Although the Thao people began contact with other ethnic groups very early, they still firmly uphold apu, the ancestral spirit belief, and follow all rituals of passage. The Thao people also accept the religions of other ethnic groups, such as Daoism of the Han people and Christianity of the Western culture. Therefore, they have Daoist deity statues, the cross or crucifix, and the ulalaluan (ancestral spirit basket) at home, presenting a polytheistic phenomenon.
1. Ancestral Spirit Religion and Ancestral Spirit Basket Clothes and Ornaments of Ancestors in the ulalaluan (Ancestral Spirit Basket). The ancestral spirit is the core belief of the Thao people. There are the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit) and clan ancestral spirit. The supreme ancestral spirit is a male deity living in a bishop wood (Bischofia javanica) on Lalu Island, while the clan ancestral spirit is the primogenitor of the clan. Believing in the existence of ancestral spirits, every Thao family keeps an ulalaluan (ancestral spirit basket) at home containing the clothes and ornaments of ancestors. The Thao people used to hang the ancestral spirit basket on the wall on the left- or right-hand side of the house. Today, Thao people believing in Daoism put the ancestral spirit basket in place of or next to the ancestor tablet on the family altar. Traditionally, Thao people worship the ancestral spirit basket with offerings including rice wine, rice, and rice cakes (mochi) during traditional rituals. In addition, Thao people must hire the shinshii (female priest) to worship the ancestral spirit basket at home in all rituals of passage, including birth, aging, illness, and death; relocation; buying a car; and other bits and pieces in daily life. Apart from reporting to the ancestors, Thao people pray for good luck from ancestors through worshipping the ancestral spirit basket.
◎ Shinshii (Female Priest) The “Shinshii (Female Priest)” is responsible for worshipping the ulalaluan (ancestral spirit basket). She is the medium between people and ancestral spirits, serves both the supreme ancestral spirit and clan ancestral spirit, and directs annual ceremonies and other rituals. To Thao people, culture and language are the most important heritages. Currently, there are five female priests in the Ita thao (Barawbaw) community. The female priest is a permanent post, and the workload is very heavy. As the permanent priest of the village, every female priest must comply with the conditions including (1) married and they have children, (2) being the master of the Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual), and (3) the husband is alive and they have a son. With such, a female priest can pass the ritual of the supreme ancestral spirit on Lalu Island to become a true female priest.
2. Lus’An (Clan Ancestral Ritual) The Ita Thao (Barawbaw) village of Sun Moon Lake was formed by different clans from different areas. On June 25 on the lunar calendar every year, the descendants of each clan must worship the spirit of their primogenitor at the place of origin. Currently, the family of chiefs Shinawanan and Shkatafatu still worship their ancestors according to the tradition by taking a boat to their place of origin. When the boat is about 500m away from the place, the chief begins to call the name of each ancestor along the lake’s shore. When arriving at the ritual place, he invites the ancestral spirit with distiller’s grains. After removing the shells, he puts eggs on the altar and hangs the wine in the pot on the tree trunk for the apu (ancestral spirit).
3. Hunting Ritual and Eel Ritual On July 1 every year, the Thao people will conduct the Mulalu Matansun Pintuza (Hunting Ritual) to pray for a good catch from the ancestral spirit. People will leave their ancestral spirit basket in the family of chiefs Shinawanan and Shkatafatu. The female priest performs the ritual. In the middle of the ancestral spirit basket ritual at the Hunting Ritual, the female priest will finish eating the chicken used in the ritual and throw the bones in the ditch for the water to carry them away. Otherwise, hunting dogs that eat them will become lazybones and will not catch the preys. At the Mulalu Matansun Tuza (Eel Ritual) in July 3, every member must prepare glutinous rice cakes in the form of an eel as the offering, marking out the importance of fishing and hunting in Thao culture. In addition, as the white eel in Sun Moon Lake is very tough, people also pray to be strong as the white eel to the ancestral spirit. In the morning, the ritual ends. In the afternoon, people cut the eel-shaped rice cakes (mochi) into halves. Each family will take the head back home and leave the tail for the chief of the above two families. At night, all people will go to the family of chiefs Shinawanan and Shkatafatu to have wine and share the eel-shaped rice cakes used in the ritual.
4. Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual) The Thao Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual, Thao New Year) begins on August 1 on the lunar calendar. The presence of the pariqaz (ritual master) determines the length of celebration. A short celebration (without a ritual maser), usually from August 1-4, will end after the female priest worships the ancestral spirit basket and every family drinks wine. In a long celebration (with a ritual master), the Thao people build the hanan (ancestral shrine) on August 4 and sing and dance in front of it every night led by the elders of the Shkahihian and Shtamarutaw families. The celebration lasts for one month. The role and responsibility in each activity of the elders of each clan are determined by the elder’s council. Based on the ritual agenda, the five important stages include the masbabiar (pounding), titisan (cleansing), trap making, ancestral shrine building, and smayla (walking through).
◎ Masbabiar (pounding) On the last night of July on the lunar calendar, women of the village perform the “Masbabiar (pounding)” and hitting bamboo sections at the home of the chief of the Shinawanan family to call men working far away and hunting in the mountains to come home for the reunion. Women pound to call men to come home for the reunion Thao men join the titisan (cleansing) at the Shkapamumu (priest) family’s house.
◎Titisan (cleansing) All men gather in front of the Shkapamumu (priest) family for the cleansing. Elders also discuss the Lus’An (Ancestral Ritual) of the year. The cleansing is a man-only activity. The female priest will worship the ancestral spirit basket in front of the Shkahihian family. After the group ceremony, the female priest will worship the ancestral spirit basket at each family. In the evening, all members of the village will drink at the Shkapamumu (priest), Shinawanan (chief), and Shkatafatu (chief) family’s houses.
◎ Trap Making Elders take youth to the mountains and teach them how to make hunting traps. The female priest will worship the ancestral spirit with shupak (sweet distiller’s grains) in front of the Shkahihian (elder) family house. This is the important day to determine the ritual master. After the ritual, people begin to drink at the Shtamarutaw (elder) family's house and continue at each family’s house. They also thank the female priest for her service in the year.
◎ Ancestral Shrine Building If a ritual master is determined, there will be a long celebration, and people will build the hunan (ancestral shrine) in front of the Shkahihian (elder) or Shtamarutaw (elder) family’s house (to be determined by the elder’s council). The female priest will bless the process.
◎ Smayla (walking through) After building the hunan (ancestral shrine), people gather in front of the Shtamarutaw (elder) and Shkahihian (elder) family’s houses in turn. Elders will lead the singing and teach young people the songs and dances for the ritual. The ancestral ceremony songs are sacred and must not be sung on ordinary days. The agenda of the ceremony is as follows: Shmaila (First Half, August 5-10): People sing for the ancestral spirit. Minfazfaz (Middle Section, August 11): Welcome the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit) to the hunan (ancestral shrine). Manqatubi (Parade): People walking around the village (August 12-21). Inspection of the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit) of all families (August 22-23). Demolition of the ancestral shrine (August 28). The Minrikus (Final Ritual) is the most wonderful part of the long celebration. People sing and dance all night and set off fireworks. Both the Han people and visitors are very excited to join the event. After every family in the village finishes the blessing by the pathalar (supreme ancestral spirit), it is nearly noon on the next day. A few days later, after worshiping the ancestral shrine to send the ancestral spirit away, the female priest will demolish and burn the ancestral shrine to complete the whole Ancestral Rituals.