There are a number of shamanistic practices that are developed in Korea, where the role of a shaman is most frequently taken by women. They have deep roots and have inter-influenced Buddhism and Taoism. This meeting is mediated by a shaman. In contemporary Korean, a shaman is known as a mudang (무당).
Even though belief in Korean shamanism is not as widespread as it once was, the practices are kept alive. In the past such shamanistic rites have included as agricultural rites, such as prayers for abundant harvest. With a shift away from agriculture in modern Korea this has largely been lost. The rites themselves underwent a number of changes through the Silla and Goryeo periods. Even during the Joseon Dynasty which was heavily Confucian, shamanistic rites persisted.
Koreans, like other East Asians, have traditionally been eclectic rather than exclusive in their religious commitments. Their religious outlook has not been conditioned by a single, exclusive faith but by a combination of indigenous beliefs and creeds imported into Korea. Belief in a world inhabited by spirits is probably the oldest form of Korean religious life, dating back to prehistoric times. There is a rather unorganized pantheon of literally millions of gods, spirits, and ghosts, ranging from the "god generals" who rule the different quarters of heaven to mountain spirits (sansin). This pantheon also includes gods who inhabit trees, sacred caves, and piles of stones, as well as earth spirits, the tutelary gods of households and villages, mischievous goblins, and the ghosts of persons who in many cases met violent or tragic ends. These spirits are said to have the power to influence or to change the fortunes of living men and women.
Korean shamans are similar in many ways to those found in Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria. They also resemble the yuta found on the Ryūkyū Islands, in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. Jeju-do is also a center of shamanism.
Shamans, most of whom are women, are enlisted by those who want the help of the spirit world. Female shamans (mudang) hold kut, or services, in order to gain good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Such services are also held to guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven.
Often a woman will become a shaman very reluctantly--after experiencing a severe physical or mental illness that indicates "possession" by a spirit. Such possession allegedly can be cured only through performance of a kut. Once a shaman is established in her profession, she usually can make a good living.
Many scholars regard Korean shamanism as less a religion than a "medicine" in which the spirits are manipulated in order to achieve human ends. There is no notion of salvation or moral and spiritual perfection, at least for the ordinary believers in spirits. The shaman is a professional who is consulted by clients whenever the need is felt. Traditionally, shamans had low social status and were members of the ch'ommin class. This discrimination has continued into modern times.
Animistic beliefs are strongly associated with the culture of fishing villages and are primarily a phenomenon found in rural communities. Shamans also treat the ills of city people, however, especially recent migrants from the countryside who find adjustment to an impersonal urban life stressful. The government has discouraged belief in shamanism as superstition and for many years minimized its persistence in Korean life. Yet in a climate of growing nationalism and cultural self-confidence, the dances, songs, and incantations that compose the kut have come to be recognized as an important aspect of Korean culture. Beginning in the 1970s, rituals that formerly had been kept out of foreign view began to resurface, and occasionally a Western hotel manager or other executive could even be seen attending a shamanistic exorcism ritual in the course of opening a new branch in Seoul. Some of these aspects of kut have been designated valuable cultural properties that should be preserved and passed on to future generations.
The future of shamanism itself was uncertain in the late 1980s. Observers believed that many of its functions in the future probably will be performed by the psychiatric profession as the government expands mental health treatment facilities. Given the uncertainty of social, economic, and political conditions, however, it appears certain that shamans will find large numbers of clients for some time to come.
Korean shamanism is distinguished by its seeking to solve human problems through a meeting of humanity and the spirits. This can be seen clearly in the various types of gut that are still widely observed. Korean Shamanism has about a million adherents in China.
The gut is a shamanistic rite where the shaman offers a sacrifice to the spirits. Through singing and dancing the shaman begs the spirits to intercede in the fortunes of the humans in question. The shaman wears a very colourful costume and normally speaks in trance. During a gut a shaman changes their costume several times.
There are three elements of a gut. Firstly there is the spirits as the object of folk beliefs. Secondly there is the believers who pray to those spirits. Finally there is the shaman mediating between the two.
The actual form of gut various between regions. The plot of the shamanistic rite depends largely on the objective of the ceremony. The individual character and ability of the shaman, finally, adds fine differences in style.
The main variations of gut are naerim-gut, dodang-gut and ssitgim-gut. The shamans can either be hereditary or spirit-possessed.
This gut is an initiation rite. As part of the rite, someone becomes a shaman by being possessed by a spirit. The candidate suffers from an unknown illness which is called sinbyeong. This is also known as spirit sickness and characterized by a loss of appetite, insomnia, visual and auditory hallucinations. The naerim-gut cures this illness, while at the same time inducting a new shaman.
This communal rite is common in central provinces in South Korea. Its aim is to wish for the well-being and prosperity of a particular village or hamlet. This rite is normally held annually or once every few years. It is always held either around the New Year or in spring or autumn. The dodang-gut is distinguished by giving prominent roles to female sorceresses.
This rite is used to cleanse the spirit of a deceased person. Since ancient times there is a Korean belief that when somebody dies, their body cannot enter the world of the dead because if the impurity of their spirit. The ssitgim-gut washes away this impurity. It is observed mainly in the provinces in the south west of South Korea.
Regional Shaman Rites
The traditional rites are not linked to the Gregorian calendar. They are linked either to a particular event, such as a death, or the lunar calendar.
| Name || Purposes || Region
| Hamgyeong-do Manmukgut || Performed three days after a death in order to open a passage way to the land of the dead. || Hamgyeong-do
| Pyeongan-do Darigut || This gut is dedicated to the spirit of a deceased person and facilitates the entry into the land of the dead. Its procedures resemble some Buddhist procedures. || Pyeongan-do
| Hwanghae-do Naerimgut || This initiation rite is a traditional nerium-gut. || Hwanghae-do
| Hwanghae-do Jinogwigut || This gut is performed for the dead. It guides to paradise by salvation of angry spirits. || Hwanghae-do
| Ongjin Baeyeonsingut || This rite is a fishermen's rite in honour of the dragon king of the sea. Its purpose is wishing for abundant catch and communal peace all year round. || Hwanghae-do
| Yangju Sonorigut || This is a cattle worship rite. It is performed for good harvests, good luck and prosperity of the local community. It is one of the most sophisticated shamanistic performances in Korea. || Yangju, Gyeonggi
| Seoul Danggut || This gut is for peace and abundant harvest. || Mt. Jeongbalsan, Dapsimni- dong, Sinnae- dong, Mt. Bonghwasan, Seoul
| Seoul Jinogwigut || This rite is for the dead, to prepare passage way to the land of the dead. It is supposed to lead the deceased person to paradise in 49 days after death. This goes back to Taoist beliefs that every person has seven souls, one of which ascends to heaven every seven days. || Seoul
| Gyeonggi-do Dodanggut || This rite is held every second month of the lunar calendar. It wards off evil spirits from a community. Well-being to the villagers is induced by worshipping the tutelary grandparents at the tutelary shrines. || Dingmak area, Jangmal area in Bucheon, Gyeonggi-do
| Gangneung Danogut || This rite is a large-scale gut. It involves dozens of shamans praying to the mountain deity for communal safety from wild animals. There are also prayers for abundant crops and catches of fish. Masked dance dramas and colourful folk games surround this rite. || Gangneung, Gangwon-do
| Eunsan Byeolsingut || This rite is dedicated to the tutelary spirits of the villages. It includes a struggle of General Boksin and the reverend priest Dochim who recovered the sovereignty of the Baekje Kingdom. Part of the rite is held before guardian totem poles. || Eunsan- ri, Buyeo-gun, Chungcheongnam-do
| Suyongpo Sumanggut || This gut is dedicated to persons who died at sea and leads them to the land of the dead. || Yeongil- gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do
| Gangsa-ri Beomgut || This communal gut is held once every three years. Shamans pray for the protection from tigers, abundant catch at sea and communal peace. || Gangsa-ri, Yeongil-gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do
| Geojedo Byeolsingut || This rite is held at every fishing village in order to pray for abundant catch and communal peace. || Geoje, Gyeongsangnam-do
| Tongyeong Ogwisaenamgut || This gut is held to console the spirits of a person drowned at sea and leading to the land of the dead. || Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do
| Wido Ttibaegut || This is a fishermen's rite and involves many tutelary spirits wishing for good fortune || Wido Island, Buan-gun, Jeollabuk-do
| Jindo Ssitgimgut || This rite helps cleansing the spirits of deceased persons. It is also performed at the first anniversary of a death. || Jindo Islands, Jangsando Islands, Jeollanam-do
| Jejudo Singut || This rite helps a shaman being promoted to a higher rank of shamanship. This is also an initiation rite, and a shaman holds this gut three times in their life. || Jeju-do
| Jejudo Yeongdeunggut || This rite is held in the second month of the lunar calendar. It is held to worship the Yeongdeungsin, the goddess of the sea, who will grant safety and abundant catches. || Coastal areas, Jeju-do
| Jejudo Muhongut || This rite is held to cleanse the spirits of someone drowned at sea and guide this person to the land of the dead. || Jeju-do