Shamanism and its influence on modern Korea: beliefs and superstitions

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Author: Nathalia Millán Rincón

In a modern South Korea that lacks its own state religion, shamanism, against all odds, is still present. Nowadays, 50% of the society identifies as “non-religious”, and among those who are religious, 20% and 17% belong to Christianity and Buddhism, respectively (statista, 2022). Still, shamanism, although considered outdated, prevails in the daily life of the country. Being one of the topics that taught me the most about Korean society, in this blog you will find an introduction to shamanism, the transformation it has undergone to stay afloat, and some of the most interesting practices, beliefs, and superstitions.

To start with, Korean shamanism, Mugyo (무교), is the only native animist belief system on the peninsula. Since religion is not a sum-zero game in the country, the mentality and practice of traditions of various beliefs and philosophies are often preserved, so it is not necessary to identify yourself as a follower of shamanism to turn to it. The essential element of this is the shaman, or Mudang (무당, where mu is synonymous with the Chinese word wu 巫, which defines both male and female shamans), who serves as a bridge between the spiritual and the earthly world, and communicates with spirits through rituals known as Gut (굿). In these rituals, the shaman is usually dressed in bright-colored attire and a special hat; the use of bells, drums, swords, and tridents is common (Burns, n.d.). An interesting fact of Korean shamanism is that about 90% of shamans are women, which makes it unique considering that most rituals to honor ancestors are performed by men under the Confucianism framework, contrasting the patriarchal culture and representing women in a position of power (Frances, 2018).

Illustration 1. Taken from TED Fellows (2018) [Manshin Min Hye-Gyeong performs a public ritual on Namhansanseong Mountain. Picture]

Moreover, the motive behind the rituals has expanded. In the past, the Gut (굿) was performed to worship both ancestral and celestial gods through hunting or farming ceremonies, asking or thanking for a good harvest, because “agriculture was the most important economic activity in Korean traditional society and a key to the stability of the dynastic rule” (Cruz, 2021). Then, a shaman was called upon to calm the spirits of deceased ancestors, which, although they could bring fortune, also caused illness and misfortune, therefore, “when traditionally minded Koreans are inexplicably sick or have a run of bad luck in business or a daughter who cannot find a husband, they consult a shaman” (Sang-Hun, 2007). Finally, people today approach shamans with their own earthly interests: in search of fortune, a job promotion, power, and so on. In the last case, the presence of shamanism has strengthened in Korean politics in a very peculiar way, where it is known that several politicians seek advice from shamans and/or perform rituals before the elections (Jung, 2023).

Illustration 2. Taken from South China Morning Post (2021) [Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korean presidential candidate, with the Chinese character "王'' meaning "king" written on his palm to provide courage and to give a good speech according to shamanist beliefs. Picture]

Thus, it is fair to say that shamanism transforms depending on the needs that arise in society. In fact, shamanic traditions in South Korea have existed before Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity, and their presence only proves their incredible adaptability to modern life. From being demonized and categorized as ‘quackery’, to being recognized by the government as an “intangible cultural asset”, shamanism has made great progress, so much so that when the disruptive technology represented by the internet arrived in South Korea, “shamans were among the first to set up commercial Web sites” (Sang-Hun, 2007). Among the shamanist practices best suited to modern Korea is fortune telling, which has become popular to be carried out in cafés that you can find in entertainment districts such as Hongdae in Seoul. Young adults particularly enjoy the advice of shamans for fun: “Shamanistic fortune telling is just a fun way to kick off another year” (Jung, 2023). Kali Hong, who was born in 1990 and therefore belongs to a new generation of shamans, for example, tells in her interview with Korea JoongAng Daily that her image is not that of a stereotypical Mudang (무당): she does not wear a colorful hanbok (한복), but comfortable pants, is vegan, environmentalist, and communicates with her customers through Naver and KakaoTalk; Kali Hong believes that “everyone can have a different way of praying”, and that it is okay to change old rituals to adapt to new lifestyles (2021).

Korean shamanism is a great melting pot. It never rejected anything but embraced everything, making endless compromises with other religions and social changes. That explains why it has survived thousands of years” (Hong, 2007).

Illustration 3. Taken from KOREA TRAVEL EASY (n.d.) [Traditional fortune telling experience in a café in Seoul. Picture]

Finally, in this third part of the blog, you are going to find some of the practices, beliefs, and superstitions that are still present. From the most mentioned to the least known by the international public, I invite you to keep an open mind so you can enjoy something that is an essential part of Korean culture. Without further ado, let’s get started:

  • Do not stick chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. There is a long list of superstitions when it comes to food, but this is probably the best known. Not sticking chopsticks, or even a spoon, into rice is commonly considered part of South Korean table etiquette. However, these “manners” actually come from respect for the spirits of ancestors, being that when performing this action the chopsticks look like the rice offering and incense sticks used in funeral ceremonies to honor the deceased (SEOUL EATS, 2013). Koreans believe that by doing this, you are not only inviting a spirit to sit at the table with you, but also offending them by eating the “offering” afterwards. Being a death-related practice, it is believed that sticking chopsticks into a bowl of rice brings bad luck.
  • Do not write someone’s name in red ink. In the past, Koreans used red ink to write the names of the deceased. For this reason, writing the name of a living person in red ink is understood as wishing them the same fate or seeking to harm them (Ladner, 2022).
  • What to eat and not to eat before taking an exam? In a society where education is of the utmost importance, it is not surprising that another superstition about food is that it can help or bring bad luck to your studies. On one hand, it is believed that eating something sticky, like the Yeot (엿),  will help students “stick” what they have learned in their heads (ASIA SOCIETY, n.d.). Therefore, it is common to find that this sweet is distributed before the Suneung (수능). On the other hand, slippery foods, such as seaweed soup, have the opposite effect and therefore should never be eaten before taking an exam, or knowledge will “slip” from your head (Choi, 2017).
  • Auspicious date. Moving out, getting married, or just starting something, whether it is a new job or opening your own business, is all calculated in the Korean calendar to avoid bad luck and spirits. According to folklore, the Soneomneunnal calendar (손없는날 달력) is the one that helps people choose the right date to evade the spirits on their ‘day off’ (90daykorean, 2023). Days ending in 9 and 0 are especially chaotic for moving companies, as this is when ghosts rest, which is why rates go up by 10-20%, as many Koreans agree with Choi Soo-ok, who explains that “It is very important to move on an auspicious day; I don’t want any misfortune to affect my family’s life in the new home” (2003). Another example of an auspicious date is also related to numbers, with 8 being the favorite for weddings, as it is not only associated with good luck and prosperity, but also with a long-lasting marriage (GlobalSecurity, n.d.).
  • Alcohol for protection? The combination of alcohol and the steering wheel commonly leads to catastrophes. However, in South Korea, these two words have somewhat different connotations. Sometimes, when someone buys a vehicle, a shamanic ceremony called Gosa (고사), which is commonly performed to bring good luck and success, is given a twist by adding makgeolli (막걸리). Unlike what you might be thinking, no one drinks it, but it is poured on the tires of the car, asking the gods for the safety of those who use it (dramasROK, 2020). 
  • Face reading. Physiognomy, as the art of reading faces to tell a person’s future is called, has been practiced for centuries in Korea. Face reading divides faces into two types: those with attributes that do not stand out much are Yin people, who are friendly, introverted, and indecisive; those with outstanding attributes are Yang, who are adventurous, outgoing, firm, and simple. Lifestyle and mentality are considered to change the face, and there are various sayings about someone’s facial features, such as: there is no beggar with a good-looking nose, as it represents one’s fortune; big eyes and cherry lips represent happiness for women; and someone with dark spots around their eyes is said to bring bad luck and loneliness (Lee, 2006). “From your face, I may read your capability, qualifications, feelings and thoughts” (Shin, 2011), and this is why it is no surprise that South Korea is so particular about appearance.
  • Myeongdang (명당) auspicious place. To start talking about this, the divination method of geomancy, which is used to locate favorable spaces to build cities, residences, and even cemeteries, must be addressed first. The belief holds that happiness and prosperity will prevail if you live or the dead are buried in the ‘ideal place’ which is the Myeongdang (명당). The ‘ideal place’ is one surrounded by four mountains, a plain, and a river flowing in the front; what is to be built must be done in the middle. Interestingly, the capital of South Korea, Seoul, is the quintessential example of a building in a Myeongdang (명당), with mount Pugaksan (북악산) to the north, mount Naksan (낙산) to the east, mount Inwangsan (인왕산) to the west, mount Namsan (남산) to the south, and just in front flows the Han-gang (한강) River (AsianInfo, n.d.), and the transformation that the country went through is well known.
Illustration 4. Made by Millán, N. (2023). [Collage]

In conclusion, shamanism has managed to prevail in modern Korean society despite the existence of other religions and the rapid changes that have emerged in the country. The reason for this is that not only it is part of the culture, and therefore of the identity and mentality of many, but it has also been transformed in tandem with society, which can be detailed in the beliefs and superstitions that have been mentioned. I hope that, after reading this blog, you have learned a little more about Korean culture, and that your curiosity for these sorts of traditions has awakened.

Reading pair: Adriana Mercado

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero

References: 

90daykorean. (February 28, 2023). Korean Superstitions – Beliefs and Practices for Good Luck. 90 DAY KOREAN: https://www.90daykorean.com/korean-superstitions-that-just-may-save-your-life/#moving-on-certain-days-is-bad-luck

ASIA SOCIETY. (n.d.). Yeot: Korean Sweet and a Good Luck Charm. ASIA SOCIETY: https://asiasociety.org/korea/yeot-korean-sweet-and-good-luck-charm

AsianInfo. (n.d.). Geomancy. AsianInfo.org: http://www.asianinfo.org/asianinfo/korea/cel/geomancy.htm#:~:text=In%20Korea%2C%20geomancy%20is%20a,built%20on%20an%20ideal%20site

Burns, J. (n.d.). KOREAN SHAMANISM TODAY. koreasociety.org: https://www.koreasociety.org/images/pdf/KoreanStudies/Curriculum_Materials/LessonbyTime/4_Modern/Korean_Shamanism_Today.pdf

Choi, M. (March 2, 2017). Korean Food: 미역국 [miyeok guk] — Seaweed soup. medium.com: https://medium.com/story-of-eggbun-education/korean-food-미역국-miyeok-guk-seaweed-soup-c14f4d2854c4

Cruz, K. (November 5, 2021). Shamanism in Korea.Embassy of the Republic of Korea to Norway: https://overseas.mofa.go.kr/no-en/brd/m_21237/view.do?seq=141&srchFr=&srchTo=&srchWord=&srchTp=&multi_itm_seq=0&itm_seq_1=0&itm_seq_2=0&company_cd=&company_nm=&page=1

dramasROK. (2020). Modern Gosa, Korean shamanic ritual with ‘pig’s head’. dramasROK: https://www.dramasrok.com/2020/07/modern-gosa-korean-shamanic-ritual-with-pigs-head/

Frances, K. (March 1, 2018). In 21st-century Korea, shamanism is not only thriving — but evolving. TED Fellows: https://fellowsblog.ted.com/in-21st-century-korea-shamanism-is-not-only-thriving-but-evolving-f1a8862a7bc8

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Hong, T.-h. (July 6, 2007). In the age of the Internet, Korean shamans regain popularity. The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/06/world/asia/06iht-shaman.1.6527738.html

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Sang-Hun, C. (July 6, 2007). In the age of the Internet, Korean shamans regain popularity. The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/06/world/asia/06iht-shaman.1.6527738.html

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South China Morning Post (2021). In South Korea, Chinese character on presidential hopeful’s palm creates stir over superstitions as race heats up. South China Morning Post. [Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korean presidential candidate, with the Chinese character “王” meaning “king” written on his palm to provide courage and give a good speech according to shamanist beliefs. Picture]:

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