Korean Shamanism
-- an Introduction, with Links --
Shamanistic and Pagan traditions have existed throughout the world since prehistoric times.  The
term “Shamanism” refers to a range of traditional beliefs and practices by Shamans and their tribes
or clients.  It is based on Animism, belief that “spirits” of humans, animals, plants, landforms, bodies
of water and celestial beings can influence the fortunes of human life – and be influenced by human
behavior, rituals and supplication.  In contrast to animism and other primitive religious forms that any
and usually all members of a society practice, shamanism requires specialized knowledge or
abilities.   Shamans are the experts employed by animists or animist communities.

Shamans claim the ability to diagnose and cure human suffering, sickness or ‘ill fortune’ –
communal, familial or individual – by communicating with (negotiating with, appeasing, commanding)
those spirits.  In some societies, they also have ability to cause suffering.  Shamans have been
credited with the ability to influence the weather, fortune-telling, the interpretation of dreams, seeing
ghosts and auras, astral projection, and ‘traveling to’ upper and lower worlds.  They usually attain
some special relationship with, patronage of or control over particular spirits – ones that (they say)
they were chosen by.  

Anthropologists and religion-scholars define a Shaman as an intermediary between the natural and
spiritual world, who travels between them in a state of trance.  Once in the spirit world, the shaman
would communicate with the spirits for assistance in whatever the community or individual client
needs.  Shamans are usually people who have a strong interest in their surrounding environment
and the society of which they are a part, and very intuitive, and may seem to be psychologically-
unusual or even schizophrenic.  They may be powerful central members of their societies with
high incomes, or outcasts living on the fringes of civilization.

Shamans are usually not, however, organized into full-time religious associations, as are priests or
monks.  Shamanism does not usually have established and set religious texts or regular meetings
with the same group of people, and therefore it is not said to be a “religion”.   In one sense it can
rather be said to be an aspect of any other religion, in which special people communicate directly
with the gods or spirits of that religion, on behalf of others, usually by using rhythmic music,
chanting, singing, dancing and/or intensive prayer.  As a practice, Shamanism can easily integrate
into the mystic parts of other religions.  Evangelical Christianity is one example.

In its common usage, “Shaman” has replaced the older English language term “witch doctor”, a
term which unites the two functions of the shaman: knowledge of magical and natural lore, and
the ability to cure a person or a situation. However, this term is generally considered to be
pejorative and inaccurate.  

Greek paganism was influenced by Shamanism, and it later merged into the Roman religion.   
The shamanic practices of many cultures were marginalized with the spread of monotheism
in Europe and the Middle East. Christians in Europe and the Americas, and Muslims in the
Middle East, have severely repressed it as "devil worship" for more than a thousand years,
often executing indigenous Shamans.

Today, shamanism survives primarily among indigenous peoples.  Shamanic practice continues
today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and also in cities, towns, and
shantytowns all over the world.  This is especially widespread in Africa, South America and
Southeast Asia.  Native American Shamanism, used in a neo-traditionalist way, has become very
popular among Americans since the 1970s; ancient European forms also have been revived in
this way.  Shamanism can be said to be interesting to many Westerners, some of whom are
curious about it, and a few of them even practice it in some way.   However, there has been
much criticism of “New Age” and modern Western forms of Shamanism, that it mis-represents
or 'dilutes' genuine indigenous practices, and may reinforce racist ideas such as the Noble Savage.  
Especially, many Christian leaders have criticized this fashion as useless or even dangerous for
people to practice, linking it to Satanism.

Objections to the use of shaman as a generic term have been raised by both academics and
traditional healers themselves, given that the word comes from a specific place (Siberia), people,
and set of practices.   Some anthropologists critique contemporary over-use of the term
"shamanism", arguing that it is a culturally specific word and institution referring only to Eastern
Siberia, Mongolia and Northern Manchuria, and that by expanding it to fit any healer from any
traditional society it produces a false unity between these cultures and creates a false idea of a
primitive initial human religion predating all others.  However, others say that these anthropologists
simply fail to recognize the commonalities between otherwise diverse traditional societies.
Global Shamanism    by Prof. David A. Mason
Korean Shamanism    by Prof. David A. Mason
Belief in a world inhabited by spirits is the oldest form of Korean religion, dating back to prehistoric
times.  Shamanism was brought here by the Korean’s ancestors from the Siberian forests around
Lake Baikal and the Mongolian steppes.   It merged with Chinese Daoist ideas and icons to evolve
into what it is today, also influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism.

Korean shamans were once very powerful, ruling the pre-Chinese-influence peninsular tribal
societies.  The rituals and icons underwent a number of changes through the Shilla and Goryeo
periods as  Buddhism and Confucianism came to dominate culture.  The Neo-Confucian Joseon
Dynasty suppressed Korean Shamanism, although all levels of Koreans still made various uses of it,
resulting in its practitioners being considered ‘low class’ for 500 years.  It was again suppressed by
the Japanese Occupation/Colonial authorities, and the Republic of Korea’s post-war governments.  
It was entirely wiped out by North Korean communists, with many Shamans fleeing to the South
1945-53.  With the shift away from agriculture in modern Korea, some aspects and practices have
been lost, but others such as divination, prosperity rituals and ghost-appeasement have continued.

There is a rather unorganized pantheon of dozens of types of gods, spirits and ghosts, ranging
from the "Great Guardian Generals" who rule the directions of heaven to Mountain-spirits (
), and includes spirits of prominent trees, caves, boulders and piles of stones, as well as earth
& agricultural spirits, the tutelary gods of households and villages, mischievous goblins, and the
ghosts of persons (who in many cases met violent or tragic ends).  These spirits are said to have
the power to influence or to change the fortunes of living people.

Shamans communicate with and supplicate these gods, spirits & ghosts
to solve people's problems.

Even though belief in Korean Shamanism is not as widespread as it once was, the practices are

quietly kept alive, including among the wealthy classes.  At least 20,000 Shamans seem to make a
living here, and many more as part-timers.  Korean Shamans used to include many men, especially
in the southern provinces where the status and skills were hereditarily handed down.  These days,
most of them in South Korea are women, known casually as mudang or politely as manshin.   They
become Shamans through natural ability as the disciple of a senior practitioner, by repetitive-oral
teaching or chants, dances, costumes and trances.   They are often accepted or recruited after a
shinbyeong mysterious-illness recognized by a senior manshin who may become then the master.   

The role of the mudang is to act as intercessors between a spirits and human beings.  Shamans

are consulted for financial and marital decisions, and may practice geomancy.  They have deep
roots and have inter-influenced Korean Buddhism – originally for legal / registration reasons.
Their practices were practically illegal until the 1990s, and still are semi-legal at best – however,
some local governments near sacred mountains (Taebaek-san, Gyeryong-san, Jiri-san) have
fully legalized their shrines, prompting a resurgence and identity-revival.  Korean Shamanism is
now known as mu-ism, mugyo or musok — not yet “a religion” but some leaders want it to be
recognized as one (lack of organization and standardization remains the problems).   

Colorful robes, dancing, chanting, drums and ritual weapons remain as traditional features.   
Korean Shamanic rituals and dances are now standard public-performance arts & motifs,
and some are recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage Items.