Shaman Kim Yun Soo at Chilmeori shrine, Yeongdeoung-gut in 2009. Photo by Hong Sunyoung
Shamanism remains a mystery to most non-Asian peoples.
Although animism, or looking to the natural world for the supernatural, is at the heart of all indigenous religions, and elements of the shamanistic tradition out of central Siberia can be found throughout the world, Korea is one of few developed nations to maintain such a practice.
Forms of neo-shamanism and other so-called pagan religions are popular throughout the western world, often coupled with a romanticized view of nature and/or a nostalgia for simple living which maintains an ecological connectedness.
In Korean mainland shamanism, its “mudang,” or shamans - predominantly female - have long been the antithesis of this Neo-Confucian country. On Jeju, however, shamanism has taken its own form.
The shamanistic tradition is classified as “magico-religious.” Often also a system of physical medicine or healing, it is generally meant to soothe the mind and spirit, contain the oral history of a people, and render life meaningful and events significant through the use of ritual.
On Jeju, shamanism has long been the core of village life. In its village-based shamanistic system, all conflict within a village was expected to be resolved prior to communal rituals in order to help ensure the gods' benevolence and village prosperity. Jeju’s traditionally egalitarian society was based upon mutual aid; its matrifocal structure included powerful female deities, and diving women as the primary economic force.
The practice of shamanism suffered a great deal during the Joseon dynasty which saw it as contradictory to the favored Confucian social order. As the Joseon era gave way to Japanese colonization and the demise of the Korean monarchy, all folkloric, linguistic and other traditions deemed to contribute to nationalism were forbidden.
In the 1970s, under the Park Chung-hee administration with its New Villages Movement (Saemaeul Undong) for economic reconstruction, shamanism - along with other traditional customs - was declared the enemy of modernity. Shamans were required in formal proceedings to give their tools to the government and renounce their beliefs. Practices continued in secret, though, at the threat of legal sanctions.
Today, shamanistic rituals and shamans themselves are often recognized at provincial and national levels as “Intangible Cultural Heritage,” and some, such as Jeju's Chilmeori Shrine Ritual to Yeongdeung, Goddess of Sea and Wind, are UNESCO-designated as cultural heritage of global significance.
Shamans, called”'sinbang” or “simbang” (pronounced “shin/m-bahng”) on Jeju, can be recognized by the provincial government not only as Skills Holders for specific knowledge but also as “keun-simbang,” or Great Shamans; currently, there are only two such: Keun-simbang Kim Yoon Soo of the Chilmeori Shrine Preservation Society in Geonip-dong, Jeju City, and Keun-simbang Yang Chang-bo of Keun-gut Preservation Society, Gujwa-eup.
Shamanistic rituals follow a universal form, beginning with each participant's purification in both body and mind prior to the observance, as well as cleansing of the ritual space and laying out of offerings. A shaman calls to the spirit-world, acting either as mediator or conduit for the spirits to appear. This is typically accomplished by the use of: incense; fire or candles; musical instruments, such as bells; drums, gongs and cymbals; and chanting or singing, as well as the shaman's tools which are culture-specific.
Once the spirits are present, the shaman recites the oral history and notation of those in attendance, as it is considered polite to let the spirits know who is calling them, as well as the purpose of the ritual. In the body of the ritual - which may take various forms, such as dramatic play, recitation, music and dancing, gestures of healing, or other forms appropriate to the purpose - the gods are honored and cajoled, restless spirits consoled, and devotees comforted.
When the main shaman – for every ritual on Jeju includes a “mein-simbang” as well as many assisting shamans who conduct portions of the ritual, play the musical instruments, and otherwise support the lead shaman – deems that the purpose of the ritual has been achieved, he or she exhorts the spirits to return to their world, and the ceremony closes with music and a communal dance, followed by the sharing of food and drink.
One of the features that renders Jeju shamanism unique is the familial, almost casual attitude of devotees toward their gods. Most deities in the extensive pantheon of this “Island of 18,000 Gods” were either once human, elevated to deity after death, or are otherwise perceived as ancestors and as members of the village in which a shrine is located and rituals are based.
Jeju shamanistic rituals are conducted solely in Korean language, and generally only in the local dialect – unintelligible to mainland Koreans. Some rituals, though village-based, are today open to outsiders, and shamans have even been known to include such in their recitation to the spirits regarding ritual attendees.
[For details on the proper conduct when attending a public ritual, please read here.]
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home; she has been studying shamanism around the world for more than 25 years. Dr. Hong is a scholar of cultural heritage and its intersection with tourism; she is a Jeju native and daughter of a haenyeo.
Anne Hilty and Sunyoung Hong email@example.com