Korean Shamanism

Korean shamanism or Korean folk religion, also known as Shinism or Sinism (신교, 神敎; Shingyo or Shinkyo, “religion of the spirits/gods”) or Shindo (신도; 神道, “way of the spirits/gods”), is the polytheistic and animistic ethnic religion of Korea which dates back to prehistory and consists in the worship of gods (신 shin) and ancestors (조상 josang) as well as nature spirits. When referring specifically to the shamanic practice (무속, 巫俗; musog or musok), the term Muism (Hangul:무교, 巫敎; Mugyo or Mukyo, “religion of the mu (shamans)”) is used.

The general word for “shaman” in Korean is mu (Hangul: 무, 巫). In contemporary terminology, they are called mudang (무당, 巫堂) if female or baksu if male, although other terms are used locally. The Korean word mu is synonymous of the Chinese word wu 巫, which defines both male and female shamans. The role of the mudang is to act as intermediary between the spirits or gods and humanity in order to solve hitches in the development of life, through the practice of gut rituals.

Central to Korean shamanism is the belief in many different gods, supernatural beings and ancestor worship. The mu are described as chosen persons.

Muism is related to Chinese Wuism, Japanese Shinto and to the Siberian, Mongolian, and Manchurian shamanic traditions. According to some scholars, the Korean ancestral king and later mountain god Dangun is related to the north Asian sky god Tengri (Tian) (“Heaven”). Hereditary shamans, who are typical of South Korea, are called tangol (당골) or tangur-ari, a word considered related to the Siberian word Tengri (gods or spirits). Mudang are similar to Japanese miko and Ryukyuan yuta. Korean shamanism has influenced some Korean new religions, such as Cheondoism and Jeungsanism, and some Christian churches in Korea make use of practices rooted in shamanism.

Jeongsusa Sansingak, Mountain Spirit Shrine (Ganghwa-gun) - Jeongsusa meaning clean water - clear the body and mind, because fresh water sprang up at the east side of the temple was built by Priest Hoejeong AD 639,and was rebuilt by saint priest Hamheo Daesa in 1426.

Altar of a Sansingak, “Mountain God shrine”. Mountain God shrines are often controlled by Buddhist temples. This one belongs to the Jeongsusa (Jeongsu Temple) of Ganghwa Island.


Names of the religion

Besides “Shinism” and “Muism“, other terms used to define Korean shamanism include Goshindo (고신도, 古神道; “way of the ancestral gods”), used in the context of the new religious movement of Daejongism, and Pungwoldo (風月道, “way of brightness”), used by the Confucian scholar Choe Chiwon between the 9th and the 10th century. Shamanic associations in modern South Korea use the terms Shindo or Mushindo (무신도 “shamanic way of the spirits”) to define their congregations or membership, and musogin (“people who do shamanism”) to define the shamans.

Names of the shamans

Main article: Mu (shaman)

The Korean word 무 mu is related to the Chinese term 巫 wu, which defines shamans of either sex, and likely also to the Mongolic “Bo” and Tibetan “Bon”. Already in records from the Yi dynasty, mudang has a prevalent usage. Mudang itself is explained in relation to Chinese characters, as originally referring to the “hall”, 堂 tang, of a shaman. A different etymology, however, explains mudang as stemming directly from the Siberian term for female shamans, utagan or utakan.

Mudang is used mostly, but not exclusively, for female shamans. Male shamans are called by a variety of names, including sana mudang (literally “male mudang“) in the Seoul area, or baksu mudang, also shortened baksu (“doctor”, “healer”), in the Pyongyang area. According to some scholars, baksu is an ancient authentic designation of male shamans, and locutions like sana mudang or baksu mudang are recent coinages due to the prevalence of female shamans in recent centuries. Baksu may be a Korean adaptation of terms loaned from Siberian languages, such as baksibalsi or bahsih.

The theory of an indigenous or Siberian origin of Korean shamanic terminology is more reasonable than theories which explain such terminology as originating in Chinese, given that Chinese culture influenced Korea only at a relatively recent stage of Korean history. Likely, when Koreans adopted Chinese characters they filtered their previously oral religious culture through the sieve of Chinese culture.

Types and roles of shamans

Hereditary and initiated mu

Korean shamans may be classified into two categories:

  • sessǔmu or tangol (당골), people who are shamans and have the right to perform rites by family lineage;
  • kangshinmu, people who become shamans through an initiation ceremony. Hereditary shamans were historically concentrated in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, while initiated shamans were found throughout the entire peninsula but were peculiar to the northern half, the contiguous areas of China inhabited by Koreans, and the central regions along the Han River.

The work of the mu is based on the holistic model, which takes into consideration, not only the whole person, but the individual’s interaction with his environment, thus both the inner and outer world. The soul is considered the source of life breath, and any physical illness is considered to be inextricably linked with sickness of the soul. Illness of the mind has its cause in soul loss, intrusion or possession by malevolent spirits. The gut rites practised by Korean shamans, have gone through a number of changes since the Silla and Goryeo periods. Even during the Joseon dynasty, which established Korean Confucianism as the state religion, shamanic rites persisted. In the past, such rites included agricultural rites, such as prayers for abundant harvest. With a shift away from agriculture in modern Korea, agricultural rites have largely been lost and modern-day shamans are more focused on the spiritual issues of urban life. But government promotions support the revival of ancient rites.

“Self-loss” and “divine wind” experiences

Main article: Shinbyeong

People who become shamans are believed to be “chosen” by gods or spirits through a spiritual experience known as shinbyeong (“divine or shaman illness“), a form of ecstasy, which entails the possession from a god and a “self-loss”. This state is said to manifest in symptoms of physical pain and psychosis. Believers assert that the physical and mental symptoms are not subject to medical treatment, but are healed only when the possessed accepts a full communion with the spirit.

The illness is characterised by a loss of appetite, insomnia, visual and auditory hallucinations. The possessed then undergoes the naerim-gut, a ritual which serves both to heal the sickness and to formally establish the person as a shaman.

Korean shamans also experience shinmyeong (“divine wind”), which is the channelling of a god, during which the shaman speaks prophetically. Shinmyeong is also experienced by entire communities during the gut hold by the shaman, and is a moment of energisation which relieves from social pressure, both physical and mental.

Myths about the origin of the shamans

In all the myths which figuratively explain the role of the shamans, it is implied that they are a media, intermediaries, of gods, spirits or even demons. They are not ordained institutionally, but receive ordination from supernatural beings themselves. Generally, these myths explain that shamans, whom in the most recent history of Korea are regarded as belonging to the lowest class of society (cheonmin 천민), have a forgotten their divine or princely nature, often coming from a blood lineage that may be traced back to the early founders of civilization. Further features of these myths are symbols of divine presence, such as the holy mountain and the holy tree, and tragic or painful experiences.

The bear is an animal often present in such myths, with parallels in the mythologies of Siberia. In Korean shamanism the seven stars of the Big Dipper, and the associated divine influence, are considered fundamental for childbearing.

Sungmo—the Holy Mother

Further information: Sungmo

A shrine on Mount Bukhan in Seoul, South Korea.

A shrine on Mount Bukhan in Seoul, South Korea.

In a collection of myths, the origin of the shamans is linked to a mother goddess associated with a mountain and presented as either the mother or the spiritual daughter of the “Heavenly King”. She has different names according to different regions and associated mountains: Sungmo (“Holy Mother”), Daemo (“Great Mother”), Jamo (“Benevolent Mother”), Sinmo (“Divine Mother”), Nogo (“Olden Maiden”), and others. In other myths she is a mortal princess who is later turned into a goddess.

These myths usually tell of a man, Pobu Hwasang, who encountered the “Holy Mother [of the Heavenly King]” on the top of a mountain. The Holy Mother then became a human being and married the man who met her, giving birth to eight girls, the first mudang. According to some scholars, this myth was first elaborated in the Silla period, when Buddhism and influences from China had already penetrated the Korean peninsula.

The myth of the princess is the most popular, and it differs from region to region. In one of the versions, the princess is Ahwang Kongju of the Yao kingdom, located on the Asian mainland. The princess had a strong link with divinity, granting welfare to her people. Her father sent the princess among the people, whom began to worship her for her healing powers. The first mudang were established as her successors. The princess is worshipped with seasonal offerings in Chungcheong. The yellow and red clothes worn by the mudang are regarded as Ahwang Kongju’s robes.

In the north of the Korean peninsula the princess is known as Chil Kongju (the “Seventh Princess”), seventh amongst the daughters of the king. The myth tells that she was rejected by her father, who sealed her in a stone coffin and cast it into a pond, but she was rescued by a Dragon King sent by the Heavenly King, and ascended to the western sky becoming the goddess of healing waters. Names of the goddess in other local traditions are Pali Kongju and Kongsim. In the tradition of Jeju Island, where there are more male baksu than female mudang, the myth tells of a prince as the ancestor of all shamans.

Dangun—the Sandalwood King

Further information: Dangun

Dangun is traditionally considered to be the grandson of Hwanin, the “Heavenly King”, and founder of the Korean nation. This myth is reputed to be older than that of the mother goddess. Myths similar to that of Dangun are found in Ainu and Siberian cultures.

The myth starts with prince Hwanung (“Heavenly Prince”), son of Hwanin. The prince asked his father to grant him governance over Korea. Hwanin accepted, and Hwanung was sent to Earth bearing three Heavenly Seals and accompanied by three thousand followers. The prince arrived under the holy tree of sandalwood (Sintansu 신단수, 神檀樹) on the holy mountain, where he founded his holy city.

At the time of his reign, Ungnyeo or Ungnye (웅녀, 熊女)—who was a she-bear—and a tiger were living in a cave near the holy city, praying earnestly that their wish to become part of mankind might be fulfilled. Ungnyeo patiently endured weariness and hunger, and after twenty-one days she was transformed into a beautiful woman, while the tiger ran away for it could not tolerate the effort. The woman Ungnyeo was overjoyed, and visiting the sandalwood city she prayed that she might become the mother of a child.

Ungnye’s wish was fulfilled, so that she became the queen and gave birth to a prince who was given the royal name of Dangun, the “Sandalwood King”. Dangun reigned as the first human king of Korea, giving to his kingdom the name of Joseon, “Land of the Morning Calm”.

Dangun was the first shaman, intermediary between mankind and Haneullim, to whom he worshipped and prayed on the behalf of his people. Later in the myth, Dangun becomes the Sansin, the “Mountain God” (metaphorically of civilising growth, prosperity).

Worship of ancestors and gods represent a very important and integral part of Korean folk religion.


Main article: Gut (ritual)

Gut rites

A famous mudang holding a five-days long gut in rural South Korea in 2007.

A famous mudang holding a five-days long gut in rural South Korea in 2007.

The gut or kut are the rites performed by Korean shamans, involving offerings and sacrifices to gods and ancestors. They are characterised by rhythmic movements, songs, oracles and prayers.These rites are meant to create welfare, promoting commitment between the spirits and humankind.The major categories of rites are the naerim-gut, the dodang-gut and the ssitgim-gut.

Through song and dance, the shaman begs the gods to intervene in the fortune of humans. The shaman wears a very colourful costume and normally speaks in ecstasy. During a rite, the shaman changes his or her costume several times. Rituals consist of various phases, called gori.

There are different types of gut, which vary from region to region.


Purity of both the body and the mind is a state that is required for taking part in rituals. Purification is considered necessary for an efficacious communion between living people and ancestral forms. Before any gut is performed, the altar is always purified by fire and water, as part of the first gori of the ritual itself. The colour white, extensively used in rituals, is regarded as a symbol of purity. The purification of the body is performed by burning white paper.


Further information: Misin tapa undong

Korean shamanism goes back to prehistoric times, pre-dating the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism, and the influence of Taoism, in Korea. It is similar to Chinese Wuism. Vestiges of temples dedicated to gods and spirits have been found on tops and slopes of many mountains in the peninsula.

Although many Koreans converted to Buddhism when it was introduced to the peninsula in the 4th century, and adopted as the state religion in Silla and Goryeo, it remained a minor religion compared to Korean shamanism.

Since the 15th century, in the state of Joseon, things changed with the adoption of Neo-Confucianism as the state religion. Non-Confucian religions were suppressed and Korean shamanism started to be regarded as a backward relic of the past. In the late 19th and 20th century, a series of circumstances, namely the influence of Christian missionaries and the disruption of society caused by modernisation, contributed to a further weakening of Korean shamanism, ultimately paving the way for a significant growth of Christianity.

In the 1890s, when the Joseon dynasty was collapsing, Protestant missionaries gained significant influence through the press, leading a demonisation of Korean traditional religion and even campaigns of violent suppression of local cults. Protestant demonisation would have had a long-lasting influence on all subsequent movements which promoted a complete elimination of Korean shamanism.

During the Japanese rule over Korea, the Japanese tried to incorporate Korean shamanism within, or replace it with, State Shinto. For a short period in the 1940s, however, after the defeat of the Japanese, Korean shamanism was identified as the pure Korean national essence.

The situation of Korean shamanism worsened after the division of Korea and the establishment of a northern Socialist government and a southern pro-Christian government. South Korean anti-superstition policies in the 1970s and 80s forbade traditional religion and wiped out all ancestral shrines. These policies were particularly tough under the rule of Park Chung-hee. In North Korea, all shamans and their families were targeted as members of the “hostile class” and were considered to have bad songbun, “tainted blood”.

In recent decades, Korean shamanism has experienced a resurgence in South Korea, while in North Korea, according to demographic analyses, approximately 16% of the population practises some form of traditional ethnic religion or shamanism.


Since the early 19th century, a number of movements of revitalisation or innovation of traditional Korean shamanism arose. They are characterised by an organised structure, a codified doctrine, and often a holy scripture. They may be grouped into three major families: the family of Daejongism or Dangunism, the Donghak-originated movements (including Cheondoism and Suunism), and the family of Jeungsanism (including Jeungsando, Daesun Jinrihoe, the now-extinct Bocheonism, and many other sects).


Historically, Korean shamanism and traditional religion relied upon a system of ancestral shrines, sadang (사당), similar to those found in China and Japan. Larger temples are called myo (literally “temple”) or gung (literally “palace”). Korean shamanic temples may be distinguished by their use of taegeuk (태극) and manja (만자) symbolism, and some of them have gates similar to Japanese Shinto torii.

Almost all traditional shrines were destroyed in the 19th and 20th century during Christian waves of persecution and the governments’ campaigns for “modernisation”. In recent years there have been cases of reconstruction of shrines and resumption of rites in some villages.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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