Posted by: rbbadger | October 26, 2009

Shamanism and Korean Protestantism

Korea is very much a multi-religious society.  In addition to Buddhism and Christianity, there are numerous new religions as well.  Additionally, Shamanism is also present.  While it may not be as visible as Chinese Daoism or Japanese Shinto are, it is nevertheless present.  You can often recognise places where shamans work by red and white flags, sometimes adorned with swastikas.  For those of us from the west, seeing swastikas is sometimes startling.  However, it does not have the same meaning here as it does elsewhere.  In fact, temples are identified on street signs by a swastika symbol.

Shaman's house

Part of the things which shamans do are to hold exorcisms known as gut (굿) designed to free a person from malevolent spirits.  Sometimes when exorcising a person of evil spirits, the person will be held down and their stomach will be pressed down to force the spirits out the throat. 

Police in Fairfax County, Virginia have been investigating the death of a teenage Korean-American girl.  The Washington Times reported that she likely died during an exorcism performed by a mudang or Korean shaman.  However, according to Peter Kim, the Korean-American media thinks it is rather associated with exorcism practices in some Korean Protestant ecclesial communities.  There is a practice, known as the anchal prayer, wherein the person being prayed over is also subjected to hitting.  Apparently, she suffered from blunt force trauma.

I am curious to know how widespread this practice is.  I am also wondering if it is a sort of unconscious syncretism.  Syncretism is a sort of blending of the rituals and practices of one religion with another.  Shamanism has a long, long history in Korea despite multiple attempts to drive it out.  I don’t want to give the impression that this is a common feature of Korean Protestantism.  I have read elsewhere that some Korean Protestants are firmly opposed to the practice.  In America, we have groups of Pentecostal Christians who handle poisonous snakes as a part of their worship.  You can find things that seem distinctly odd just about anywhere.

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Responses

  1. Robert,

    Syncretism can explain many elements in Religions in Korea. The oldest religion in Korea is shamanism. Buddhism was quite foreign religion until it was introduced into Korea in 372. And some shaman elements still remain in Korean Buddhism. For example, Chilsung-gak(칠성각, 七星閣) in Korean Buddhist temples originated from shamanism.

    I think syncretism can also explain many phenomena in Protestants in Korea. Many charismatic prayers in Korean Protestants remind me of shamans praying in trance. It seems they also share their strong interests in material gaining and success in this life on earth.

    I do not know the exact origin of Anchal prayer. I used to think it came from a charismatic movement from Western countries. It is a charismatic prayer that usually touches or massages the body of a person while praying on him. And it seems some extreme cases of exorcism involves hitting the body of the exorcised. So not all Anchal prayers lead to injury or death.

    I am so thankful and relieved that Catholics in Korea did not get much syncretic because of the strong hierarchy. Kim Rayoung’s case gave me a lesson that some inculturation of religion can be very dangerous.

  2. SHamanism is the indigenous spiritual belief practice of Koreans. It has been much maligned, misinterpreted and persecuted by colonial religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, etc., as well as the government (new village movement). There are many types of shamanist practices, as many as there are human conditions and needs. Not all folks who call themselves shamans (mudang for women or paktsu, in the case of a man) today are recognized by senior practitioners of either the charismatic or hereditary type. Shamans may perform large-scale national or regional rituals or have private clients. While Koreans have incorporated many ecstatic practices into the Christian sects rituals and behavior, nonetheless, shamanism under the best of circumstances, should be respected as a unique cultural phenomenon. The media and public’s informal, uneducated understanding of the word itself can cast yet another defamatory shadow on this important apsect of Korean culture. I know many shamans whose integrity is high and ascribe to basic laws of ethical practice and behaviour.

  3. Japanese shinto is a more institutionalized form of shamanism. It is a most popular religion in Japan. Maybe that’s why Christianity could not prevail in Japan.

    In Korea, shamanism was defragmented and preserved in the form Korean traditional cultural treasure designated by government, since it has been disappearing as the industrialization and Christianity spread in Korea. On the other hand, some mudangs turned into business as seen in Miari.

    I think many Koreans mind still have shamanic elements. I heard that even Catholic ajummas often confess they went to fortune telling or mudang when they were curious about destiny or fortune in the future.

    Korean Protestants religious practice, such as charismatic prayers and exorcism also have the shamanic elements. Sangido (mountain prayer) gives me an impression of shamanism clothed with Christianity.

    Korean Buddhism also has accepted shamanism as its own. And it became a characteristic of Korean Buddhism distinctive with Buddhism in other countries.

    Dangun, the forefather of Koreans is believed to be the shamanic leader in ancient Korea. He was a celebrant of shamanic rites and a political leader of Korean society. So Dangun may not be a name of just one person. It was most probably a general term that indicates shaman celebrant, mudang. That’s why Korean Protestants have organized a movement of beheading Dangun statues in Korea.

    “Gut” is a shamanic rite that usually is performed to drive out bad spirit and invite a good one. So it involves invocation of spirits. Shamanism believes in animism or pantheism. So when a mudang invoke spirits he or she is calling for spirits. I think the danger of “gut” or shaman prayers lies in the invocation of spirits. What is the identity of the “spirits” the mudangs are invoking? We do not know. So it carries danger when one trust oneself to the rite of “gut” or fortune telling.

  4. Another report on Kim Rayoung’s case: 김양 사망 초래한 종교의식 뭔가 (Washington Hanguk Ilbo)

    The news article reported that Michael Kwon, the president of Korean community in North Virginia has never seen Korean traditional “gut” performed in his Korean community, even though he has lived in the area for a long time. Most Korean Americans think it occurred during charismatic exorcism in Protestant community.

    And the article says that an exhorter in the Protestant community recently returned to Korea after Miss Kim’s death. He was a suspect who have performed the exorcism (Anchal prayer) of Miss Kim.

    The article also reported that some form of Korean Protestant’s exorcism involves poking eyes or jumping on the body of the exorcised. It is said that Kim Rayoung’s parent have tried every possible way to treat her daughter but could not cure her mental illness. And they tried the Protestant exorcism as a last resort.

  5. According to the news article, there are witnesses of the suspect’s exorcism. They saw the suspect have poked eyes and jumped on the bodies of the exorcied in other exorcism cases. And I think Miss Kim most probably died during the violent exorcism. It sounds just crazy.

  6. I agree with the comment in this
    writing:

    “Korean Protestantism has almost been reduced to a Christianized mudang religion. That is, the form and language of the worship service are Christian, but the content and structure of what Korean Christians adhere to are basically the mudang religion. Although missionaries rejected shamanism and thought it had been destroyed, Korean Christianity has become almost completely shamanized.”

  7. The link: SHAMANISM: THE RELIGION OF HAN

    • Just wondering what is the title of the book that you get this reference from. Thanks


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