Dab (Da) is the Hmong word or term for both spirit and spirits. There are several groups of spirits in the Hmong culture, and the two most important ones are the dab neeg (healing spirits / spirits of the shrine) and the dab qus (ancestors and house/home protection spirits).
In honor of the spookiest season of the year, here is a list of three types of spirits to beware of:
Dab Nsog (Da Chaw)
There are many stories and versions of this vile spirit. It is the spirit that sits on a person’s chest at night; and though some have simply called it sleep paralysis, other cultures have a similar spirit called the night hag or sleep demon. This spirit does not just appear at night to terrorize people (normally men), but even today many Hmong elders still believe that dab nsog also exist in the forests and bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and the sea. Pregnant women are normally forbidden to go near bodies of water in fear of losing their unborn child, as some past cases of miscarriages serve as cautionary tales. The origin of this spirit lies in the folklore that any dab nsog or all of them were human once, and they made their homes in caves.
Xyw (Hsu) or Dab Xyw (Da Hsu)
A xyw is an entity or spirit of the dead, typically someone who passed away and cannot cross over to the ancestral plane due to various reasons including missing those they love dearly or holding onto regret or a grudge. The living could easily bump into a xyw anywhere, on any given day...and the spirit can follow them home. Seeing a Xyw can be a bad omen, and a spiritual healing is required if a person has encountered one.
Zaj (Za) Zaj literally translates to dragon. A zaj spirit is a dragon spirit that dwells in rivers and it is also considered a deity, a god or goddess. Zaj is believed to be a good spirit by the Hmong people. Some elders say that a zaj spirit can grant a person help if they ask for it. In some Hmong folklore, zaj spirits have come to the aid of man in their time of need. However, these spirits are ancient and powerful, and they are to be feared and left alone. Drownings in rivers and lakes are often blamed on these spirits. Some stories of encountering a zaj has led to sickness and death—another reason for pregnant women to stay away from rivers.
Art by Bao Xiong