Interlude 4: Shamanism in the Ancient Kingdoms

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.

Mudang_performing_a_ritual_placating_the_angry_spirits_of_the_deadA Mudang Shamaness Source: Wikipedia

  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.


13. Each Unhappy Family: King Sasang


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raditional Goguryeo clothing: An exhibition held in North Korea in 2013. Sources: 1 2


There was a custom in the ancient kingdoms that kingship passed from brother to brother much more frequently than father to son. This was the source of many battles and intrigues, as ministers rallied behind different people they thought should be the next on the throne. This was the cause of many factions and internal strife. Although King Taejo tried to enact a law to make the kingship solely hereditary, his successors did not seem to get the message. His brother took over, and then when that brother was overthrown, a third brother ruled. That was King Sindae, and when he passed away he had enough sons that the whole drama would be reenacted in the following generation.

Sindae’s second son was chosen to be king. He tried his best to wrest power away from the five powerful families, and had a meritocratic streak that would fill the records. When he was about to appoint someone as the next prime minister, that man declined, saying that another was much more qualified. The king listened to his advice and chose Ulpaso to be the prime minister. The king and his minister were especially beloved by the people

A story recounts the king on a hunting expedition. On his way back he saw a person on the road crying. Asked about his troubles, the man said that he was from a poor family who would hire himself out to support his family. But the harvest was bad that year so he and his mother were left to starve. The king then implemented one of the most important reforms in society. He distributed food and clothes to the suffering people. A special agency was established to help people during the toughest times of the year, from the third to the seventh month. The agency was to lend out grains from the royal house to the people, which the people were to pay back on the 10th month after the harvest. It was a good safety net for the tough years, and the system worked so well that it was imitated in one form or another in the later dynasties of Korea as well.

The king died and was given the posthumous name of King Gogukcheon. On the night of the monarch’s death, his queen, the Lady U, was at a loss. Since she was not ready to relinquish power, she had to think of a way to make sure the succession would work to her advantage.

She did not tell anyone about the king’s death, and secretly visited the king’s older brother that night. The elder brother, Balgi, didn’t know that his brother had died. He refused to see his sister-in-law. He even went so far as to rebuke her for going into men’s homes so late at night. Needless to say, Lady U was not impressed.

When she visited her late husband’s second brother, Yonu, the reception was quite different. He got dressed up and invited her in. While having dinner, Lady U told the man everything, even the way Balgi had treated her. Yonu listened intently, so much so that while slicing pieces of meat, Yonu’s knife slipped and he cut his finger. Lady U tore off a bit of her skirt, grabbed his bleeding finger, and wrapped the cloth around his finger. The night went on, and she asked him to escort her back to the palace. The two spent the night together; Lady U had found her new king.

The next day the two made their union official and Yonu became king. Suddenly there was a great clamor and soldiers surrounded the palace. It was Balgi. “Come out quickly,” he roared, “and if you do not then I will exterminate even your wife and children.” Yonu and Lady U shut themselves in the palace. It took three days before Balgi relented.

Down but not out for the count, Balgi left Goguryeo and went to the Liaodong Peninsula. This was land occupied by Han China, the place where the commanderies were stationed. By 197, the peninsula and commanderies had become semi-autonomous from the rest of the Empire. A warlord family named the Gong, taking advantage of the chaos that was happening in Han, had taken over. Balgi visited the current warlord, Gongsun Du, and requested thirty thousand soldiers to aid him conquer his former land. Gongsun saw this was a great opportunity to expand his power, and so agreed.

Thus began a battle between Goguryeo and the army led by Balgi. Keeping it all in the family, Yonu had their third brother Gyesu personally deal with the matter. After Balgi’s army was defeated, Gyesu approached his older brother personally. Gyesu himself was conflicted about the whole situation. On the one hand, Balgi should have been made king, on the other hand, going to an enemy country to attack your own country was unforgivable.

Still, when Balgi appealed to his younger brother- “Can you bear harm your aging older brother?”- Gyesu couldn’t bring himself to execute his older brother. The Samguk Sagi* records the conversations that would follow the tragedy: Instead of a sword, Gyesu penetrated his older brother’s heart with an appeal: “Yonu, by not refusing to become King, committed an unrighteous act. But what sort of idea is this that because of your ephemeral anger you wanted to destroy your country? After you die, how can you face your deceased ancestors?”

The two brothers stood face to face. Hearing those words, Balgi’s anger dissipated. But when he snapped back to consciousness he had realized all the damage his actions had done. He was so overcome with shame that he took a knife and ended his life. Gyesu buried his brother in a makeshift tomb of grass, and returned home full of grief.

The King received his younger brother with a welcoming reception. He asked about the situation, and was quite offended that his brother still had doubts about Balgi’s crimes. He was especially not happy about the burial of their older brother.

Gyesu couldn’t restrain himself, and, tears in his eyes, he said “I would like to say one thing and then die.”

“What?” The King asked.

“Although the Queen adhered to the former King’s will and enthroned Your Majesty, that you did not follow precedent by declining is because there was no sense of brotherly respect… how could I know that this [burying their older brother] would cause Your Majesty to be angry? If Your Majesty can embrace humanity, forget your hatred, and follow mourning rituals to bury your older brother, who can accuse you of impropriety? Since I have said all that I wanted to say, even if I die, I will live on. I request that the state execute me.”

Just as his words earlier had pacified Balgi, Gyesu had now managed to appease his other brother. King and brother found the corpse of Balgi, and buried him according to royal rituals. Just like many family tragedies and civil wars, brotherly bonds came back too late.

This would not be the end of Yonu- later known as King Sansang-‘s dramatic life. In the twelfth year of his rule, in 208, and he and his queen had no heir. It was one winter that the king and his ministers were preparing a sacrificial ritual. The pig that was meant to be sacrificed escaped. Ministers followed the pig into the forest. There, they found a beautiful woman who had managed to outrun both of them and capture the animal herself. They were enthralled by her beauty and grace, and couldn’t stop talking about her. The King was naturally intrigued.

He managed to track down the woman in her village. They then started a secret romantic meeting. Lady U heard of this, and she was not pleased at all. She sent soldiers to kill the woman. The woman tried to escape by dressing up as a man. But when the soldiers caught her, they saw something that made them stop their mission right away. “You may kill me, but do you dare kill a prince?” She showed them her current state, pregnant with King Sansang’s child. The King was delighted when he heard this, and had the woman be his second wife back at the palace. Lady U was unable to harm the woman or her child, but the Lady was not pleased. She made the child- the future king-‘s life as miserable as she could, in fine wicked stepmother tradition.

Brotherly conflict, secret romances, and scandalous babies. The life of King Sansang was something out of a melodrama. His reign swelled with internal conflict, but when King Sansang passed away in 227, Goguryeo looked outward. It saw the landscape of the world around them had changed completely. This was a turning point, where the kingdom would be forced to redefine its own identity and its relationship to the countries around them. Goguryeo rushed towards great opportunities, but also danger that would be one of Goguryeo’s first great threats.