The book that I am currently reading is a very good source of information for Korea’s many cultural aspects. Though it was published about 15 years ago, these cultural themes are maintained. The historical elements provided in this book are also not likely to be overturned. So if you have the time and the interest, check out An Introduction to Korean Culture by John H. Koo and Andrew C. Nahm.
One of the more notable indigenous religions in Korea is widely known as Shamanism. Shamanism is a religion which revolves around spirits who inhabit all of our surroundings. Shamans are the spiritual leaders for this religion, and they are predominantly Female (the exception being a certain type of shaman). Though there are many different flavors of shamanism, they all follow similar rituals and maintain the same basic beliefs. This religion is an interesting one with many traditions, rituals, and complexities.
Since there is no centralized organization of shamanism, the religion does differ from region to region. In general, a shaman is a woman who has gon through the “shaman illness” around the time of adolescence. The shaman illness is an unknown illness that a woman suffers from without relief. She will have dreams of gods and demons as well as hallucinations during this period. Because no doctor is able to heal this malady, she will be taken to a shaman. The shaman will not only cure her of her illness, but she will take the new girl on as an apprentice. As time goes by the girl will learn more about the shamanistic ways and eventually become a proper shaman herself. This takes about five years. Once she becomes a full fledged shaman she will create a shrine to the god that she envisioned during her shaman illness period.
A shaman’s main duty is to perform rituals for a variety of situations. Since shamanistic rituals take about two days, shamans do not work alone. It is not at all uncommon for a group of shamans to carry out a ritual, taking turns and shifts. Musicians are also important for these rituals; a minimum of five musicians are necessary for a ritual to be carried out. The required instruments are the Korean Drum (changgo), a large drum, a fiddle, a gong, and pipes. The Korean drum is especially important as it gives a rhythm for the ritual to take.
Though shamanism is not overtly practiced by everyone in Korea, Korean life does incorporate some shamanistic practices. For example, without fail Korean ships are always ritualized before heading out to sea. In textile factories there is often one ritual provided per year for the workers. This is provided in order to pacify the workers and make them more at ease with the factory.
Shaman rituals maintain four specific elements. These are the clothes that the shaman wears, the music played, the dance, and also the song. Generally there are twelve stages in a ritual. This may differ between both the type of ritual and the region the ritual is practiced in.
First: This stage is called Pujong which means “cleansing”. This stage does just that, the shaman purifies the area for the ritual.
Second: The second stage is called Kamang. This stage is like a greeting to the gods.
Third: The Malmyong stage is dedicated to dead spirits. the shaman wears a yellow overcoat and wields a large shaman fan. This symbolizes gratitude for the protection of the deceased.
Fourth: The fourth stage, Sanbang, is dedicated to General choe Young. This was the general that was assassinated by general Yi who formed the Choson Dynasty. General Choe is revered as a tragically fallen hero and he is highly honored (Especially in the Gyeonggi area).
Fifth: Songju Maji is the stage which honors the house master god and brings protection and fortune to the house.
Sixth: This stage is called Pyolsong and is dedicated to the god of smallpox.
Seventh: Taegam is the stage where the shaman pays tribute to the tutelary or patron gods.
Eighth: The eighth stage, called Chesok, is devoted to the god of relationships, birth, longevity, and prosperity in farming.
Ninth: Hogwi is the god of the measles. The measles used to be a very dangerous illness in the past, so much so that this staged is devoted to the god of the illness.
Tenth: Kunung is the stage where the shaman acknowledges the ancestor spirits.
Eleventh: Changbu is the name of the eleventh stage. This stage is named after an actor who is considered the god of entertainment. The shaman prays for protection against evil.
Twelfth: The last stage is used to bid farewell to the gods who participated in the ritual. Food and wine is left for the demons as a sign of departure and farewell.
The final two stages of the ritual serve as a good-bye and thanks to the gods who participated, and the first two stages are a greeting and welcoming. The center of the ritual is between the 5th and the 8th stages. It is in these parts that the shaman asks for fortune and protection. If the ritual is for the pacification of a spirit, there is another stage added between the eighth and ninth called chinoguy. During this stage a story is told of the seventh princess (princess Pari).
As I said earlier, there are several variation on shamanism. The two most notable differences are between the north and the south. Northern shamanism is characterized by more of a theatrical performance. By this I mean that there is more singing and dance. Southern shamanism is noted by no dancing and even sitting during their rituals. In the south the shamans do not change their clothes between the stages, in the north a variety of clothes are used for different stages.
In Chungcheong province there are five types of shaman. Of these five, the two most prominent are called diviners and legal masters. Diviners functions as shamans are to read divine words and read fortunes. Legal masters are male shamans who consult divine books in order to select dates for events and to read palms. In other provinces a legal master is a term for a blind male shaman who recites divine passages, in this province they are not necessarily blind.
In the Jeolla province a shaman does not go through the shaman illness period. Instead, a daughter in law will learn from her shaman mother in law. Jeolla also has a territorial system to determine which shaman operates where. The rituals here are much simpler than the rituals of the north; there is no change of dress, and no dance.
Gangwon and the gyeongsang provinces are the home of wandering shamans who have no specific areas of operation. They have no permanent homes or strict forms of organization. In their rituals they do not change clothes or recite divine words. The rituals of these shaman are intended as worship for the village god and are often a form of entertainment. The various stages serve the household god, the dragon god, the water god, and other various gods. The final stage of their rituals is meant for amusement only.
Jeju island shamans are called shinbang. The entry into this profession is different yet again from the other provinces. These initiates are given three rites to complete. Upon completion of the first rite the initiate becomes a novice. Through the second right they become apprentices. After the third stage the apprentices become full shaman. One of the more interesting parts of Jeju shamanism is the large three day ritual where a shaman prays to 18,000 gods.
Though each province has a slightly different method, all shamans contact the gods through rituals to request protection and prosperity. In addition to their religious capacity, they also fill the role of entertainer with dance, clothes, song, and music.