Korean Shamans and Childhood Trauma

By Kim, Jin-Young; Ko, Young-Gun | The Journal of Psychohistory, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Korean Shamans and Childhood Trauma

Kim, Jin-Young, Ko, Young-Gun, The Journal of Psychohistory

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Sigmund Freud reversed the wellknown text in Genesis, "God created man in his own image," into "man created God in his."1 As his statement suggests, Freud had a longstanding interest in the inner representation process resulting in God and the Devil.2 According to Freud, the father is "the object representation which offers the materials for the formation of the representation of God and a Devil."3

Freud analyzed Christoph Haizmann, a seventeenth-century demonological neurotic, to support his opinion. In his analysis, Freud concluded the "demon" that Haizmann experienced was both a father substitute and a symbol of Haizmann's wishes regarding his father.

Sally Hill and Jean R. Goodwin, however, stated Freud had overlooked the relationships between childhood trauma and "demonic" possession.4 Based on contemporary experience with patients who considered themselves possessed by demons, Hill and Goodwin suspected Haizmann had likely experienced severe abuse.5 Juan Stephen believed that these discrepant opinions originated from the fact that Freud had not treated Haizmann in person. According to Stephen, if Freud had investigated Haizmann's personal history in more detail, he would have learned Haizmann was the victim of severe childhood trauma.6

Present-day researchers can easily find evidence of a relationship between childhood trauma and demonic possession. For instance, a Vanderbilt university research team investigated five demonic possession cases and discovered evidence of severe childhood trauma (e.g., family violence) in each case.7 According to psychohistorian Lloyd deMause, children experiencing childhood traumas tended to establish dissociated alters and, throughout history, their possession by these alters reportedly began in childhood.8 However, the psychohistory field has not focused on shamans as much as it has on cases of demonic possession, probably because shamans usually do not show symptoms that demand psychiatric intervention.

According to Edward R. Canda, shamans and demonic possession cases may be as different as psychotherapists and patients.9 First, shamans rarely exhibit social maladjustment, while demonic possession patients show difficulties with social adjustment. Second, shamans learn to voluntarily alter their state of consciousness and enter trances, while demonic possession patients do not have a control over the possession. Third, shamans perform the role of therapist instead of the role of patient.

According to Lloyd deMause, however, shamans and demonic possession cases share etiological commonality, despite these differences, in that "these God-fusion states are therefore defenses against and repetitions of early childhood 'insecure and avoidant' abusive attachments" to a caretaker (the mother or wet-nurse).10 He described the Holy Spirit experience of Saint Theresa as an example. "An angel pierced its spear several times through my heart... leaving me all aflame with an immense love for God. The pain was so great that I had to groan, but the sweetness that came with this violent pain was such that I could not wish to be free of it."11 As the case of Saint Theresa suggests, the neurological standpoint indicates these Christian mystical trance experiences correlate closely with the dopamine system's activities in the frontal cortex.12 Dopamine plays an important role in reward-seeking behaviors, such as consumption, addiction, and religion. Among the reward-seeking behaviors, religious activities (e.g., religious ecstasy) can provoke the most intensive positive emotions. With consideration for these differences between shamans and demonic possession patients, we here examine the relationship between Korean shamans and childhood trauma.


In Korean, the word Kut refers to a shamanistic ritual managed by a mudang, a Korean shaman. Generally, the mudang performs the Kut when an individual or family faces stressful events or unfortunate accidents. The Kut is performed during a relatively short time, usually within one day (from morning to evening). Tong-sik Yu, a famous Korean theologian, insists that shamanism underlies the core of Korean culture. According to him, foreign religions in Korea, including Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, essentially become modified into an indigenous form in accord with a transformative scheme native to Korea, that is, Korean shamanism.13

The Kut is a kind of cultural instrument for unraveling social stress. In the Kut, the mudang ascribes the primary cause of current suffering to some outside element, such as a malevolent spirit (from the perspective of psychology, one could refer to it as a "dissociated alter"). Then, the mudang, in a trance state, proceeds with the Kut ceremony by resolving the conflict with the malevolent spirit/dissociated alter, as if it was alive.

Psychiatrist Kwangil Kim presented a case study on the Kufs psychotherapeutic significance. He claimed as follows:

The mechanisms of Kut include such things as auto-suggestion, forecasting, catharsis, abreaction, persuasion, transference and group therapy. These mechanisms, coupled with the symbolic meanings that appear in the Kut contribute to the relieving of the anxiety of the patient, and it is clear that therapeutically, the Kut is effective for some psychogenic illness such as anxiety-neuroses, and for the patient who has a deep faith in the shamanistic view of the cause of illness. However in the cases of organic disorders the effectiveness of the Kut is most evident as a form of group therapy, relieving the anxieties both of patient and his or her family, rather than as a cure for the disease itself.14


Interestingly enough, "Princess Pari/' the birth myth of the Korean shaman, illustrates the relationship between Korean shamans and childhood traumas, using symbols.

Once upon a time, there was a king named Upbi, in the Kingdom of Sam. The king wanted a son, but the queen gave birth to six daughters in a row. When the queen was pregnant with their seventh child, she had a mysterious dream. Upon hearing the queen's dream, the king thought it was a divine revelation showing them that their seventh baby was to be a boy. Hence, he was quite delighted. However, it turned out that their seventh baby was a girl. The king was so disappointed that he ordered the seventh baby, Princess Pari, abandoned. The queen could not disobey his order, because in those days the culture regarded a woman who was not able to give birth to a boy as guilty. The queen put Pari in a jewelry box and set it afloat on the sea. An old couple happened to find the jewelry box on the beach near their house, and they saved Pari. When Pari turned fifteen, the king and queen caught an incurable disease. Toward the last, the king asked his fortune-teller for advice. The fortune-teller said that the only cure was the medicinal water found only in the Heavenly Kingdom in the Western Sky. He also said the king's seventh daughter, Pari, was the only one who would be able to get the water. The fortune-teller's advice made the king regret abandoning Pari, and he fell into despair, because he could not find Pari by any means. In the meantime, Pari, who had accidentally learned about her parents' incurable disease, left her foster parents in order to obtain the medicinal water for the king and queen. After going through all kinds of hardships, Pari finally arrived where the medicinal water was. However, the Guardian Armed god, who kept watch on the medicinal water, stated she would not be able to obtain a single drop of it without considerable cost. Pari eventually had to marry the god in order to pay for the water. In time, she gave birth to seven boys. Later, with the god's permission, Pari was able to go back home with her children and save her parents at last. Since then, Pari has become a primogenitor of shamans who console the spirits of the deceased.15

The myth of Pari, who experienced a childhood abandonment trauma and became a primogenitor of shamans, provides important symbolic implications regarding the etiology of shamans. Jeong-bum Seo, a Korean linguist who met and studied more than 3000 shamans over 30 years, concluded that shamans correlated closely with the experience of growing up without enough love from parents or caretakers.16 According to Seo, 65-70% of shamans suffered a lack of parental love during childhood,17 and many of them were victims of family violence.18 For example, one female shaman grew up as if she was an orphan, because her father was always away at his job, and her mother left her when she was a baby. When this shaman was an infant, her grandmother, wishing her dead, put her face down under a blanket and tortured her for three days.19

According to Seo, the childhood trauma experience is particularly salient among young shamans. He met six female shamans, ranging from eight to fourteen years old, who reported that, due to marital conflicts, their mothers had attempted to get abortions when pregnant with them. Therefore, not even their own mothers welcomed them to the world.

Female shamans have a practice that involves crouching, naked and alone, inside of a locked room, which resembles the aspect of a fetus in a mother's womb. Seo interpreted this practice as the sign of a strong desire for rebirth and a yearning for maternal love.20 Seo is not the only researcher who claims there is a relationship between shamans and traumatic experiences. Another cultural researcher, Sun-hee Park, investigated twenty-six shamans in Seoul and Korea's Kyung-ki province. Of these, approximately 85% reported histories of extreme poverty, family conflict, and traumatic experiences during childhood and adolescence.21


To recapitulate our review thus far, not only demonic possession but also shamanism seems to have close relationships to the experience of childhood trauma. Although they share some attributes, Korean shamans seem to function better socially than victims of demonic possession do, perhaps because Korean shamans, in performing the role of a therapist, tend to establish supportive relationships with their clients, who usually suffer from similar problems. That is, emotional transactions between Korean shamans and their clients are helpful to the shamans, in one way or another. Through social activities, the mudang attains a unique sensitivity to those who have suffered agonies similar to theirs; i.e., they become adept at recognizing those who, like themselves, have dissociated alters. According to deMause, such dissociated alters may function as "time bombs embedded in the right brain during childhood."22 However, as deMause also indicated, emotional interchanges like those between shamans and clients seem to reduce the negative impacts of dissociated alters.22 In this situation, we might consider the Mudang Kut to be a cultural kluge.

The word "kluge" denotes "a clumsy or inelegant~yet surprisingly effective-solution to a problem."23 Generally, nature tends to create kluges, because nature does not care whether its products are perfect or elegant. If something works, it proliferates. In like manner, if something does not work, it dies out. Respecting this idea, British anthropologist Roy Ellen remarks, "Cultural adaptations are seldom the best of all possible solutions and never entirely rational."24

Although the Kut may be useful to a degree, as one of traditional devices for solving life's problems in Korean society, it cannot be the best possible solution for taking care of the aftereffects of childhood trauma. With regard to this issue, Kwangil Kim pointed out the Kufs dysfunctions: lack of insight, clients' paranoid tendencies fostered by projective treatment, and high rates of recurrence among the clients. No doubt these problems are inherent in the Kut. Nonetheless, logically some reasons must have allowed generations of shamans to hand down the Kut across about 3,000 years. Regarding this point, Kim states as follows:

In fact, it is hard to find in Korean shamanism, the "insightful approach" that is frequently mentioned in Western psychotherapy... However this is not to say that shamanist treatment in Korea is entirely without insight. At several stages of the Kut, one can find elements which promote insight about human relationships, such as those between the patient and his ancestors, family, and neighbors.25

According to Kim, another dysfunction of the Kut is the possibility it fosters paranoid tendencies due to the projective nature of the treatment.25 However, whether this holds true depends on the situational context. To correctly decide if this is the situation for a given case, the clinician must consider the important matter of the context. If a patient who could achieve a realistic solution for their particular issue instead chooses the Kut, as a form of escapism, then the clinician is right to worry that the Kut might lead to psychopathology. However, the traditional reason for conducting the Kut is to address human suffering that is resistant to other commonsense methods. Feeling that one must request the Kut is, figuratively speaking, comparable to the proverbial drowning man catching at a straw. Therefore, psychological readiness is emphasized in the traditional Kut ceremony. The traditional mudang does not recommend the Kut to everyone who visits asking for help. The mudang does not serve those who select the Kut seeking escapism (Of course there are pseuáo-mudangs who deceive people and perform the Kut solely to get money from them). Therefore, it seems unlikely that the Kut might foster paranoid tendencies.

Kim points out still another potential dysfunction of the Kut: the high rates of recurrence clients experience. He reports that certain clearly recovered clients have relapsed within one or two years. He interprets this phenomenon as an implication that shamanistic treatment is not causative but projective; that is, the treatment does not, after all, confront the real source of the problem.

In conclusion, we advocate considering the Mudang Kut as a cultural kluge, rather than as the best method of solving childhood trauma problems. In this problematic situation, psychohistorical analysis seems to provide some insight regarding the psychological origin of Korean shamans, i.e., the relationship between childhood trauma and Korean shamanism.


Psychohistorical analysis may yet pave the way to solutions wiser than those the cultural kluge of the Mudang Kut can provide. The role of psychohistorical analysis should not be limited to 'prescription after death.' The life insight that psychohistorical analysis provides can contribute to improving society as a place to live, through changing the social system. Perhaps this is the true raison d' être of psychohistorical analysis.

According to the Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs and the National Child Protection Agency,26 the child abuse incidence in Korea is 0.53 per 1000 children, as of 2008. The number (9570) of reported child abuse cases in 2008 was approximately 2.3 times greater than the number (4133) of 2001 cases. Regarding types of abuse, neglect and emotional abuse cases increase continuously, while physical abuse and abandonment decrease. The victims of child abuse are 50.2% male and 49.8% female. Reportedly, parents inflicted most abuses. Regarding the type of family found in abuse cases, single father families are most prevalent (30.2%), and families with both parents (27.2%) rank second, followed by single mother families (17.9%).

However, the actual number of child abuse cases may be much higher, because the numbers given indicate reported cases only. Yu Kyung Kim analyzed the research data on child abuse in Korea, which the Korea Institute for Health Social Affairs obtained using the CTSPC (The Parent-Child Conflict Tactic Scale27) in 2007.28 According to her analysis, the child abuse incidence was 66.9%, and 6.7 out of 10 children reportedly experienced abuse during the past year. The most common abuse type was emotional, which represented 63.3% of the confirmed cases. Physical abuse ranked second, comprising 49.7% of cases. Most physical abuse occurred in a mild form. Child abuse occurrences followed certain trends in variables, such as a parent's own experience of childhood abuse, alcohol intake, patriarchal attitude, state of employment, and educational and social levels. Less than 3.6% of abused children received medical treatment, while 8.9% suffered physical symptoms, and 5.4% experienced psychological symptoms. Thus, many abused children apparently did not receive proper assistance. Among the abused children, 66.7% did not take any actions to protect themselves, and 22.0% simply tolerated the abuser's hitting.

We expect the identification of the characteristics of a child abuser to provide solutions wiser than the Mudang Kut for dealing with child abuse in Korea. According to one analysis of child abusers' characteristics in Korea,29 the representative factors affecting child abuse are dysfunctional parenting, socioeconomic stress, psychiatric and physical illnesses, parental personalities and values, parental experience of childhood abuse, and violent parental dispositions. Therefore, effectively resolving the child abuse issue requires diverse approaches: parent training to correct dysfunctional parenting, social policies that reduce socioeconomic stresses on underprivileged populations, extending health policies to cover psychiatric and physical disorders, and social efforts to extend mental health 'literacy' programs that can assist parents' self-understanding.

According to Mee Hong and Hyo Jin Kim,30 both parents and the government must take joint responsibility for child abuse and neglect problems. Considering that 'Child protection is everyone's business,' it seems essential that society provide parents with a proactive support system that can assist them to better perform their parental roles.


1. Sigmund Freud, The psychopathology of everyday life. In SE, Vol. 6. (London: Hogarth Press, 1960). Original work published 1901. pp. 19-20.

2. Sally Hill and Jean Goodwin, "Demonic Possession as a Consequence of Childhood Trauma." The Journal of Psychohistory Vol. 20, 1993. pp. 399-411 at 400.

3. Sigmund Freud, A seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis. In SE, Vol. 19. (London: Hogarth Press, 1960). Original work published 1901. p. 86.

4. Sally HiII and Jean Goodwin, "Demonic Possession as a Consequence of Childhood Trauma." The Journal of Psychohistory Vol. 20, 1993. pp. 399-41 1 at 408.

5. Ibid. p. 405.

6. Juan Stephen. The Odd Brain: Mysteries of Our Weird and Wonderful Brains Explained new York: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2006. pp. 41-45.

7. Ibid. p. 45.

8. Lloyd deMause. "The Psychology and Neurobiology of Violence." In The Origins of War in Child Abuse, http://www.psychohistory.com/originsofwar/03_psychology_neurobiology.html

9. Edward R. Canda. "Korean Shamanic Initiation as Therapeutic Transformation: A Transcultural View." Korea Journal Vol. 22 (11), 1982. pp.13-26.

10. Lloyd deMause "Bipolar Christianity: How Torturing "Sinful" Children Produced Holy Wars." In The Origins of War in Child Abuse. http://www .psychohistory.com/originsofwar/09_bipolar.html

11. Holger Kalweit. Dreamtime & Inner Space. Boston: Shambhala, 1988. p. 94.

12. Andrew B. Newberg, "Religious and Spiritual Practices: A Neurochemical Perspective." In Patrick McNamara, Ed. Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006. p. 17.

13. Tong-sik Yu, The History and Structure of Korean Schamanism. (Seoul : Yonsei University Press, 1975), 13-21. written in Korean character.

14. Kwangil Kim, "Kut and Treatment of Mental Disorder", In Shamanism, R. W.I. Guisso and C. Yu. ed. (Berkeley, California: Asian Humanities Press, 1988). pp. 131-161 at 158.

15. Tae-Dong Lee (trans.) "Princess Pari." Korea Journal Vol. 18 (6), 1978. pp.52-57.

16. Jeong-bum Seo. Munyebyeolgok3: Saetani and Jilgeobari. Seoul: Hannara. p. 176. written in Korean character.

17. Jeong-bum Seo. Munyebyeolgok 4: Chosani and Madeuri. Seoul: Hannara. p. 292. written in Korean character.

18. Jeong-bum Seo. Munyebyeolgok 2: Uri Sarang Iseungeseo Jeoseungeuro. Seoul: Hannara. p. 256. written in Korean character.

19. Jeong-bum Seo. Munyebyeolgok 4: Chosani and Madeuri. Seoul: Hannara. p. 150. written in Korean character.

20. Jeong-bum Seo. Munyebyeolgok 1: Nabi Sonyeoui Sarang Iyagi. Seoul: Hannara. p. 88. written in Korean character.

21. Sun-hee Park. "An Empirical Study of the Physical Changes Exhibited in Korean Shamans during Spirit-possession." Korea Journal Vol. 37 (1), 1997. pp.5-34.

22. Lloyd deMause. "The Psychology and Neurobiology of Violence."

23. Gary Marcus. Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2008. pp. 2-6.

24. Roy Ellen, Environment, Subsistence, and System: The Ecology of Small-Scale Social Formations. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 251.

25. Kwangil Kim, "Kut and Treatment of Mental Disorder," p. 156.

26. Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, and National Child Protection Agency, National Report of Child Abuse in 2008, 2009. pp. 60-76, written in Korean character.

27. Straus, Murray A. and Sherry L. Hamby. "Measuring physical and psychological maltreatment of children with the Conflict Tactics Scales." in Out of the darkness: Contemporary research perspectives on family violence, edited by G. Kaufman Kantor and J. Jasinski. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997).

28. Yu Kyung Kim, "Current Status of Child Abuse and Policy Implications." Health and Welfare Policy Forum, Vol. 143, 2008, pp. 30-43 at 30, written in Korean character.

29. Mee Hong and Hyo Jin Kim, "Child Abuse and Neglect : Current Situation and Policy Measures." Health and Welfare Policy Forum, Vol. 128, 2007, pp. 47-59 at 54, written in Korean character.

30. Ibid. p. 59

[Author Affiliation]

Jin-young Kim is an assistant professor in the Division of Human Development, Seoul Women's University, Seoul, South Korea. Young-gun Ko is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Korea University, Seoul, South Korea. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ko. Address: Department of Psychology, Korea University, Anam-Dong SGa, Sungbuk-Gu, Seoul, South Korea, 136-701. E-mail: elip@korea.ac.kr. Fax: 822-3290-2662.

This work was supported by a special research grant from Seoul Women's University (2011).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Korean Shamans and Childhood Trauma


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.