▲ Moon Moo Byung, inset, chief director of the Jeju Traditional Culture Institute, is leading a team to create a definitive map of all Jeju Island’s dang, such as the one shown above. Photos by Brian Miller, main, Kim Gyong Ho, inset.
Because of the nature of Jeju’s geographic isolation, religions on the island have evolved along divergent paths from those on Korea’s mainland, and have specific characteristics and difficulties to face. Over the next months, we will look at aspects of different religions followed on Jeju Island. This edition we look at Jeju’s dang, or homes of the gods.
In the village of Bomok, Seogwipo, beside a dry river bed, is a cave that is said to be home to one of Jeju’s oldest residents. It is not known how long he has lived there, but it is told that he has not always lived alone. There was once a woman, it is said, who he fought with incessantly until he drove her from the cave. Few have seen him but even those who have not feel responsible for his well-being and bring food and soju to his hermitage. Some visit to seek advice from the elder on how to cure ailments or increase crop production, or to simply give thanks. Others avoid the cave altogether and still others do not believe such a being exists. Whatever your view, his influence on the village of Bomok cannot be disputed.
He is “God of the Wind,” says Moon Moo Byung, chief director of the Jeju Traditional Culture Institute and a man who has spent the last four decades researching Jeju’s specific form of Shamanism, Musok, and written 10 books on the subject. This dang (home of a god) is one of 400 known dang on Jeju Island. “Simply speaking,” Moon said, as he turned pages of his book which showed detailed geographical information for all known Seogwipo dang, “I believe where one village comes up, [there is] one dang. Villages naturally form where there is a god.”
This particular dang is an aesthetically pleasing cave, but such is not always the case. A dang can be anything natural from a rock formation to a bush. “Sometimes the god can live in a tree, which is also the body of the god,” Moon said.
Historical records concerning the origins of Jeju and its people are scant at best, but dang, Moon said, reflect the lives of the villagers, their troubles and triumphs, and offer insight into this relatively unknown period. “Each dang has a unique cultural context of history for the village. Each dang contains the village’s life and death -- the people’s life and death. So if you understand and get to know more about the dang, you can see the history of the village and look at Jeju history from a different perspective.”
When Moon first began his research in 1972, he assumed that there were only 250 dang. He was not the only one to make the same mistake. Respected writer and former director of the Jeju Folklore Museum, Chin Songgi, wrote in his 1977 paper, “Tangsin: Cheju Shamanism,” that there were 250 dang on the island. Last year, Moon assembled a six-man team with the purpose of creating a definitive map of all the dang on Jeju. He ended up chronicling 400 dang. There may be more, Moon said, although he is skeptical of their authenticity. “People say there are 500 dang. They are symbolic dang ... but only four hundred still exist [in their original form].”
The history of Shamanism on the island has been a tumultuous one with several instances of dang being actively sought out and destroyed by the Christians and even Jeju’s own government, as recently as the 1970s.
“Around 1900,” Chin wrote, “Catholics had begun to persecute the Sinbang [Shamans] ... which resulted in the revolt of Musok believers ... the suppression of Musok continued into the post-Korean war era when official pressure[to modernize the province] ... profoundly restricted the religious life of the Jeju Islanders.”
Though there is better historical documentation of these periods, a lot of the specific information is accompanied by myths and legends. There is an example of a “pastor who tried to destroy more than 100 dang,” Moon said. “He tried to flee because the Jeju people were very angry and he was lucky to flee safely, but his sons and daughters became handicapped. So there is a legend that if you try to destroy the dang, your descendants will not be safe, because the wind of the gods will chase you.”
Currently, Shamanism is on the decline with less and less people wanting to become Sinbang, which places the dang in a pivotal role in keeping the religion alive.
“I feel really sad when people, especially more educated people, regard Shaman-ism as something old,” Moon said. “I believe that the dang enables us to understand the relationship between people and god, the earth and the heaven. Through the understanding of the dang we have a deeper understanding of our way of life and death.”
“Shamanism is on the decline, but the dang history is the Jeju people’s history, it’s the island’s history. Shamanism will never go away.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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