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Jeju’s spirit worldFolk beliefs still strong on the island
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승인 2009.09.04  19:12:55
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▲ Simple stones carefully stacked are thought to grant the wish of the stone stacker. Photo by Cat Lever

Jeju is an island passionate about progress, keen to establish itself among global contemporary trends and corporate business. Beneath this world, however, lies an entirely different one.

It is hinted at by the silent Stone Grandfathers that guard the entrances to parks and memorials, suggested by the craftsmanship of the Bangsatap towers, or by low stone walls of the burial mounds. A world of tradition and mythology co-exist with Jeju’s modern life, yet many residents, even Jeju natives, are not fully aware of it.

The spirits of Jeju
This world is said to be home to 18,000 restless spirits, whose influence can still be felt today in many ways, whether through the overtly ritualistic ‘gut’ performed by Jeju shamans, or through the building of small stone towers.

These ‘wishing’ towers made by Jeju natives often measure less than a foot high, and are built to honor the spirits and ask for good fortune and luck. They are easy to spot, especially along Jeju’s coastal paths as there can often be as many as 20 or 30 clustered together, each one made by a different individual as they passed by.

This traditional folk belief, known as Musok, considers the spirits, or Tangsin, to be volatile and unpredictable; therefore for the people of Jeju’s villages, worshipping them was a matter of survival. If a village was afflicted by sickness, bad weather or natural disasters they would consult the local shaman who would make an offering to the Tangsin and ask for assistance.

Ancient legend
Originally the Tangsin are said to have arrived on Jeju through one of three ways; descending from heaven, rising up from beneath the ground, or from abroad. The Tangsin descended from heaven are considered, even today, to be the most powerful of the three. All have many stories about their arrival and creation; one such example comes from the Ponhang-dang, or altar, in Oedo-dong, not far from Iho in Jeju City:

▲ The overtly ritualistic ‘gut’ performed by Jeju shamans honors the spirits and asks for good fortune and luck. Photo courtesy Jeju Provincial Govt.

A visiting governor from the Korean mainland traveled to his hometown of Gimnyeong on Jeju’s northeastern coast. While he was there, he killed a large snake that had been living in the altar of the village of Goenori. After returning to his home on the mainland he fell into a deep sleep and dreamed of a white-haired old man who told him, “If you do not go home immediately, you will die.”

Upon awakening the governor took two of his closest friends, loaded a ship with grain for the people of Jeju and set sail for the island once again. When land was sighted on the horizon the bottom of the ship cracked suddenly and water began to pour in.

As the boat was sinking the men cried out, “We are on our way home. We have grain for the people!” At that moment a giant serpent descended from the flagstaff and used its body to plug the hole in the ship. They arrived safely in port.

The wife of one of the governor’s friends who had been waiting for them to arrive, spread her skirt on the ground and asked the snake, “If you are an ancestor’s spirit, please sit on my skirt,” which the snake did. The governor and his friends later took the snake to a village in Oedo-dong where it subsequently became a Tangsin.

Other stories tell of spirits ascending from under the ground, such as at Samseonghyeol in Jeju city, where the ancestors of the Ko, Yang and Bu families of Jeju are said to have originated.

There are thought to be around 400 shaman sites in villages throughout Jeju, each with its own Tangsin. Spirits are also believed to exist in the ocean, the mountain, in the trees and streams and even in the stars. Wherever one travels on Jeju it is likely there is a story about the spirits of that village or region. It is especially worth looking out for the small stone towers, and perhaps building one yourself, to honor the local spirits and ask for good health and good fortune.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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