Shamans of the modern age

Colorful flags snapped in the sea breeze as more than a dozen Korean shamans, dressed in bright colors, danced and chanted prayers in front of a huge cow's head stuck to a trident.

The ceremony on a ship was designed to exorcise demons that threaten fishermen and bring good luck to everybody on board. The presence of several hundred spectators underlined how the ages-old trance rituals were going strong again, having been shunned as recently as 30 years ago.

"People are trying to understand more, learn more, and see more. They are very interested in this," said Kim Keum-hwa, one of South Korea's most famous shamans, who led the ceremony.

Though an ancient practice, Korean shamanism - in which singing and dancing are used in trance rituals addressed to specific gods, often to get an answer to specific questions - had long been suppressed in Asia's second most Christian nation.

In leaping from poverty to rapid modernization, the county's dictatorship in the 1970s tried to eliminate shamanism, claiming that shamans deluded the world, while some Christian missionaries demonized them and their followers.

But today, visiting a mudang - shaman priest or priestess - is so common that politicians consult them seeking answers to questions such as whether they should relocate their ancestors' remains to ensure good luck in the next election. Shaman characters have also featured in popular television shows.

"Public perception towards shamanism has improved a lot, with popular TV dramas contributing to shifting these views," said Park Heung-ju, an authority on mudang at the Kut Research Institute in Seoul."You can find repose by meeting with mudang."

Much of this is due to the pressures of modern life in South Korea's high-stress society, said Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

"Nowadays, many Koreans feel strong uncertainties and life seems unstable in many ways, so they want to find something that can give them a sense of security," he said. "The same things have also created a dramatic increase in the number of people who follow religions here in Korea."


To start the on-board ceremony, the shamans light a bundle of straw and float it on the water with offerings of food to exorcise evil spirits.

Later they go into a trance, speaking directly to spectators to wish them good luck and good health to the accompaniment of lively music from pipes, flutes and drums.

At the end, shamans and spectators mingle as one group, dancing in a circle to the fast-paced music.

"Shunning shamanism is not right. Today's event is meant to be for praying for the sake of families," said Lee Sung-soo, who said he was a Buddhist but danced with the group nonetheless.

In one sign of how mainstream shamanism has become, one mudang shaking bells in front of the laden altar was Hendrikje Lange from Switzerland, who credits shamanism with lifting her out of a debilitating depression.

Lange, 45, encountered shamanism as part of her studies of Korean percussion instruments, but resisted actually taking part in a possession ritual until several accidents and visions convinced her she needed to change her life.

Now, she is one of dozens of shamans initiated by Kim, including a handful of foreigners.

"All I can say is that something is happening with energy. I feel that the longer it keeps going, the stronger the energy is," she said.

Shin, the sociologist, said an additional part of the mudang's appeal was the sense that it was personal.

"People may have faith in other religions, but those religions seem vague and not tailored to them personally," he said. "People go to see shamans because they all believe their stories and situations are unique."

Jung Mi-soon, a participant in the ceremony, said that shamanism spoke to her directly.

"I felt something from my heart. This ritual has everything in there - happiness, sadness, anger and fun," said the 46-year-old housewife who has had more than 10 surgeries which she attributes to spiritual sickness.

"Sometimes tears pour out from my heart. Sometimes it's just fun when everyone is dancing and bowing. And, it's healing."

Story: Ju-Min Park / Reuters. Photos: ReSearcher at Wikimedia Commons and Parhessiestas at Flickr


    1.  Not really.  Korean shamanism has been around for a *long* time.  For the last 500 years or so, it has been  largely a women’s spiritual practice, and provided an absolutely essential counterpoint to the male-dominated Confucian system that ran the country.  I just finished reading Laurel Kendall’s excellent Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life, and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to know more.

      The other thing I’d say, from reading the book, is that at least some mudangs (e.g. the ones documented in the book) will tell their clients to seek medical aid when appropriate.  Their job is more about curing bad luck, which they conceptualize as  problems in relations between humans and the spirits that surround them.  They see themselves as part of a care community, and just as American social workers send sick people to doctors, they tell people to go to Buddhist temples, pharmacists, doctors, Chinese doctors, or the hospital, depending on the issue. 

      1. Korean shamanism has been around for much longer than 500 years. It predates the Three Kingdoms Period easily. The Kendall book is a good read too.

    2. Eh, it would appear to me that an epistemologically troubled tradition with superior psychoactivity is regaining some ground against a different epistemologically troubled tradition whose psychoactive efficacy has proven unsatisfactory…

      It’s not as though there is some rationalist Camelot in the background here. There was the dictatorship doing the modernization-through-repression thing and Team Jesus doing the our-competitors-are-just-demons thing. It would appear that(unshockingly enough) modernity proved to be psychologically strenuous and unpleasant, and the incumbent metaphysics monopoly got fat and lazy and lost some of that zealous edge.

      1. In addition to which dancing is good for anyone and however they justify that to themselves is a personal matter.

        1. In case I wasn’t clear: while I have a great deal of difficulty mustering anything but contempt for religious practices as a method of truth determination, I have considerable respect for the efficacy of (surviving) rituals in serving psychological objectives.

          In the (often rather brutal) competition for adherents and resources between different flavors of ritualists, only the ones that get results last. In this case, the local shamanic tradition has been hanging on pretty stubbornly for some centuries, so I would very much expect them to have some good tricks.

          1. Absolutely. For me the physical and collective participation in ritual seems to be the psychologically essential component.

            Traditions can only survive if they evolve.

            Les blancs pensent trop.

          2. I have much more respect for Sophocles’s plays, olympic games, non-religious holidays and carnivals, etc., which have thankfully lost or never had a religious component, than for such unabashedly religious practices. At least the former wear their commercialism on their sleeve.

          3. Sophocles’ plays and the original olympic games most definitely had religious significance.  Oracular consultation and the concept of fate were both religious concepts and the Greeks were a pretty damned religious people (why was Socrates sentenced to death again?).  The modern Olympic games retain events like the opening relay that had religious significance in the original games.

            Besides that, the original purpose of astronomy was to facilitate and improve astrology.  Modern pharmacology and surgery traditions arose out of European folk magic that hybridized Catholocism and paganism.  Agriculture goes a little further back but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t reified and ritualized at some point in prehistory.  Edit: How could I forget the origins of modern chemistry in the occult traditions of alchemy?

            We got modern science because a lot of people were willing to be flexible about their interpretations of reality.  Maybe we’re not at some hyper-rational end point of intellectual history.  Maybe we can do even better if we keep our minds open.  Traditions like this survive because they embody wisdom.

        2. Still, you could admit that the image of Korean politicians (or politicians anywhere) dancing is quite funny:
          “But today, visiting a mudang – shaman priest or priestess – is so common that politicians consult them seeking answers to questions such as whether they should relocate their ancestors’ remains to ensure good luck in the next election. Shaman characters have also featured in popular television shows.”
          I actually much prefer that politicians go to shamans and religious advisors for answers, instead of prostituting science in their service. Shamans are probably more accommodating, too.

        1. Marius, modern Christianity in South Korea is a major political force to be reckoned with. There are many self-styled Christian sects that are more of a cult than a religion as well. A church there can be owned by one person and is often used to avoid taxation of profit. Personally, I consider Christianity there to be largely an unethical enterprise due to corruption. About 40 percent of the population is Christian though Cristians there are apt to inflate those numbers.

    3.  Don’t be so snotty, native religious practices have always been around (and I’m not talking about phony re-constructions of false history as bent by ideology, meaning wicca etc), despite the attempts of the big three, and now atheists like yourself, to suppress them. They still survive, because there is truth in them, and because many of them can effectively help people with their everyday problems. As for their power, if you don’t believe, go find a palero or santero ( though there are phonies posing as such) and insult or mess with one of them, and you’ll quickly see your life go to shite in ways that can’t be explained in a lab.

        1.  I don’t really understand what you are saying, but to clarify what I was saying: Wicca is a made up religion ans spiritual system, a false looking backwards ,whereas what is written about above is something that organically developed.

          1. To be fair, all religions are made up spiritual systems.  Wicca just happens to be the new kid on the block.  You could just as easily say that Mormonism is Christian fan-fiction, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant as a religious movement.  Same with Wicca.  Just because folks picked and prodded through a romantic vision of the archaic Britain and came up with something cobbled together via Masonry and nudism, doesn’t mean it’s any less of a religion.

          2. I feel like I need to defend myself briefly.

            Wicca is a made up system designed to provide structure of separate basic truths.  I don’t think it’s a “false looking backwards”, so much as a coherent retelling of universal mythology and spiritual tools. While there is a certain amount of romanticizing the past (but seriously, show me a culture where there isn’t), the overwhelming majority are quite up front about the fact that we’re generally trying to incorporate the lessons of the past into an evolving present.

      1. I don’t necessarily want to anger such evil, dangerous people, just as I don’t want to anger the Mafia (which also cloaks itself in a veil of mystery, survives despite suppression attempts, and sometimes helps people with their everyday problems). Perhaps I actually prefer to stay well clear of them (go back to my lab, if I had one).
        On the other hand, I do think that much of their power is drawn, in both cases, from people’s belief in their power. We really are heading toward a new dark age, as such belief increases.

      2.  They survive because of a) ignorance of the practitioners and b) ignorance of people like you. You have a funny idea of truth. And if you really believe some curse placed by a santero (a real one, not some phony although how one could tell the difference I don’t know. Similar to a real psychic vs a phony psychic I guess) is going to put you life into the “shite”, you need more help than I can give in a little box.

    4.  In reality, yes. When people defend senseless neolithic practices born out of ignorance, it’s a sad day. That goes for the rest of the “acceptable” religions as well.

  1. for an interesting read, check out wikipedias section on the native religions of Burma, they venerate pre-buddhist spirits there, though now those spirits have been mythologically woven into the local budhist beliefes.

    1.  Interesting.  The same thing happened with Shinto when Buddhism was imported to Japan from what I recall of an undergraduate Japanese history class.

      1.  Same thing in other Buddhist countries, too, I believe – it’s very much like hinduism in how it can adapt in local beliefs. (Though ISTR that the general idea is that while gods can help you with practical matters, they can’t help you attain nirvana.)

        1.  And to be fair the same thing happened with Christianity in many parts of the world, former pagan religious figures (defining Pagan as “non-Christian” which is what Christians tend to view it as) have entered the Christian world as various saints etc. Many elements of Christianity occurred in other religions that pre-date Christianity etc.
          All religions seem to do this. If someone converts to a new religion, when the old religion was a major part of their culture, its only natural to adapt some elements of what you used to believe into what you now believe.

    1. Thank you.

      (Of course as psychological problems are problems of meaning a good shaman would quite logically say if you try to analyse the psychological content of a message it will no longer work or make you sick.)


  2. Excellent story! 

    Modern shamans do exist in most parts of the planet.
    The bright ones use the tools of the current culture, including technology, to do their essential work.

    In North America, for example, a shaman could use dance, music, artwork…or a computer and gaming as a method of teaching.
    One such shaman is EJ Gold, sometimes known as “The High-Tech Shaman”.
    Gold is a top game player in Diablo and Team Fortress, and creates games with the GODD gaming engine.

    Gold is developing a non-shooter game called,”Prosperity” to help folks attain more abundance and a better life, and for learning about out-of-body experiences. For more on the Prosperity Path, go to

    “In addition to amazing life wins, you can learn to operate from outside your body–right through to another dimension.” – EJ Gold

    1.  Thanks so much for this link. I’m fascinated by computer games’ capacity to alter your physiology in numerous ways and I’ve thought occasionally about trying to put something spiritually motivated together myself, and though I’ve received a lot of interesting insights into the nature of the social and spatial construction of reality from computer games unfortunately none of it involved actually figuring out how to make one. Looking forward to trying it and looking a bit deeper into EJ Gold :)

  3. I forget, A shaman is considered to be someone with a direct connection to some kind of “god”, vs say a preacher who has an indirect connection. Mormonism is a shamanistic religion.

    1. I thought that was a priest- priests have special powers to communicate with a god or gods, whereas preachers are just educated community leaders who are good at talking about religion. A shaman is specifically someone who enters an altered state of consciousness (often through drugs, dancing and/or drumming) in order to communicate with supernatural powers.

      As far as I know, Mormons don’t do that.

      1. Drugs, dancing and drumming are (essential) tools for communication with ‘supernatural’ powers.

        Even better would be to say to understand the evolution of the brain, body and language as motivated by quantum mechanical processes and the development of a sense of intuition (or meaning).

        We now only have a neurological/coding problem and not an ideological one.

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