Korean shamanism

From New World Encyclopedia

Mudang officiating Shaman ceremony

Korean shamanism encompasses a variety of indigenous beliefs and practices that have been influenced by Buddhism and Taoism. In contemporary Korean, shamanism goes by the name "muism and shaman mudang" (무당巫堂). The mudang, usually a woman, serves as an intercessors between a god or gods and human beings. Those who want the help of the spirit world enlist Korean shamans, usually women. Shamans hold gut, or services, to invoke good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Frequently, such services help guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven.

Korean Shamanism has played a key role in the development of Korean civilization from the time of mythical Dangun in 2333 B.C.E. until the present day. Both northern Korean civilization, centered in Manchuria, and southern Korean civilization, centered in Gyeongju, have been profoundly shaped by the dynamic of Shamanism. Unique among the nations, Korean Shamanism continues as a distinct and pervasive religion in both North Korea and South Korea, despite repeated attempts by the Korean governments to eradicate the religion, most recently in communist North Korea. In spite of those attempts, Shamanism thrives in contemporary North and South Korea.


The term "shama" derives from Siberia and Central Asia, from the Tungusc “saman” and has been applied widely to refer to those experiences best described in Mircea Eliade’s classic work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.[1] Eliade calls shamanism a “technique of ecstasy,” distinguished from forms of magic, sorcery, or even experiences of religious ecstasy.

Koreans, while committed to Buddhism, Christianity, or Confucianism, tend to imbue their faith with Shamanistic beliefs and practices. In the past, such shamanistic rites have included as agricultural ceremonies, such as prayers for abundant harvest. With a shift away from agriculture in modern Korea, that dimension has largely been abandoned. Korean shamanism seeks to solve human problems through invoking the aid of spirits in the Korean shaman pantheon. Shaman's perform the gut, or shamanistic ceremony to invoke the benefit of spiritual assistance, for a wide variety of reasons (for example, marriage, death, moving to a new house). Often a woman will become a shaman very reluctantly, after experiencing a severe physical or mental illness that indicates "call" by the Sky spirit. The shaman-to-be finds relief from their affliction only by accepting and following the call to become a mudang. Once established in her profession, a shaman usually can make a good living. Korean shamans share similarities with shaman in Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria, resembling as well the yuta found on the Ryukyu Islands, in Japan.


Dangun Shaman Ceremony

Belief in a world inhabited by spirits stands as the oldest form of Korean religious life, dating back to prehistoric times. Shamanism has its roots in ancient cultures, dating at least to 40,000 B.C.E. The shaman has been known as “magician, medicine man, psychopomp, mystic and poet.”[2] The shaman's ability to move at will into trance states sets her apart from other healers or priests. While in a trance, the shaman’s soul left his body and traveled into the spiritual realms, where she encounters both helping and hindering spirits. Often the shaman engaged in a life and death struggle with evil spirits intent upon harming people. The shaman provides healing on many levels; physical, psychological, and spiritual. The shaman works within a holistic model, taking into consideration not only the whole person, but that person’s interaction with his world, both inner and outer. The shaman understands the soul as the place of life breath, where a person's essence dwells. Spiritual affliction often causes physical illness, the primary focus of the shaman resides in curing the sickness of the soul. Illness of the mind has to do with soul loss, intrusion, and possession.

A pantheon of gods and spirits, ranging from the "god generals" who rule the different quarters of heaven to mountain spirits (sansin), inhabit the world of Korean shamanism. That pantheon includes gods who inhabit trees, sacred caves, and piles of stones, as well as earth spirits, the tutelary gods of households and villages, mischievous goblins, and the spirits of persons who, in many cases, met violent or tragic ends. Those spirits have the power to influence or to change the fortunes of living men and women. The shaman rites underwent a number of developments through the Silla and Goryeo periods. Even during the restrictive Confucian Joseon Dynasty, shamanistic rites flourished.

Place in society

Some scholars regard Korean shamanism as a therapy in which shamans manipulate the spirits to achieve self-serving ends. Yet, the shaman theology has implied notions of salvation, moral and spiritual perfection, for the shaman and the people served. Shamanism has historically played the role of protecting the tribe from the attacks of evil spirits, assisting the members of the tribe to attain health, peace, and spiritual well-being. As the world's first, oldest, and longest surviving religion, shamanism plays a fundamental role in every religion that enjoys spiritual experience. For that reason, Korean shamanism has been incorporated in Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Christianity in Korea.

Koreans from all walks of life consult the shaman for a wide variety of needs. Traditionally, shamans had low social status, coming from the ch'ommin, or lowest class. That discrimination has continued into modern times. Yet, ironically, shaman and fortune tellers who have a record of skill and success attract widespread renown and patronage. Shamanism arose in Korea when most Koreans lived in fishing and farming villages. Animism associated with the culture of fishing villages and rural communities has continued even into Seoul, a megalopolis of twenty million people.

Revival as cultural element

Eating food consecrated to Dangun

The Korean government, since liberation from Japan, has periodically persecuted shamans and attempted to eradicate shamanism, especially under the rules of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee. Those attempts failed. In North Korea, Shamans have suffered persecution and campaigns of eradication along with all religions, but even in totalitarian North Korea the attempts have failed. Shamanism has proven impossible to eradicate because the religion is basic to human nature. Originating from spiritual experience, a call from the Sky Spirit, the religion is less dependent upon doctrine and scripture than Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In addition, Shamanism is part and parcel with the founding of Korea in the Dangun myth.

In recent years, the South Korean government has acknowledged that the dances, songs, and incantations that compose the kut make up important aspects of Korean culture. Beginning in the 1970s, rituals that formerly had been kept out of international tourists view have begun to resurface. Often, executives of international hotels and restaurants attend shamanistic purification rituals in the course of opening a new branch in Seoul. Some aspects of kut have been designated valuable cultural properties for preservation and transmission to future generations of Koreans.

The future of shamanism became uncertain in the late 1980s. Many upper and middle class Koreans observers believed that psychiatry would replace shamanism as the government expanded mental health treatment facilities. That has proven a false concern. Koreans exhibit reluctance to employ a psychiatrist for personal and family ills, preferring the traditional way of finding solutions within the family, through fortune-telling and shaman rituals. Even Christians who seek the guidance of pastors engage shaman's and fortune tellers to deal with life's critical turning points.

Types of mudang

Mudang categorized into two basic archetypes: Sessǔmu, called by the Sky Spirit directly, and kangshinmu, initiated into their mudang status through a ceremony. Sessŭmu historically have lived in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula while kangshimu have lived throughout the peninsula including north (modern day North Korea), the contiguous areas of China, and the central part of the peninsula around the Han River.[3]


Celebrants at Shaman festival

Kangshimu have historically lived throughout Korea, especially concentrated in the central and northern regions of the peninsula and in the lands contiguous to the northern part of the peninsula. The essential characteristic of the kangshimu that she becomes one with a god or spirit as part of her ceremony. Two types of kangshimu exist. One shares its name with the general Korean word for shaman, mudang, the other has the name myǒngdu.[4] A person becomes a kangshimu by participating in an initiation ceremony known as a naerim-gut, during which she undergoes a state known as a shinbyeong (神病). The kangshimu-initate becomes possessed by a spirit during the ceremony. Physical pain and psychosis accompany the act of possession. Believers assert that the physical and mental symptoms resist medical treatment, but may only be cured through receipt of and full communion with the spirit.[5]

The mudang has become possessed by a god, called a momju. Momju perform fortune telling using their spiritual powers derived from their possession. They preside over a gut involving song and dance. A subcategory of that type, called sǒnmudang or posal, possess power through a spiritual experience, but lack qualifications to preside over an orthodox gut. Some male shamans, called paksu, belong to the posal calling.[6] Myǒngdu differ from the common mudang in that they receive the spirit of a dead person (usually a young child relative of the Myǒngdu) rather than being possessed by a god. The myǒngdu invites the spirit to a shrine in her dwelling. Myǒngdu live primarily in the Honam area of Korea.[7]


Shaman celebration meeting area

Sessǔmu, living in the area south of the Han River, have their status as shamans pass down through family bloodlines. Shimbang and tang'ol comprise the two types of mudang considered sessǔmu. Shimbang, similar to the kangshimu types of mudang with the godhead and importance of spirituality emphasized. Unlike the kangshimu, shamans inherit the right to conduct ceremonies. A shimbang differs from a kangshimu in that their bodies are not possessed by spirits or gods during her gut. Rather, the shimbang contacts the god through a medium (mujǒmgu) rather than become one with the god. The shimbang does not maintain a shrine.[8]

Tang'ol constitute a type of mudang found mostly in the southernmost areas of the Korean peninsula, especially in the Yeongnam area (Gyeongsang-do) and the Honam area (Jeolla-do). The tang'ol of Honam each had districts (tang'olp'an) over which they had the exclusive right to perform certain shamanistic ceremonies or gut. The gut performed by the tang'ol involves song and dance that serves to entertain a god or goddess, leading to interaction with or channeling of the god. Both the rights of succession and the ceremonies themselves have been systematized through the years so that they now bear the characteristics of a religious rites. Unlike other types of mudang, tang'ol do not receive a god as part of an initiation ceremony. A tang'ol will not have a shrine in her home and will not generally have a defined belief system in a particular god.[9]

Shinbyeong (spirit sickness)

A shaman's affliction with an illness known as a shinbyeong constitutes the central feature of her initiation. Also called the spirit sickness or self-loss, a loss of appetite, insomnia, visual and auditory hallucinations characterizes the illness. A ritual called a naerim-gut cures the illness, which also serves to induct the new shaman.[10]


Shaman celebration ship

The symptoms of a mudang shinbyeong differ, depending on the mudang's cultural background as well as her surrounding environment. For example, in the most basic, frequent type of shinbyeong, the characteristic symptoms afflict the initiate without apparent cause. The mudang cannot eat, becoming weak physically and psychologically. In another type of shinbyeong, physical illness precede those basic symptoms. In yet another, a psychotic episode causes the shinbyeong. In a relatively rare type of shinbyeong, the mudang's mental state becomes weakened by an external shock. Another rarely occurring type of shinbyeong, called the "dream appearance type," a dream in which the mudang sees a god, spirit, or unusual occurrence, accompanied by a revelation triggers the shinbyeong.[11]

The symptoms of the shinbyeong can last a surprisingly long time, an average of eight years and as many as thirty. Most mudang have little appetite during their shinbyeong, some having indigestion and partaking in only a limited diet. The body of the mudang becomes weak, subject to pain and cramping, accompanied by bloody stool in some cases. Physical symptoms progress to include mental illness. The initiate has a generally restless mind and experiences communication with gods or spirits. Eventually mudang has spiritual experiences diagnosed as hallucinations the the psychiatric profession but considered normal development for the mudang. In some cases, the spiritual experiences become so extreme that the mudang leaves home and wanders through mountains and rice fields. The spiritual experiences resist psychiatric treatment, indeed such treatment only enhances the spiritual experiences. The mudang candidate's shinbyeong symptoms dispell through the gangshinje, a type of gut in which the mudang receives her god or spirit. [12]

Religious aspects

In the tradition of muism, shaman consider the shinbyeong a structured religious experience demonstrating the vertical connection between God and humanity, showing that "god in some form exists in human consciousness." The shinbyeong constitutes a form of revelation that causes the shaman to become one with God and, consequently, change her patterns of thought. The shinbyeong dissociate from every day life, entering into a higher form of consciousness.[13]

Rituals or gut (굿)

Dangun celebration tent

In the shamanistic rite gut, the shaman offers a sacrifice to the spirits. Through singing and dancing the shaman invokes the spirits to intercede in the fortunes of the humans in question. The shaman wears a very colorful costume and normally speaks in trance. During a gut a shaman changes their costume several times. Three elements make up the gut. First, spirits as the object of folk beliefs. Second, the believers who pray to those spirits. Finally, the shaman mediating between the two. The actual form of gut varies between regions. The plot of the shamanistic rite depends largely on the objective of the ceremony, the individual character and ability of the shaman, and finally, fine differences in style. Naerim-gut, dodang-gut, and ssitgim-gut comprise the main variations of gut. The shamans can either be hereditary or spirit-possessed.

Naerim-gut (내림굿)

An initiation rite. As part of the rite, someone becomes a shaman through possession by a spirit. The ritual serves to cure the shinbyeong and also to induct the new shaman.[14]

Dodang-gut (도당굿)

A communal rite common in central provinces in South Korea, Dogand-gut aims to bring blessings of well-being and prosperity of a particular village or hamlet. Normally held annually or once every few years, this rite always takes place around the New Year or in spring or autumn. Giving prominent roles to female sorceresses distinguishes the dodang-gut.

Ssitgim-gut (씻김굿)

This rite cleanses the spirit of a deceased person. Since ancient times, Korean shamans have held a belief that when somebody dies, their body cannot enter the world of the dead because if the impurity of their spirit. Observed mainly in the provinces in the south-west of South Korea, the ssitgim-gut washes away that impurity.


Dangun as Mountain Spirit

During the sequential performance of the twelve segments that comprise a typical chaesugut, the mansin wears more than half male costumes. The most interactive and dynamic portions of the gut usually occur during the mansin's possession by the pyolsang (spirits of the other world) and the greedy taegam (the overseer), which require male costumes. That cross-dressing serves several purposes. First, since both male and female spirits often possess the mansin and can thus become an icon of the opposite sex, she uses the attire of both sexes. In the Korean context of entrenched Confucian values, with women subjected to the rule of men, the female mansin's cross-dressing becomes complex and multi-functional.

In semiotic terms, the costume serves as an icon for the person or the spirit it represents. The mansin in the costume assumes the role of that icon, thereby becoming a female signifying a male; she becomes a cross-sex icon about 75 percent of the time during a typical kut. In the context of the kut, the mansin becomes a sexually liminal being; by signifying a man, she not only has access to the male authority in the Confucian order, she provides the female audience an opportunity to interact with that authority in ways that would, in a public context, be unthinkable. Her performance often parodies of the male authority figures; she often makes off-color jokes and ribald comments, and argues with the audience.

Regional Shaman Rites

The traditional rites are not linked to the Gregorian calendar. They are linked either to a particular event, such as a death, or the lunar calendar.

Name Purposes Region
Hamgyeong-do Manmukgut Performed three days after a death in order to open a passage way to the land of the dead. Hamgyeong-do
Pyeongan-do Darigut This gut is dedicated to the spirit of a deceased person and facilitates the entry into the land of the dead. Its procedures resemble some Buddhist procedures. Pyeongan-do
Hwanghae-do Naerimgut This initiation rite is a traditional nerium-gut. Hwanghae-do
Hwanghae-do Jinogwigut This gut is performed for the dead. It guides to paradise by salvation of angry spirits. Hwanghae-do
Ongjin Baeyeonsingut This rite is a fishermen's rite in honour of the dragon king of the sea. Its purpose is wishing for abundant catch and communal peace all year round. Hwanghae-do
Yangju Sonorigut This is a cattle worship rite. It is performed for good harvests, good luck and prosperity of the local community. It is one of the most sophisticated shamanistic performances in Korea. Yangju, Gyeonggi
Seoul Danggut This gut is for peace and abundant harvest. Mt. Jeongbalsan, Dapsimni-dong, Sinnae-dong, Mt. Bonghwasan, Seoul
Seoul Jinogwigut This rite is for the dead, to prepare passage way to the land of the dead. It is supposed to lead the deceased person to paradise in 49 days after death. This goes back to Taoist beliefs that every person has seven souls, one of which ascends to heaven every seven days. Seoul
Gyeonggi-do Dodanggut This rite is held every second month of the lunar calendar. It wards off evil spirits from a community. Well-being to the villagers is induced by worshiping the tutelary grandparents at the tutelary shrines. Dingmak area, Jangmal area in Bucheon, Gyeonggi
Gangneung Danogut This rite is a large-scale gut. It involves dozens of shamans praying to the mountain deity for communal safety from wild animals. There are also prayers for abundant crops and catches of fish. Masked dance dramas and colorful folk games surround this rite. Gangneung, Gangweon
Eunsan Byeolsingut This rite is dedicated to the tutelary spirits of the villages. It includes a struggle of General Boksin and the reverend priest Dochim who recovered the sovereignty of the Baekje Kingdom. Part of the rite is held before guardian totem poles. Eunsan- ri, Buyeo- gun, South Chungcheong
Suyongpo Sumanggut This gut is dedicated to persons who died at sea and leads them to the land of the dead. Yeongil- gun, North Gyeongsang
Gangsa-ri Beomgut This communal gut is held once every three years. Shamans pray for the protection from tigers, abundant catch at sea and communal peace. Gangsa-ri, Yeongil-gun, North Gyeongsang
Geojedo Byeolsingut This rite is held at every fishing village in order to pray for abundant catch and communal peace. Geoje, South Gyeongsang
Tongyeong Ogwisaenamgut This gut is held to console the spirits of a person drowned at sea and leading to the land of the dead. Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang
Wido Ttibaegut This is a fishermen's rite and involves many tutelary spirits wishing for good fortune Wido Island, Buan-gun, North Jeolla
Jindo Ssitgimgut This rite helps cleansing the spirits of deceased persons. It is also performed at the first anniversary of a death. Jindo Islands, Jangsando Islands, South Jeolla
Jejudo Singut This rite helps a shaman being promoted to a higher rank of shamanship. This is also an initiation rite, and a shaman holds this gut three times in their life. Jeju
Jejudo Yeongdeunggut This rite is held in the second month of the lunar calendar. It is held to worship the Yeongdeungsin, the goddess of the sea, who will grant safety and abundant catches. Coastal areas, Jeju
Jejudo Muhongut This rite is held to cleanse the spirits of someone drowned at sea and guide this person to the land of the dead. Jeju


  1. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004, ISBN 9780691119427).
  2. Eliade, Shamanism (1974).
  3. Chongho Kim, Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox (Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2003, ISBN 9780754631842).
  4. Kim, p. 32-33.
  5. Kim, p. 41-42.
  6. Kim, p. 28-29.
  7. Kim, p. 32.
  8. Kim, p. 31-32.
  9. Kim, p. 29-30.
  10. Kim, p. 42-43
  11. Kim, p. 43-44.
  12. Kim, p. 48-49.
  13. Kim, p. 52-53.
  14. Kim, p. 42-43.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Covell, Alan Carter. 1986. Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea. Seoul: Hollym Corp.
  • Eliade, Mircea. 2004. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691119427.
  • Kendall, Laurel. 1985. Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 9780824809744.
  • Kim, Chongho. 2003. Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate. ISBN 9780754631842.
  • Lee, Jung Young. 1981. Korean Shamanistic Rituals. The Hague: Mouton. ISBN 9789027933782.

External links

All links retrieved April 24, 2018.


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