Jeju shamans perform at a public gut in Jeju City. The hanging papers are known as kimhae and are often inscribed with the names of spirits. Photo by Brian Miller
With a history dating back 40,000 years, it’s not surprising that Korean shamanism has gone through its share of turbulent times. In the 1980s shamanism was outlawed by the Korean military dictatorship and all shamanic objects, from knives to drums, ceremonial robes and Kimhae paper craft was confiscated and destroyed. At the time, many believed that shamanism would not survive this; which is exactly what the government intended, as it viewed it as a dangerous superstitious practice. However, what the government succeeded in doing was driving shamans, known as “simbangs” into the mountains or into caves where they continued to practice in secret, using the few small objects they had been able to hide. The 1988 Olympics, held in Korea, signalled the end of the oppressive military dictatorship and as Korea became a democratic republic, shamans were once again free to practice without fear.
This was not the first time shamanism had come up against a threat to its existence. During the Joseon Dynasty Confucianism took hold, along with its political ideology regarding the roles of men and women. Historically, simbangs have usually been women, but this public and highly respected role did not fit with Confucian ideas about appropriate roles for women. Shamanism survived this period however, as it did the reigns of the Silla and Goryeo kingdoms.
Shamanism’s survival may, in part, be due to that fact that its roots are based in the traditional Korean way of life; it is not merely a religion imposed on people by an outside influence. Almost like a naturally evolving form of spiritual medicine, it played a part in every aspect of life, from farming and fishing, to the raising of children, healing the sick and even taking care of the dead. It was intrinsic to the core of Korean culture and therefore perhaps was never in any great danger of dying out.
In modern Korea, agriculture does not play as big a part as it once did and so many shaman rituals that were previously performed to ask the spirits for a good harvest or abundant food are no longer needed. Simbangs still regularly perform gut ceremonies to heal illness or communicate with the deceased; especially on Jeju Island whose culture is less permeated with that of mainland Korea. On Jeju there are around 400 shaman shrines, located in the mountain, in caves, near the sea and in villages. Jeju villagers still visit their local shamans for help and spiritual advice and public guts are regularly performed.
Jeju shamans perform at a public gut in Jeju City. The hanging papers are known as kimhae and are often inscribed with the names of spirits. Photo courtesy Jeju Provincial Govt.
Recently the Jeju Provincial Government has nominated Jeju’s “Chilmoridang-yongdung” gut to be included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The gut currently has Korean government support as Intangible Cultural Heritage Site no. 71. Performed in February of the lunar calendar, this gut heralds and celebrates the arrival of the grandmother from the sea “Yongdung halmang”, also known as the Sea Goddess. In February the dramatic weather- heavy rain and wind, signals her arrival. She stays on Jeju for one month and during this time guts are performed near the sea, all across the island. Their purpose is to ask for safety at sea and good fishing. When the month is over, Jeju people bid her farewell. Her departure is traditionally thought to mark the arrival of spring time.
Official designation as a cultural asset may seem like a good thing, but Ko Young-ja, a researcher from the Jeju Traditional Culture Institute and editor of their cultural studies periodical, fears that the Jeju gut is gradually becoming “institutionalised” simply because of the amount of official recognition it has received. She is concerned that with the attention of so many scholars, Jeju shamans are becoming more like actors and find it difficult to act naturally, especially when groups of photographers are crowded around taking pictures of them. The gut is not supposed to change but Ko fears that it is only a matter of time before the authentic gut no longer exists.
It seems that the greatest threat to shamanism has come, not from those seeking to destroy it, but those seeking to protect it. The hope is that while the public guts continue to be performed for the entertainment of the public and attention of the media, more authentic guts will still be undertaken in private and out of the spotlight.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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