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Rites, tools, and offerings - Jeju shamanist mythology
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승인 2013.03.14  10:03:08
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Offerings to the Gods. Photo by Anne Hilty

The myths of Jeju are the bones of its shamanist tradition.

It is the myths that support the practice, the flesh, just as the skeleton supports the body. The spirits, the purpose of shamanism being the relationship between mortal and immortal worlds, provide the life force.

To fully grasp the meaning of the myths, then, and how they have played out in Jeju culture over time, one must also have a basic understanding of the rites, tools, and offerings of shamanist practice.

The shrines, or halmang-dang, are of utmost importance. It is here that the gods, primarily goddesses, are worshiped, the spirits called, the myths recounted and reenacted – the stories that provide the fabric of a culture.

On Jeju, a hunter-gatherer society turned agrarian as with so many others, there are four primary annual village rites: sin-gwa-se-je, yeong-deung-gut, ma-bul-lim-je or baek-jung-je, and si-man-guk-dae-je.

Sin-gwa-se-je, also known as ma-eul-ui an-nyeong-eul bi-neun sin-gwa-se-gut or, prayer to the gods for the well-being of the village, is the first village-wide ritual of the lunar year and falls on or about 1.15 (lunar), the first full moon. Its purpose is to entreat the gods for a propitious agrarian planting-harvesting cycle. Yeong-deung-gut is actually two main rituals, on 2.1 and 2.14, to welcome and then to bid farewell to the visiting goddess of wind and sea, Yeongdeung. Between the opening and closing rituals, no work occurs; rather, custom dictates smaller rites, rest and merriment to please the goddess while she is here so that she might bring safety and bounty to the fishers and divers in the coming year.

Ma-bul-lim-je, also known as baek-jung-je, is a ritual on 7.14 to ensure the health of the cattle and horses. Thus, it is observed primarily in the inland or mid-mountain villages, while yeongdeung-gut is observed by those villages at the coast. Finally, si-man-guk-dae-je, also known as sin-man-gok-dae-je or, great rite for 10,000 gods, is a harvest festival held in the 10th lunar month on or near 10.15, to signify the end of the growing season and give thanks to the gods for their bounty.

Thus, all villages celebrate the first and last, similar to 'seollal' (lunar new year) and 'chuseok' (harvest festival) of the mainland; however, the 2nd is primarily of the coastal villages, while the 3rd is mainly held in mid-mountain regions.

In addition to the four annual village rites, villagers could go to the shrine for ritual 3-4 times per month depending on the type of shrine, and village-wide rituals were held as needed, often including a 'po-je' or annual Confucian rite held by males only. (This is especially true in inland villages where the presence of exiles strengthened the Confucian tradition; an exception is the Waheul Village poje, which is integrated with shamanist ritual and includes both women and men.)

In coastal villages, there is also an annual jamsu-gut (aka, hae-sin-dang-gut) held on or about 3.15 to worship the gods of the sea, for the safety and prosperity of the diving women.

During the 9th lunar month, called 'sin-gual', an altar is erected to honor the birth of 3 shamanist gods, and no rituals are permitted as 'even the gods need a rest'.

There are four basic types of shrines: hae-sin-dang at the seaside, bon-hyang-dang or halmang-dang which is the main village shrine typically used for healing and for maintaining good village relations, il-yet-dang (attendance on days of the month with a “7”) for fertility/childbirth/rearing and for healing, and yeo-deu-re-dang (on “8” days) typically honoring snake gods for community or household prosperity. Villages in the northern part of the island typically had both ilyetdang and yeodeuredang, while those in the south generally maintained only the latter.

Waheul Bonhyang-dang. Photo by Anne Hilty


Historically, each village had 6-10 shrines. In 2009 and 2010, researchers from Jeju Traditional Culture Institute conducted studies of the remaining shrines, and found approximately 400 still dotting the island, in use or disrepair.

Prior to entering the shrine for ritual, devotees must prepare themselves.

They must bathe, prepare clean or even new clothing (traditionally white), and resolve any conflict they may have with others. There is also a long list of taboos in the time-frame leading up to a ritual, generally in the category of 'unclean acts' (e.g. not coming into contact with anyone who is ill or dying, not engaging in ritual during menses, abstaining from fighting or anything to do with bloodletting such as butchering, and so on).

The tools used by a shaman (yeon-meol, when referred to collectively) include bells (yeo-ryeong), knives (myeong-do), coins or discs (sam-pan), and cups (sang-chan). They are referred to as 'ancestors' and the shaman interacts and communicates with them as with living beings, including greeting them prior to ritual and thanking them on its conclusion, as well as keeping them in the most honored location of the home, generally a small altar. All are used for communication with the spirit world, the latter three specifically for divination.

The bells call the spirits and are adorned with 5 colored ribbons, 'obangsaek', which signify the 5 directions: blue (east), red (south), white (west), black (north), yellow (center) [listed in typical Korean order].

The knives, with white paper ribbons (chi-ma) attached to the handles which are made for each ritual and burned afterward, are used to cast out disease and ill fortune. When thrown to the ground, to be deemed successful in restoring harmony the blades must be facing the same direction (preferably to the east); if they are facing one another it indicates fighting, while facing away depicts general disharmony.

The cups, when tossed, must both be facing upright (open, able to receive) for a propitious reading; the discs or coins must have the characters showing on both/all.

The shaman, often with some effort, continues to toss the items until a fortuitous reading is given; it is thought that the gods will do so once they are placated sufficiently, and if the readings continue to be unfavorable, there is a pause in which the shaman further entreats the spirits for the sake of the villagers. If no favorable reading is gained after some time, the female leader of the village sacrifices a rooster as an ultimate gift to the gods.

When a shaman dies, his or her tools are bequeathed to a spiritual successor (biological or otherwise). If this is not possible, they are placed in the middle of the road, the 'busiest spot' in the village, where they remain for 3 days, during which anyone who feels prepared to take up this calling can claim them. (Children are warned not to touch them, as they will become ill.) If no one takes the tools, they are typically donated to a museum.

[As an example: Last year, Grand Shaman (keun-simbang) Lee Jung Chun died; his successor is Shaman Suh Sun Sil, his student for 25 years – who is also the daughter of a shaman and had already inherited her mother's tools; she therefore donated the tools of her teacher to the National Folk Museum in Seoul.]

Offerings are placed on the altar by devotees ('dan-gol') prior to ritual, and must be superior in every way – freshest, biggest, best quality. Unlike the mainland traditions, beef and pork (including the well-recognized hog's head) are not used. The only notable exception to this is found in rituals to Gwenaegitdo, a Gimnyeong Village god without a shrine, whose myth establishes his propensity for pork.

Included are fish (only those with scales – e.g., not mackerel), shellfish, marine and agrarian produce (typically, 3 colors of fruit, e.g. apple/pear/orange or persimmon; and/or vegetable, e.g. beansprouts/'gosari' (bracken)/'minari' (dropwort)), a bowl of cooked rice and/or glutinous rice cakes (discs), and libation, traditionally 'gamju' or sweet farmer's wine (not made anymore; now, typically Halla Soju).

Devotees arrive early to gain an optimal spot on the altar for their offerings; 'sang-dan-gol', or the most devout, have a place reserved for them.

It is by these means and more that we can begin to deeply resonate with the Jeju myths and how they relate to the spiritual traditions of the island's people.



Kim Soonie, Jeju native, is a mythologist and Jeju representative of the nation's Cultural Heritage Administration. Anne Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home. Interpretation / translation was provided by Han Youngsook, Jeju native and instructor at Jeju National University.

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