costumes are worn by men. To communicate visually with the human community, however, spirits indicate either a masculine or a feminine style of appearance and behavior. A masculine masker projects strength and assertiveness. The feminine masker moves gracefully, but can also exert forceful authority.