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“The diver's life is difficult”Shaman Suh Sun Sil consoles the haenyeo at Gimnyeong Jamsu-gut
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승인 2013.04.18  10:47:51
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Shaman Suh Sun-sil Entreats the Dragon Gods of the Sea. Photo by Anne Hilty

Once a year, the free-divers of Jeju hold an elaborate ceremony to placate their gods.

The annual “jamsu-gut,” a full-day shamanist ritual on behalf of those known today as “haenyeo,” takes place on 3.8 according to the lunar calendar, this year falling on Wednesday, April 18. For the divers, this and the recent Yeongdeung-gut are the most important events of the year.

Some say that the jamsu-gut is more beloved, as it is dedicated to the safety and prosperity of the divers alone and entreats dedicated Jeju deities, while Yeongdeung-gut honors a visiting goddess and is held for divers and fishers alike. Both, however, are significant.

While the jamsu-gut may be held in any coastal village of the island, one of the most well-recognized today is that of East Gimnyeong Village.

The ritual is presided over by Shaman Suh Sun-sil, joined by four other shamans and supported by members of the Keun-gut Preservation Society which she heads. Suh, an hereditary shaman who has been serving her community for decades, follows in the footsteps of her now deceased mother who was a “keun-simbang” or Grand Shaman.

The Gimnyeong Jamsu-gut is a great celebration, a time when the 100+ haenyeo of the village come together for food, ritual, and bonding. Reflecting the greater haenyeo community, nearly all are over the age of 50 and a majority in their elder years.

Shaman Suh Sun-sil and Haenyeo Devotees in the Shrine. Photo by Anne Hilty

Government officials from village, city and even provincial levels visit the ritual to pay their respects. Bowing before the altar, they first acknowledge the gods, following which they honor the presiding shaman, haenyeo chief, village women's leaders, and attending haenyeo, leaving a donation before they depart.

A handful of researchers also attend, a small and dedicated group of regulars whose respectful presence is accepted by both shamans and haenyeo. It is not a public event.

This year, Park Seung-Ryun, wife of Governor Woo Keun-min, paid a visit to the delight of the haenyeo. As she enthusiastically held out a banner which displayed the lyrics to a popular haenyeo song, the community hall echoed with the strident voices of dozens of diving grannies as they serenaded her.

In the East Gimnyeong haenyeo complex, a collection of buildings that include a large community / dining hall, bathhouse, place of worship, and more, the ritual is adjacent to the party. In this way, as shamanist drumming and women's laughter overlap, the sacred and the civic merge as one.

A clown entertained the haenyeo and their guests in the dining hall, while the shaman cried in the shrine for the dangerous and difficult life of these women, thus rendering evident the spectrum of their experience.

The celebration includes a vast array of seafood, prepared and served by rotating groups of women throughout the day. Sea creatures also naturally figure prominently in the altar to the sea gods.

Jamsu-gut is held to honor and entreat Yowang and Yowang-buin, Jeju dialect names for the Dragon King and Queen who rule the sea. The shamans further entreat the youngest son of these deities, who is said to have his parents' heart and can easily persuade them.

In the Gimnyeong ritual, Jacheongbi, goddess of earth who brought grain to Jeju people, is also invoked and honored; the haenyeo, and indeed all Jeju people, traditionally view both earth and sea as their “fields.” Indeed, all ancestors and spirits are welcomed.

The ritual follows the usual pattern of invoking the gods, identifying participants and purpose, divining the probable outcome of the year, entreating and entertaining the gods including offerings in order to worship and ensure their benevolence, and bidding the gods farewell. In the identification of participants the history of the local community is typically recounted; additionally, the shaman outlines the difficulties faced by the haenyeo in order to engender the gods' sympathy – and to console the diving women.

Site of Haenyeo Offerings to Sea Gods. Photo by Anne Hilty

Every time a haenyeo enters the sea, she knows that her life is in danger. The work is physically challenging and the toll of repeated diving as well as accidents and other circumstances, in conjunction with advancing age, render every dive a threat.

According to a haenyeo proverb, “We enter the Otherworld to earn our living, and return to this one to save our kids.” Every year, haenyeo die in the sea, upon which a very different ritual, one meant to claim her soul back from its watery grave and console her diving sisters, must be performed.

The jamsu-gut is thus of supreme importance to this community, as they ask the gods once again to keep them safe and to bring them prosperity – for one more year.


Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home.

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