In my short blogging career, I’m well aware that I’ve written about subjects that have also been covered elsewhere, and I’ve also written about topics that receive at least some attention in the media or just general discussions, among both Koreans and non-Koreans. But for this post I thought I’d discuss something that is barely even recognised any more, and that is Korean shamanism. This is a subject that has little enough written about it in academic circles, let alone the blogosphere. Yet here I am, and I’m willing to give it a go, as it’s a subject I’ve put a fair amount of time into learning about, and I find it absolutely fascinating. As a brief aside, unlike my previous article on Confucianism in the contemporary education system, I won’t include academic references in this post, but if anyone would like a list, please just let me know!
So, Korean shamanism… where to begin? Well, with its origins seems the most logical place. Korean shamanism dates to before recorded history on the Peninsula, and developed over time, and with the people who practiced it. Korean shamanism was brought to Korea from Siberia, along with the first inhabitants of the Peninsula. In fact, it is still quite easy to see the connection between the shamanism of Korea and the shamanism of Siberia in modern times. One simply has to look at how the shamans themselves dress in the two areas. For example, the headdresses worn by shamans of both areas are remarkably similar. The connection is even more pronounced if we glance back to the Silla kingdom, where it is believed that the kings acted as national shamans.
Siberian shaman’s dress & Silla crown
In this image we can clearly see the forms of trees and shapes representative of animalistic spirits common to both items of headgear. The crown on the right is a well known piece, found in a tomb in Kyŏngju and belonging to a king of Silla. The gold and decoration on the crown shows the king’s exalted status, and arguably that of shamanism at the time, and its form reveals that the king did in fact act as a shaman of a tradition connected to Paleo-Siberian shamanism. The logical progression of course it that for the original inhabitants of the Korean peninsula, shamanism was their religion and system of belief, and so it arrived in Korea with them from Siberia.
So that’s where it came from, and how it got to Korea. But what, exactly, is it? Korean shamanism is variously described as superstition, a religion or more than a religion, depending on from whose perspective one views it. The perception of shamanism in Korea has also changed over time, at various points being state-sponsored then at other times actively persecuted by the ruling classes. The form of shamanism practised in Korea today has been designated ‘superstition’ largely due to its age. Korean shamanism is based on the fundamental principle that every natural object has a spirit.
Prior to the formation of the Koryŏ dynasty in 918 AD, shamanism flourished in the Three Kingdoms of Korea. As mentioned previously, the Silla Kingdom makes a particularly insightful study of ancient shamanistic practices. It provides a clear indicator of the importance of shamanistic beliefs, rituals and other practices on all levels of Korean society at the time. The best examples of this are the gold crowns that have been excavated from the burial mounds and tombs of Silla kings. The structure of these elaborate crowns clearly depicts trees, antlers and other facets of nature, all of which are items of great importance to the spiritual ideas of shamanism in Korea. These crowns also evoke the simpler but very similar designs of headdresses worn by shamans in what is now Siberia, so the connection between the two is quite clear. Furthermore, as we can see to this day similar headdresses used by shamans in Korea, the theory has been proposed that Silla kings took the role of a state shaman, an intermediary with the spirits on behalf of their people. Thus the entire Silla state would have been based around the principle ideas of shamanism, and in practice it seems the state was also ran a system which, on a large scale, incorporated shamanistic ritual.
Although the history of the Koryŏ dynasty, the Koryŏ-sa contains more accounts of shamanism than in any of the histories of previous eras, there is also a notable ambiguous attitude towards shamanism. It is clear that shamanism remained an important part of life and the belief system of the masses, but the bureaucracy were almost as a whole actively against maintaining shamanistic practices, and we can see a similar situation in some ways today, but I’ll look at this a bit later. In the Koryŏ-sa it is documented that the literati submitted memorials to the king outlining abuses perpetrated by shamans and even suggested policies to diminish their influence (this comes from here). At one point the literati were so successful in this that they managed to have the shamans driven from the capital and their rites were banned.
Although the bureaucratic officials seemed to have had some success at reducing the influence of shamanism, the Koryŏ-sa also makes it clear that the ruling families of Koryŏ, like the common people, still utilised the services of shamans to aid their ruling of the state. The Koryŏ-sa contains references to more than twenty occasions when kings gathered shamans to pray for rain. Shamans also seemed to prosper thanks to the royal family in times of need. On the other hand, there are also a few examples of members of the royal court being charged with using shamanic black magic to influence dynastic selection. During this period, although shamanism clearly remained important to Korean society, it never enjoyed the same state patronage that Buddhism did, coming to prominence in Korea during the Koryŏ period and becoming the state religion. However, successful shamans could still become moderately rich, and those who avoided the purges by the bureaucracy could sometimes hold considerable unofficial power within the region in which they operated.
The Chosŏn dynasty of Korea saw an even more drastic transition in the status of the shaman. In rural life the beliefs and practices of shamanism held firm, although the state in its entirety attempted to aggressively suppress it. There are very few official accounts of shamnism from this period, and none favourable. The state officials of Chosŏn would encourage the studying of Neo-Confucian principles and ideas to try and discourage the general populace from indulging their apparent “fascination” with shamanism, Buddhism, and Taoist ideas.
This also brings into the analysis another important factor, and that is the fact that there were many philosophical and religious beliefs in Korea throughout its history. In order to survive, these different beliefs obviously either had to struggle against one another, or they had to absorb aspects of the others, and in turn have aspects of themselves absorbed in order to exist alongside each other. In looking at the Chosŏn period, which became arguably the most Confucian state the world has yet seen, clearly the greatest conflict with shamanism came from the Confucian literati. This is not due simply to a difference in ideology and practice, but instead is due to the humanistic nature of Confucianism. Confucianism requires everyone within the society to obey by the rules of the state, created by man, and implemented by man. There is a strict hierarchy, with the worthy scholars at the top, and everyone defers to those above. Shamanism does not partake of this ideology, as it is based on a belief that every natural object has a spirit, and man should live in accordance with nature and the spirits. Therefore it’s not the rules of any man, scholar or not, that a believer in shamanism would follow. Confucian rulers require utter control and awareness of all that occurs within their state. Shamanism is one thing that could never be controlled in this way, and by its nature it falls outside the sphere of possible Confucian influence.
Buddhism, on the other hand, is the best example of a religious belief and philosophy that entered Korea later than shamanism, yet neither notably struggled against it nor tried to remove it. Instead, in order for Buddhism to gain acceptance among the non-political classes it had to absorb some of the aspects of their native beliefs, and find a way to exist alongside these beliefs. And with the rising popularity of Buddhism, shamanism had to do the same to avoid dying out. This continued to the present day, where one can now find in the centre of Seoul, within Korea’s shamanic centre, self-described Buddhist temples where the monks offer guidance on how to make offerings to the spirits of shamanism. This part of Seoul is truly unique and quite incredible, and I’ll discuss it below.
There are two methods for a person to become a shaman in Korea, which remains the same to this day as it always has. The first is by inheritance. Although this is rare, presumably due to shamans generally not marrying, when it does occur the child would almost always be trained as a shaman. The other way, which is the usual method, is to first suffer from an inexplicable disease which only disappears when the inflicted becomes a shaman. This is believed to be a calling by the spirits to be a shaman. The shamans who inherited their position are not thought to have supernatural powers, and thus cannot tell fortunes or act as an intermediary with the spirit world. Their main role is to perform basic rites. Most Korean shamans, however, are believed to have supernatural powers to heal, and act as an intermediary between the human world and the spirit world. This belief that a shaman has some form of supernatural power would have given the shaman considerable power in traditional rural village life especially, and they would have been both a healing woman or man as well as a spiritual guide, to the point of being the voice of the spirits.
A village mudang (shaman)
Every shaman in Korea would have had various items of spiritual and ceremonial importance that would be used when performing the kut, or shaman ritual. The most obvious of these is clearly the clothes they wear. Shaman clothes are generally bright in colour, often strongly featuring the colours that are used in East Asia to identify the five cardinal directions, which all have a representative great spirit. These colours are blue, the colour of the eastern direction and dragon spirit; red, the colour of the south and the tortoise spirit; white for the west and the spirit of the tiger; black for the north and the crow, and yellow for the centre. These symbolic clothes are supplemented by a fan and bells, which the shaman waves with each hand during the kut, which are used to beckon favourable spirits and repel evil ones. Shamans also often use swords or long decorative knives as a way of warding off evil spirits and negative energies.
During a kut, the shaman’s soul is believed to leave their body, and they enter a trance-like state. During this time the shaman communicates directly with the spirits, while offerings of food and drink are made. All the while the shaman’s performance is accompanied by music, usually played by people who requested the kut, and the shaman will dance and sing throughout. Eventually the shaman will reveal the spirits’ intentions to the living. Most kuts contain twelve acts, and the shaman will change their clothes before each, and will communicate and be possessed by different spirits each act. Some kuts facilitate a confrontation of sorts between the living and the spirits of the deceased. During this type of kut, firstly angry spirits will be appeased, then the dead may air their grievances, and finally the living will do the same.
Korean shamanism has developed kuts for many different purposes. The first type of kut every shaman participates in is the ceremony of shaman initiation, which is in two parts, before and after the shaman receives their training. The most important kuts performed in Korean shamanism are rites to heal sickness, leading the dead into the afterlife, and praying to the spirits for a good harvest, as traditionally these all relate to events which would have affected an entire community, considering that traditionally a community would most commonly have been an agricultural or fishing village. Aside from these, two other kuts that a local shaman would regularly perform were kuts to ward off misfortune and to exorcise evil spirits and harmful energy.
Shamanism in Korea has undergone few changes in its long history, and its resilience as a system of belief is testament both to its adaptability when needed, but also to its importance to the people of Korea, despite any other influences opposed to it. However, during the Chosŏn dynasty and also notably under the presidency of Park Chung-Hee, shamanism was officially branded as merely a superstition with some cultural value, and this remains the view of the majority of Koreans today. Many Koreans, especially younger Koreans, refer to their native shamanism using the umbrella term “superstition.” Even more telling than this, however, is that these same Koreans also use the English word “superstition” when talking about shamanism with non-Koreans. This is a rather abstract word, and it seems to me that the only reason they choose to refer to shamanism as superstition is because they’ve been taught to portray it that way. This corresponds with the attitude of such political leaders as Park Chung-Hee, as well as with the near universal desire among Koreans not to appear backwards to people of other nations. Therefore it appears as though at some indeterminable point a group of people – probably school teachers – were instructed that everyone should be encouraged to explain traditional shamanism as superstition to non-Koreans. there are of course precedents in Korea for people to try and portray Korea in the way that they believe will be best accepted by non-Koreans.
If you’ve managed to get this far, firstly well done. Secondly, you may be surprised, but it is actually still possible to find forms of shamanism today that have remained almost completely unchanged. Firstly, rural villages often still have a local shaman, and although the local residents may not all have the belief in the practice that they would have had in previous times, kuts are still performed, and believers and practitioners can still be found. However it must be noted here that many kuts performed in Korea today are done so more as a cultural demonstration than for the perceived spiritual benefit they may bring. One extremely important exception to this is, as noted above, to be found in the centre of Seoul. On the slopes of Inwang Mountain – meaning the Benevolent King Mountain – there is a small village of traditional style low-rise houses and numerous small temples and shrines. The mountain has two rocky peaks, one of which resembles a man wearing kingly robes – the Benevolent King, and the other a tiger.
인왕산 – Inwangsan. The left peak is the Benevolent King, facing left and sitting down, and his tiger can be seen to the right. Source.
Here you can clearly see the Benevloent King or Sansin spirit, wearing what appears to be a crown.
The natural form of this mountain, with its stone Benevolent King and his tiger, has led shamanic believers to believe that it is in fact the great spirit of Korean mountains, Sansin, who is rising up from the mountain into the human world. It is this reasoning that makes this the most important spiritual site in Korea to believers in shamanism. Below these rocks in the village the temples claim to be Buddhist, yet belong to no Buddhist order, and have little to do with the way of the Buddha, and much to do with ways to serve the spirits. This village is also home to numerous shamans, shrines and other areas where they perform kuts that are requested by ordinary people who believe in the benefits these rites bring. People of all walks of life in Korea come to this place to pray, make offerings to the spirits and to request kuts. It is not uncommon to find businessmen and women coming in small groups with offerings of food and drink and playing the music during a kut. It is here that one can truly see how shamanism in Korea has worn the pressures of the ages to survive into the present and beyond. Believers in shamansism gravitate to this place from all over, and it is clear to anyone who visits that traditional shamanism, with a history as long as that of the Korean people, still permeates through this society, perhaps weaker in influence than before, and certainly less conspicuous, but it is certainly still there, both physically and within the people themselves.
Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, with his pet tiger
Kuts being performed at Inwangsan