Korea's Female Shamans and Their Indispensable Role in Cities
A bit about shamanism, its evolution and social relevance, and some of its most powerful contemporary practitioners...
An essential character in almost all cultures of the world, the shaman acts as a bridge between two worlds. Frequently an inhabitant at the very edge of society, such a character has been fundamental to the structures of countless civilizations. They’ve acted as connections between the worlds of the visible and the invisible, as healers and quacks, as seers and guides, and as messengers for the worlds of nature, of the ancestors, or for the gods and their timeless wisdom.
In today’s world, especially in the West, science, medicine, psychology and religion have taken on the role of the shaman. This role has been, in most cases, limited within the communities from which it emerged as a character from some past time. But shamanism and its practice remain relevant today, as they’ve been in the past, even within urban environments. An example of this is the Korean shamans, known as manshin, 95% of whom are women and many live and practice within cities.
Traditionally, shamanic practice has been associated with powerful people who ingest sacred substances and, through these substances, send their souls to other dimensions to obtain knowledge. In Korean shamanism, the process is the opposite: the gods, spirits, and ancestors descend upon the bodies of the women who then become, momentarily, the deities, spirits, or ancestors who’ve been invoked. The performance, for those who’ve witnessed it, is impressive. The shaman-women go into a trance in which they present personalities completely different from themselves. They speak languages which, in a normal state, they don’t know and they assume positions of power, recognized by all those in attendance. But the role of these women corresponds not only to the spiritual world. They also play an essential social role.
In Korea, and especially in Korea’s cities, women-shamans are part of people’s daily lives. They are commonly consulted, often for entirely pragmatic purposes. If you’re going to move out of the house, buy a new car, or you’re having problems with your son or daughter, they can be asked for help. The manshin can also intervene in more serious cases. If a family member or loved one is seriously ill, the shaman may conclude that a harmful spirit has taken possession of the patient and perform an exorcism.
If someone is ill in present-day Korea, the shaman-women won’t work against modern medicine, but they will complement it. (They’ve adapted to the time in which they live.) Rituals are conductive, and they will probably advise the patient to visit a hospital if they consider it necessary. We see that the manshin (contrary to the common stereotype of the shaman) frequently work within urban environments. A clear example happened when a fire threatened the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art as it was being built in Seoul. After the fire, but before continuing with construction, museum authorities called a woman shaman to clean the site and thus ensure its safety.
There are shamanic temples in Korea, but the most frequent workplace for shaman-women is a kind of temporary commercial space called a gutdang. A room is rented for one or more days and ceremonies are performed within it. Such places hold a certain power and can host multiple rituals at the same time, even becoming ceremonial centers in the middle of the city. These spaces are decorated with images and statues of gods and people often go for simple rituals to know their futures or to ask for good fortune. Only when a greater evil is present will the shaman-women choose to perform more elaborate ceremonies.
During their ceremonies, the manshin work with teams of helpers, who assist with the playing of musical instruments like drums and flutes, key elements for the connections between the shaman and the spirits. Depending on the god or spirit invoked, the shaman-woman may also install food offerings like fruit, rice cakes, fish, and alcoholic beverages. Cows and pigs may also be offered on special occasions. In addition to dancing and singing, the powerful women carry knives during the ceremonies as a way to establish authority and power. At the time of the manshin’s possession, the gods or spirits within the body can be demanding and even aggressive, reminding those present that necessary offerings or prayers have not been made.
Although the shaman’s role remains somewhat anachronistic, the Korean manshin prove the contrary. Along with their magic, they’ve survived the passage of time and have adapted to the present with great success, finding a home within the urban environment. Most Koreans know of their existence, and a majority will even consult them. The fact that the vast majority of manshin are women is still striking in a society as patriarchal as Korea’s. Such women carry spiritual power and bear respect such as do few others. This class of shamans, celebrated as guardians of tradition – many of their rituals and songs are as many as 300 years old – are powerful beings still plying the crowded streets of the metropolis.
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