Korean Shamanism and Cultural Nationalism


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Many Korean scholars who study shamanism trace its beginning to the famous and ancient myth of origin, known as the Tangun Myth. According to it, Hwanung, an illegitimate son of Hwanin, the Heavenly Lord, came down to Taebaek Mountain through a sacred tree, bearing the Three Heavenly Seals. At that time, there lived a bear and a tiger, who prayed to him to transform them into humans, They were ordered to eat only some sacred mug wort and garlic, and not to see light for 100 days. Both tried, but the tiger could not endure the ordeal, while the bear succeeded in becoming a woman after 21 days. The bear woman eventually became Hwanung’,s ‘wife’ and gave birth to a son, named Tangun, who founded the first Korean nation in 2333 B.C. He eventually became the Mountain Spirit at 1,908 years of age.

This myth, which is known to all Koreans, contains many elements which are also found in Siberian shamanism. First of all, the name Tangun is reminiscent of tengri of the Mongols, tengeri of the Buryat, tangere of the Volga Tartars, tingir of the Beltirs, tangara of the Yakut, etc., which all mean “sky” or “heaven.” The tree, as the cosmic axis which links heaven and earth, is a common concept in many Siberian tribes.

The transformation of the bear into a woman is effected only after a prescribed term of eating ritual food, and avoiding light which symbolizes life. In other words, the bear’s ordeal is similar to a Siberian shaman’s initiation experience of symbolic death and resurrection. It is interesting to note that mugwort is also considered sacred by other tribes of the world, for example, the Chumash call it the “dream herb” and use it as a hallucinogen (Drury, 1989). In Korea, even today, mugwort rice cake forms an indispensable part of the food offered to the spirits.

The union of gods and earthly women and the zoomorphic character of the shaman’s guardian spirits originating from totemism, are also common themes in Siberian shamanism. The Evenki shaman’s cult of the bear, which, according to Anisimov (1958, cited in Basilov, in Hoppal, ed, 1984) originates from a totemic source, is an interesting co-incidence. Also among the Yakut, an animal mother is considered the most important (Hultkrantz in Hoppal, ed., 1978). A remarkable parallel can be found in the existence of a zoomorphic guardian spirit in the form of a bear-mother in the Tangun myth. Hultkrantz (1978, ibid) claims that “shamanism cannot be spoken of without the belief in helping spirits and the ecstatic who attains the other world without the help of his guardian spirits is certainly no shaman.” Tangun with his powerful bear- mother as his guardian spirit can be said to be an archetypal shaman. [page 16]

The Tangun Myth first appeared in Samgukyusa (The Anecdotal History of the Three Kingdoms), compiled by the Monk Iryon in the late thirteenth century, when the then Koryo Kingdom was under Mongolian rule. It was a period of national submission and humiliation; the kings were forced to marry Mongolian princesses, and their culture, with its distinctive costumes and hairstyles, was avidly adopted by the fashionable elites. The Tangun Myth was a sort of invention of tradition by Iryon, based on the orally transmitted ancient myth, to boost the national morale and instill a sense of national identity and nationalism in times of national crisis. Since then the Koreans have prided themselves as the chosen people who have a divine origin, and their country a holy place specially chosen by God for his own son. Thus Koreans often proudly refer to themselves as “we,the descendants.” For centuries the Tangun Myth, in which the central figure may well have been a shaman king, has provided the Korean people with the rationale for national identity ana its sustainment.

There has been a theory among some Korean Historians that Tangun was a historical figure; the North Koreans have recently claimed that they have actually found Tangun’s bones. Tangun, whether he existed historically or not, plays a significant role in Korean shamanism, as one of the most popular tutelary spirits of the shamans. His picture invariably decorates the shaman’s private shrine, together with a Korean flag and often with a vase of pink artificial hibiscus, the Korean national flower. In the tenth month of the lunar calendar, when he is supposed to have come down to earth, a sacrificial offering is made by shamans on mountains everywhere, one of the main sites being Mai-san in Kanghwado.

Apart from the Tangun myth, various historical documents contain evidence that shamans were mostly men, who had political and jural, as well as ritual, power. For example, the second king of the Shilla Kingdom was called Namhae Ch’ach’aung (4-23 A.D), and according to Dr. Ross King of the SOAS, ch’ach’ aung are the Chinese characters used to transcribe a pure Korean word, susung, meaning “teacher,” but in the Hamgyongdo area a male shaman was also called susung (Akamatsu & Akiba, 1938).

Another piece of evidence that the early Korean kings may have fulfilled the shamanistic role is the royal regalia, excavated inside the royal tomb in Kyongju, the capital of Shilla (Yu, 1975; Grayson, 1989, etc.). The regalia, which consists of a gold crown, a gold belt, and shoes, bear a remarkable resemblance to the modern Siberian shaman’s costume. The crowns have wings, made of beaten gold in the shape of feathers, which also decorate the Siberian shaman’s headgear; the claw-shaped jade pieces, which hang from [page 17] the crown and the belt, are reminiscent of the bear or tiger claws, with which they decorate their clothing in the belief that they may obtain the power of those animals. The royal tomb, in which a set of these regalia was found, called Chonmach’ong (the Tomb of the Heavenly Horse; 4th-5th century A.D.) also contains a mural of a flying horse painted on birchbark. It is another piece of evidence to suggest that the early Shilla kings, before the adoption of Buddhism as the national religion, may have been shamanistic rulers, since the cosmic tree in the form of a white birch, and magical flights to heaven are classic concepts in Siberian shamanism.

The degeneration of shamanism from the central cult to a marginal cult is generally believed to have begun with the introduction of Buddhism from China in the fourth century A.D (Yu, 1975; Kim, 1987). However, although Buddhism was adopted officially as the central morality religion, extensive syncretism of Buddhism with shamanism meant that shamanism survived alongside it.

A full-scale persecution of shamanism began with the adoption of Confucianism by the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910) as the national guiding ideology. The mudangs of all descriptions were cast into the lowest of the low social class, from which there was no escape. Moreover, special taxes were levied heavily on all mudangs to discourage their practices (Yi, 1927). However, shamanism continued to thrive among the down-trodden mass belonging to the lower strata of society and women of all classes, providing cathartic release from oppressive patriarchy and social hierarchy.

Under Japanese colonial rule, shamanism was practised in defiance of the government ban, as a way of expressing cultural nationalism (Robinson, 1988). After liberation, successive governments’ movements for Korea’s modernization, particularly during President Park Chong-hi’s Third (1961- 1972) and Fourth (1972-1979) Republics, meant a further setback for shamanism. By 1968, the year I left Korea, kut was rarely performed in the centre of Seoul, at least not in public places, which accounts for my then scanty knowledge of it.

During my long absence, towards the end of President Park’s Third Republic, a revival of the traditional cultural movement was effected; The Spirit Worshippers’ Association for Victory Over Communism was officially formed in 1971 by Mr. Choi Nam-ok. However, ironically kut performances were banned at private homes because of the noise, and confined only to designated places. As part of The New Village Movement which included the abolition of superstitions, many shamanistic village shrines were destroyed While many religious leaders, mostly Buddhists and Christians enjoyed [page 18] powerful political connections, shamans continued to survive on the periphery of Korean society.

During the Fifth Republic (1980-1987, 8), the government’s main concern was with security and stability, and was particularly obsessed with globalism, which culminated in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, hence its motto, “Korea in the World.”
I returned to Korea in May, 1987. With rapid modernization and industrialization, traditional Korean culture was fast disappearing, particularly in large cities, where American culture, symbolized by hamburgers and Coca- Cola, dominated. In Seoul in particular,with wide roads and ubiquitous Mac- Donald’s, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, it was sometimes difficult to know where one was exactly. Against this background, Korean shamanism, which had been deprecated and persecuted as tangible evidence of Korea’s backwardness, was enjoying a revival as ‘‘something uniquely Korean .”

Anthropologists studying rapidly modernizing, or more specifically westernizing societies, have often remarked on the revival of ancient or traditional rituals or customs by the people, including sometimes the sophisticated elites of the society, as a way of asserting their national identity and expressing their nationalistic feelings (Bloch, 1984; Smith, 1981; Lan, 1985).

Ecstatic cults, in various forms, have suffered gravely by the introduction of Christianity, which deprecates them as “demonic,” as testified by numerous missionaries’ accounts (Bishop, 1898). During the colonial periods, they remained largely in the ‘primitive’ backwaters of the society, kept alive by the ‘ignorant’ rural community. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, among the Xezuru in Southern Rhodesia, the ZANLA were legitimized as the returning ancestors by traditional spirit mediums, by observing the ritual rules set out by them (Lan, 1985) In a less deliberate and self-conscious way, among the Kaffa of south-western Ethiopia, the ego (spirit) cult serves as a vehicle for Kaffa cultural nationalism (Lewis, 1971).

Likewise in Korea, shamanism, which has never ceased to play an important part in the peoples’lives despite a long history of severe persecution, is being reappraised as a uniquely Korean religion-cultural heritage. Prof. Kim Tae-gon (1972) goes as far as to maintain that shamanism is “the source of the Korean people’s spiritual energy.” I would argue that this [page 19] renewed interest in hitherto disgraced shamanism is directly linked to the revival of the national identity, which has always been strongly present throughout Korea’s long turbulent history, and cultural nationalism. There is a sense in which Korean shamanism is revived as a protest and protection against cultural ‘colonialism’ by the West, particularly America, and a reaction against pan-global cultural homogenization.

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