Trident spear from China, Asia. Collected by R. T. Turley. Purchased by the Museum in 1899.
This short trident from what is now north-east China looks like it belongs in the pages of a myth or the prop store of a theatrical production. A loose iron ring around the ferrule and a red hair decoration accompanies the large, forked iron head. Indeed, its striking appearance is due to the part it plays in the ritual costume and appliances worn by a Manchu shamanic priest to help cast out evil sprits from the human body.
The sacred aspects of this weapon are not only linked to its use but are also manifest in its very form as a trident - a three-pronged weapon. Three is the most important cosmic number in Manchu religion. For the Manchu, the world is divided into nine levels. The upper three are termed the 'Light Region', which is inhabited by various gods and spirits of plants, animals and places. Humans occupy the middle three levels with other animals. The lower three levels are termed the 'Dark Region', which is inhabited by the god of earth, the gods of the night, the god of our unborn descendants, and some evil spirits and demons. Some of the traditional Manchu gods also appear in triple form, such as the Three Earliest Goddesses.
During the Manchu/Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) various religions were observed in China including Confucianism, Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism. Shamanism, a belief system centred on the spirit world (often animistic), has appeared in many forms all over the world. It had been practised in China since 1500 BC and has survived in areas there to the present day. There are two main kinds of Manchurian shamanism: a 'domestic' form, and a 'wild' form, and the shamans who practise each are distinct.
The shaman is a priest, an intermediary who can communicate with the spirit world for the community's benefit, i.e. to heal illnesses or redress imbalances in nature. Those shamans who practice the wild form are particularly concerned with battling demons and spirits from the lower worlds. The shaman (or cama) may be either female or male. However, from China to Korea, California to South America, Chile to the Philippines, shamans are overwhelmingly women. This results from a belief in the innate ability of females to engage with magic and the spirit world, an ability that may be said to have been equally recognised in the West, but misinterpreted as mischievous and evil witchcraft. An individual's shamanic ability was usually spotted noticed as a child and they were guided towards learning the skills of the cama as they get older. Very complex rituals may require a camada (head shaman), who is assisted by more junior shamans.
In shamanic rituals, the shaman may call spirits into this world to force them to perform services, but most often, she is brought in to remove unwanted spirits by first inviting them to enter her body or an object such as a drum before ordering them to return to their own world. The drum is the most important ritual object possessed by the Manchu shaman, which allows her to move between the worlds and invoke spirits; it is strongly associated with the power to summon gods and demons, while a jingling belt of bells, 'played' by dancing, is associated with her power to send spirits away.
In exorcism rituals, the drum is played downwards towards the ground, as the shaman sternly drives the demons out and away. In ceremonies where a demon has possessed the shaman herself, or a person or family is plagued by demons, other objects may also be used to force the spirits to leave. This trident is just such an item, which would be brandished or and banged against the ground theatrically. The red tassel symbolises blood, and reflects the life force of the object itself. The trident is invested with the necessary power by sacrificing a chicken to the gods to ensure the animal's life force passed to the object.