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Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut, Jeju's UNESCO-protected shamanist rite
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승인 2013.04.04  09:01:58
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Grand Shaman Kim Yoon Su. Photo by Anne Hilty
Yeongdeung Halmang
has departed Jeju until next year, leaving behind the promise of a bountiful marine harvest.

The goddess of wind and sea visits the island for only 2 weeks each year, and during this time haenyeo (diving women) and others placate her with rituals and offerings. On the day of her departure, 2.14 (lunar), villages throughout Jeju hold a rite of farewell.

This year, a four-day program to educate people about Jeju shamanism was held during this time, March 22-25 (Gregorian), including a display and workshops at the Jeju National Museum and two major shamanist rituals. Additional educational programs for children will be held through July.

On Sunday, March 24, the Yeongdeung Halmang farewell ritual was held in the newly reconstructed Gaksi Shrine at the Hado Village shore, just east of the Haenyeo Museum. It was the first time in 40 years for the ritual to be held at this site.

The UNESCO-recognized ritual at Chilmeoridang (Chilmeori Shrine), located on Sarabong in Geonip-dong, a hill which overlooks both Jeju City and the harbor, was held on Monday the 25th. Grand Shaman Kim Yoon Su presided, accompanied by his wife, Shaman Lee Yong-ok, and many other shamans. All are members of the Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut Preservation Society, led by Kim.

Shaman Suh Sun Sil of Gimnyeong, who heads the Keun-gut Preservation Society of Gujwa-eup, was in attendance, along with a number of researchers notably including Moon Moo-byung and Kang Sojeon, media representatives, visitors – and a handful of dangol (devotees).

There is the possibility, in view of the reduced number of worshipers beyond the shamans themselves, that this particular ritual is no longer well-connected to the local community. Other rituals that took place throughout the weekend, witnessed in villages such as Bukchon and Hamdeok, had greater attendance by villagers – and far fewer members of the press.

One might ask, considering Jeju's seemingly endless quest for UNESCO and other recognition of natural and cultural features, what benefit such designation brings. Increased understanding, both domestically and internationally, of the intrinsic worth of such eco-cultural elements is invaluable. Too, each appellation is accompanied by requirements and resources for preservation, a stellar example of which can be seen in this year's four-day event.

At one point in her oral recitation of local history, Shaman Lee included “UNESCO Chilmeoridang” – thus weaving the modern with the traditional, a crucial feature of successful preservation.

Along with the restoration of Gaksi Shrine in Hado, the Chilmeori Shrine was recently enhanced with a stone wall backdrop and tiered stone seating which serve to accentuate the shrine itself, heretofore consisting only of several large sacred stones. This added to the feeling of sacred space in a shrine otherwise located in the middle of a public park, surrounded by recreation seekers.

As part of the preservation program, many young students visited the ritual at Chilmeori Shrine. Each group of a few dozen arrived in succession and, led by shaman apprentice and Noripae Hallasan traditional actor Yoon Miran, they bowed to the altar three times then joined other attendees for 15-20 minutes. As intergenerational transmission is the only method by which cultural features can be preserved, rather than merely memorialized, such educational measures are critical.

In the day's ritual features, Yowang (in Jeju dialect; known as “Yongwang” in the mainland) is called – dragon god of the sea. It is to this deity, and his wife Yowang Buin, that Jeju haenyeo most closely align themselves; this ritual not only honors Yeongdeung Halmang but these sea gods and the village patron gods as well. As Yeongdeung Halmang is a briefly visiting though highly welcomed deity, it is imperative that this connection be made.

The jamsu-gut, or divers' ritual, which will take place next month pays full homage to Yowang and Yowang Buin. Some such also mention Yeongdeung Halmang once more.

Offerings to the Goddess. Photo by Anne Hilty

In the final act of the ritual, a group of men appear in dark clothing and white paper masks. They represent the “yeonggam,” the meaning of which can refer to capricious spirits – or to Seonwang, the “boat king” who protects fishermen and brings them bounty. Ultimately, haenyeo launch small straw boats into the sea as a parting gift to Yeongdeung Halmang – and she is on her way.

The two weeks of Yeongdeung Halmang's visit this year saw mostly mild, spring-like weather. It is said by Jeju people, with a smile, that when this occurs, Yeongdeung has brought her daughter with her – rather than her daughter-in-law – and thus, she is in good spirits.

Indeed, a week ago haenyeo in Hado and Sehwa were seen diving, traditionally not done during this period and a sign of modernization – and, global warming. One such haenyeo relayed, “Yeongdeung Halmang is happy – so we are happy in the sea with her.” At the same time, another village woman was seen tossing rice cakes into the sea, as offerings to the visiting goddess.

Yeongdeung Halmang and her worship are alive and well in the island of Jeju.

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, and a native of Jeju.

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