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Jeju shamanism: proper conduct for attending a ritual
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승인 2013.01.30  14:23:40
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Shaman Suh Sun-sil at Keun-gut last year. Photo by Hong Sunyoung



[For an introduction to Jeju shamanism, please see here.]


Should one attend a public shamanistic ritual on Jeju, proper conduct is essential. Though public, the ritual is nevertheless a form of religious worship still deeply significant to devotees. Journalists, researchers and other observers often, albeit unintentionally, defile this atmosphere.

A majority of shamans and devotees are welcoming to those outsiders who attend not with motivation born of morbid curiosity, thrill-seeking or sightseeing, but of a true, respectful desire to learn about and experience the shamanistic ritual. This quiet attitude of reverence is essential, whether one understands the proceedings or not.

This event, odd though it may seem to the uninitiated, is another's communion with the gods and should be treated as such at all times – regardless of the careless actions of other observers.

Oneself and one's attire should be neat, clean and conservative, with little bare flesh exposed. One should speak in hushed tones or not at all, and if attending with a translator, keep translation to a minimum.

One should arrive early, enter the ritual space with a reverence that is maintained at all times, never interrupting or interfering with the ritual in progress. If possible, one should introduce oneself to the main shaman or other officials as a matter of politeness. If this isn't possible, slipping in quietly and maintaining a worshipful attitude will suffice.

Most shrines are out of doors. The altar is obvious, there is typically a sacred tree by which spirits travel between the worlds, and ritual space may be further delineated by cloths laid on the ground. If there is any reason to enter this central area of ritual, for example if one is directed to sit there, shoes generally must be removed before entering what is sacred space; check other attendees nearby if uncertain. Stay clear of the altar generally, and never, under any circumstances, attempt to go to behind it as this is the pathway from spirit-world to the ritual.

There is often a place to contribute money upon arrival – a 10,000won bill is acceptable – and, if there are long strips of white paper and markers nearby, writing one's name and affiliation (or country of origin, for visitors) after contributing money is expected; the message, to the gods and the shamans as their conduits, will be added to others on the altar.

If one has attended other such rituals and knows how to properly bow before the altar, after making a monetary contribution (usually given in a white envelope to the main shaman), this would be especially appreciated as a token of respect and an attempt to participate properly.

Photographs may be taken, but discreetly and respectfully. The process of taking photos should never distract from the ritual, nor make devotees uncomfortable. Photographing those in attendance is generally discouraged.

Rituals can take many hours or even days on end. The protocol is casual enough as to allow one to leave and return as needed, though quietly and softly; food and drink will always be served. If one cannot remain to the ritual's end, leaving discreetly and at a natural break between ritual segments is expected.

In some mid-mountain village rituals, such as the New Year ritual of Waheul or Songdang, a live rooster will be sacrificed as part of the ceremony; one's own beliefs about such matters are best left in their own cultural context.

Foreigners will often be pulled into the dancing at the ritual's conclusion. This should be recognized as a kind attempt to include outsiders, and nothing else.

The sharing of food and drink is essential to the communal feeling of the ritual; a refusal, however politely given, can feel uncomfortable to ritual participants.

Rituals are village affairs. They signify that the village is without conflict, its members recommitting themselves to one another and to the well-being and prosperity of their community. Members generally welcome an outsider who shows clear respect for them and their event, who attempts to understand without disturbing, and who maintains an open mind – and heart.



Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home; she has been studying shamanism around the world for more than 25 years. Dr. Hong is a scholar of cultural heritage and its intersection with tourism; she is a Jeju native and daughter of a haenyeo.

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