Shamanism in Korea
Unlike societies where a single religion is dominant, Korean modern society has no state religion of its own and shows a growing tendency to drift away from it. Yet, it is surprising to notice that Korean folk beliefs and practices are still prevalent in the country’s daily life.
Korean Shamanism, Mugyo(무교), is a traditional form of animistic religion, based on the belief that a multitude of gods watch over creation and human affairs. As the only native form of religion of the Korean peninsula, it precedes imported beliefs such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity.
In ancient Korea, they held shamanistic rituals to worship ancestral and celestial gods. Most were farming or hunting ceremonies offering prayers or showing gratitude for a good harvest, because agriculture was the most important economic activity in Korean traditional society and a key to the stability of the dynastic rule. Back then, shamans had enormous influence.
Shamans, called Mudang(무당) in Korea, are often females and, unlike many other cultures, do not use any substances to communicate with the spiritual world. They usually live on the outskirts of society, given the path to becoming a shaman is not an easy one and comes with stigma.
There are two kinds of shamans: Gangshinmu(강신무), possessed shamans, are chosen by the spirits, and must go through a possession ritual to accept their calling, followed by a period of training under someone more experienced acting as a spiritual mother or father. The other, Seseummu(세습무), inherits the calling as a family trait.
Gut(굿) in Korean refers to a ritual. We can define it as a meeting between humans and the gods. A person in need commissions it; a deity receives it; and a shaman officiates it, working as a bridge, helping achieve peace between the two and the surrounding spirits.
Gut divides into private and village rituals. The first ones include rites to pray for longevity and good fortune; healing rituals; underworld entry rituals to help lead the dead peacefully to the other world; and shamanic initiation rituals, held for those struck with a ‘spiritual illness’ (shinbyeong/신병) - a mix of physical and psychological manifestations which do not appear to be cured by modern medicine- needing the rite to heal and start a new life as possessed shamans. The second, village rituals prevent catastrophes that might befall and help keep peace and unity within the community.
An essential part of the rites are the shamanic myths, called bonpuri(본풀이), or songs of origin. The Mudang performs them. The traditional song genre pansori(판소리), in some ways, connects to old shamanic mythology.
As we can see, shamanism has given birth to a wide range of cultural traditions, being linked even to the myth of Dangun, the founder of Gojoseon, the first kingdom on the Korean peninsula, from whom Korean people descend and Gaecheonjeol (개천절), one of Korea’s biggest public holidays, regarded as their National Day.
According to the Korea Worshippers Association, which represents shamans, over 60, 000 shamanic rituals take place a year, and one in every 160 Korean is a shaman. The most common forms of gut in contemporary Korean society are those for the dead, sick and disabled, and wishing a good luck. Koreans turn to shamans for help when suffering financial, family or health-related issues; or when facing life-changing decisions.
Despite many acknowledge shamanism as a depository of Korean culture, and governmental efforts to document and promote the rituals as intangible cultural assets, shamanism is a secretive practice, given that some believe it contravenes the image of a modern country. Shamans however, are highly adaptable. When the Internet expanded throughout the nation, they were among the first to set up websites, offering their services online; and intellectuals also consider that Shamanism’s eclecticism has influenced people’s attitudes towards religion, helping make South Korea one of the world’s most pluralistic countries, where most religions and philosophies coexist harmoniously.