Hundreds of shamanic shrines are dotted across Jeju, and many are some of the oldest structures on the island.
Yet, only a handful of these traditional places of worship, and some associated rituals, are protected cultural properties. The rest are at the mercy of landowners.
The issue came to the fore in the winter of 2013 with the destruction of the Seolsaemitdang shrine, a natural sanctuary in Jukseong Village where islanders have worshipped for hundreds of years.
More recently, campaigners seeking to preserve the ancient religious sites learned that a shrine in Seongsan, home to Sunrise Peak in the east of the island, had been destroyed to make way for two car park spaces.
The loss has spurred shrine supporters into action with the aim of preserving what is seen as a vital part of island heritage before it is too late.
▲ Tommy Tran looks within one Ojo-ri shrine.
Photo by Joey Rositano
Two such campaigners are Joey Rositano, who has filmed a documentary and published a book about the shrines, and Tommy Tran, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate who is researching Jeju history.
According to Rositano, at least seven of the island’s 400 shrines have been either disturbed or destroyed in the past three years alone.
“It’s an issue that’s going to continue,” he warned.
“These shrines are some of the oldest structures on the island. There’s not much that’s been left after the war and the April 3 massacre. One of the things that is unbelievable to us, as outsiders and for insiders, is that people are just jeopardising some of the island’s only historical structures,” said Rositano.
On the morning of Oct 27, Rositano, Tran and I drove to the Seongsan area where, Rositano informs me, shamanic shrine worship is stronger than anywhere else on the island.
“Probably 80 percent of the island’s shamans live in this county for whatever reason. They just hung on to the tradition stronger here than in other places,” said Joey.
Four years ago in Seongsan, an Illwedang shrine, where traditionally women would come to pray for the health and wellbeing of their children, was destroyed to make way for parking spaces at the nearby Hotel Aroha.
Like the vast majority of the island’s shrines, the religious site, frequented by local haenyeo women divers, fell on privately owned land.
Seongsan’s harbormaster, Hong Yun Pyo, told us how the local authority had tried for 20 years to have the shrine designated as a cultural property.
▲ Rositano talks to a local villager about the threat to local shrines.
Photo by Matthew Collison
He said there was no more land available to build a replacement shrine as all the coastal land is privately owned. Any public land, he told us, is reclaimed land that has been reserved for roads.
The next nearest shrine is in Ojo-ri village, just north of Seongsan. Rositano, Tran and I were guided to the site of the Illwedang shrine thanks to the help of a local resident who regularly attends the spot.
We found the shrine built within a container in the Ojo-ri wetlands, a protected site. However, to get to it worshippers, typically elderly women, have to traverse a wet, rocky path.
One resilient worshipper, Kim Jeung Moon, told us how a traditional shrine - a sacred tree surrounded by a rock wall – used to be sited here but it was destroyed a decade ago when a typhoon tore through the village.
Later she tells us the landowner agreed to replace the shrine, but relocated it to a harder-to-reach spot within the wetlands.
She said: “He didn’t want it [the shrine] on the property, so they built the container building.
“It’s a little uncomfortable to get over there when it used to be here, and it’s a little strange that it’s in a different place.”
Despite the changes, many dedicated worshippers have learnt to adapt as long as the sacred shrines remain.
Kim said: “When you worship your ancestor gods, you don’t have a choice. You have to deal with it.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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