The Ssù nature and relationship with humans

The Ssù nature and relationship with humans

From manuscripts’ study, from analysis of Dongba tradition and also from Naxi folks, the nature and the characteristics of Ssù’s, and their relationships with human are visible.

At first the Ssù are believed to be responsible of rain, feature perfectly according to Tibetan ཀླུ Klu and Indian नाग Nāga iconology, as raining is due to and derived from their magical power[1]: for instance it is attested from pictographs at page13, rubric III of manuscript Muan ggo-khu-szu Lu-mun – literally translated as the Lu-mun who controls the rain from heaven.[2]

Manuscript Ssùndo ngv-gu-bpu, page 14, attests another fundamental belief and aspect:

[…] the 9 Ssù-swue-pa (alias the 9 Ssù kings) […] are now beseech to grant long life, prosperity and health, protect the family, call (redeem) the soul of the family ( of the person who was ill and whose soul was stolen by the Ssù); let there be no more illness, let us hear only good things, and let our pounds be full.

This page evinces that the Ssù are prayed and venerated to assure long life and prosperity, good health, fullness of pounds, etc…; on the other side, the Ssù are believed to be able to steal the soul of a person. If they do that, then they are cause of illness and calamity, so the Ssù are propitiated and prayed also to make that the stolen soul was given back.

Ssù actions could be propitious or ill-omen for humans, but such relationship are not charged of moralistic values. For
instance the belief of Ssù relationship with prosperity granting made Naxi tradition not to consider them as “good” gods, but just to properly relate to Ssù as the guardians or riches, so they must be implored to grant wealth, full grain boxes, livestock, and of all else long life.

Once and if the Ssù would steal people from their treasures, they aren’t told as “bad” gods, but this “hostile” side of the nature of Ssù is just the other face of a dualistic opposed conception, coexistence of opposed poles, dualistic internal  nature of beings which permeated all Dongba tradition and Naxi culture.

Is important to underline these two faces of Ssù and the concept of coexistence-opposing forces into Ssù nature because  it constitutes another point of contact among Dongba and Bön traditions: as the Naxi-Dongba Ssù the ཀླུ Klu of Bönpo Sutras, are described as informing “gShen-rab[3] that they have in their hearts 2 things: friendship and enmity. If the people are good to them they will be of use of them, and render them services, but if people act unjustly, then they will cause them harms.”

Moreover, they told to gShen Rab that they are “hard-earthed, possess wicked fangs with which they can terrify the people”.

All this themes are reflected in the Naxi – Ssù literature, where Dongba beseech the Ssùto soften their hearts and to  change them to the softness of butter”.

Moreover, Dongba tradition evinces a sort of code legis between Ssù and people, in which they stipulated the division of property between Ssù and humans: to Humans were given all the domestic animals, all the cultivated fields and the houses, to Ssù belong all the wild animals, all the forests, all the alpine meadows, cliffs, lakes and springs.

From manuscript entitled Khyu-t’khyu Ssù ‘a – the fight between the sacred bird eagle-winged deity Khyut’kyu and the Ssù the path stipulated is related:[4]

[pg. 7] (7)

“ Dongba Shilo descended ‘till he reached the King Ssù named Dso-na-lo-chi (who were enchained and tortured as punishment by the Khyu-t’khyu) and asked:

– What have Thou committed?

[…] The Ssù king replayed that he was tied at the foot of the mount because of Khyu-t’khyu punishment.

– (9) I have committed nothing […] (10) One morning the people, father and son, gathered together

[Pg.8] (1)

They came before my eyes. A cow to plough the land.

A green frog’s legs the plow struck and then killed.

(2) One morning they brought a horse before me.

A small snake with a green throat was stepped upon by the horse’s hoof, and tore
in in half.

(3) They came to clear the mountain of its forests, and in the valley they came to
break new soil.

(4) they liberated their dogs to hunt wilds animals.

(5) The came to plow the meadows

(6) They must had performed a ritual with nine kinds of fine flours, nine loaves of
butter and nine branches of green juniper before me.

(7) A white goat. They must offer on the top of the tent, and behind the wooden
house they must offer a white rooster.

(8) Before they must offer a white horse.

(9) before they had to offer a black cow.

(10) Shilo and the white King Khyu-t’khyu then conferred. Accordingly to the people are not permitted to cultivate the land before offering the Ssù nine kinds of flour.

On the alpine meadow they’re not permitted to shepherd their flock before offering the Ssù nine loaves of butter.

The Ssù declared to Dongba Shilo that humans provoked its reaction, so the calamities he shot against men were  legitimate reactions against indiscriminate exploitations of the nature and its resources, so he expected some offerings and rituals in order to repay.  Dongba Shilo suggested a lower quantity for the offerings required by the Ssù king, as related in ms. 11100748:


(5) Dso-na-lo-chi, Thou may not receive 9 kinds of fine flour, but only one kind.

Thou may not receive 9 loaves of butter, but only one loaf.

On the top of the house or the tent one white goat as offering will be granted.

Back of the wooden house a white rooster as offering will be granted.

A white horse as offering will be granted.

A black cow as offering will be granted One house for the Ssù will be erected for nine house for the humans.

One piece of land for the Ssù will be opened as nine piece for the humans.

The people and the Ssù.

These two did not fight and decided stop to fighting.

Being Shilo the Naxi/Dongba interpretation of the Bön figure of sTompagShenrab, then the obedience of Dso-na-lo-chi to Shilo is not surprising, if related and contextualized within the general Buddhist stream of local and minor cult/deities which were inserted into Buddhist mythology by converting them to Buddha.[5]

Alliance stipulated then imposed that Ssù‘s domain never was to be invaded by humans, and if the humans do it, they have to propitiate the Ssù as accorded by Dongba Shilo: hunters, wood cutters, fishermen, etc.., have not to enter and disturb Ssù‘s kingdom without preliminary propitiation, at the risk of dire consequences.

Dongba tradition point of view of indiscriminate actions like burning of hillsides, forests, digging of ditches, polluting of springs, is to consider them as crimes against the Ssù, and this is another aspect deeply related and accorded with Bon: the concept of humans’ sins done against Nagas, crimes committed by men, which are enumerated in Bönpo Sutra (pg 51) as in the same text are also described the eventually Nagas’ revenges against humans sins.

From manuscript Bpo lu k’u, pages 5 – 7, is again well-specified about the good behavior which humans have to respect with Ssù‘s properties:

[pg.5, r. VIII]

One morning the rich house holder went up a high mountain to herd his sheep, he did not chase the stags or serows, did not frighten them belonging to Ssù.”

[pg. 6]

One morning a woman went to look after the grain and she arrived at a spring, but she didn’t destroy the home of the Ssù.

[In the meantime] the man arrived at the black lake and didn’t fish with the blue net.

Arrived on the snow range and didn’t cut wood out of which combs are made, arrived at the stream of Ssù and didn’t take out eater to wash the comb.

Arrived on the black mountain and didn’t cut the green bamboo.

Arrived in the big forest and didn’t cut large trees.

Arrived at the cliffs and didn’t make traps.

Herding cattle and didn’t drive an unwanted animal up the mountain.

The woman having harvested the grain didn’t carelessly throw some into the water.


clothing about which they didn’t care, they didn’t hang on trees.

As they were unaccustomed to quarrel, they didn’t not quarrel with Ssù.

The man looks after the livestock
[…] hence he has abundance of prosperity
and wealth where he dwells, and doesn’t touch and covet the belongings of the
Ssù and Lu.

The mother takes care of the grain barns, hence she had prosperity of livestock,
and barns full of grain, she was abundantly rich, and so didn’t store any grains
belonging to the Ssù and the Lu.

If the humans would broke the path, then the equilibrium had to be restored by performing ceremonies and ritual for propitiation. According to Naxi tradition, the Ssù should have been propitiated depending of the gravity of the sins the men have committed, so the Dongbas should perform proper rituals and spell charms, as well exemplified in Manuscript Ssù-ndo ngv-gu-bpu, page 1, rubric V:

[pg. I: ]

the 9 Ssù took a rope and tied it around the people of the land, they caused the jackal to follow the sheep, and they sent the demons Nder after the cattle

Ssù and Lu also tied a rope around the family.

Before dawn the family sent a boy to invite the Dongba able to chant and Dongba Shilo, thus Dongba Shilo invited the Ssù and 1Lu

Here Ssù and the dragons Lu act together against the humans: they tie ropes around the family[6] and the Ssù sends demons and calamities against men, cultivations and cattle.

Reaction of humans in front of this dangers consists in asking for Dongba to be helped.
The SOS is destined to 2 receivers: one is the most powerful Dongba, the deified founder of Dongba tradition Dongba Shilo, alias
སྟོན་པ་གཤེན་རབ Ston pa gshen rab,[7] and the other is a Dongba who is said that must “have the ability of
”. Such capacity have to be related both to the ability of performs ceremonies, and to the ability of pronouncing magic spells called Hoa-lü which are believed to be able to coerce Ssù.

Following the tradition the principle of the Hoa-lü is based on the fact that to each spiritual beings belong a particular rate of vibration, and this kind of vibration are re-formulated and reproduced as sound in Hoa-lü, giving the magician power even to annihilate by dissolution the particular element or spirit to whom it belongs; thus Dongbas by Hoa-lü can compel
a spirit act as wishes, so “ability to chant” in truth consist with posses and ability of use one of the most powerful weapon to be used.

Hoa-lü are spelled with peculiar intonation as the tone numbers before each syllable testify.
They are completely un-intelligible to the Dongba and/or Naxi themselves, and Rock hypothesized that’s because they had been transcribed twice: once from Sanskrit to Tibetan, then from Tibetan to Naxi, so they have certainly become distorted and bear no, or little resemblance to the original version,[8] but sometime is possible to operate some processes of etymology, as for instance for the recurring final tri-syllables “so-wa-haw” which Rock states it has to coincide with Sanskrit svāha.[9]

The number of Hoa-lü are rich, and some manuscripts are fully composed of Hoa-lü, as the,[10] while others explain what the Hoa-lü is and how they go:[11] in this context – the Ssù cult – by spelling Hoa-lü the Dongba forces Ssù to release the souls they have stolen or imprisoned, so that ritual is performed on one hand to propitiate the Ssù and repaying them for the damages, and on the other hand to destroy their power by spelling the proper Hoa-lü, and this features are related to Tibetan and Indian tradition.[12]

Moreover, to increase the power of the Dongba which has to perform the ceremonials, the deified and most powerful priest Shilo is invoked, and also the story in which he acted as medium between Ssù and people is invoked and ritually
related, all summed to the invocation of the power of the eagle-winged divinity Khyu-t’khyu, to grant to the Dongba who’s actually performing the ritual the most power available to strongly and successfully compel the Ssù.

Importance and practical use of Hoa-lü by Dongbas during the ceremony performing is also attested in the manuscript Khyu-t’khyu ssaw, as from page 12 to page 20, after a description of the struggle between the central regional Khyut’khyu and Ssù according to the pattern described above, the text goes on with a succession of Hoa-lü:

Casella di testo:  Manuscript Khyu-t'khyu ssaw, pg.13. Rubrics are full of pictographs used as phonetics to compose the Hoa-lü

The struggle between Ssù and Khyu-t’khyu is also well described in manuscript Ssù ndo ngv-gu-bpu.

In the context of the Dongba manuscript tradition the reading of a mythical tale, as here the fight of Ssù against Khyu-t’khyu, coincides with a magic, a ri-evocation of a fact which is meant to happen again:[14] as just introduced, thus the possibility for the Dongbas to ri-evoke Shilo and Khyu-t’khyu powers consist in the effective availability of their strong powers to be used in coercing the Ssù:

Dongba Shilo invited the Ssù and the Lu on that day.

The people and the Ssù held a discussion   the Khyu-t’khyu
named Ddv-p’er was invoked and acted as medium

In manuscript Ssù-Ndo ngv gu bpu – page 2, is also written:

Casella di testo:  2nd  page of manuscript 2Ssù-1Ndo 2ngv 2gu 3bpu

They (Dongba Shilo and the Dongba who’s invoking Him) took a sharp flaming sword and cut the rope of the Ssù
named ngv-gkv and the rope of the Lu.

Then the Ssù mother na-bpu (the black Ssù mother of the Ssù) caused a magic and there appeared […] the Ssù horse-headed.

He led thousands of horse-headed Ssù who enveloped the family[15] with ropes.[16]

Dongba Shilo[17] takes a sharp sword and cut the rope of the Ssù and the 1Lu whereupon the family was free of illness.

Dongba Shilo spelled the objects required by the horse-headed Ssù.

The bpo-mbo has to provide to make them.

A dto-ma of ten kinds of rains and Ho-lu-mbbu white and black.

With these he repay the horse-headed Ssù.

Ssù-mä-na-bpŭ reacts against humans and ties them wit a cursed rope, but the Dongba[18] cuts it with a flaming sharped sword.

Ssù-mä-na-bpŭ then caused a magic again, and made appear other Ssù. The first one is a horse headed Ssù
who again
enveloped the people and their cattle with ropes. Again the Dongba by spells (Dongba Shilo spelled the proper objects that were required to propitiate the horse-headed Ssù.) and performing rituals (Dongba Shilo took a sharp sword…) repay the horse headed Ssù and cut the curses, so finally the family was free of illness.

This is a recurring ritual episode, and it is repeated from this page (the 2nd) to the 9th, with a list of animals’ headed Ssù:

  • the goat headed Ssù: pg.3, r. VIII
  • the ox-headed Ssù: pg.4, r. VI
  • the dog-headed Ssù: pg.5, r.VI
  • the crow-headed Ssù: pg.6 r.III
  • the stag-headed Ssù: pg.7 r.II
  • the snake and stag-headed Ssù: pg.8, r.I
  • the ghost-headed Ssù: pg.8, r.VIII
  • the chicken-headed Ssù: pg.9, r. V

This could be generalized as a pilot pattern:

· A high hierarchically Ssù launches curses against humans and the living-beings world

The Dongba first destroy such curses

The high hierarchically Ssù makes then appears crowds subordinated Ssù

· they have peculiar features, and they launch peculiar curses against humans

Dongba performed and spelled charms to destroy the Ssù curses

Dongba repay them following their needs

Finally humans were saved

From manuscript Bpo lu k’u is also possible to evince various Ssù deities associated with natural elements
to which people have to relate:[19]

· 99 celestial or sky Ssù: pg.21, r.5

· 77 terrestrial or black Ssù: pg.21, r.5

· 55 mountains Ssù: pg.21, r.6

· 33 Valley’s Ssù: pg.21, r.7

and other minor deities which permeate humans’ every-day living, like Ssù of villages, Ssù of clouds, Ssù of rainbow, Ssù of the spurs, Ssù of the alpine meadows, Ssù of dry lands, Ssù of trees, Ssù of rocks, Ssù of cliffs, Ssù of wild fields, Ssù
of the d’a ground where the houses are built.

[1] Also in very recent times. For instance Joseph Rock himself recorded that in occasion of a dryness period the  famous spring Gya-wùa, to the north of Lijiang, dried up living Lijiang city practically without water.

Both Dongbas and Karnapa lamas were busy performing ceremonies to propitiate the local Ssù, as the “more-Chinese-minded” Naxi repaired to the Chinese 龍王 Lóng Wang (the King Dragon) Temple, making offers to the Dragon King.

[2] Manuscript number 1116 of Joseph Rock collection, cfr. Rock, 1952-I.

[3] Who corresponds to Dongba Shilo of Naxi tradition

[4] Manuscript is preserved in 2 exemplar in Harvard Yenching Naxi manuscripts’ collection, n. 11100747 and  n.11100748, Rock numbered respectively as 3153 and 994

[5] According to Visser M. W. De, 2003 “Dragon in China and Japan” Book I: 1 – 34. This is deeply related in “A  preliminary cross-study between Naxi – Dongba, Tibetan and Indian iconology of serpent-like deities”

[6] Means that they are making curses which are tiding and afflicting the living member of a clan. And if the curse won’t be broken, then it will afflict next generations.

[7] སྟོན་པ་གཤེན་རབ Ston pa gshen rab, also named Tönpa Shenrab, Buddha Shenrab, Guru Shenrab, Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche, Lord Shenrab Miwo, and known by a number of other titles. He is the founder of the Bön religious tradition of Tibet.

According to Samten G. Karmey: “is the founder of the Bön religion. He occupies a position very similar to that of  Śākyamuni in Buddhism […], the enormous number of books either attributed directly to him or believed to be his word […] the Bönpo say, were written down after his death in much the same way as the Buddhist scriptures were assembled.

Cfr. Karmey Samten G., 1975 “A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon”, pp. 175-176. Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tokyo Bunko, No. 33. Tokyo.

For equivalence of Dongba Shilo with སྟོན་པ་གཤེན་རབ Ston pa gshen rab cfr. “A preliminary cross-study between Naxi – Dongba, Tibetan and Indian iconology of serpent-like deities”

[8] Hoa-lü are magic formulas which could be related with Indian Dhārani, coinciding with the Tibetan sNgags [ngag] = mantras: if this is true, then being the Naxi Dongba Hoa-lü directly transcriptions of Tibetans sNgags, which in turn were transcription from the Sanskrit, and considering – according to Evans Wentz “Tibetan book of the dead”: 221 that they all were used to invoke and coercing deities, spirits and demons, and to bring them into one’s power, calling up and commanding – then is possible to hypothesize that Dongba Hoa-lü are at least partial transcription of the Tibetan sNags, which in turns are at least partially transcription of the Sanskrit Dharani.

Thus the triplice transcription phenomena Dharani[Sanskrit] → sNgags[Tibetan] → Hoa-lü[Naxi], of not semantic but just portions of phonetic-centered texts maybe could help in explaining why many Hoa-lü could be red by Dongba but are un-comprehensible to them.

[9] Rock J., 1952-I: 103(65). An example of Hoa-lu ending by the tri-syllables sso-wuà-hau is in manuscript Khyu-t’khyu Ssaw – to invite the Khyu-t’khyu: 7 – 20.

In this manuscript, which is preserved in Harvard Yenching Naxi manuscripts collection as number, Rock private collection number 1004, from page 12 to page 20 there are just a succession of Hoa-lü, many endings by sso-wuà-hau.

[10] As Rock states the the manuscript Nyi-wùa ch’wua du is. Cfr. l.q.

Cfr. footnote 46, also 1936 “1Hä 3la = the killing of the soul” in “Journal of the West china B.R. Soc.”, Vol VIII, 1936: 53 – 58; 1937 “Na-khi 1Hä zhi p’i” in “BEFEO XXXVII”, fasc. 1 : 55.

[11] As for instance manuscript entitled Gkaw-lä-ts’ü 1ō 3Shĕr – Gkaw-lä-ts’ü ransom the soul of his father.

Gkaw-lä-ts’ü is the 5th generations’ descendant of the post-flood ancestors of Naxi people, and this manuscript is the grounding of a large funeral ceremony performed after 3 years of the death of a person; cfr. Rock, 1952-II: 581 – 586.

Manuscript is n. 3164 of Joseph Rock private collection,actually preserved in a copy in the Harvard Yenching collection with number 11100745.

[12] Cfr. note 45.

[13] cfr. Khyu-t’khyu Ssù 1a and Ssù 1’a Ssù 1 3dü.

[14] In Dongba manuscript tradition the concept of time and space are very similar; by reading and performing manuscript is possible to ri-evoke a passed situation, as it could be possible to walk back in a place to see and to be again in that place.
Concept of writing is obviously permeated by magical power: write about something or someone means to make them exist, a concept which could be related to Egyptian hieroglyphs and E-Ka.

[15] Literally tied the Dzi and Ts’o. This is a ritual phrase, it means the prosperity of the family, which represent the humanity

[16] Curses and malicious spell which are seen as ropes that envelop humans and beings.

[17] The Dongba identifies Shilo with himself. So the Shilo winning performance against Ssù became the actually Dongba-reciting performance against Ssù

[18] Shilo, who was invoked, here is just incarnated into the Dongba who’s reading the manuscript and performing
ceremonials. Spelling about Shilo’s actions coincides with performing again such actions contextualized into the present-relative situation.

[19] As introduced before, the Ssù appears hierarchically stratified, and as Ssù 2mä 1na 3bpŭ has to be identified with the Bön Nāga Se-bdud-nag-po (cfr. note 47), many Ssù have their counterparts or could be related to Bönpo sutra: cfr Schiefner, “ Bönpo sutra”: 27

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