Shamanism in Korea has a long and deep history and connection to the peninsula even today in the modern era. It’s spiritual tradition that is deeply ingrained in society, unique, and rich with colorful and fascinating rituals, costumes and beliefs. While the term shamanism “shingyo(신교/shindo(신도)” does not necessarily refer to a rigid, set of beliefs or organized religion in the Western sense, Korean Shamanism does maintain a level of common rituals, rites and practices. Some of these rituals may differ from shaman to shaman or for different clients or for different situations but they have some similar themes in most cases. Shamanism is practiced in both North and South Korea with different traditions based on regions.
What is Korean shamanism?
Shamanism was the first religion of the Korean people and goes back to prehistoric times. It is important when discussing Korean shamanism to remember that despite the fact the practices themselves are prehistoric, the religion is by no means “primitive” as it is perfectly complementary to modern living with people from all strata of society and of all levels of education and socioeconomic status seeking out shamans. The shamans themselves may hold multiple degrees from institutes of higher learning and even be highly active on social media.
Shamans throughout Korean history have almost always been female and are known as “mudang” while male shamans are “baksu”. In some areas of Seoul and the northern regions of Korea shamans may be known as “manshin”. When new religions such as Confucianism came into vogue in Korean society, the role of shamans and of women in general went into decline, but today shamans have regained a relatively high status and position, many shamans receive government support in order to keep alive important intangible cultural heritage.
In Korean shamanism, a shaman will act as a guide and medium for clients upon special request and payment. Special rituals shamans conduct for a number of purposes are known as gut rituals. Gut rituals are meant to contact the gods or deceased ancestors for a whole wide range of purposes. During a gut a shaman will become possessed by the spirit of a deity or an ancestor. Some gut rituals are small, while other rituals will be very colorful and elaborate, with the shaman wearing a costume akin to the clothing a god or ancestor would wear. Ritual implements like tridents and in particular, knives are used as symbols of authority and power. One of the most riveting parts of a ritual is when the shaman will sharpen their knives and then dance and stomp on top of the blades barefoot. The shaman is not harmed by this action. Musical instruments, songs, chanting and dance are all important parts of a gut ritual and are believed to help summon a deity and allow the shaman to pass into an ecstatic trance state. Shamans in training act as assistants during these very dramatic, energetic and theatrical rituals and a shaman may change their costume several times. Costumes are generally very colorful and resemble stylized sets of Korean hanbok with different headgear and implements according to what deity is being summoned.
In Korea, one can become a shaman in one of two ways depending on which side of the Han river they are on. In the southern regions of Korea one could become a shaman through heredity. While in most of the peninsula and in particular North Korea and overseas Korean communities in China, one can become a shaman through initiation. One discovers they are ready to start their journey of becoming a shaman when they receive “shinbyeong” which means “spirit sickness” and is a state of intense physical and psychological illness which can only be ameliorated when the individual accepts their deity and enters into the role of shaman. Mountains are of particular spiritual importance in Korean culture in general and shamanism in particular. In fact, the mountain deity and legendary founder of Korea’s first kingdom, Gojoseon, is a major deity in Korean shamanism to this day.
The history (thus far) of shamanism & its relationship to other faiths
As the first religious system of the Korean people, predating Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism’s presences on the peninsula, Korean shamanism has influenced and even in many cases become intertwined with these later faiths. Initially, shamans were patronized by kings and rulers and shamanic temples did once exist. With the introduction of Buddhism, however, many of these shamanic shrines became Buddhist temples. In fact, many current Buddhist temples found on mountainsides were just converted from shamanic shrines and temples. Buddhism and shamanism mostly have had a complimentary relationship, with Korean Buddhism preserving both Taoism and shamanism in its beliefs, art and practices. Almost all Korean Buddhist temples still have a special shamanic shrine dedicated to the deity “Sanshin”, the mountain god. Shamans may even go to Buddhist temples to bow, chant and perform rites, especially for the spirits of the deceased as Buddhist temples also preserve the cremated ashes of deceased individuals. Many of the deities found in Korean Buddhism and shamanism are the same deities such as the spirits of the Seven Stars, Sanshin and other Bodhisattvas and Devas of Indian origin.
During the Joseon dynasty (1300-1800) Confucianism and then Neo-Confucianism were the state religious philosophies. During this time shamanism initially began to be seen as primitive and regressive and began to be persecuted more heavily. Modernization and the influence of Christianity, in particular Protestant missionaries at the end of the 1800’s led to an even wider persecution of shamans and destruction of shamanic shrines, temples, totems and other sacred sites. During the Japanese occupation period, the military government tried one of two methods to suppress shamanism, either by trying to incorporate Korean shamanism into State Shinto or to eradicate shamanism and replace it with State Shinto altogether. Shamanism survived this travail as well only to be subjected to the tumult of the Korean War.
The Communist North put to death shamans and their families with the intention of eliminating shamanism among other religions. In South Korea, the strong influence of evangelical Christians saw a widespread destruction of shamanic practices and anti-superstition policies that destroyed both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Today, while some more radical movements within Korean evangelical Christian circles take drastic measures like burning down shamanic shrines and lobbying the government to “modernize” the country by trying to outlaw shamanism, Korean shamanism has been experiencing a kind of renaissance. Some places are rebuilding ancestral shrines and temples and taking part in shamanic rites and rituals that were lost almost centuries ago. Many new religious movements, evangelical Christian ones included, borrow or are steeped within shamanic thinking, shamanic practices and shamanic rituals. This can usually be seen in the charismatic and otherworldly role some new religious movement leaders and even pastors conduct themselves with among their followers.
How to visit a shaman
Today, many shamans are very public with their role as mudang. To visit a shaman is rather easy, and in Seoul there is a massive number of active shamans. Often times, shamanic shrines or temples resemble standard apartments with the exception that some colorful banners, depictions of deities and the use of a Buddhist swastika or Korean Yin and Yang symbol will be displayed.
When one visits a venue like this one can ask the shaman to read or predict their fortune and future, ask the shaman to heal some ailment or problem in their life or to consult their ancestors or gods in regards to other matters. In some cases major companies and businesses will hire a shaman to perform a ritual to purify an area before opening or if an accident has occurred and they would like the area and its spirits to be appeased. In cases where a major company holds a shamanic rite, most workers will participate by bowing and placing money on an alter or in the mouth of a severed pigs head or on piles of meat that will be used as offerings to the gods. Individuals who identify as Christian usually also take part for cultural and social reasons but may choose to not bow or may choose not to place any money, instead participating as respectfully as everyone else but as much as they feel comfortable in doing so. In the case of rituals where a severed pig’s head is traditionally used, some may opt to have a bakery prepare a special “pig’s head” made from bread instead.
Spirits in the age of Wi-Fi
This has only been a short introduction of Korean shamanism. There are volumes one could report back on in regards to one or multiple aspects of shamanism in Korea. Some of the takeaways and extra caveats are;
- Shamanism is viewed as both compatible with modern society as well as “primitive” by modern Koreans depending on the perspectives of whom one chooses to ask. Though a large number of Koreans will still consult shamans no matter their stance.
- To be a shaman one is either born into a lineage or is initiated, both will receive a prophetic illness.
- It is the oldest religion of the Korean people and is mostly compatible with other religions due to it being non-dogmatic, non-proselytizing and not having a real official hierarchy or power structure.
- Shamanism isn’t going anywhere! In fact it is experiencing a new era of recognition and popularity.
- If you’d like to visit a Korean shaman, bring cash, an open mind and lots of questions! You don’t have to travel up a mountain there are plenty of shamans right in Seoul!
Hopefully this introduction has sparked an interest in a broader reading of this fascinating subject. Please feel free to seek out more information on Korean shamanism and don’t be afraid to have a dialogue with a shaman if you ever do meet one! Many shamans are regarded as being incredibly friendly and kind, though they may become a bit scary if they are possessed by the spirit of an angry deity! So be respectful and be prepared for a one-of-a-kind experience.
- Eng, Karen Frances. “In 21st-Century Korea, Shamanism Is Not Only Thriving – but Evolving.” Medium, TED Fellows, 8 Mar. 2018, fellowsblog.ted.com/in-21st-century-korea-shamanism-is-not-only-thriving-but-evolving-f1a8862a7bc8.
- “Korean Shamanism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Dec. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_shamanism.