I’d been looking to talk to a mudang (or more politely, musok-in) – a Korean shaman – for a while. But I didn’t really know where to start, and friends kept warning me to be careful about hanging around with such spiritually potent people. Luckily, my friend’s mother consults with mudang regularly, so she set me up for an interview with Hyun-ju, a very ordinary-looking ajumma who just happens to be possessed by the soul of an ancient Chinese monk.
Together, we went to Hyun-ju’s sparsely-decorated home on the slopes of Namsan, one of the two most revered places for mudang in Seoul. She gave me three hours of her time, long enough to hear some of the most bizarre and fascinating tales I have encountered during my time in Korea.
I’ve interviewed all kinds of people, from homeless drifters to President Lee Myung-bak, by way of room salon hostesses and ‘Gangnam Style’ genius Psy. But none of these people ever told me that they had descended into hell and spoken with the devil himself. This is what Hyun-ju claims, and furthermore, she then went on to say that upon waking from the trance that took her into down into Hades for her conversation with Old Nick (‘yeomla daewang‘ in Korean), she found herself naked on the roof of her house.
‘People in the neighbourhood started to think I was a bit strange’, she added, with wonderful understatement.
Hyun-ju also had some very serious advice for me. I should not buy a blue car – especially at the age of thirty-four. Now, I’m not one to believe in spirituality, religion, or any kind of metaphysical stuff, but she could hardly have been more specific about it. This was no fluffy ‘you will meet a tall, dark stranger’ of a premonition. As much as I want to dismiss her words, I’m quite sure I’ll not try tempting fate. I’ll stick with the metro until the unlikely day I can afford a ridiculous, gigantic, black Equus.
Here’s more about Hyun-ju and on Shamanism from my book, Korea: The Impossible Country.
Shamanism in South Korea
Primary colors blur as she spins repeatedly, entranced and led on by clanging cymbals and the insistent beat of drums. She sings and dances as a means of communicating with the spirit world. She enters into what appears to be a trance, speaking with the voice of the departed. This is her gift, and her curse â to be a musok-in, a Korean shaman. The ceremony she is performing, the gut, lasts all day long and may serve to calm malign spirits, purify the soul of the recently deceased, or ask the gods for a good harvest or success in a business venture.
She is part of a tradition that stretches back forty thousand years and has its origins in Siberia. Musok, or shamanism, has been practiced on the Korean peninsula for far longer than the concept of Korea, the country, has existed.
Though musok is ancient and seems remote from the South Korea of todayâa wealthy, technologically advanced, and increasingly globalized countryâit is woven into the fabric of Korean society and still exerts an influence over the most rational of city folk.
What is Korean Shamanism, and How Popular is it?
Musok is a set of disparate religious or superstitious practices based in belief in a natural world animated by spirits and a certain understanding of fate, and aimed at bridging between the spirit world and the realm of the living. Usually, a believer will turn to musok in order to produce some sort of benefitâgood fortune or the removal of evil spiritsâor to learn something about their destiny.
Practitioners may follow a great many different gods and spirits, and the way these are followed depends on a number of factors, including the practitioner’s personality and the region she comes from. According to the musok-in Hyun-ju (her working name), who has practiced musok for over twenty years for a large variety of clients, at the heart of musok is simply a belief in nature. As she explains it, a person, an animal, a tree, or even a rock âhas a spirit. Musok offers a way of communicating with those spirits, and possibly using them for some earthly benefit.
Researchers have documented more than ten thousand gods worshipped by musok practitioners, and, in reality, there are likely to be many more. Individual musok-in have their own principal godsâHyun-ju’s is an ancient Chinese monk. There have been those who have followed Jesus Christ; and, after his daring Incheon landing during the Korean War, some even worshipped General Douglas MacArthur.
Since each musok-in follows different gods and spirits, there is a pantheon in only a very loose sense. Researchers have documented more than ten thousand gods worshipped by musok practitioners, and, in reality, there are likely to be many more. Individual musok-in have their own principal godsâHyun-ju’s is an ancient Chinese monk. There have been those who have followed Jesus Christ; and, after his daring Incheon landing during the Korean War, some even worshipped General Douglas MacArthur.
Similarly, since there is no overarching set of rules, no bible or orthodoxy, ceremonies that have formalized rituals, involving dances, songs, and incantationsâsuch as the Seoul danggut, which calls for a good harvestâare recongnized and transmitted on a regional or town level. Musok-in learn those that apply to their home regions. In addition, according to Hyun-ju, musok-in often find it hard to collaborate since they each believe their gods are the best. While each musok-in is guided to some extent by millennia of shamanic tradition, specific traditions vary by region. Furthermore, much depends on who the novice learned from, the god she follows, and her own individual character.
Musok is very practical, as it is used as way of solving people’s problems via communication with the spirit world. The musok-in is a go-between, mediating between ordinary Koreans and this other world, linking the person seeking advice or an understanding of their future or remediation of some sort with the spirits that can provide it.
Hyun-ju, for instance, tells this author to avoid the color blue and, more specifically, not to buy a blue car at the age of thirty-four, based on the advice of spirits. But she does not impart the sort of moral counsel a pastor or priest might, for instance. There is no musok Ten Commandments. (Hyun-ju does have her own personal rules, however, such as the need to refrain from lying and thoughtless speech. Her chosen name means Be careful with your words.).
Followers do not describe themselves as adherents of musok. In Korea, one simply visits a musok-in for advice with a big decision or dilemma, or when faced with illness or tragedy. Those who go for counsel are not typically aware of the specific character of the gods followed by the musok-in, or the meaning of the rituals employed. They approach the musok-in in the way a Westerner may approach a psychiatrist: as a consultant, as and when required. Musok is considered feminineâa legacy of Korean history and not simply due to the fact that most practitioners are women.
During the Joseon dynasty (1392â1897), neo-Confucianism was the state ideology. This philosophical tradition was paternalistic and encouraged the marginalization of women from public life. Concerned with rationalism and the promotion of an orderly society, neo-Confucians considered musok emotional and metaphysical and conflated it with the feminine, which may in fact have coincided with a tradition of shamans being mainly women.
Consequently, they suppressed it, and relegated musok-in to the lowest social class, the cheonmin. Even so, practitioners continued to receive business from customers of all kinds, from humble farmers to royalty. In an era of male-dominated, non-spiritual formality, people demanded an outlet for the opposite side of their character â and musok provided that. Queen Min of the late Joseon period herself employed two musok-in as advisors.
In the modern era, despite the advent of scientific rationalism and the rapid growth of Christianity in Korea, musok has flourished. The New York Times reports there to be around 300,000 musok-in working in contemporary Korea. Many are drawn to the practice by the fact that it has become a very profitable business. A sought-after musok-in who pushes expensive gut ceremonies on her cliare able to advertise in major newspapers, employ several apprentices and assistants, and buy multiple properties. The fact that millions of Koreans are prepared to pay for this sort of spiritual counsel does of course encourage fakes and frauds. This, according to Hyun-ju, has set the musok world at war with itself, in her words. A real musok-in is not rich, she says.
The Making of a Musok-in
The process of becoming a musok-in can start in one of two ways. The first is seseupmu, the inheritance of shaman status from one’s family, with an older relative conferring the status on a younger one. Of such musok-in, there are two types, both traditionally found south of the Han River: shimbang and tangol. Shimbang are considered not to be in direct contact with spirits, but they have the ability to draw spirits into communion with others. A tangol may not believe in a particular god as her guide. Neither will maintain a personal shrine.
The second type of initiation, gangshinmu, occurs with no such hereditary connection. It begins with a kind of spiritual sickness known as a shinbyeong. The shinbyeong manifests itself in a variety of symptoms, such as loss of energy, hallucinations, the hearing of voices, and insomnia, which indicate that the woman who is stricken by them is possessed of the ability to communicate with spirits. This ability is considered a curse rather than a blessingâbut it is also a matter of destiny: Hyun-ju states that she would not be a musok-in if she felt she had a choice. Her life is lonely, she says, and at least for her, incompatible with having a family. She remains unmarried and laments that she expects no one to turn up to her funeral, a consequence of people’s superstition about the presence of hostile spirits at a musok-in’s wake and her lack of a family.
Those judged to be proper candidates for gangshinmu induction are initiated by way of a special kind of gut, the naerim gut. Naerim refers to the physical entrance of a spirit into a new initiate; a particular god (for example, Hyun-ju’s Chinese monk), will take possession of the new musok-in, and from then on be her spirit leader. This naerim ceremony cures the illness and signals the initiate’s transformation from ordinary person to musok-in.
During the Joseon Dynasty, musok-in were relegated to the lowest social class, the cheonmin. Even so, practitioners continued to receive business from customers of all kinds, from humble farmers to royalty.
The conductor of the naerim gut will then likely serve as the new musok-in’s master. Though the novice keeps her own god, she also forms a kind of spirit motherâspirit daughter, apprentice relationship with the elder musok-in, learning her incantations and songs and working as a junior participant in her ceremonies. This period may last one or two years, and depending upon the strictness of the master, the trainee may also have to spend some of this time performing basic household chores. The world of musok is not uniform, however. Hyun-ju claims never to have suffered from any of the physical symptoms of of shinbyeong, though she was visited by several spirits during her naerim stage.
Her story is unusual: at the age of thirty-two, she was visited first by Jesus Christ, then the spirit of a Japanese samurai, then a Chinese monk. Each wanted her to accept naerim from him, and, following her instincts, she chose the monk. After this, the monk subjected her to a series of trials, such as having to repeatedly leap in the air, for six hours at a time. During this stage, which lasted several weeks, she also had to ward off the relentless entreaties of the samurai: in order to placate him, she spent another six hours per day bowing.
Because Hyun-ju never manifested shinbyeong symptoms, it was difficult for her to find an older shaman to perform her naerim gut. Those around her felt she had simply gone insane. She recounts becoming the subject of neighborhood gossip as a result of her unusual behavior. However, after she had approached several musok-in with her story, one established practitioner accepted her as an apprentice, thus beginning her initiation into Korea’s oldest tradition.
Life as a Musok-in
Today, musok-in are not ostracized on class grounds, as they were during the Joseon era, for the social structures of old have disappeared. However, because of their perceived spiritual power, many people fear them and, as a result, refrain from socializing with them. For the ordinary person, the musok-in is someone to be visited in times of trouble and avoided at other times. A writer or anthropologist planning to visit one is likely be warned by friends to be careful.
The musok-in is called on to provide gut, dancing and singing to communicate with the spirits while dressed in the multicolored robes that denote her profession. She might ride the blades during such a ceremony. This is the most famously sensational musok-in act, performed in a state of deep entrancement or ecstasy, when the musok-in dances barefoot on the edge of a knife without cutting herself, to show her power and intimidate malign spirits.
Other musok-in have different calling cards. Hyun-ju is said to have the ability to lift a cow off the ground and place it on a spike, in demonstration of the physical strength provided to her by her gods.
A musok-in will also perform smaller rituals at the home or place of business of a client. Those opening new enterprises, for example, may call upon the spirit world by inviting a musok-in to perform a ceremony for good luck. Practices include putting banknotes between the trotters of a dead pig (pigs symbolize money and fortune) and the ritual placement of a dried pollack on the premises. One sometimes sees such fish long after the ceremony is over, as it is supposed to bring good luck as long as it remains in place.
The most common service is jeom, which is a form of one-on-one spiritual counseling. If one has a particular queryâfor example, When will I get married? or Should I start my own business?âone may consult a musok-in for advice from the spirit world. For many musok-in, jeom is the starting point for subsequent services recommended to the client: for example, a follow-up gut. For Hyun-ju, however, gut is only for rich people. Since it can be astonishingly expensiveâa single ceremony may cost around 8 million won (about $7,500 U.S. dollars) or more âshe never recommends it for people of ordinary means, opting instead to take them to the mountains for prayer. Much of Hyun-ju’s practice simply consists in listening to people’s problems and giving advice, much like a counselor.
Many of today’s elite Koreans make use of gut, just as Queen Min did in the nineteenth century. Members of chaebol families (chaebol being the large family-run business groups that dominate the economy) have been reported to pay for services for purposes ranging from business success to personal matters, as have politicians seeking electoral success. Hyun-ju has had several business, politician, and celebrity clients; she claims to have foretold the bankruptcy of one of her wealthiest patrons, after having seen a vision of him in rags.
Shaman priestess photo by Justin Whitaker
Shaman with pig shot by Peter DeMarco, to see more of his Shaman photos go here.