Korean Shamanism, the Korean indigenous faith has had a long history and has been altered greatly over time surviving into the present day due to its adaptability and sheer flexibility. Through the course of history Korean Shamanism has gone from the dominate religion of Korea to a marginal practice that is often seen as superstition and who's spiritual professionals – The Shamans, have been greatly looked down upon except for when they are seen to be needed. This is mainly due to the historic linking of religious groups and politics; in Korea religious groups and movements have often been heavily linked and inseparable from political groups and movements vying for favor and dominance. This type of situation is also observed in China throughout the course of Chinese history.
Korean Shamanism had its start in the practices of the Central Asian Nomadic Cultures who due to the ease of travel of goods, peoples, and ideas across the Eurasian steppe stretching from Thrace to Amur River Basin formed a more or less stable cultural complex across the length of the Central Asian Steppes during the first millennium BCE until Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam their made an impact upon Central Asia (though altered forms of this indigenous spirituality survive on). The Korean people are believed to be descended from one of these nomadic to semi-nomadic Central Asian cultures, the Altai, who are believed to have entered and settled in the Korean peninsula with an additional group splitting off later and settling in the Japanese islands becoming the core of the Japanese Noble Lineages.
It is in the Ancient Korean kingdom of Shilla during the sixth century CE that we can still note a good deal of continuity with the older religious beliefs and cultural practices from the Central Asian cultural complex such as the burial mounds in Shilla's capital of Gyoungju which are very similar in construction to the Kurgan mounds found across the Eurasian steppes. Another possible connection to Central Asia is the Kogot, comma shaped jewels, as the comma or tear-drop shape was a very common motif in Central Asian artifacts. But most remarkable of all was the "Tree of Life" crowns worn by Korea's kings and head shamans. Crowns almost identical to this for leaders/shamans have been found in Tillia Tepe, Afghanistan dating from the first century CE and made with nearly identical techniques down to the wire work trying the gold circular 'leaves' on to the trees.1
Crowns from Tillia Tepe (left) and Shilla (middle and right).
Beginning with the Koryo Dynasty's adoption of Buddhism as the national faith, Shamanism's status begin to decline and it began to incorporate more and more elements of other surrounding religions such as Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. One particular example of this can be seen in Soy (located 150 km south of Seoul) where shamans are often addressed as 'bosal' (originally meaning Bodhisattva and later a term meaning female Buddhist), the shamans make use of Buddhist symbols, and their offices are known as 'jageun jeol', small temple, as opposed to 'keun jeol', big temple, referring to an actual Buddhist Temple. Chongho Kim interprets this as a disguise used in order to make trips to the shamans more acceptable through an association with a more politically powerful group – the Buddhists.2 Also a common ritual found across Korea is the decent into hell, specifically the Buddhist Hell, in order to rescue and guide wayward spirits from the hells into one of Buddhism's Pure Lands.
Korean Shamanism's fortunes fell even greater under the Yi Dynasty during the Joseon period when Confucianism took hold as the national ideology and Shamans were regulated to the lowest social class. The Confucian political clash against the other ideological sects most likely reached its climax in 1703 CE when Yi Hyungsong, a noble and member of the ruling Yi family, who was the governor of the island of Cheju ordered the closure and destruction of all Shamanic shrines and Buddhist temples on Cheju in order to better sway favor towards the official Confucian rites and rituals and gain greater political control over the island.
Tolharubang Statue from Cheju island.
During this time it seems likely that the demographics of Korean Shamanism shifted to the effect that female shamans (the Mudang) became much more common than the male version (the P'ansu) – on the Korean mainland at least. Professor Chan E. Park has suggested that since women traditionally were frequent worshipers at local shrines for the family (and are usually more intuitive than men) and they increasingly took on the role of the Shaman as the position lost political status.
Korean Shamanism and Musok (shamanic folk culture) are based upon an animistic world view which postulates an uncountable number of spirits which fill the cosmos and are everywhere. Indeed one of the names for a shaman, mansin, means ten thousand gods – an indication of the number of spirits that the shaman must deal with in their occupation.
Most forms of Korean Shamanism is primarily a possession-type of Shamanism in which the Shaman allows a spirit(s) to enter the Shaman's body and to take control of it during which time the spirit may make pronouncements and speak/act using the shaman's body as a medium for communication/action. Often the shaman will have no memories of what happened while their bodies were possessed by a spirit(s). Jordan Paper in his The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology notes that:
Perhaps this may be an additional reason for the prevalence of female shamans in Korean Shamanism, women may be simply better suited for the tasks required of the Shaman in Musok and Kuts or rituals.
A Korean Shaman performing a Kut.
Korean Shamanism and Musok (traditional shamanic culture) should not be considered a monolithic entity as there exists a large amount of regional variation in rites, mythology, and the Shamans themselves. There are at least four common types: The Kangshinmu or the classic charismatic Shaman, The Tan'gol hereditary bloodline type, The Shimbang a different hereditary bloodline type, and Myongdu a different charismatic type.
The Kangshinmu is the classic charismatic and possession-type shaman found in the north and middle parts of the Korean peninsula. This type of Shaman is commonly said to be born to serve the spirits and will go through a "Shamanic sickness", called Shinbyong in Korean, that is a common aspect to becoming a Shaman in most "Shamanic" systems the world over. During the Shinbyong phase the prospective shaman will experience extreme bad luck, experience long and painful illness, lose a sense of self, and start to lose their health and sanity. If they do not heed being called forth to serve the spirits and accept their role as an intermediary between the human world and the spiritual realm the perspective shaman may possibly become insane or die. The onset of Shinbyong may occur after seeing a deity or spirit in a dream or vision, the progression of a weakened mental state due to shock, or without any previous factor at all. Shinbyong has been noted to last for years averaging eight and the longest known case lasting thirty years.4 The only possible cure for Shinbyong is for the sufferer to become a Shaman and accept their role, often times resulting in a vision or dream of the destruction and reconstruction/rebirth of oneself. Regionally and between lineages the exact order of certain rituals will vary within this type and some Shamans tend to represent each spirit with a different set of clothes while some lineages will use a much smaller wardrobe in their work.
The Tan'gol type of "Shaman" is found mostly in the areas of Honam and Yongnam areas of Korea and the capacity of the "Shaman" is passed down family lines. The Tan'gols of the Honam area also inherit rights to practice in certain areas and this used to be the case in the Youngnam area as well but over time the system has been gradually eliminated. An important aspect is that this type of "Shaman" is very different from the classic type in that the rituals are heavily systematized (where there room for spontaneity in the Kangshinmu rituals), and there is no possession or any other kind of direct interaction with the deities or spirits.
In a number of respects the Tan'gol type is more of a ritual expert like a priest than a Shaman who is characterized by his or her direct interactions with the spiritual world. While the territory and office is passed down the family line it is always conducted by a female (with the exception of Cheju Island where Males inherit and perform the duties of the Shaman) who is the male successor's wife. It has been suggested that this southern form of Musok was/is developing into a non-Shamanic form focused upon rituals.
The Shimbang type is a hereditary type found on the island of Cheju and is characterized by its non-possession interaction with deities and spirits. Instead a medium is used such as a possession type shaman or divination. It is similar to the Tan'gol type with specific areas under the jurisdiction of the 'Shaman' who inherited his position but the males are most often the shamans in this case and there is still some interaction with the deities and spirits albeit through the form of a medium.
The Myongdu type is a charismatic type found mostly in the Southern regions of Korea (with occasional others in the Northern and Central Areas) and is mainly characterized by the type of spirits which possess them and which they interact with, dead people, usually relatives and usually young children. Oddly enough this type seems to focus on oracles and divination and is very closely related to the classic Kangshinmu Shaman type.
A Shaman's 'spirit room'.
Korean Shamanism is incredibly fluid and diverse in regards to the spirit world as certain spirits may loose or gain popularity over time and new spirits may appear suddenly to a shaman during trance. Hyun-key Kim Hogarth proposes a tripartite model of Gods, Ancestors, and Ghosts for understanding the spiritual world of Korean Shamanism, which while it may be an imperfect model, may at least provide some form of classification for better understanding. Gods are spirits that are likened to bureaucratic officials in the human realm and may have powers or certain duties entrusted to them, Ancestors are spirits of family members (who died a normal death), and Ghosts include other spirits (who may be someone else's ancestors) who may or may not be harmful and usually hang around rituals and akin to baggers and should be propitiated following a ritual so they do not get upset and possibly harm the shaman or whomever the ritual is being carried out for.5
One seemingly odd feature of Korean Shamanism is a preference for hierarchy which may be due to the influence of Confucianism upon Korean Shamanism. While there seems to be a near unanimous agreement that Chon-shin (Hanunim), the heavenly spirit, is considered the highest and to whom the first offerings should be made (this should not be taken to mean that he is a Zeus-like figure who rules over and/or influences the lower ranking spirits). However which spirits follows Hanunim in rank or any order at all greatly varies from shaman to shaman.6
Another popular spirit is Sansin the mountain spirit who is considered to be Tangun, the legendary founder of Korea, and is often depicted with a tiger which considering the Tangun myth where the Tiger failed to become human and became the mortal enemy of Tangun's descendents seems a bit anomalous, and for which various source do not have a clear answer (though several sources speculated on a connection between the mountains and tiger habitats). Also popular is the Dragon King (Yong-wang) who inhabits various seas and rivers and who is common in East Asia. For instance in Shinto the great-grandson of Amaterasu (the Japanese sun goddess) is recorded as marrying the daughter of the Dragon King.7 One other popular deity is Chesok or the Buddha Emperor who currently is associated with Shakyamuni Buddha but in earlier times seems to have been associated with Lord Indra of the Buddhist/Vedic pantheon.8 A popular group of deities whose altars are often found in traditional Korean homes are the Chilsong or the seven stars of the big dipper which entered Korean Shamanism through contact with Taoism.
Two images of Sansin.
North Korea's "Tomb of Tangun".
Shamans often keep icon-like paintings of deities in their spirit rooms and/or placed around areas during rituals as representation and vessels for the spirits with which the shaman most commonly works. These paintings are made by traditional painters to the Shaman's specifications and are then endowed by the shaman who invites the spirit to take up a presence in the image, thus turning it into a holy object. Not many icons exist that are more than a hundred years old because traditionally they were burned upon the death of the shamans to free the spirits and to accompany the deceased shaman to the afterlife.9
There are many and diverse types of Shamanic Kuts (rituals) but they often follow a pattern of invocation and then offerings. In the invocation phase the Shaman will often announce the place, date, and motive for the invocation before asking the spirits to be present. Following this, offerings to the spirits will be made10 which may take many forms (with the notable exception of Kimchi, which is considered too low a food for the spirits11). One special practice is often involved if meat is offered: it will be impaled on an implement and if it balances the meat is considered acceptable. During the ritual the spirits are believed to consume the spiritual essences of the food which by their presence sanctifies the food for Umbok or 'bliss eating' where communion with the spirits and boons are received by sharing a meal with the spirits.
Korean Shamanism currently is facing challenges from industrialization and modernization in Korea. Village life and associated rituals are being abandoned as the Korean population is increasingly becoming urbanized. Additionally, Shamanism and Korean folk culture is often stigmatized as being backward in the minds of a number of Koreans. Professor Chan E. Park has observed that many Koreans tend to avoid associating with Korean traditional culture (in public at least) and instead try to pursue Western religions (such as Christianity) and Western musical forms as they are often linked with the modernization and the "superiority" of Western culture and progress.
Kim Dae Geon (1822 - 1846), The first Korean Catholic priest.
In modern Korea Christianity with its rabid growth is having difficulties with how it should approach Korean traditional culture and beliefs on one hand some Christians have harassed shamans and have conducted attacks upon shamans and shrines. Motivated by Christian religious zeal, rituals have been interrupted by mobs who seek to humiliate the Shamans with verbal abuse and paint12, or loud music13, or direct intimidation14. However on the other hand other sizable portions of Christians view Musok as a "folkway" and have patronized and sponsored kuts.
One interesting development in Korean Shamanism has been its ready adoption of technology. Some shamans have been known to use computers in fortune telling with various specialized programs such as Tojong Pigyol.15 Shamanism has also expanded on to the Internet with a number of shamans creating websites announcing kuts, their services, and/or educational material about Musok. One other controversial development has been electronic talismans (often in the form of an image or a screen saver) which are sold through the web. There is currently considerable debate and differences of opinion among Korean shamans as to the effectiveness of of these electronic talismans.16
The history of Korean Shamanism seems to suggest that it will continue to persist and reinvent itself even through it faces large religious and political challenges. One developing area for Korean Shamanism seems to be a possible interest in environmentalism and healing of the Korean nation's deep and many wounds.
A Korean Hillside Shrine.
1. As a side not the tree most often associated with the 'Tree of Life' in Korea is the white birch
2. Kim Chongho, Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox, p. 23-24
3. Paper, Jordon, The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology, p. 80
4. Kim Tae-kon, Korean Shamanism – Muism, p. 49
5. Hyun-key Kim Hogarth, Korean Shamanism and Cultural Nationalism, p.121-149
6. Ibid, p.121-125
7. Coovell, Alan Carter, Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea. p.56-72
8. Buswell, R.E., Jr., ed. Religions of Korea in Practice. p.233-241
9. Coovell. p.29-32
10. Chai-shin Yu and Richard Guisso eds., Shamanism: The Spirit World of Korea.
11. Hyun-key, Cultural Nationalism, p.151-157
12. Kim Chongho. p.157
13. Ibid. p.158
14. Ibid. p.158
15. Grayson, James H. Korea: A Religious History, p.220
16. Kim Seong-nae, Korean Shamanic Heritage in Cyber Culture.
Chai-shin Yu and Richard Guisso eds. Shamanism: The Spirit World of Korea. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1988.
Cho Hung-Youn. 2003. 'An Archetypal Myth and It's Reality in Korean Shamanism'. Bibliotheca Shamanistica 11:21-35.
Covell, Alan Carter. Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea. Seoul, ROK: Hollym Corporation, 1998.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Trans. Willard R. Trask. USA: Princeton University Press, 1964.
Grayson, James H. Korea: A Religious History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Hogarth, Hyun-key Kim. Korean Shamanism and Cultural Nationalism. Seoul, ROK: Jimoondang Publishing Co., 1998.
Hogarth, Hyun-key Kim. Syncretism of Buddhism and Shamanism in Korea. Seoul, ROK: Jimoondang Publishing Co., 2002.
Huntington, John C. History of Art 673, Hayes Hall. Columbus, Ohio. 27 Mar. - 25 Apr. 2007.
Kim, Chongho. Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003.
Kim Seong-Nae. 2003. 'Korean Shamanic Heritage in Cyber Culture'. Bibliotheca Shamanistica 11:279-295.
Kim Tae-gon. Korean Shamanism: Muism. Trans. Chang Soo-kyung. Seoul, ROK: Jimoondang Publishing Co., 1998.
Lee, Diana S. and Laurel Kendall. An Initiation "kut" for a Korean shaman. 1991. 37 min. University of Hawaii Press. Videocassette.
Lee Jung Young. Korean Shamanistic Rituals. New York: Mouton Publishers, 1981.
McBride II, Richard D. 2007. Yi Kyubo's "Lay of the Old Shaman" in Religions of Korea in Practice, edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 333-343. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Paper, Jordon. The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology. Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press., 2005.
Park, Chan E. 2007. Interview by the author. Columbus, Ohio, 29 May.
Yun Seung-yong. 1996. Folk Beliefs in Religious culture in Korea, edited by Hallim Ch'ulp'ansa, 119-133. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym.
Yoon Yee-Heum. 2003. 'The Diversity and Continuity of Shamanism in Korean Religious History'. Bibliotheca Shamanistica 11:255-263.
A Korean Shamanic website can be found here: