The Women Who Speak For the Gods

Despite decades of persecution and discrimination, shamanism, Korea’s oldest belief system, still maintains its hold on the national psyche.

Juli Min is a writer and editor based in Shanghai. She is the Editor in Chief of the...

 

Just before the shamanic ritual begins, Min Hye Kyung comes over to me bearing two curved daggers that look like they could be props on the set of a pirate movie. She shows me with deft, graceful gestures how to lay them flat on my lap. “For protection.”

I am only observing her kut, or Korean shamanic ritual; indeed, I am not even allowed to cross the invisible threshold that separates the viewing area from the ceremony. But as the spirits will soon be called forth and appeased, one can never take too many precautions.

At the Haedong Mudang Kut Center on a cold winter’s morning just outside of Seoul, the room has gone from a blank canvas to fully and colorfully adorned. Three walls have been covered with large paintings of Min’s gods—the specific motley of spirits that the fifty-one-year-old practitioner worships and calls upon for power. The shrine underneath the gods is filled to the brim, stacked seven layers high in pyramids of ripe, unblemished fruit—pears, apples, pineapples, bananas, oranges, kiwis. On the back wall facing the shrine is a long horizontal metal rod upon which colorful hanbok costumes of different shape and sizes, beautifully pressed, are densely hung as if on display in a costume gallery, a bounty of colors, thick silks and linen ready for the choosing.

The kut center is at the foot of the mountains and a short drive from the nearest town. This is because kut are loud, rambunctious, disruptive affairs. Many local village shamans in Seoul have relocated in the past few decades, their temples and shrines destroyed by city development and reform policy. Their noisy, days’-long ceremonies that used to take place in the heart of communities have since been chased out by, in turn, the Confucians, Japanese imperialists, the South Korean military government, and Christians.

The Haedong center holds a cafeteria and several small kut rooms on the ground floor, but Min has rented the second floor, a larger, more private space with a small veranda. The room is set up like any standard one-bedroom apartment. The ritual is set to take place in the glorified living room with its sliding glass porch doors that look out onto a view of the neighboring mountains. The bedroom is reserved for Min—it’s where she will retire during breaks throughout the day-long event. A small kitchen area and recessed dining space stand off to the side, and this is where I am seated on a sofa, separate from the ceremony but with an open view of it. Observers are not allowed to enter the kut space. Min and her three associate shamans and two musicians flutter about the space preparing final props, garments, and cushions.

A young woman who looks to be in her early thirties is sponsoring this kut, and though I don’t know her name throughout the ritual, I think of her as Jane. Jane is wearing a grey turtleneck sweater dress and leggings. Her face is puffy with what look to be an aggressive amount of filler injections. She is sponsoring this kut because she has issues to air and resolve: for one, she is having an affair with a married man who financially sponsors her life and she does not know how to proceed with him; second, she wants to move back home with her mother but they constantly argue; third, she had experienced shinbyong in the past.

Shinbyong is the sickness that comes with the spiritual calling to become a shaman. Jane had begun the training process of becoming a shaman herself but gave up her training prematurely. Today she appears before the gods to apologize and ask for their patience, a little more time.

As Min and her team of associates (including a male shaman, with long hair tied back, wearing a hanbok dress) and musicians prepare, the water heater in the kitchen area begins to boil over. Min announces with calm bemusement: “The water is boiling by itself—would you look at that.” We all turn with surprise at the possessed water boiler, which was indeed turned off one minute ago and now has steam rising angrily from its spout.

A young apprentice runs over. “Oh, no, it’s just because it’s broken. If there’s water inside, it’ll just keep going and going.”

The musicians take a seat behind their percussive instruments. The shamans take their respective positions around the room, the rustle of their hanbok silks fluttering to a standstill. The kut begins.

Min brings Jane into the center, where Jane begins bowing and chanting under her breath. She seems to know what to do without being told. Min walks out onto the balcony, waiting, looking upon the mountains. After several rounds of prostrations, Jane sits back in her seat and Min returns to be changed into her first outfit. She stands in the center of the room and is dressed. Red robes are layered atop her hanbok and a white band of cloth is tied around her temples. Then an elaborate tall hat is secured with straps under her chin. Her assistants and apprentices take her discarded robes as she patiently holds out her arms in a crosswise position.

The smell of incense fills the air as Min begins to dance, circling around and around to the quick beat of the drum and the cymbals. There is no crescendo to the music; only a sudden and oppressive fortissimo that fills the small space and expels any thought circulating in the mind. Jane, in her chair, calmly watches the scene in front of her, occasionally looking back as I snap a photo. When Min begins to speak, relaying the practical advice and blessings of the gods and Jane’s ancestors, it is in a husky singsong, the words modulated by melody, like chant, like a sung-through musical.

After a few minutes of this, Min turns to me, smiling graciously, and explains: “It’s really because of her resistance to her calling that all these things are happening in her life.”

I first met Shaman Min Hye Kyung a few days earlier at the Kut Center in Yangju, about one hour’s drive north of Seoul’s city center. When I arrived, I was greeted first by one of her apprentices, a pretty young woman in her early thirties who said that “mother” Min had been training her for about seven years. 

Min has now worked as a shaman in Seoul and Gyeonggi-do for over twenty years, where she makes a decent living and trains future initiates in the traditional apprenticeship. Shamans in Seoul can charge from 3,000,000 KRW upwards to 10,000,000 KRW (roughly $2,500 to $9,000 USD) to sponsor a kut. Individual divinations by shamans can cost between 50,000 to 300,000 KRW (roughly $35 to $2,700 USD). In contrast, non-shaman fortune tellers and astrological readers who set up tents and benches along popular night-life areas in Seoul charge as little as 20,000 KRW for a reading.

But the life of a shaman is not an easy one. When she was younger, Min would perform kut for neighbors and clients, but when she encountered them in public afterward they would pretend not to know her, ignoring her as they walked by. “We take on their problems. Then they act like they don’t know us. That’s the thing I didn’t like the most. The most painful part.”

Throughout Korean history, shamans have been hunted in the name of social order by Confucians, in the name of modernity by Japanese imperialists, and, most recently, in the name of industrialization and anti-superstition under President Park Chung-Hee. Modernization and the erosion of folk culture is not unique to the Korean nation. What is unique, however, is the way in which folk customs were forcibly eradicated by presidential command in the late twentieth century.

In 1970, President Park Chung Hee began the Saemaul Undong, or The New Village Movement, which aimed to bridge the wealth gap between Korea’s cities and countryside villages. In concert with this movement arose the Mishin Tapa Undong, or the Movement to Defeat the Worship of Gods, in the 1980s. The timing coincides with the rise of Protestantism in Korea. Under the banner of the New Village and industrialization, Korean shamans and folk tradition practitioners were harassed and their temples, houses, and shrines systematically destroyed. Folk music and culture was silenced, set in opposition to the country’s rapid economic agenda.

The legacy of Shamanism is filled with contradictions. Since the 1960s, shamans have been identified as intangible cultural assets by the Korean government and have represented the country in cultural events worldwide. In the Korean imagination, shamans are simultaneously witches, psychologists, folk legends, history keepers, and schizophrenics. Park Chung Hee, despite his attempts to cleanse Korea of superstition and destroy shamans and their shrines in the late twentieth century, has become a spirit god to many shamans who identify with his spirit in death, restless due to his abruptly shortened life in the service of his country.

Despite decades of persecution and discrimination, and despite the gradual and inevitable erosion of folk customs, traditions, and even architecture in South Korea today, shamanism, the nation’s oldest belief system, still maintains its hold on the national psyche, a source and a host for intrigue, pride, even presidential scandal.

*

Shamanism is an indigenous pre-historic religion of Korea, thought to be descended from Siberia. The gods and spirits that the Korean shaman worship are often the spirits of those who lived but were wronged or cheated in life. The spirits choose those who are to become shamans because he or she has experienced deep trauma or pain in life as well. Because she has suffered, she is able to understand and empathize with the suffering of the gods; she is able to understand, hear and translate their words to the living. In this vein, popular gods are often military heroes, killed in battle.

Korean clients today (mostly women) still go to shamans (also mostly women, called “mudang” in Korean) for divination, spiritual guidance, and for rituals. One of the most popular types of kut in the past twenty years has been the ritual to bless a new business venture. During these rituals, shamans invoke the client’s ancestral spirits to speak through them, dispensing advice, warnings, and reflections. Mudang also make and bless amulets that clients can keep for good fortune. Many clients go in secret, partaking quietly in what some call the “women’s religion” of Korea.

To be a woman in Korea has traditionally meant living by a narrow definition of womanhood. Korea at its core maintains a deeply Confucian culture, evolved from the Chinese scholar and brought to Korea in the fourth century. Families and companies are run by often dictatorial patriarchs, and women are expected to serve the men in their lives.

There has long been an alternative way of life, however, for Korean women outside of the confines of their roles according to traditional Confucian ideology as the glorified indentured servants of men. The path is difficult and lonely, for it requires a rejection of the structures of society and family. But it is available for those who have been chosen by the gods.

When Laurel Kendall, Curator of Asian Ethnology and Division Chair of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, went to her first kut viewing in Korea in the 1970s, she was surprised by what she saw. The Korean world as she knew it was turned upside down. Women were laughing, praying, and shouting, she told me during a phone conversation. The men, on the other hand, were huddled in a corner. One shaman even grabbed the man of the house by the ear and, in her possessed state, proceeded to yell at him.

Shamans are unclassifiable in terms of traditional gender expectations because they are at once women and vessels for gods, capable of being possessed by both grandfathers and children. To transform from woman to shaman, the initiate must also physically travel to the fringes of her social world, isolating herself, and cutting all ties with her family.

It starts with shinbyong. This illness can continue for years. It is often an unclassifiable illness that modern medicine cannot heal. Once identified as the spirit sickness by an experienced shaman and also accepted and acknowledged by the initiate, the sickness will then seem to go away. The initiate is cured once she ceases to resist her calling by the gods and ancestor spirits.

To begin her training, she will find a shaman mother who will take her on as an apprentice for a period of one to ten years. During this time, the apprentice will identify her individual set of spirit gods through meditation and prayer in the mountains, as well as learn the oral tradition of shaman ritual.

The initiate, upon completing her training, will then perform an initiation kut, during which she will showcase the gods speaking through her, dance on knife blades (as a sign of her possession by the gods and insensitivity to human fear or pain), and perform divinations for the audience. Her performance in this kut will determine whether she will be deemed an authentic shaman, and whether she is ready for the gods and spirits to speak truthfully through her.

The initiate’s family will be in the audience, and the initiation kut will include a goodbye ceremony, in which the initiate will formally separate her bonds from her mother and father and siblings, and possibly a husband and children that she had in her previous life. After this separation ceremony, she will proceed to use the formal honorific in speaking with her parents; her parents will also use the honorific to speak with her. She will not attend any future funeral ceremonies for her parents.

Once the shaman is initiated and trained, she may then work her own kut ceremonies, where she will hear and address the grievances and worries of her clients. In a kut, the client, usually a woman, will have the space to air her grievances. Perhaps her mother-in-law is causing her stress; perhaps she cannot conceive a child. The shaman communicates for any discontented spirits who have been ignored or prescribes steps for the woman to make things right with the living or the dead. (In Korean shamanism, there are no evil spirits, only discontented, or ignored, or restless spirits who are unfairly treated in life or in death.) During the kut, the client is made to participate, bantering with the shaman or answering questions. She is invited to dance to the drumbeat that is constantly beating in the background, to the cymbals that are being crashed to an even tempo. She dances, laughs, cries, in a cathartic and oftentimes humorous and light-hearted process that expunges from her what Koreans call “han,” or what Daniel Kister, a Jesuit Father and academician who has long studied Korean shamanism defines as “the bitterness, rancor, regrets, and gnawing woe that a life of pain, frustration, and misunderstanding too often leaves pent-up within a person.”

There is a school of academic thought that claims Korean shamanism to be a form of psychosis —that the women and men who receive shinbyong, the spirit sickness, are really suffering from a mild case of schizophrenia. Kister writes that a number of Korean psychiatrists have asserted that working, productive shamans are recovered neurotics—that shamanism is “an institutionalized system of sublimation.” These doctors also see shamans as primitive psychiatrists themselves who are “healed, and achieve psychotherapeutic effects through empathy.”

Seong Nae Kim, professor of religious studies at Sogang University in Seoul, does not necessarily agree, but she does say that those who venture down the path of shamanism are particularly perceptive and sensitive souls, catering with generosity of spirit to those they serve. In addition, she spoke of shaman groups and teams of divine sisters, mothers, and brothers as reminiscent of the classical theatre troupe.

Shamans are indeed talented performers. During kut, performer and audience, as well as musician and costume and prop all work together to invoke the spirits in a thrilling and dramatic kind of theatrical improvisation. A friend I talked with in Korea, a longtime practitioner of Korean drumming, explained how the constant beat of the drums and cymbals during shamanic kut—increasing, persisting, escalating—turns its listeners “a little bit insane.”

*

Shamanism in Korea has experienced waves of popularity in modern times, especially during periods of crisis and insecurity. Laurel Kendall suggests there are two common responses to shamans today. Some believe that it is simply irrational, superstitious; others feel that shamanism is something that makes Koreans unique. The search for this authentic Korean-ness was a trend that emerged after the civil war, after colonialization, and with the emergence of the first folklore studies departments in universities in South Korea. This was in part a reaction to Korea’s turbulent twentieth century, during which its self-identifiers were torn asunder and replaced again and again by outside forces.

But there cannot be a discussion of the authentic and original Korea without addressing Korea’s current bifurcated state. Korea is a modern country. But embedded deep is a trauma, a psychological instability and threat to the very identity that has been carefully built over the past fifty years. Korea is still divided, still in crisis, with a wound running along its thirty-eighth parallel. Can Korea be said to be authentic and whole as long as it remains divided?

For the South Korean shaman, it is a privilege to make the pilgrimage to Paekdu, a mountain which sits on the border between the two Koreas. To get there, they travel through China to its border with North Korea. Paekdu is the sacred, original mountain, where Korea’s mythical founder (and first shaman) Tan’gun was born; Paekdu is the mountain from which all the other mountains in Korea acquire their spiritual power. On the foot of Paekdu, it is not uncommon to see Korean shamans performing kut for reunification, or to see shamans trekking to the top of the active volcanic mountain. On its summit plateau, across from the shining turquoise lake that sits upon the border, you can see to the other shore, where North Korea begins.

*

Shamans trek to great heights to heal divides, but their work has also been implicated in creating them. In late 2016, it became clear that the cabinet of President Park Guen Hye and the president’s unofficial aide, Choi Soon Sil, were using their positions to siphon government funds and bribes from corporations.

Choi, the daughter of a former Korean cult leader, Choi Tae Min, allegedly came to know Park after Park’s mother, Yuk Young-soo, took a bullet for Park’s father, then-president Park Chung-hee, and was killed. Choi’s father, a spiritualist and medium, claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit of Park’s deceased mother. Choi Tae Min died in 1994, and Choi Soon Sil maintained her close relationship with Park, who eventually became president.

Choi was said to have an influence on everything from the president’s speech-writing to her handbag choices, and the president was accused of sharing confidential documents with her. In early 2017, Park was impeached for abuses of power, and Choi was sentenced to a twenty-year sentence in jail. This year, Park was sentenced to twenty-four years in jail.

Throughout the almost two-year-long ordeal, Choi has been referred to repeatedly as a shaman, or a Korean Rasputin. To the shamans implicated in the political scandal, the connection is erroneous and heartbreaking, though not unexpected. Min says that shamans and the women who choose the difficult profession, have been, and continue to be, the scapegoats of Korean history.

“These days, because of all the negative energy and press, I have been thinking—Is this the end of our era, our profession? Is this it for us?” Min asks.

When I ask whether she could foretell the political scandal involving the president, she asserts she did feel something tragic on the horizon for Korea. “I sensed something in 2017—it wasn’t clear, but it was some kind of natural disaster or crisis; I kept telling people not to buy real estate.”

*

Back at the Haedong Mudang Kut Center during my last week in Seoul, Min has been dancing and chanting at, for, and sometimes with Jane for two hours without pause.

“You always want to leave, you’re always looking to travel, aren’t you?” she sings. “Where are you planning to go? Japan? Hong Kong? The US?” Jane nods. “But when you travel, go to Hong Kong and not Japan. And be careful walking around at night. And don’t go now, maybe some months later.”

During a short break where we are again served coffee and drinks, Min changes into white clothes and a black hat. “You’re feeling isolated, aren’t you?” Jane says yes. “You’re crying a lot, depressed all the time.” Jane nods her head, rubbing her palms together as Min/spirit speaks. “You have difficulty with your mom. We’ll take away some of the pain, some of the conflict, don’t worry.”

The drumming is very loud, so loud that I can hardly hear the chanting at times. In her fourth set of robes, speaking as another ancestral spirit now, Min, standing close to Jane and right in front of her, addresses the issue of money: “You have to make it. You can’t keep spending money as soon as it comes in.” Jane bobs her head to the beat, even swaying now. The continuous clanging of the drums is almost too much to bear even from the periphery of the room. Min begins dancing, selecting knives to wave in the air, spinning in circles. Her trainees and the other shamans stand around the room, rubbing their hands in supplication to the spirits, at times uttering “Thank you, thank you.”

Min takes a break and her associate shaman, a man named Kim Ki Chan, takes over for a while. Kim, a male shaman, wears his waist length hair wrapped in a low bun and, like Min before him, wraps a man’s costume over his hanbok dress. The former Catholic who had once aspired to priesthood and worked as a banker became a mudang after his grandfather visited him in his dreams. After wrestling with his destiny for a long time, falling into despair and alcoholism, he learned to cast off the long-held shame he once felt over his mother’s own work as a mudang. He finally relented to his calling.

Jane selects colored flags placed before her, and Kim wraps Jane in a yellow fabric. Above the clanging of the cymbals and drumming he tells her to clutch the fabric so that it forms a kind of pouch in front of her body. Kim then spins around, chanting, grabbing what look like two wands with long streaming strips of paper attached. He sings while bringing the wands over his head and arcing them into the yellow cloth bundle Jane holds in front of her. He is pouring spiritual luck into her makeshift pouch.

Kim then stops to ask, “There is something strange going on with the law, isn’t there?” Jane is surprised. “Yes, actually. There is a lawsuit. It’s getting settled in March.” Kim gestures to the apprentice. “Give her some grains to eat.” As Jane chews on the grains handed to her, Kim dances and sings without pause. “This is for fortune, I’m placing fortune into your bundle. Keep hold of it. Hold on to it tight!”

Later, Min reemerges and orders Jane to select some robes to wear. Jane is indecisive. She doesn’t know which to pick from the deep chest of colorful fabrics, and so Min and her associates choose one for her. It is a sheer pink robe laced with silver detailing and lined with pink fur. Cut differently it could look like something for sale at Victoria’s Secret. Jane fidgets with it, and with the yellow bundle of luck swollen at her belly, she looks like a pregnant woman wearing a negligée.

“Dance! Play!” they instruct Jane. She starts dancing but it’s clear she’s not feeling it. The associates cheer her on. “You have to let it go!” they say. To each other, they scoff, “Does she think it would come so easy?”

“It’s the clothes. I think I chose the wrong clothes,” Jane says with despair. They reject this idea, urging her on. But eventually they relent and grab some folded clothes for her, placing them into her hands. With the luck bundle, the flags, and the loose dresses clutched in her two hands, she begins to jump timidly to the beat and the cymbals. Min urges the musicians to start with a slower tempo, conducting to them the beat and pace she wants.

Jane starts to jump, waving the cloths in the air, her eyes closed. The beat speeds up.

“That’s it, now,” Min says.

“It feels great,” Jane replies.

“Shall we move on?” Min asks.

“Let’s see,” Jane says. “Let’s see after I play a bit more.” In kut, spirit gods love to play, and that word is used often. The gods are capricious, with wants, needs, jealousies, and resentments. In this way, they resemble the pantheon of Greek gods.

Min is satisfied with this answer. “When you feel it, just do it, just jump, just dance.”

The drumming is picking up, the cymbals crashing. I notice I’m excited myself, my feet starting to beat to the rhythm, my body leaning forward. I, too, want Jane to dance, to let go, to feel better.

“It feels so good!” she says.

Min dances along with her. “Just go,” she says.

Jane, still dancing, still flailing her arms and the colorful cloths around, begins to speak—the spirits have started talking through her.

“Grandmother is saying poor thing, you poor thing, you’re such a poor thing.” Jane dances, eyes closed.

“Yes, what else do they say?” Min asks.

“Grandfather says if I don’t help myself, who will help me? Grandmother is saying again and again: you poor, poor thing, you sad, pathetic thing.”

The shamans gather round, jubilant with the first breakthrough of the day—“Yes, you poor thing, poor thing, poor girl.” They invoke other spirits in her name. “Help her, the poor thing. Help her, the poor thing. The poor, poor, pathetic thing.”

They dance and jump, the drums clanging, the water heater shrill and frantic in the background. The water boils over, again and again.

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