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A male mudang holding a gut

Korean shamanism encompasses a variety of indigenous beliefs and practices that have been influenced by Buddhism and Taoism. In contemporary Korea, shamanism is known as muism and a shaman is known as a mudang ( , ). The role of the mudang, usually a woman, is to act as intercessors between a god or gods and human beings.

Women are enlisted by those who want the help of the spirit world. Shamans hold gut, or services, in order to gain good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising lost spirits that cling to people, or propitiate local or village gods. Such services are also held to guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven.

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. Today, Buddhists or Christians still turn to the old folk traditions of muism.

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.

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.

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.

Korean shamans are similar in many ways to those found in Siberiamarker, Mongoliamarker, and Manchuria. They also resemble the yuta found on the Ryukyu Islandsmarker, in Japanmarker. Jeju Islandmarker is also a center of shamanism.


Belief in a world inhabited by spirits is probably the oldest form of Korean religious life, dating back to prehistoric times.

Shamanism has its roots in ancient, land-based cultures, dating at least as far back as 40,000 years. The shaman was known as “magician, medicine man, psychopomp, mystic and poet” (Eliade, 1974). What set him apart from other healers or priests was his ability to move at will into trance states. During a trance, the shaman’s soul left his body and travelled to other realms, where helping spirits guided him in his work. The shaman provided healing on many levels; physical, psychological and spiritual. The work of the shaman was based on the holistic model, which took into consideration, not only the whole person, but that person’s interaction with his world, both inner and outer. The soul was considered the place of life breath, where essence resided, and any physical illness was inextricably linked with sickness of the soul. Illness of the mind had to do with soul loss, intrusion, possession.

There is a rather unorganized pantheon of many 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 children.

The rites themselves underwent a number of changes through the Silla and Goryeomarker periods. Even during the Joseon Dynastymarker which was heavily Confucian, shamanistic rites persisted.

Place in society

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.

Revival as cultural society

Jeomjip, fortune telling house managed by a mudang (shamanka)
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 'gut' 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 even the manager of a Western-style hotel 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 'gut' 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.

Types of mudang

Famous mudang having a five-day long gut; rural Korea, October 2007
Mudang can be categorized into two basic archetypes: sessǔmu, who inherit the right to perform the shamanistic rituals and kangshinmu, who are initiated into their mudang status through a ceremony. Sessŭmu historically lived in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, while kangshimu were found throughout the peninsula and contiguous areas inhabited by Koreans, but were mostly concentrated in the north (modern day North Koreamarker) and the contiguous areas of Chinamarker and the central part of the peninsula around the Han Rivermarker.

Kangshinmu (강신무; 降神巫)

Kangshinmu are historically found throughout Korea, but are especially concentrated in the central and northern regions of the peninsula and in the lands contiguous to the northern part of the peninsula. The essential characteristic of the kangshinmu is that she becomes one with a god or spirit as part of her ceremony. There are two types of kangshinmu: one shares its name with the general Korean word for shaman, mudang; the other is called the myǒngdu.

A person becomes a kangshinmu by participating in an initiation ceremony known as a naerim-gut, during which she undergoes a state known as a shinbyeong ( . The kangshinmu-initiate is said to be possessed by a spirit during the ceremony. The act of possession is said to be accompanied by physical pain and psychosis. Believers would assert that the physical and mental symptoms are not subject to medical treatment, but may only be cured through receipt of and full communion with the spirit.

A mudang is a type of shaman that has become possessed by a god, called a momju. Mudang perform fortune telling using their spiritual powers derived from their possession. They preside over a gut involving song and dance. A subcategory of this type, called sǒnmudang or posal, are thought to have power through a spiritual experience, but are not considered to worthy to preside over an orthodox gut. Certain shamans in this category are male and are called paksu.

Myǒngdu differ from the basic type of mudang in that they receive the spirit of a dead person (usually a young child relative of the Myǒngdu) rather than being possessed by a god. The myǒngdu invites the spirit to a shrine in her dwelling. Myǒngdu are found primarily in the Honam area of Korea.

Seseummu (세습무; 世襲巫)

Seseummu, found in the area south of the Han Rivermarker, have their status as shamans pass down through family bloodlines. Two types of mudang are considered seseummu: shimbang and tang'ol.

Shimbang are similar to the kangshimu types of mudang in that the godhead and importance of spirituality are emphasized. However, unlike with kangshimu, the right to conduct ceremonies is hereditary. Moreover, a shimbang differs from a kangshimu in that their bodies are not possessed by spirits or gods during her gut. Rather, the shimbang contacts the god through a medium (mujǒmgu) and does not become one with the god. In addition, the shimbang does not maintain a shrine.

Tang'ol are a type of mudang found mostly in the southernmost areas of the Korean peninsula and especially in the Yeongnam area (Gyeongsang-do) and the Honam area (Jeolla-do). The tang'ol of Honam each had individual districts (tang'olp'an) in which they had the exclusive right to perform certain shamanistic ceremonies or gut. The gut performed by the tang'ol involve song and dance that serve to entertain a god or goddess, but there is interaction with or channeling of the god. Both the rights of succession and the ceremonies themselves have been systematized through the years so that they now bear the characteristics of a religious institution. Unlike other types of mudang, tang'ol do not receive a god as part of an initiation ceremony. A tang'ol will not have a shrine in her home and will not generally have a defined belief system in a particular god.

Shinbyeong (spirit sickness)

The central feature of a shaman's initiation is her affliction with an illness known as a shinbyeong. This is also called the "spirit sickness" or "self-loss" and characterized by a loss of appetite, insomnia, visual and auditory hallucinations. A ritual called a naerim-gut cures this illness, which also serves to induct the new shaman.


The symptoms of a mudang's shinbyeong differ, depending on the mudang's cultural background as well as her surrounding environment. For example, in the most basic, frequent type of shinbyeong, the initiate is afflicted with the characteristic symptoms without apparent cause. The mudang cannot eat and becomes weak physically and psychologically. In another type of shinbyeong, these basic symptoms are preceded by physical illness. In yet another, the shinbyeong is caused by a psychotic episode. In a type of shinbyeong that is relatively rare, the mudang's mental state becomes weakened by an external shock. Another rarely occurring type of shinbyeong, called the "dream appearance type," the shinbyeong is triggered by a dream in which the mudang sees a god, spirit or unusual occurrence, accompanied by a revelation.

The symptoms of the shinbyeong can last a surprisingly long time: an average of 8 years and as many as 30. Most mudang have little appetite during their shinbyeong, some having indigestion and partaking in only a limited diet. The body of the mudang becomes weak and is subject to pain and cramping accompanied by bloody stool in some cases. Physical symptoms progress to include mental illness. The initiate has a generally restless mind and is said to experience dreams in which she communicates with gods or spirits. Eventually dreams and reality become blurred and the mudang suffers hallucinations. In some cases, the mental illness becomes so extreme that the mudang leaves home and wanders through mountains and rice fields. The symptoms are said not to be susceptible to normal medical treatment and such treatment is believed to only exacerbate them. Rather, the symptoms are to be cured through the gangshinje, a type of gut in which the mudang receives her god or spirit.

Religious aspects

In the tradition of muism, the shinbyeong is considered a structured religious experience demonstrating the vertical connection between god and humanity and showing that "god in some form exists in human consciousness." It is a form of revelation that causes the shaman to become one with god and, consequently, change her patterns of thought. The shinbyeong is dissociated from reality and enters a higher form of consciousness.

Rituals or gut ( )

The display at the Jeju Folk and Nature Museum depicts the mudang performing a Jejudo yeongdeung gut or Jeju chilmeoridang gut.
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 are the spirits as the object of folk beliefs. Secondly there are the believers who pray to those spirits. Finally there is the shaman mediating between the two.

The actual form of gut varies 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.

Naerim-gut ( )

This gut is an initiation rite. As part of the rite, someone becomes a shaman by being possessed by a spirit. The ritual serves to cure the shinbyeong and also to induct the new shaman.

Dodang-gut ( )

This communal rite is common in central provinces in South Koreamarker. 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 the female mudang.

Ssitgim-gut ( )

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 of 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 Koreamarker.


During the sequential performance of the twelve segments that comprise a typical chaesugut, more than half of the costumes the mansin wears are male. The most interactive and dynamic portions of the gut usually occur during the mansin's possession by the pyolsang (spirits of the other world) and the greedy taegam (the overseer), which require male costumes. This cross-dressing serves several purposes. First, since the mansin is often possessed by both male and female spirits and can thus become an icon of the opposite sex, it is reasonable that she use the attire of both sexes. But in a context in which women are publicly demeaned, where their symbolic value is reduced by strong Confucian ideology, the female mansin's cross-dressing becomes complex and multi-functional.

In semiotic terms, the costume is an icon for the person or the spirit it represents. The mansin in the costume assumes the role of that icon, thereby becoming a female signifying a male; she is a cross-sex icon about 75% of the time during a typical kut. In the context of the gut, the mansin is a sexually liminal being; by signifying a man, she not only has access to the male authority in the Confucian order, she provides the female audience an opportunity to interact with that authority in ways that would, in a public context, be unthinkable. Her performance is often a parody of the male authority figures; she often makes off-color jokes and ribald comments, and argues with the audience.

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, Gyeonggimarker
Seoul Danggut This gut is for peace and abundant harvest. Mt. Jeongbalsan, Dapsimni- dong, Sinnae- dong, Mt. Bonghwasan, Seoulmarker
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. Seoulmarker
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 Bucheonmarker, Gyeonggimarker
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. Gangneungmarker, Gangwon-domarker
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, South Chungcheongmarker
Suyongpo Sumanggut This gut is dedicated to persons who died at sea and leads them to the land of the dead. Yeongil- gun, North Gyeongsangmarker
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, North Gyeongsangmarker
Geojedo Byeolsingut This rite is held at every fishing village in order to pray for abundant catch and communal peace. Geoje, South Gyeongsangmarker
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, South Gyeongsangmarker
Wido Ttibaegut This is a fishermen's rite and involves many tutelary spirits wishing for good fortune Wido Island, Buan-gun, North Jeolla
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, South Jeollamarker
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. Jejumarker
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, Jejumarker
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. Jejumarker

See also



  • Translated by Chang Soo-kyung.

Further reading

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