Essence of Shamanism in Seoul, Hwanghae Chronicled

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), November 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

Essence of Shamanism in Seoul, Hwanghae Chronicled


The modernization drive that has swept the country for the past century has been a double-edged knife; it has led to unprecedented economic growth but also to a dramatic decline in traditional culture. Within the threatened indigenous culture, mudangs or shamans, are at the forefront. As people quickly turned to the recently introduced western religion Christianity, shamanism was denounced as crude and superstitious and condemned as an obstacle to the country's development.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing awareness that the indigenous belief system forms the essence of our culture - probably more so than Buddhism or Confucianism and should therefore should be preserved. A recent report, ``Shamanism in Korea; Seoul and Hwanghae province'' published by National Folk Museum is one example of the efforts underway to place a focus on native religion. The 190-page report authored by Yang Jong-sung, a researcher at the museum who has studied the subject for more than 20 years, is the first in a series that investigates regional shamanism traditions across the country.

While previous studies were limited to a general overview, this new report, which is based on 16 case studies, illustrates in detail the procedures and paraphernalia of kut (shaman ritual) practiced in Seoul and Hwanghae province in the North. Kut of the Hwanghae region was sampled from a group of shamans who came to the South during the Korean war and settled in Inchon, west of Seoul.

According to the book, there are several branches of the Seoul tradition of shaman rituals divided among the sub-regions. Seoul mudangs used to perform rituals in court, so their mugas (ritual song), contain frequent remarks about the King and loyal families and wishes for their prosperity. The songs are more sophisticated and systematic compared with other regions and are normally accompanied by three string and six wind instruments. The danc s which go along involve a regular ``samjin samtoi (three steps to and fro)'' in generally slow and majestic mood.

Hwanghae kut, on the other hand, serves the spirits of famous generals such as Gen. Choi Young or Kang Kam-chan of the Koryo period and accordingly the ritual performances tend to be more dynamic than in other regions. The ritual dance often features mudang wearing battle gear and dancing with swords accompanied by frantic beats of percussion instruments. The region's most extravagant kut is called ``Mangu Daetak,'' meaning the preventing of gossip and rumors and the calling of auspicious spirits. This kut normally spans three days and nights, where several mudangs take turns performing and includes the well-known stunt of walking on upright sword blades.

A large part of the book is devoted to detailed description of the ritual dances and the songs are written out word by word. There is a certain degree of spontaneity and idiosyncrasies in these performances especially when they take on a trance-like mood. The author notes that the songs and dances are part of a systematic and collective knowledge which accumulated over the centuries and has been passed down for generations.

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