Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 17

Korean shamans and the definition of “religion”

A view from the grass roots 1

Laurel Kendall

there are today and have been in the past relatively few languages into which one can translate the word “religion” - and particularly its plural, “religions” - outside Western civilization. One is tempted, indeed, to ask whether there is a closely equivalent concept in any culture that has not been influenced by the modern West.

(Wilfred Cantwell Smith 1978:118-19)

Any term used to think broadly about the human condition across cultures will be flimsy and loosely fitting, perhaps even ill-fitting. It helps in our task as interpreters to see the arbitrariness of the categories, for recognition that the arbitrariness lays bare our own prejudgments.

(Lawrence Sullivan 1991:31)

religion is a necessary thing. It gives strength to the poor and provides a place for them. This is where our shaman practices are weak. We have genuine miracles and inspiration but the educational level of the shamans is low.

(“Auntie Chun, ” 1994)

This chapter injects the voice of a humble Korean woman into our discussion of religion and modernity. Auntie Chun speaks to us from within the Korean shaman world but articulates her singular opinions and experiences. As in Bruce Lincoln’s exegesis of ethnographic texts from another part of the world (see Chapter 10 of the present volume), Auntie Chun’s micro-narrative opens a window on the history of local encounters between indigenous and world religion. Auntie Chun is a destined shaman, currently employed as a maid-of-all-work in a public shaman shrine. She participates in a religious tradition that is realized in primarily oral traditions, interactions between shaman and client, and crisis-oriented ritual performance, a tradition that, following Karen Brown’s apt characterization, may be understood not as a body of text and doctrine, but as a “changing stream of continuity. ”

Auntie Chun has struggled for years without attaining the full inspiration that would empower her to assume the shaman’s role, receive her own clients, give divinations, and convey the authority of the spirits in major rituals. By working in the shrine, she serves the spirits (and observes successful shamans). Prior to this, Auntie Chun traveled other spiritual paths, and she has thought deeply about the things she learned on her journey. Auntie Chun, the destined shaman, is also a student of comparative religion. In this, she poses a challenge to me and my work.

In researching, writing, and lecturing about Korean shamans, I have often found it necessary to explain the ways in which shamanic practices do not conform to Western

-245-

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