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A Brief History of Jeju's Shamans

Sunrise at Jeju Do Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea
Sunrise at Jeju Do Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea | © Noppasin Wongchum / Shutterstock
Jeju shamanism is an ancient but waning practice. Although shamanic belief systems have underpinned village life on the island for centuries, rapid modernisation and increased population movement has seen shamanism become something practised largely by older generations. It’s still evident, however, in the many shrines dotted around the island and the traditional rituals still performed today. Here’s a brief history of Jeju’s shamans.

What is shamanism?

Shamanism is a belief system where intermediaries — shamans — act as a go-between for the spirit world and the human world. In Korea, both men and women can be shamans, although it’s more common for women to be. Female shamans are called mudang, and male shamans are called baksoo mudang. As well as performing rituals for the island’s ancestor gods, Jeju’s shamans are often consulted regarding financial or romantic decisions. Shamanic ability is often — although not always — passed down through families.

Where did shamanism come from?

Korean shamanism — also known as Muism — has its origins in prehistoric history, and bears similarities to Chinese Wuism. It draws influence from Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Jeju shamanism has developed to be distinct from shamanism on the country’s mainland. The island has a pantheon of approximately 18,000 gods and goddesses that are specific to Jeju; these are mostly ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’ spirits. Often shrines pair one of each together.

Threats to shamanic practice

There are around 200 shrines still active on Jeju. However, shamanism is practiced much more by the island’s older generations than younger ones. During Japanese colonisation, traditional customs such as shamanism, which were deemed to contribute to nationalistic feeling, were outlawed. In the 1970s, shamanism (and other traditional practices) were declared enemies of modernity by the South Korean Park Chung Hee administration. Although shamanism did continue in secret, shamans were forced to undergo public, formal renunciations of their belief and surrender the tools of their trade to the government.

Jeju’s modern shamans

Despite deterrents, Jeju Island’s shamanism remains strong. Almost all the island’s larger villages still have a shaman, whose role is to perform rituals and to remember the village myths. Jeju Island’s shamanic practice is notable for its familial attitude to its gods — each village has its own gods that are firmly tied to the location, either because they were once human and lived there, or because they are recognised as the village’s ancestors. Shamanic rituals are now recognised by the South Korean government as important pieces of cultural heritage, and one ritual — the Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut — is recognised as having global significance by UNESCO, and included on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Shamanic rituals remain fiercely local — although visitors are often welcome, many rituals are still conducted in Jeju dialect and thus are unintelligible to mainlanders and outsiders.