Week 7: Legend of the Tết’s pole, or a story of the war against Demons

This week on #VNmyth, we’ll go over one of a more well-known folklore (compared to other folklore; generally speaking, no Vietnamese myth is well-known) that highlight how Vietnamese culture doesn’t just borrow from other cultures, we make our own.

I. The story:

In the old days, at the beginning of time, the land belonged to the demons. The human had no other choice but to work on the demon’s fields, farming and then paying them taxes for a living. The human workload gradually increases as the demons don’t want to work anymore, and simultaneously was the tax. It was an age of famine, starvation, and despair.

One day came the last straw. The demon’s leader wanted to play “fair,” so he wanted to divide things 50-50. In his new terms, the demons would provide the land, while the human would provide the labor. Once the harvesting comes, the demons would take everything that grew above ground while leaving the other half to human. Bụt saw this and decided that it was his time to intervene. (Bụt = Vietnamese for Buddha, I’ll call this character with the Vietnamese pronunciation from now on, since he mostly an entirely new character in our lore by now).

Mythologies lovers, I think we all know the gist of how this story will go by now with this kind of story, as it comes up a lot. The first time they grew sweet potatoes (or yam or wev since the word “khoai” in Vietnamese can be referring to many root vegetables). On the second time, they switched back to rice, and the third to corn. The demons had nothing all three times, so everyone lived happily ever… NOT!

Wait… what do you mean there’s more? This is not the end already?

Turned out, the demons had decided to pull a f*ck you move. “We’d rather starve than give you anything!!” – they said. And thus, they confiscated the land.

While the humans were devastated, Bụt saw this as an opportunity to turn the table. He instructed the people to gather all their belongings and strike a deal with the demons. The human wanted to buy a piece of land as big as the shadow of a kasaya – or monk’s outfit. Obviously, they agreed to this sweet deal. Why would anyone turn down such a profit like that?

Bụt took his kasaya and hung it on a bamboo tree before making the tree grow higher and higher, and with it, its shadow did as well. It extended all the way to the East Sea and covered every nook and cranny of the land. And thus, the demons were banished.

And everyone lived happily ever after?

The demons were infuriated because they were scammed, so they raised an army and attacked the human to claim back the land. Bụt, being a deity of good and forgiveness, took his staff out and started beating the crap out of the demons!!

I had always imagine the scene being something like this

See why I didn’t really want to call him Buddha?

However, even with the help of Bụt, the human could only bring the demons to a stale-mate.

The demons, tired of a prolonged stale-mated with a lesser race, pulled a 200 IQ move: they wanted to exchange Bụt’s weaknesses with theirs.

OBVIOUSLY, the demons were honest about their weaknesses being lime powders, pineapple leaves, and garlic, while Bụt freaking lied about his weaknesses being food (including oản – a type of rice cake used in worshiping, banana and boiled eggs) 😛 so on their next war, the human picked everything the demons threw at Bụt to eat, while everything they threw at the demons was all super effective. In the end, the demons lost and were banished again.

This time, they begged Bụt to allow them to go back into the land three days every year to visit their ancestor’s graves. He agreed, but he also warned the demons to steer clear of humans inhabiting the area. Thus, the days the demons returned to the land were chosen to be the three days of the new year (Tết). Since then, the humans started making a bamboo pole with bells, garlic, and pineapple leaves attached to it as a reminder of the bamboo pole with the kayasa. They also used lime powder to draw a bow with its arrow aimed to the east to remind the demons of their banishment.

The Tết’s Pole that is still a tradition around Lunar New Year.

II. My comments:

_ As I have said in an earlier post, Vietnamese Bụt is really different from the neighboring countries’ versions, even though it was more of a title than an actual deity. In fact, most Vietnamese nowadays pretty much don’t even know that Bụt is a pronunciation of Buddha until high school.

_ Vietnamese folk stories sometimes make me wonder if the one first made them up was like “but wait, there’s more” when telling them. Basically, we had versions of famous fairy tales where the “happily-ever-after” in the western equivalence was when the story began to take an unexpected twist and got exciting.

For instance, our version of Cinderella had a twist like this: After the usual “that’s my shoe” trope and marriage into royalties, she was killed by her stepmother and stepsister. Then she went on a reincarnation steroid, turning into a bird, two trees, a sewing machine, another tree that bore fruits, one of those fruits; and eventually, ended with her regaining her human form and exacting revenge on her stepmother and stepsister. You know, the ones who had murdered her to claim her place :)) I’m not even making this up. Google and check Tấm Cám out and see for yourself. Or you can also read the short story we wrote inspired by Tấm Cám.

_ The Tết’s Pole did make its appearance in Book 1 of the Half-Alive series. We neither confirm nor deny Bụt’s appearance at this point.

_ Also also, while indeed we have worship some pretty stupid things due to the people lack of knowledge on the Sino character (for instance, there was a shrine dedicated to a stone slab with the words: Hạ Mã – get down from your horse, which basically the ancient people’s “No vehicles allowed” sign), we generally follow a principle in the following poem:

"Thương dân dân lập đền thờ. 
Hại dân dân đái ngập mồ thối xương."

Which translate into:

If you help the people, you’ll get a shrine.
But if you try to harm the people, they’ll dig your grave up and drown it with piss until your bones rot and stink :))

So most shrines had to have some legends of their deities saving people or helping them better their lives to even be allowed to exist :v

Didn’t know where to put this comment, so there’s that.

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