Korea's Religious Places - 4.4 Shamanism
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
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|3) Won-Buddhism_* The Sacred Territory of Iksan (Iksan, Jeollabuk-do)||4) Shamanism||5) Islam_* Seoul Central Masjid (Seoul)|
In Korea, musok, or Shamanism is pervasive. There is not one headquarters or central authority, but rather independent mudang or as they prefer, mansin, are found practicing in many neighborhoods in every city and rural area in Korea. Unlike the major religions Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity—all of which have texts that tell the story of their religion and their founding figures—Shamanism has no text. The practices and ceremonies are passed down through an oral tradition. In spite of that fact, the practices from shaman to shaman and from place to place are remarkably similar.
The sacred place is primarily the home or home/office of the shaman. She—most often the shaman is female—will provide consultations to those with spiritual or other problems. Often, sessions with the shaman are for obtaining advice and what amounts to fortune telling although shamans are quick to point out that there are jeomjaengi who do only fortune telling. The shaman, if the consultation warrants it, may recommend a ceremony called a gut. A full-blown gut can last three days, but there are abbreviated forms that can last for only an hour or so. In a full gut, the client’s friends and family often participate and more than one shaman can be called in to assist. The sacred site can be the shaman’s home/office or, for the full ceremony, the client’s home. Thus, for the purposes of this book, the sacred place is actually many places and is quite ordinary.
The shaman’s home or office is often a storefront mixed in with a variety of other offices and homes, but is usually demarcated by a tall bamboo pole affixed near the entrance to the building. Often the bamboo pole is replaced once a year as the green leaves turn brown. Sometimes a plastic, imitation bamboo pole is employed. Often in the upper leaves of the bamboo there are banners or sometimes globes, in the five colors of shamanism—red, green, blue, yellow, and white. The bamboo pole is sometimes described as functioning like a radio antenna, snagging spirits that sail by and bringing them down into the shaman’s office.
The shaman’s office is often one room, the front room, of the shaman’s home. There is room enough on the floor for only three or four clients to sit and consult with the shaman. Dominating one wall of the room, there will be an altar with several images or paintings representing the various spirits or deities that can be prayed to for assistance. There is almost always a Buddhist figure—either Gwaneum, the Boddhisatva of Mercy, who is very approachable and a favorite at Buddhist temples as well, or a medicine boddhisatva, or one of the Buddhas: Shakyamuni, Amitabha, or Vairocana. There is almost always a representation of the mountain god (sansin). And frequently, there is a grandmother figure and sometimes children deities. The central figure in many shaman altars is daegam—the great official. Since earthly life is known to be bureaucratic, with corrupt officials blocking access to goods and services, and where a powerful friend in high places can help you get things done, similarly, the heavens are bureaucratic, so it is a great advantage to have a daegam who can negotiate access to high deities and get past the demons and troublesome spirits.
There are other shamanistic sites besides the shaman’s quarters. Sites of great natural beauty and wonder are often co-opted by shamanistic practitioners. For example, in a village, a great tree will often be decorated with shamanistic prayers written on strips of paper tied onto its branches. A powerful rock commands similar respect. Tombs of former kings and ancient dolmens are also places that will attract shaman worship. There tend to be clusters of shaman worship sites near powerfully spiritual places, such as near Tumuli Park in Gyeongju where there is a large cluster of tombs of Silla kings. The northwest section of Seoul, along the hill known as Mt. Inwangsan, has a large collection of shaman offices and homes. These clusters of shaman sites are convenient when shamans need to call in other shamans for major ceremonies—shamans tend to be more cooperative than competitive in serving their clients.