My Life with Shamans

Although shamanism shaped Korean culture for centuries, it is rarely mentioned in Korean dynastic records. Extraordinarily resilient, it survived persecution during the l970’s as well as rapid industrialization, partly because it was embedded in family rituals and community life. Unraveling its mysteries was my anthropological passion because I believed it was a key to understanding the modern Korean mindset. A family friend and former general in the army during the Korean War urged me to do research on Cheju Island before its shamanist cults disappeared. “They worship snakes,” he said, tempting my curiosity. He described village rituals devoted to a powerful snake spirit who could cause illness or make people rich. I could not imagine a more compelling academic adventure.

I reached Cheju in the summer of l977 but I was apprehensive about the feasibility of my project. It often takes weeks to infiltrate a community of shamans and gain their trust, but the island’s spirits must have been watching over me. During my first visit to the local folk museum I was invited to a shaman rite. A 40-year old woman was afflicted with an illness that prevented her from speaking. The doctors said there was nothing wrong with her physically so they could not cure her. In desperation, her husband’s family had called upon one of the island’s most famous shamans, Mun OkSun. A small, frail woman in her 60’s, she nevertheless commanded everyone taking part in the 3-day ceremony. She jumped with such force into the air when she danced that her long sequined dress flew above her knees. One family member told me that a messenger spirit had possessed her.

During an interlude, Mun sent me an intense look across the room. Did she disapprove of my presence? I was about to leave when she motioned me to come closer. Then she smiled and reached for my hand. I was reluctant, but my assistant explained that she wanted to read my fortune. “You are part of a family with five children (which is true). You have done many things in music and art (also true), and you will marry before the end of the year (I had 3 months to go and no prospects in sight but my future partner showed up as predicted).” She invited me to share their meals and participate in the ceremonies.

Mun Ok Sun in Buddhist dress
Mun Ok Sun, shaman from Cheju Island,1976

By sheer coincidence, Mun OkSun lived next to the sacred tree in which the famed snake spirit was said to rest. One day at her home she sang for me the epic tale of the Agassi snake spirit. The tale is as follows. “There was once a Chinese couple who was called by the heavenly spirit to govern in Heaven. They were very sad because they would have to leave their 7-year old daughter behind. Misfortune struck when a servant who was entrusted with her care lost her in a forest. A monk rescued the girl, carrying her away in his begging sack. Miraculously, the child became pregnant. When the parents returned, they searched for her and after consulting with the monk were reunited with their daughter. But upon learning of her pregnancy, they were full of shame and banished her. She was locked in a box and sent out to sea where she floated under the protection of the dragon king. Finally, she landed on Cheju Island. On the beach, Cheju women divers discovered the box and opened it to release a beautiful giant snake and seven baby serpents. Soon afterwards, the divers became ill and they realized that the snakes were spirits. After they made offerings, they were healed, became wealthy and had many children. From that time on, the Cheju islanders have worshipped the snake spirit.” Mun explained that the Agassi snake spirit was commemorated in heaven by the Big Dipper, which has seven stars. At ceremonies, we often added a bottle of Chilseung or Seven-Star soda just for Agassi on the offering table.

For a few days afterwards, I visited Mun to conduct interviews. Finally she decided it would be easier if I just moved in so I was given the room near the sacred tree. The propitious location of my bedroom obliged me to point my feet toward Seoul while sleeping. According to some folklorists, that posture brought me even better luck. Mun OkSun soon adopted me as her Korean-American daughter. She introduced me to the inner circles of shamans, and I traveled with her throughout the island as part of her group.

I accompanied her to the cancer clinic where she herself was receiving treatments. I was puzzled by her confidence in the Western-trained doctor, naively believing that shamans competed with modern health practitioners. But Mun never saw any contradiction between her healing methods and those of modern medical practitioners. She had great faith in pharmaceuticals and always told her patients to follow doctors’ orders. She told me that shamans dealt with mental and spiritual problems that were often ignored by doctors. Indeed, most of the cases I witnessed involved patients whose physical ailments were inseparable from their psychological well being. A tuberculosis patient had become an alcoholic and stopped taking his medicine. A partially paralyzed boy was so depressed that he wouldn’t eat. Others suffered from mental disorders or distress from chronic or incurable illnesses. I believe Mun’s greatest contribution to healing was her ability to restore her patients’ will to live, and she had what no doctor could offer: the authority of ancestral spirits to back her up. With extraordinary intuitive skills and a wealth of understanding about her patients’ symbolic universe, Mun accomplished what any effective psychotherapist might achieve. She accepted the subjective world of her patients, and she bestowed high status upon their inner suffering.

Perhaps the key to understanding a shaman’s role is what T. S. Elliot once referred to as the “wounded surgeon.” Many shamans have a history of serious illnesses, and they share their patients’ worldview as members of the community—all useful experiences when working with the rural and urban poor. Like any group of healers, doctors included, there are charlatans among them. But most Cheju shamans I met were people of great faith who strongly believed in their right to freedom of religion. We should be grateful that they defended that right. Shamanism is a religion with no temple, bible or institutionalized priesthood and yet it thrives to this day. It is a cultural legacy worth more than all the jewels of the Yi dynasty.