Mun Ok Sun

Mun Ok Sun was a famous Korean shaman who lived on Cheju Island. I met her in 1978 when she was doing a healing ceremony in a straw-covered house near the Cheju Folk Museum. A former diver for shellfish and seafood, she was born and grew up in a rural culture steeped in Taoist, naturalistic traditions. Her contact with the outside world was so minimal that she only spoke a heavy Cheju dialect.

Mun Ok Sun
Mun Ok Sun

The ceremony that Mun OkSun was conducting was a three-day healing ritual for a woman who had gone mute. Dressed in her sequined colors, Mun OkSun reminded me of a gypsy who had become a goddess. I wasn’t sure how to approach her and timidly sat down in the hut. Frankly she scared me with all of those ghostly ancestors surrounding her.  By the second day, my head echoed like an empty cave filled with the endless bang, bang, thump, thump of drums and percussions. Mun pushed the brass clang-cling instrument into my hands and my rhythms began to follow her voice.

Me with shaman musicians, 1978

A group of tourists came by, peered into the little hut and took a picture of me, no doubt thinking that I was also a shaman. Mun OkSun flashed her first smile and read my palm on the spot: “You have five children in your family (which was true), and you will marry before the end of the year”(I had three more months to go with no candidate in sight).

Mun OkSun eventually declared me her adopted daughter. She kept nothing from me and she had many lessons to teach. I was searching for the collective unconscious of villagers that was hidden under a thin veneer of modernization. There, we might find out how traditional rural health cultures intersect with modern medical beliefs—a topic that fascinates all medical anthropologists.

Cheju Divers 1975
Cheju Divers, 1975

Living among Cheju shamans convinced me that life was far from romantic for them. Most of them were illiterate, afflicted with illnesses, from poor peasant families and condemned as “untouchables.” I met shamans who I admired but others who I doubted. Shamans, like any other religious group, varied in their faith and ability. Some were very knowledgeable of the symbolism and meaning of rituals. One person I met was the model of an intelligent, religious leader. Another shaman had lost her faith but kept on practicing to make a living. Still another male shaman was egoistic and solicited compliments on his style.  But the common characteristic —whether or a lowly fortune-teller or chief shaman—was their sharpened insight into the human psyche and the gift of intuitive knowledge.

On Cheju Island, I found a shamanism that was alive and kicking, an experiment in living that might have contributed more to modern life if it had not been buried in Confucianism and its few books burned.  And, yes, I did meet my future husband that year.