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Korean Shamanism

By Haines Brown <>, 30 July 1997

It might be argued that shamanism represents the original human religion, for archaeologists have adventurously inferred evidence of shamanism among homo sapiens. Its broad distribution over the world also suggests that in some ways shamanism is the quintessence of human religiosity. It remains important today, less often explicitly (as in Haiti) than implicitly (as in Pentecostal or Full Gospel Protestantism).

A shaman - a word of Siberian origin - is a person who mediates the relation between the natural world and an animated supernatural world (spirits) for the purpose of gaining some control over or knowledge of natural events. The practice is symptomatic of circumstances in which people either had too little power to change their fate (as in early societies) or whose personal power is insufficient in a world that seems overwhelming or threatening (as under modern capitalism). To achieve a connection with a power that is supernatural, the shaman is mounted or taken over by a spirit after having liberated his or her mind from natural limitation. This liberating process is often achieved by drugs such as tobacco (once known as "sot-weed" for this reason) or soma, spinning or dancing, drumming or singing of deep tones.

The word shaman is not only originally Siberian, but Northeast Asia seems to have been a major center of later diffusions of the religion into the Americas (Native American shamanism) and later throughout Eurasia (as in early Southeast Asia and Germanic Europe). Because the deepest roots of Korean civilization lay in the Altaic region of Northeast Asia, it is not surprising that shamanism had an important role in Korean culture, as it also does in the Tibetan. When a new Tungusic people called the Yamacek entered the Korean Peninsula in the beginning of the first millennium B.C., they introduced a profoundly shamanistic culture.

Among the bronze artifacts of this Yemacek-Tungusic society were many objects that it seems were used in shamanistic rituals. One of them, for example, was an octagon with eight arms, with the tip of each arm forming a hollow finial containing a pellet. This was evidently a rattle for shamanistic ceremonies. The decoration on these bronze artifacts recalls the motifs of Siberian bronzes. The main centers of bronze production, which are presumed to be the main centers of early Korean civilization, are in the Pyongyang area of the northwest, the Taegu-Kyongju area in the southeast, and several other areas in the southwest, such as Namsongni, in which a particularly rich array of shamanistic implements were discovered in the 1960s.

Early totemistic clans apparently followed communal shamanistic practices at first that included the yonggo ceremony to invoke a supernatural force. The shamanistic ch'on'gun ("Heaven Prince") associated with these clans may have carried out broad priestly and military leadership functions

However, the two roles eventually bifurcated in a manner comparable to the emergence of the kshitrya (warrior) and a brahmana (priestly) élites in Hindustan early in the second millennium B.C. It has been suggested this separation is marked by the exclusion of the exercise of criminal justice within the clan settlements (sodo) as they became religious centers increasingly under the domination of the ch'on'gun shaman priest. Perhaps because shamanism was absorbed into an aspect of the male leadership of the nascent state institutions embodying a social contradiction, shamanism as a popular religion at the village level became associated with women priests called mudang. In the sodo the mudang would have erected a (phallic?) poll on which were hung bells and a drum (yonggo - "spirit-invoking drums") for the shamanistic ceremonies. Also part of them was the much'on ("Dance to Heaven.")

Because the shamanistic élite had access to supernatural forces, and was therefore less constrained by circumstance, it was able to look beyond the clan to establish alliances. In fact, at the beginning of the first millennium A.D., the tribal kingdom of Saro emerged as a clan confederation headed by shaman kings (interestingly associated with metal working, as in African tradition). The title of these kings were kosogan, then ch'ach'aung, and finally isagum, with ch'ach'aung meaning "shaman." These shaman tribal kings served to reduce conflict between rival clans in support of tribal state formation.

The tribal alliances eventually consolidated into The Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea: Koguryo (from the 2nd century A.D.), Paechke and Silla (from the 4th c.). In the Koguryo Dynasty, the king performed rites at the shrine of his Urfather, beginning an ancestor cult that fortified political leadership. These kingdoms were deeply influenced by Chinese political institutions and ideology that consolidated the landed élite of clan patriarchs and tribal leaders into a military aristocratic ruling class. They also contributed to the transition to state-level society in Japan.

The new governing ideology in Korea was Buddhism. For example, in the Silla Kingdom, hyangga ("native song") poetry represents a transformation of shamanistic incantation into Buddhist supplication. Because of Buddhism's ideological function, the mass of people continued their traditional shamanism as a counter. Nevertheless, there was always a tension in Korea between a religious life that served psychic needs (and which therefore transcended class), and a religion that was part of state ideology (and which therefore maintained class contradictions).

In the Yi period (especially 15th c.), the deepening cultural contradiction between the ruling class and the Korean masses can be seen in many areas. For example, the ruling class continued to use Chinese characters to write, while the popular writing form, Han'gul, was developed and adopted by the people. It only slowly percolated socially upward, and modern Korean still has a sprinkle of Chinese characters. In terms of music, the Chinese-influenced court music drew the ruling class, while folk music grew in popularity among commoners. One manifestation of this popular music was a flat bodied lute called a kayagum which accompanied a singer who, with dancers, participated in the shamanistic rituals.

In the nineteenth century, new creeds made their presence felt in Korea, such as Tonghak (Eastern Learning - Confucianism, etc.) and Sohak (Western Learning, such as Catholicism), but the mass of Koreans preferred their native shamanistic beliefs as compiled in a late nineteenth-century book, Chonggam-nok. When there were emergencies, people would call upon the local mudang to look into the Chonggam-nok to discover hidden truths or to prophecy. While this certainly lent itself to groundless rumors, it could also inspire popular revolts against ruling-class oppression (compare here the role of the shaman Olga in East Africa).

However, Tonghak was a syncretic religion, and so in the farming villages it helped support a nationalistic ideology that transcended class contradictions. It absorbed the Buddhist concept of ch'i, the Confucian notion of Heaven, Catholicism, shamanism, and much else, and it channeled broad hostility to official corruption and foreign influences, especially the crass commercialism which contributed to it. Much the same could be said of the Taiping revolt in China.

In modern times, the tradition of shamanism survives in more traditional settings. For example, a mudang in a village today will stage a kut ceremony that recalls the rituals pursued in Korea's early clan history.


This little overview represents nothing more than a synthesis of information extracted from the following works. They provide ample bibliography for further study.
Han Woo-keun. 1971.
The History of Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
Kendall, Laurel. 1985.
Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits. Honolulu: Hawaii.
Kim Han-kyo and Park Hong Kyo. 1980.
Studies on Korea: A Scholar's Guide. Honolulu: Hawaii. [relevant bibliography on pg. 126].
Kim Won-yong. 1983.
Recent Archaeological Discoveries in the Republic of Korea. Paris: UNESCO.
Lee Ki-baik. 1984.
A New History of Korea. Cambridge: Harvard.