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Korean Minhwa-Sansindo
Shamanism is Korea's oldest indigenous belief system. Originating from the North, it is still widely practiced in villages and even cities, especially during times of ritual transition and crisis. Shamanist rituals are performed on mountaintops, at traditional shrines or in village homes. Traditional Korean shaman religions that existed before the introduction of Buddhism include Ch'ordogyoisn and Taejonggyo, both of which are still practiced today. Ancient kings in the Shilla Dynasty were regarded as shaman as well political rulers.

Korean shamanism is centuries old and is deeply ingrained in Korean culture and, some say, underpins organized religion. Many Koreans, young and old, still seek the advice of a shaman on issues ranging from education to marriage and business prospects. [Source: AFP, November 4, 2016]

Korean shamanism is related to versions of shamanism found in Siberia, Mongolia, Manchuria and Japan, whose various forms usually involve communication with the world of spirits, including the spirits of the dead, seeking to enlist the spirits' help or to avoid their wrath. Korean shamanism is distinguished by seeking to resolve human problems through a meeting of humanity and the spirits. This can be seen clearly in the various types of kut (shaman rituals) that are still widely practiced. Jeju Island is also a center of Korean Shamanism. Kut performed there are similar to yuta performed on the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. [Source: Wikipedia, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Book: “Korean Shamanism” by Haines Brown Extract below:


The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia, and it is used to describe a priest or magician who has visions and performs various deeds while in a trance. Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman are believed to travel to another world to seek help from the spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with certain spirits or ancestors.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The term "shaman" refers to a person who has extraordinary, even supernatural, powers and can communicate with the spirits that are thought to fill the world in order to persuade, enlist, and even defeat them. Shamans were common in the ancient cultures of Siberia and northern Asia, and Korean shamanism almost certainly was introduced by people migrating southward from the forests of Manchuria and farther north beyond the Amur River. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Many scholars regard Korean shamanism as less a religion than a "medicine" in which the spirits are manipulated in order to achieve human ends. There is no notion of salvation or moral and spiritual perfection, at least for the ordinary believers in spirits.

Korean Spirits

Mudang performing hut
In Korean shamanism there is a rather unorganized pantheon of literally millions of gods, spirits, and ghosts, ranging from the "god generals" who rule the different quarters of heaven to mountain spirits (sansin). This pantheon also 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 ghosts of persons who in many cases met violent or tragic ends. These spirits are said to have the power to influence or to change the fortunes of living men and women. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Korean shaman call on and are possessed by spirits such as Sam-shin Halmoni (the "Birth Grandmother"), Chesok (the Buddhist King of Heaven), San-shin (a mountain spirit), Yong Wong (the Dragon King), Iljik Saja (the messenger of the King of Hell), the White Horse General, the Elder Brother of the Seven Stars, and the Lightning General.

Alan Carter Covell wrote in “Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea”: The top twelve deities in Korea’s Shamanist pantheon are explained in this book the Mountain Spirit, the Dragon King, the Seven Stars who control human fertility, as well as the three magic monk-spirits who walk on water to prove their blood-tie to their father. The book also describes the Shamanist rituals that summon the deities, the “Ten Thousand Spirits” including the famous generals of history, who will drive away disease, one general so fierce he walks on sharpened knives, the female ruler of the earth spirits, a patroness of diviners, who also comes and sometimes hungry ghosts direct from the underworld. Also looked at is the life the mudang (spirit houses) shamans who invite possession by the gods, so that they may cure disease.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The spirit world of shamanism is very well populated. Some spirits are related to natural phenomena like wind and water. Others are related to particular places, recalling events or people who are associated with the places; others are the ghosts of important people who are worthy of worship; others are more dangerous death spirits of people who have died tragically and are swirling around in the spirit world waiting for revenge. And others are disease spirits that make people sick. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“All these spirits interact with living human beings, affecting their destinies and sometimes punishing them or causing them pain. Happy spirits such as the ghosts of heroes can be enlisted to bring good fortune. Troubled spirits like the ghosts of people killed in accidents or murder victims are extremely dangerous and must be calmed and diverted from harming those deemed responsible for their deaths. Sometimes living people suffer events or diseases and are unable to figure out which spirit is causing the misfortune. At such times a shaman may be useful, for shamans are thought to be able to determine which spirits are responsible for ill-fortune, what the spirits want, and how to satisfy them so they will go away and leave the worried person in peace.

“Over the centuries, Korean spirit beliefs have developed and become very elaborate, and influences other than Siberian shamanism have entered the peninsula to introduce new kinds of deities and ghosts and further complicate the Korean spirit world. In China there are many similar traditions that have become a part of Korean spirit belief. One is the ghost of Guanyu, the Chinese God of War, who is thought to have helped Korea fend off the Japanese invasion in the 1590s. Another is the family of Chinese house gods that bless the kitchen, watch over the house, and ensure the success of its occupants. The involvement of house gods in family life is especially visible during important events such as childbirth, when a straw rope is hung across the gateway to the yard to keep out spirits that might harm the baby, and new parents practice rituals honoring Samshin, the god of childbirth. Villages also have collective expressions of spirit belief, as in the reverence paid to a particularly large old tree that has shaded generations of ancestors.

Korean Shaman
About 40,000 shaman are still active in Korea today. The are called mudang or manshin (literally "ten thousand spirits," a reference to the number of spirits they can summon) and their rituals are known as kut . Nearly all of them are women who become shaman after being possessed by a spirit or god during a life-threatening illness. To maintain their rapport with gods they do things like rub rosary beads, consults old texts, and take cold shower, even in the winter time.

Modern shaman are employed as exorcists, prophets, fortune-tellers, medicine men, healers and interpreters of dreams. In the past, it is believed, that almost all villages had a shaman and they were members of a caste that passed their traditions down from generation to generation. Some shaman are afraid to reveal their secrets because they believe that after they pass on their secrets they will die.

Shamans are professionals who are enlisted by clients who want the help of the spirit world. Female shamans (mudang) hold kut, or services, in order to gain good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Such services are also held to guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven. Often a woman will become a shaman very reluctantly — after experiencing a severe physical or mental illness that indicates "possession" by a spirit. Such possession allegedly can be cured only through performance of a kut. Once a shaman is established in her profession, she usually can make a good living. Shaman charge about US$2,000 for a ritual dance and usually require that the money be paid up front.

Traditionally, shamans had low social status and were members of the ch'ommin class. This discrimination has continued into modern times. Shamans derive their power from their ability to serve as a medium between the spirit world and their clients during kut. Often their spiritual power is so great that they have to be separated from society in some way.

One shaman told the New York Times that she became a shaman after to being chronically sick beginning at the age of 43. "I went to hospital, but they couldn't cure me," she said. "I felt something bottled up inside me, and I couldn't get it out." She tried Christianity for three years and then went through initiation rites at the age of 49. "Ever since then," she said, "we've been happier and we've been making money."

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The shamans who carry on kuts today are regarded with fear and mixed feelings by their neighbors and clients and they do not lead normal lives. They are unmarried (usually widows) when they act as shamans, and they have no other profession so they are not wealthy. They are not particularly well educated, though they are walking storehouses of stories and cultural lore. And by their own accounts, they are not shamans by choice. That is, they have undergone an emotional ordeal that has left them devastated emotionally and specially open to the world of spirits.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Becoming a Shaman

People usually do not choose to become shaman, they have shamanism thrust upon them. The process of becoming a shaman usually follows five steps: 1) a break with life as usual; 2) a journey to the "other world;" 3) dying and being reborn: 4) gaining a new vision: 5) and emerging with a deep sense of connectedness and purpose.

Most shaman begin their careers with a life-threatening illness, during which time they embark on a spiritual journey and communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors that become the source of their powers. After recovering from the illness, they go through a long period of training, characterized by fasts and hardships and instruction from senior shaman that climaxes with a long period of isolation in which the shaman goes without food and experiences more visions.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: In Korea, “a person can become a shaman in two ways. He or she can be born into a shaman family and thus end up as a shaman. This kind of hereditary shaman is called sseseupmundang. The heredity system is matrilineal and thus a man can become a shaman through marriage. A person can also become a shaman through a mystical experience or a so-called “shamanistic illness” (sinbyeng), after which an initiation ceremony is required. This kind of shaman, “chosen by the spirits”, is called gangsinmudang. They often have the ability to go into a trance and thus they are able, for example, to dance on sharp knives etc. The hereditary shamans do not involve themselves in this kind of extremes. Their main duty is simply to take care of the shamanistic gut rituals. Shaman families have often given their offspring training in music, dance or other forms of art. So even today many important artists come from shaman families. Nowadays most of the shamans are women, while the musicians accompanying them are men.” [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “This ordeal, called shinbyong, or "spirit sickness," may have followed the death of a husband or child or some other dreadful event that precipitated what amounted to a nervous breakdown. Out of this desperate state they emerged feeling a certain tie to the supernatural world of spirits and they sense a compulsion to engage in the restless life of the mudang, drawn to the spirits but at the same time troubled and even terrified by them. This strange state of mind is what makes others wary of them. However, the religious state that is felt by shamans is not to be misunderstood as mental illness or insanity. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Korean shamans often associate with each other and train younger shamans in the various kut rituals. In Seoul, at a mountainside shrine called the Kuksadang, they gather often and practice their music, percussion, and chanting. The Kuksadang is the closest thing to a "headquarters" that exists for Korean shamanism. Otherwise shamans look like other Korean women on the street and are only known as mudang by their families, close friends, and clients.

Number of Shamans and Fortune Tellers Reaches 1 Million During Economic Downturn

Korean Hyewon-Munyeo
In the late 2010s, when South Korea was going through an economic downturn, the number of Korean shamans and fortune tellers grew rapidly in part perhaps because people increasingly needed advise and consolation and also because people needed jobs. When unemployment rises more people seek to become shamans or fortune teller because there is less regulation and degree or license requirements than in other fields. The same phenomenon occurred during 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis.

Chyung Eun-ju wrote in the Korea Times: The groups of fortunetellers and shamans “with the most members are the Korean Kyungsin Federation and the Korean Fortune Telling Association, which each have around 300,000 registered members and 200,000 unregistered people – a million people in all. The number of members has doubled from 10 years ago when there were around 140,000 members in the Korean Kyungsin Federation in 2006. [Source: Chyung Eun-ju , Korea Times, November 28, 2017]

“Shamans and fortune-tellers have a similar goal, but the methods are different. Korean shamans, also called “mudang,” communicate with the spirits to predict someone’s future, while a fortune-teller uses physiognomy to tell the future, or prophecies based on the Book of Changes, four pillars or Eastern philosophy. According to a Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism report on religious practitioners in 2011, there are 14,483 Protestants, 46,905 Buddhists, and 15,918 Catholics. Shamans and fortune-tellers are not considered religious practitioners, but are categorised as service practitioners.

““As the economy slows down, the fortune-telling houses also suffer a recession, but there is a tendency where the number of spiritual practitioners also increases,” said Jo Sung-je, head of the Institute of Mucheon Culture, who researched shamanism for 30 years. “When households fall apart one after another due to economic difficulties many people get possessed by a spirit and become a shaman.”

“An academy affiliated with the Korean Fortune Telling Association promoted fortune-telling as a career path by saying, “In a reality where employment is hard and there is an increase in the ageing community, fortune-telling can be a lifelong and secure vocation.” “There are job applicants and housewives who attend classes during the weekdays and businessmen preparing for retirement who attend night classes,” said an employee at the academy. “More fortune-telling classes are opening and more people are using fortune-telling apps and reading related books.

Shamanist and Animist Beliefs in Korea

Shaman societies believe that illnesses are caused by certain events, witchcraft, unhappy spirits and ancestors, and/or problems within an individual's inner soul. They believe that death occurs when the soul leaves the body (life without a soul has no meaning and thus illness and death follow). Shaman helps patients to overcome their illnesses by calling on spirits for help, or helping the patients to bring back or get in contact with their inner souls. Sometime foreign objects are removed from patient's body in a symbolic ritual in which the object is sucked in and spit or vomited out.

Animistic beliefs are strongly associated with the culture of fishing villages and are primarily a phenomenon found in rural communities. Shamans also treat the ills of city people, however, especially recent migrants from the countryside who find adjustment to an impersonal urban life stressful. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Koreans often visit shaman if they are inexplicable sick, have marriage problems or need help producing children. The majority of villages in South Korea have shaman. Because villagers have often grown up with shaman in their village and sometimes doubt they really possess spiritual powers, they usually visit a shaman in another village if they need help.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “It is difficult to draw the line between folk customs and religious practices in Korean shamanism. Many folkways have nothing to do with religion and are simply Korean society's way of handling routine occasions. These include celebrations of planting and harvest in the countryside, of raising new buildings, opening new businesses, and celebrating the beginning of the New Year. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Others include vestiges of superstition such as the stacking of piles of stones by the roadside to protect a village from spirits coming down a mountain path. But others clearly are religious practices in the sense that they connect with the supernatural. At the dawn of the modern age in Korea, shamanism accounted for the whole rich tradition of Korean spirit belief.

Though the rich variety of folk deities still is part of Korean conversation and consciousness, "shamanism" as such has come to mean something more limited: the practice, invariably by female shamans called mudang, or manshin, of spirit propitiation on behalf of people who hire them to perform ceremonies called kuts. In these ceremonies the shaman interviews the troubled client to determine the nature of the trouble and other details of the case. Then at an appointed time the shaman gathers with the client and her neighbors in the house or the courtyard of the house, usually without men present, and begins the kut.

Origins of Korean Shamanism

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Korean shaman mask
Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The shamanic tradition is very old, and shamanism almost certainly was flourishing among the ancestors of the Korean people before they first learned of Buddhism or Confucianism. Shamanism is an extremely simple belief system, though its rich variations make it seem more complex. It has no churches, no scriptures, and not much religious art or music, but it does have a rich oral tradition and certain core beliefs that have been passed down through countless generations.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Haines Brown wrote in “Korean Shamanism”: “Northeast Asia seems to have been a major center of later diffusions of the religion into the Americas (Native American shamanism) and later throughout Eurasia (as in early Southeast Asia and Germanic Europe). Because the deepest roots of Korean civilization lay in the Altaic region of Northeast Asia, it is not surprising that shamanism had an important role in Korean culture, as it also does in the Tibetan. When a new Tungusic people called the Yamacek entered the Korean Peninsula in the beginning of the first millennium B.C., they introduced a profoundly shamanistic culture. [Source: “Korean Shamanism” by Haines Brown. Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, |||]

“Among the bronze artifacts of this Yemacek-Tungusic society were many objects that it seems were used in shamanistic rituals. One of them, for example, was an octagon with eight arms, with the tip of each arm forming a hollow finial containing a pellet. This was evidently a rattle for shamanistic ceremonies. The decoration on these bronze artifacts recalls the motifs of Siberian bronzes. The main centers of bronze production, which are presumed to be the main centers of early Korean civilization, are in the Pyongyang area of the northwest, the Taegu-Kyongju area in the southeast, and several other areas in the southwest, such as Namsongni, in which a particularly rich array of shamanistic implements were discovered in the 1960s.

“Early totemistic clans apparently followed communal shamanistic practices at first that included the yonggo ceremony to invoke a supernatural force. The shamanistic ch’on’gun(“Heaven Prince”) associated with these clans may have carried out broad priestly and military leadership functions However, the two roles eventually bifurcated in a manner comparable to the emergence of the kshitrya (warrior) and a brahmana (priestly) élites in Hindustan early in the second millennium B.C. It has been suggested this separation is marked by the exclusion of the exercise of criminal justice within the clan settlements (sodo) as they became religious centers increasingly under the domination of the ch’on’gun shaman priest. Perhaps because shamanism was absorbed into an aspect of the male leadership of the nascent state institutions embodying a social contradiction, shamanism as a popular religion at the village level became associated with women priests called mudang. In the sodo the mudang would have erected a (phallic?) poll on which were hung bells and a drum (yonggo – “spirit-invoking drums”) for the shamanistic ceremonies. Also part of them was the much’on (“Dance to Heaven.”)

“Because the shamanistic élite had access to supernatural forces, and was therefore less constrained by circumstance, it was able to look beyond the clan to establish alliances. In fact, at the beginning of the first millennium A.D., the tribal kingdom of Saro emerged as a clan confederation headed by shaman kings (interestingly associated with metal working, as in African tradition). The title of these kings were kosogan, then ch’ach’aung, and finally isagum, with ch’ach’aung meaning “shaman.” These shaman tribal kings served to reduce conflict between rival clans in support of tribal state formation.

“The tribal alliances eventually consolidated into The Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea: Koguryo (from the 2nd century A.D.), Paechke and Silla (from the 4th c.). In the Koguryo Dynasty, the king performed rites at the shrine of his Urfather, beginning an ancestor cult that fortified political leadership. These kingdoms were deeply influenced by Chinese political institutions and ideology that consolidated the landed élite of clan patriarchs and tribal leaders into a military aristocratic ruling class. They also contributed to the transition to state-level society in Japan.”

Shamanism in Modern South Korea

Shamanism has experienced a rebirth in recent years more as an expression of nationalism and culture than religion. Most shaman are women. Shamanistic rituals are widely performed before ticket-buying audiences. Many shaman are women. Often their spiritual power is so great that they have to be separated from society in some way. "People are trying to understand more, learn more, and see more. They are very interested in this," said Kim Keum-hwa, one of South Korea's most famous shamans, told Reuters.

After World War II shamanism was suppressed in South Korea. According to Reuters: “In leaping from poverty to rapid modernization, the county's dictatorship in the 1970s tried to eliminate shamanism, claiming that shamans deluded the world, while some Christian missionaries demonized them and their followers. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, Oddly Enough, June 29, 2012 /]

The government discouraged belief in shamanism as superstition and for many years minimized its persistence in Korean life. Clark wrote: “Because of its obvious occult nature, shamanism has been an embarrassment to many educated Koreans. Until the 1980s the South Korean government dismissed shamanism as a vestige of the benighted past and discouraged mudangs from becoming shamans and practicing their kuts. Nevertheless, when the chips are down, shamans are common at kuts in neighborhoods throughout Korea, and not only in the courtyards of ignorant or uneducated people. Even formally educated men are familiar with the rituals and beliefs surrounding shamanism, no matter how much they may shun them in public as unmodern and superstitious.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000 \=/]

In recent decades, in a climate of growing nationalism and cultural self-confidence, the dances, songs, and incantations that compose the kut have come to be recognized as an important aspect of Korean culture. Beginning in the 1970s, rituals that formerly had been kept out of foreign view began to resurface, and occasionally a Western hotel manager or other executive could even be seen attending a shamanistic exorcism ritual in the course of opening a new branch in Seoul. Some of these aspects of kut have been designated valuable cultural properties that should be preserved and passed on to future generations. The future of shamanism itself was uncertain in the late 1980s. Observers believed that many of its functions in the future probably will be performed by the psychiatric profession as the government expands mental health treatment facilities. Given the uncertainty of social, economic, and political conditions, however, it appears certain that shamans will find large numbers of clients for some time to come. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Clark wrote: “In the 1980s and 1990s, during a time when young Koreans were searching for their own "authentic" national identity, certain shamanist trappings were popular as emblems of true "Koreanness." On university campuses day after day students practiced the percussion typical of kuts, began their college festivals with rituals that were strongly shamanist, and often talked about forsaking foreign ideologies such as Christianity and Buddhism in favor of the genuine Korean religion of shamanism. In these ways, shamanism has survived the colonialism, war, and modernization of the twentieth century to emerge as an important part of Korean consciousness. One cannot really know Korea without understanding something of its appeal. \=/

According to Reuters; Today, visiting a mudang — shaman priest or priestess — is so common that politicians consult them seeking answers to questions such as whether they should relocate their ancestors' remains to ensure good luck in the next election. Shaman characters have also featured in popular television shows. "Public perception towards shamanism has improved a lot, with popular TV dramas contributing to shifting these views," said Park Heung-ju, an authority on mudang at the Kut Research Institute in Seoul."You can find repose by meeting with mudang." Much of this is due to the pressures of modern life in South Korea's high-stress society, said Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. "Nowadays, many Koreans feel strong uncertainties and life seems unstable in many ways, so they want to find something that can give them a sense of security," he said. "The same things have also created a dramatic increase in the number of people who follow religions here in Korea."/

Shaman Rituals and Techniques in Korea

Shaman use various techniques to put themselves into trances: taking hallucinogenic drugs, asphyxiating themselves, and/or being taken over by hypnotic drums, dance rhythms or chants. When in a trance they have visions, speak in strange voices or languages, communicate with dead ancestors, gods, demons and natural spirits, and receive instruction from them about how to help the person who has sought the shaman's help. Maybe the patient has broken a taboo, offended a spirit or ancestor or lost his soul. The shaman then caries out ritual directed a the particular problem. Modern shaman sometimes write down messages they receive for the dead while in a trance.

Shaman rituals in Korea are often held in front of shrines or altar in the shaman's house, where the shaman goes into trance, is possessed by spirits, shakes and trembles, and speaks in strange languages. They often dance to the rhythm of gongs and drums, and ring a bell, and sometimes perform feats such as walking on the blades of knives without hurting themselves. To drive the evil spirits out of a sick person shaman in Yosu in South Cholla Province lead a fake funeral with a straw effigy dressed like a patient. Evil spirits are appeased with food and dances and then caste away by shaman assistants wearing demon masks.

A Korean shaman keeps a shrine where her guardian deity and the instruments for ritual services are kept. She may call on and are possessed by spirits such as Sam-shin Halmoni (the "Birth Grandmother"), Chesok (the Buddhist King of Heaven), San-shin (a mountain spirit), Yong Wong (the Dragon King), Iljik Saja (the messenger of the King of Hell), the White Horse General, the Elder Brother of the Seven Stars, and the Lightning General.

Kut (Gut)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: The nucleus of Korean shamanism is the [kut] gut ceremony. It can be a private, individual ceremony, which, for example, is aimed at curing a disease, ensuring longevity or paving the way to the after-world. This kind of ceremony can also be addressed to a deceased person. A gut ceremony can also be a grandiose, communal happening. A village gut may, for example, aim to ensure a good harvest, or luck for the fishermen, or to cure an epidemic illness. Serious, ritualistic sections are combined with more entertaining dance and music numbers. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“The audience also participates in the ceremony. The shaman often addresses her comments directly to the audience, which, every now and then, takes part in the dancing and singing. In principle a Korean shamanistic ritual is divided into 12 sections. Most of the rituals share, more or less, the same structure and functions. However, there are many regional variants of the gut ritual. They are usually named after the village or the region in which they are practised.

Kut include songs, dances, and incantations that are performed at various places to secure good fortune, cure illnesses, or guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven. Shamans generally hold kut at their clients' request in order to gain good fortune for clients, exorcise evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Recently, with growing nationalism, the dances, songs, and incantations of kut have been revitalized.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “For the kut the shaman is dressed in special clothing, wears a special hat, and is armed with tools, usually a sword or a trident. She holds a collection of small bells and shakes them while a nearby drummer beats a rhythm. She calls the spirit that is thought to be causing the trouble and tries to start a conversation with it. As the shaman performs the kut she works herself into a semihysterical state that suggests that her powers are fully engaged. She dances energetically, jumping and twirling. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

She chants, shouts, and sings. She wields her weapons and shakes her bells. At times she may try to show that she has reached the supernatural state by doing supernatural things, such as walking barefoot on the upturned blade of her sword. If a sacrificial animal (usually a pig) is involved in the kut, she may balance the dead pig on the vertical sword without using any other means of support. These things heighten the sense of dread and magic in the kut and demonstrate the shaman's power over the spirit world. There are many different kinds of kut and not all of them involve such unusual displays.

The word kut is used to denote a village ritual honoring a benign god just as often as it is meant to denote the energetic summoning of an angry ghost. But all kut include a phase where people meet spirits and somehow resolve the conflict between them, whether it is an agreement to protect a new business or an agreement to stop torturing a client with nightmares. Not everyone is cut out to be a shaman, or mudang.

Shaman on the East Coast of Korea

Kim Sok Chu'l, a male shaman in his 70s from the east coast town of Yangsan, was designated by the Korean government as Cultural Asset No. 82. In his region marrying a shaman entails becoming a shaman oneself and most of the members in his family are shaman. Periodically Kim and other shaman in east coast towns preside over festivals in which the souls of the dead are appeased with offerings and prayers to bring about bountiful catches and safe journeys for the fishermen. The festivals are usually held around the Lunar New Year and they last for several days.

The Tonghaean Pyolshinku, a shaman festival held every four years in Yangsan, is divided into 12 "inner segments" for grandmother spirits and 12 "outer segments" for grandfather spirits. The ceremony begins when women, hypnotized by beating drums, place six-meter-long bamboo poles at an altar to help guide the spirits. When the women's hands and bodies begin shaking it means the spirits have arrived.

The poles are taken to the house of a shaman, who has prepared for the ceremony by bathing only in cold water for an entire year. Shaman taken turns leading the 24 segments of the ceremony. In one segment a woman does a fan dances while her husband drums. As the rhythm picks up the woman becomes possessed and starts jerking around and chanting in a strange voice. In another segment a shaman sings a soul-stirring lament while in a trance.

Between the segments the participants sing songs, eat special foods, get drunk, burn paper flowers, perform comic skits, pray to the seas gods, and play drum music. While the shaman are doing their thing, people stuff banknotes in their waistbands, headbands, hats and instruments. Similar rituals called Chilmori Tangku are performed on Cheju Island.

Shaman Rituals in Southern Korea

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: One example of the communal ceremonies is the Namhaean Pyolsin-gut, a village gut ceremony from the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula. In its larger version it takes a week to perform, while a shorter version lasts three days. The primus motor of the ceremony is a shaman, taemo or a “big shaman”. She is accompanied by a small orchestra, which includes an oboe, a flute, drums, and a gong. The musicians also usually come from shaman families. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“The numerous sections of the long ceremony aim, for example, to pacify deities of the road, to inform the village tutelary deities about the ceremony, to welcome the sun, to purify the ritual space, to pray for a good harvest, to ask for good fishing, to request safe waters for the fishermen, to pray for one’s ancestors’ well-being, to pacify the dead, and to pray to Buddhist guardian deities for peace.”

A shaman funeral rite called the Sikkim Kut is still performed in Chindo, an isolated southern island that developed its own unique culture. It is most often held the night preceding a burial. Its purpose is to cleanse the spirit of the deceased. Before the ceremony begins, candles and incense are burned for purification purposes. An altar with offerings of food is prepared to satisfy the spirits, and objects symbolizing different ancestral spirits are carefully set out as the shaman performs choreographed ritual actions that incorporate drama, dance, song and mime. [Source: The Smithsonian]

Accompanied by percussive and dramatic music, the shaman begins to dance and appeals to the spirit while singing. The performance intensifies and reaches its climax when a knotted white cloth is untied and unfolded to symbolize the cleansed spirit's road to the afterworld. On Chindo the role of shaman is passed down from mother to daughter-in-law. Describing the ritual, Asami Nagai wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The deep-voiced Kim began chanting and loosening the knots by moving the cloth up and down, finally disposing of it...Musicians then appeared and Kim danced while holding a bundle of paper strings in each hand. The ornaments represent money...which cleanses the spirit of the dead as well as enriches the givers."

Shamanism in Central Korea

A shaman, who supplemented her earnings by raising eating dogs and running a farm, told the New York Times that a large number of the people who come to her had various kinds of marriage problems. Describing one of her successes, she said, "one person had a lot of daughters even though she wanted a son. So I prayed, and then I explained to her that there was a young spirit who was giving her trouble. So I prayed to the spirit to ask her to give the couple good luck instead. Later they had a son." [Source: Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, December 11. 1995]

"Another villager came to me because he'd had a lot of bad luck," she said. "He was sick a lot and someone owed him a lot of money and wouldn't pay." After performing a ritual dance she said, "Now he's not sick anymore" and the debt is "being paid little by little."

Many of her neighbors claim she is a fraud because she picked ashes instead of cold water during an initiation ritual, and say, "If she has special powers, why is she cleaning up pig manure." The related the case of a woman who visited another shaman to seek help for her husband, who returned from a friend's funeral sick and demented. They said she paid US$700 for a ritual dance and her husband died anyway.

Ten-Year-Old Shaman in Central Korea

A 10-year-old shaman named Park Hye Ji, who began practicing her trade at the age of seven after years of communicating with the spirit of her deceased grandfather, told the New York Times, "I'm not very happy about it, but it happened to me and if I'd rejected it I'd probably be dead by now." She said that being a 10-year-old shaman is rather lonely: she has no friends to play with and didn't even attend school. "When I'm in school," she said, "the kids talk a lot, and they get jealous...Then when I come home I feel uncomfortable."

The owner of a noodle shop who sought help from Park to improve business said she indeed possessed special powers, but when asked if business was good, he said, "Well, not so good. So maybe that means she doesn't have special powers. But you don't have to look at it that way. I mean, that's just how life is."

Park said that she earned about US$40,000 a year, after expenses, but her parents didn't allow her to spend her money. When asked if her parents spank her she said, "The only time the god is in me is when I'm in the shrine and ready to receive him. Most of the time I'm just an ordinary 10-year-old girl. So when I'm bad, yeah, they spank me."

Shaman Exorcism on a Boat in a Korean Fishing Village

Describing a shaman exorcism in a Korean fishing village, Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: “Colorful flags snapped in the sea breeze as more than a dozen Korean shamans, dressed in bright colors, danced and chanted prayers in front of a huge cow's head stuck to a trident. The ceremony on a ship was designed to exorcise demons that threaten fishermen and bring good luck to everybody on board. The presence of several hundred spectators underlined how the ages-old trance rituals were going strong again, having been shunned as recently as 30 years ago. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, Oddly Enough, June 29, 2012]

“To start the on-board ceremony, the shamans light a bundle of straw and float it on the water with offerings of food to exorcise evil spirits. Later they go into a trance, speaking directly to spectators to wish them good luck and good health to the accompaniment of lively music from pipes, flutes and drums. At the end, shamans and spectators mingle as one group, dancing in a circle to the fast-paced music. "Shunning shamanism is not right. Today's event is meant to be for praying for the sake of families," said Lee Sung-soo, who said he was a Buddhist but danced with the group nonetheless.

“In one sign of how mainstream shamanism has become, one mudang shaking bells in front of the laden altar was Hendrikje Lange from Switzerland, who credits shamanism with lifting her out of a debilitating depression. Lange, 45, encountered shamanism as part of her studies of Korean percussion instruments, but resisted actually taking part in a possession ritual until several accidents and visions convinced her she needed to change her life. Now, she is one of dozens of shamans initiated by Kim, including a handful of foreigners. "All I can say is that something is happening with energy. I feel that the longer it keeps going, the stronger the energy is," she said.

Shin, the sociologist, said an additional part of the mudang's appeal was the sense that it was personal. "People may have faith in other religions, but those religions seem vague and not tailored to them personally," he said. "People go to see shamans because they all believe their stories and situations are unique." Jung Mi-soon, a participant in the ceremony, said that shamanism spoke to her directly. "I felt something from my heart. This ritual has everything in there - happiness, sadness, anger and fun," said the 46-year-old housewife who has had more than 10 surgeries which she attributes to spiritual sickness. "Sometimes tears pour out from my heart. Sometimes it's just fun when everyone is dancing and bowing. And, it's healing."

Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut

Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut — an exorcism ritual performed on Jeju island — was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2009. According to UNESCO:
The Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut is a ritual held in the second lunar month to pray for calm seas, an abundant harvest and a plentiful sea catch. The rites held at Chilmeoridang in the village of Gun-rip are representative of similar ceremonies held throughout the island of Jeju in the Republic of Korea. [Source: UNESCO]

Village shamans perform a series of rituals to the goddess of the winds (Grandmother Yeondeung), the Dragon King Yongwang and mountain gods. The Yeondeung Welcome Rite includes a ceremony to call the gods, prayers for a good catch, and a three-act play to entertain the ancestral gods; the Yeondeung Farewell Rite two weeks later includes offerings of drinks and rice cakes, a ceremony to welcome the Dragon King, fortune telling with millet seeds, and the launching of a straw boat into the sea by the village’s senior men. As the goddess Yeondeung departs on the fifteenth day, marking the arrival of spring, she sows seeds and calms the troubled waters. Besides the shamans, the Yeongdeunggut is primarily supported by the female divers and ship owners who prepare food and offer sacrifices. Both a seasonal rite and a cultural festival, this ritual is a distinctive embodiment of Jeju identity and an expression of the villagers’ respect for the sea on which their livelihood depends.

The Yeongdeunggut is a unique display of Korean folk beliefs on the nature of gods. The Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut is the embodiment of the divers' belief of the Yeongdeung goddess and is a ritual unique to Jeju, and is the only Haenyeo exocism ritual in Korea. This ritual is a distinctive embodiment of Jeju identity and offers a sense of community to the inhabitants of Chilmeoridang village and holds special values that needs to be well preserved. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Korean Shaman Exorcism Deaths Korea

Shaman exorcisms, called salpuri (literally agony removal but also a pun on arrow removing), can be quite brutal. In the mid-1990s, two Koreans were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison for stomping to death a woman during an exorcism ritual in Malibu, California. During the hours-long ritual the victim was repeatedly struck, stomped and stood on by several men. The exorcism was only stopped when the woman stopped breathing. Around the same time a female shaman and three others were arrested in the Kyonggi province of South Korea for the death the shaman's mentally retarded niece who was severely beaten and forced swallow salt and powdered red pepper.

In February 2017, a German court sentenced a South Korean woman to six years in jail for the death of her cousin who was beaten and suffocated during an attempted exorcism in a Frankfurt hotel room. AFP reported: Four other family members accused of taking part in the ritual, including the female victim's now 16-year-old son, were handed suspended sentences ranging from 18 months to two years. Prosecutors said the victim, 41, named in court as Seonhwa P, was set upon after she began talking to herself and lashing out during a hotel stay in December 2015, leading the accused to attempt the "exorcism". [Source: AFP, February 17, 2017]

“The woman's chest and stomach were beaten while she was gagged first with a towel and then a cloth-covered coat hanger during a two-hour ordeal, they said. The victim suffered "massive chest compression and trauma to the neck" and died of asphyxiation. Judges at Frankfurt found the victim's 44-year-old cousin, described as the main perpetrator, guilty of inflicting bodily harm causing death. The guilty woman, named as Doean K, had "taken it upon herself to decide over life and death", prosecutor Nadja Boettinger said during the trial. Also accused were her son, 22, and daughter, 19, as well as a 16-year-old cousin.

“In delivering his ruling, the presiding judge said the family had acted in the belief that they were chasing away the victim's demons, calling it "a tragic case", according to DPA. After finding the woman's body at the hotel, police at the time also discovered a possible second victim in the garage of a house the group had rented in the town of Sulzbach. The second woman, who was found alive, was badly injured and suffering from hypothermia and dehydration.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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