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Portrait of a ShamanAn interview with Shaman Suh Sun Sil
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승인 2013.09.05  08:56:01
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▲ Suh Sun Sil at Jamsu-gut. Photo by Anne Hilty

The life of a shaman (Jeju dialect: simbang or sinbang) often seems mysterious and magical even to local people, and outright exotic to foreigners. Shaman Suh Sun Sil, one of the most prominent on Jeju, recently agreed to an interview in order to render shamans and their practice more accessible to the Jeju Weekly readers.

Suh (b.1961) lives in Gimnyeong Village, Gujwa-eup, and regularly performs her duties in a variety of public festivals and ceremonies as well as numerous private rituals. She is most recently the founder and director of the Keun-gut (Great Rite) Preservation Society (2011), providing instruction to apprentices and an annual week-long series of rituals designed to ensure village health and prosperity.

One of the highlights each year is the Gimnyeong Jamsu-gut (Diver's Rite), attended by more than 100 haenyeo (women divers) and facilitated by Suh – and her shaman mother before her – for decades.

▲ Suh Sun Sil at Jamsu-gut 2013. Photo by Anne Hilty

Suh is an hereditary shaman, following in the footsteps of her late mother, Keun-simbang (Great Shaman) Moon Soon Sun. Suh not only learned her craft from her mother, beginning at the age of 14, but also studied for 25 years with the late Keun-simbang Lee Jung Chun.

In early adulthood, she was additionally privileged to apprentice for several years with the late Ahn Sa In, who considered her his “spirit-daughter,” shamanist conceptualization of the master-apprentice relationship. Ahn (d. 1990) is generally considered the 'savior' of Jeju shamanism, preserving the rituals from obscurity at a time when the Korean government was determined to obliterate the tradition for the sake of 'modernity'.

Shaman Suh recently experienced the loss of her mother in March of 2010, at the age of 92, and Lee in June of 2011. Between these two significant events, in October of 2010, Suh's 25-year old daughter had a near-fatal, severely debilitating accident. It was in autumn of 2011 that, following tremendous effort, Suh began the Keun-gut Preservation Society, and she identifies these two years as her “greatest test.”

“My family and others told me at that time that it was clear I was born to be a shaman,” she said, citing that during these years of difficulty, she “couldn't stop to cry or mourn” because she “needed to continue ... to maintain responsibilities.”

▲ Suh Sun Sil greeting Jacheongbi at Ipchun-gut. Photo by Anne Hilty

Earlier this year, Suh's close colleague Shaman Jung Gong Chul, a member of the Keun-gut Preservation Society, died of throat cancer. Having performed his shin-gut (“spirit-ritual,” the induction ceremony of a shaman) just 3 years prior, Suh also facilitated his funereal rites.

Suh, formerly known as Moon Sun Sil (having changed her surname in 2000 to that of her father, following her stepfather's death), was born in Jeolla Province of the mainland, and returned at the age of four to her mother's homeland of Jeju. (Author's note: until 1946, Jeju was not a distinct province but included in that of Jeolla-do, and the two maintain a close relationship.) She was a sickly child, seldom able to attend school; her mother sought the advice of other shamans, and one from the mainland told her that her daughter must either become a shaman by the age of 17 – or she would die.

The initiatory illness, called “shin-byeong” (spirit-sickness) in Korean, is a universal feature of shamanist traditions. The rigorous training undergone by shamans, including alteration of consciousness, memorization of oral history and ritual sequence, study of healing and performance arts, and more, typically appears to resolve this unexplained illness, which shamans attribute to divine intervention.

Upon completion of elementary school, Suh left the academic system and began training in earnest with her mother and other shamans. By the age of 18, she was fully committed to her calling.

Wanting also what she calls “a normal life,” Suh married a young man from her village and they raised a son and daughter. She identifies this balance, of the spiritual with the everyday, as the key to her success.

▲ Suh Sun Sil before altar at Keun-gut. Photo by Anne Hilty

Shamans are often marginalized in societies, even in mainland Korea; they are deemed by the people of their village as necessary, but distinct from others. As David Mason, an American expert on Korean shamanism who has lived in Korea for nearly 30 years, once said, “You want to be able to call the shaman when you need her – but you don't want her as your neighbor.”

Here on Jeju, however, that distinction is blurred, and the shamans are fully integrated members of their villages, leading otherwise mainstream lives. Indeed, the very deities that they serve are often ancestors of the community, posthumously deified, and devotees view their relationship with the gods as familial. Suh describes her life as one of “many roles – shaman, daughter, daughter-in-law, wife, mother – and very satisfying.” She has sometimes felt regret on behalf of her children, but their support of her remains steadfast, she relayed.

“Being a shaman is very difficult,” a popular sentiment among shamans according to Suh, “but I have been very blessed because of my family – and because I was beloved by great teachers.”

She also cited a strong alignment with Jacheongbi, Jeju's Earth Goddess – and perhaps, in this polytheistic island, its most cherished.

When asked how shamanism has changed over the 40-year span of her practice, Suh first identified the increasing age of devotees – that is, the younger generations are not among the followers any longer, though there are passionate young apprentices. She also cites modernity's interference – sometimes an improvement.

“For example, in the rites to Jowang (hearth goddess), we used to maintain an open wood fire (in the kitchen); now, we use modern methods for inducing a flame (such as gas)....We also used to burn fabric on this flame, reading the future in the way that it burned, which is no longer performed. On the other hand, we have modern conveniences such as cars and cellphones which allow us to easily maintain contact with devotees.”

She also cited the rigors of her training, conducted entirely by oral recitation, demonstration and extensive memorization, compared to that of today's apprentice shamans who have the benefit of video, audio, and written instruction, as well as the use of other technology. She acknowledged that it remains a difficult and time-consuming process, the initial apprenticeship phase lasting for 3 or more years.

Suh further pointed to the Keun-gut or Great Rite of 7-14 days' duration in times past, rarely held today due to the restrictions and requirements of modern lifestyles. This prompted her to found the Keun-gut Preservation Society.

As to the future of Jeju shamanism, Suh remains positive. “As long as there are still believers, it will continue,” she declared. “Rites were once performed for devotees only; today, there is often an audience including researchers and members of the media. While these are two different circumstances, for me the dedication, and communication with spirits, is the same.”

– Dr. Hilty is a cultural psychologist and co-author of an upcoming book on Jeju goddess mythology; from New York, she now makes Jeju Island her home. Dr. Hong is a specialist in cultural heritage and tourism, and a Jeju native.

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