Animal motifs are an important feature of Lao textiles and crafts – not just for their beauty, but also for what they represent in Lao culture and religion. While some animal symbols might be easy to spot (such as those characters who inspire our Ock Pop Tok children’s toys), other, more complex motifs may be more difficult to recognise in our weavings. Last night two of our Ock Pop Tok staff – Miss Sengmany and Mr Sith – delivered a special talk about animal motifs in Lao textiles, how to identify living and mythical creatures in weavings, and why these symbols are significant to Lao culture. Thank you Sengmany and Sith for a wonderful presentation! If you missed the event or just want to read more about Lao animal motifs, here’s a wrap-up of last night’s shop talk.
Motifs are symbols that can be found repeated in weaving patterns. Often motifs appear in different forms – different sizes and colours – within the same piece of weaving. A motif can be anything from a simple line or a dot, to a detailed picture of something from real life. In some contexts, motifs can be used only for decoration and have no meaning. In Lao weaving however, motifs are usually used for both decoration and to give a textile significance. Many of the textiles made and sold at Ock Pop Tok use designs that feature motifs imbued with cultural and spiritual meaning. Some motifs come from Buddhism, other from Animism, and some motifs represent how people live day to day.
As with many traditions, the meanings of motifs are not usually written in books but come instead from stories that grandparents and parents tell to younger people. Sometimes they can mean one thing for one group of people and another thing in a different region. The motifs discussed in our shop talk come from stories told by Ock Pop Tok weavers and people around Luang Prabang. To learn more about motifs in other regions of Laos, elder people and villagers are the best source of information about motif traditions.
Animal motifs in Lao textiles…
There are three categories of motifs in Lao textiles: motifs which represent plants, those which take the form of shapes, and motifs which symbolise animals, birds and people.
Animals are often used as motifs because many Lao people believe they have special powers. Some of these come from the zodiac, a series of symbols – usually animals – who represent the different times of year. There are also many magical, mythical animals in old Buddhist stories and tales about Laos’ past.
Elephant images in weavings symbolise strength, power, wealth, and respect. Some people also believe that elephants have the power to bring rain. The elephant can mean different things depending whether the animal’s trunk is pointed up or down. Laos used to be known as Lane Xang (the kingdom of a million elephants). A group of three elephants was the traditional symbol for the royal family, and in the past, elephants have been used in battle and for exploring new lands. Another popular motif is the siho – a mythical creature which is half elephant, half lion. The siho represents strength and pride. A xanghong, on the other hand, is half elephant, half bird and often depicted in weavings as a mother carrying baby nagas in her stomach.
The bird is a sign of good fortune. It can be found specifically in textiles used for ceremonies and those hung in Buddhist buildings. The bird is also a sign of freedom and of the male spirit; girls often weave bird motifs to represent young men leaving the village. Birds are said to keep women company as they weave so that they will not be alone. Legend has it that the birds transform into handsome young men to marry the weavers!
Some stories say that the big bird, orhong (similar to a swan) has magical powers. Stories tell of the hong flying to the afterworld, and sometimes you can see this motif with a shaman on its back as it travels.
Frogs lay many eggs, so the frogman motif can be seen as a symbol for fertility. Some people interpret this motif as the image of a gibbon, a small monkey with very long arms. Others say it is the ancestor spirit.
Beautiful but with a short lifecycle, the butterfly is never used in wedding blankets, but instead in weavings for young girls.
The crab is a creature that can live in many different conditions – for this reason, it symbolises resourcefulness, fertility and can indicate a good harvest season.
The naga is the most important symbol in Lao Buddhism and legends. A water serpent (similar to a snake), the naga lives in the river. Rivers are very important to traditional Lao life because they are a source of water for human life and the health of crops. Some stories say that the Naga also represents female energy. This is because females give life and rivers are also a life-giving force.