Dressed in colorful, almost androgynous garbs reminiscent of older days, surrounded by the smiling images of ancient guardian deities over the mounds of offerings dedicated to them, moved by the ecstatic clanging of drums and chants, the mudang is ready to enter into a trance. She (the majority of shamans in Korea these days are female) will change costumes many times during the drama of gut, invoking various gods, ancient generals, and spirits while reciting old legends of resentful spirits.
There are variations depending on region and ritual. But they all inhabit a world where humans, spirits and divinities share a common space, influencing one another for good or bad. The most common kind of exorcism the mudangs perform deals with people afflicted by spirits who have died violently or has some lingering resentment towards the world. Through the drama of suffering and singing songs that give voice to these resentments, the mudang offers therapeutic relief to the spirit who in turn leaves the tormented person alone.
The system of shamanism that exists in Korea today has had many transformations, absorbing beliefs, historical figures and rituals as it goes through a path of suppression and revival, suppression again and revival once more. But the worldview of the shaman offers us a rare glimpse into the world inhabited by the people of the ancient kingdoms of Korea.
Two stories from Goguryeo illustrate this:
In the fourteenth year of Goguryeo’s second king (Yuri), while preparing sacrifices to Heaven, the sacrificial pig escaped into the woods. Two ministers chased the pig, tied it down, and brought it back to the king. Yuri, furious that the ministers hurt the sacrificial pig, had them executed. Later, the King fell ill, and the shamans declared that his illness was a result of the two ministers haunting him. We’re told that he “apologized to the two men,” but the nature- or ritual- of this apology is unknown.
In 234, Lady U was on her deathbed. She was so afraid of meeting her first husband in the afterlife that she asked the people to bury her next to King Sasang, her second husband. After her death a shaman went into trance and said he had a vision of King Gogukcheon. The deceased king said, “Yesterday, when seeing Lady U go to King Sansang, I was not able to contain my anger and so we fought…I cannot bare facing the people. Please report to the court and block me with something.” So the people of the court planted seven rows of pine trees between King Gogukcheon and King Sansang and Lady U’s tombs. Even death couldn’t stop King Sindae’s sons from causing a whole lot of drama.
Various folk tales and songs also talk about spirits full of resentment wrecking havoc on the human world. This is a common belief all over East Asia and quite possibly might be an ancient prototype and basis of modern horror movies and ghost stories.
Local beliefs in these spirits was not the only form of supernatural beings inhabiting the world. There was a larger belief in gods and ancestors as well. The people of the ancient kingdoms were thought to be under the influence of Heaven. This Heaven was a cosmos, the natural order of things. The kings and their subjects offered sacrifices and prayers up to heaven to keep their country in harmony with the cosmos. More personal gods existed as well, most notably the founders of the old kingdoms- Dangun of Gojoseon Jumong of Goguryeo, Suro of Gaya, and Hyeokgeose of Silla- who were all sons of gods coming to earth in order to reign over people. The states all had festivals to these founders, and kings- as the descendants of these demi-gods- were expected to offer sacrifices to their ancestor’s shrines. Most notably, the second king of Silla, Namhae set up the shrine to his father, had his sister perform rituals at the place, and gave himself the title of “Chachaung,” which we’re told was an old Sillan word for shaman. Kings, as descendants of these gods, thus had the shaman’s role of intermediary between this world and the divine world.
Like many of the old civilizations- Egypt comes to mind- there seems to have been some continuity between life and death. The idea of a connection between this life and the afterlife is evidenced by very ancient burial practices. Archaeological findings dating back even before the ancient kingdoms show dolmens and burial mounds for the tribal leaders and nobility. Goguryeo’s wall paints fill the tombs of their leaders, and Baekje and Silla buried their kings and his family with many objects and jewelry. More gruesomely, in the 5th century, the king of Silla banned the practice of burying people alive with the deceased nobility, implying that it was common practice.
Nature also plays a massive role in shamanistic beliefs. Mountains especially are thought to be sacred, and it is no coincidence that most legendary founders are found or related to mountains. Trees are important, and if you hike mountains in Korea you might find altars under- or little papers stuck to- trees. It was under a tree, after all, that Dangun’s mother prayed and entered into holy marriage. The name Dangun means something like ‘Lord of the Cedar.’ Moving up the great chain of being, animals were also a manifestation of the cosmic order of Heaven, and many of them had a totemistic importance to the people, being sacred guardian spirits. The turtle was one animal that was revered (see King Suro of Gaya), but so were ravens, horses and – somewhat surprising to modern ears- chicken.
Some people have called the ancient kingdoms a Theocracy, since they were ruled by divine or semi-divine kings that brought order to the universe. Theocracy might be a little misleading, in my opinion, since it implies a division between the natural and the supernatural world. There doesn’t seem to have been that kind of distinction in the thought of the people back then.
After the 5th century, the separation of sacred and profane would enter the consciousness of the people as the kingdoms convert to Buddhism. This did not mean that shamanism and shamanistic beliefs disappeared entirely. One of the reasons that Buddhism was so successful was its expansive worldview. Buddhists measure time in millions and billions of years, and experience reality as a massive multiverse with various worlds, each divided into various subrealms people with a myriad of beings. Buddhism had thus no problems integrating local beliefs into its cosmology. But the introduction of the religion caused the ancient shamans to become more differentiated, outside the status quo, and initiated a search for its own identity.