Down by the riverside, it’s time for prayersAsk what they will be doing for Daeboreum, the Korean festival of the first full moon of the year, and many Korean grandmothers will still reply, “Aengmagi!” In other words, “Protect our family and livelihood in the coming year with rituals to drive away bad spirits.”
South Korea may have the 13th largest economy in the world, yet quietly, even in the cities, some of the world’s oldest religious practices live on.
Just after nightfall, one cannot see into the dark parkland that skirts the Han River. But around the first full moon of the lunar year, one may be surprised by the twinkling of countless little fires in the blackness of the far shore.
A 12-foot bank drops steeply into a quiet, candlelit world. Small groups of women, bundled against the cold, tend little fires and candles at intervals along the water. The river is alive with glimmering lights: candles sailing in white paper cups, and in small plastic bowls, glowing like red lanterns. The women talk in low voices as they lay out exquisite pyramids of colorful fruit, bowls of rice and nuts, and plates of rice cake.
Suddenly, mandarins begin to fly into the water. Each arrangement of food and candles is in fact an offering laid out on an altar. “Who is it all for?” I ask Ms. Kim, a participant. “For Yong Wang, the Dragon King, who lives in the water,” she replies. Of all the Korean gods he is probably the one closest to the people. Water is essential for farming, and until recently the only Koreans who weren’t farmers were in the court.”
Why on a full moon, then? “The moon is still very important in Korean culture,” Ms. Kim continues. “Many people believe there is a god in the full moon, and that it will help them. The Lunar New Year is an important gateway between past and present here, so the first full moon is a time of prayers for the family for the coming year. Women pray for health and harmony mostly, and in the countryside for good farming. But also sometimes for a job for their husband, or a place at university for their child.”
All along the river, heedless of the cold, women are bowing in the four directions, to the gods of the north, south, east and west. A mother stays at the top of the steep bank, her two tiny children copying her bows in their uncoordinated way. The atmosphere is one of concentration and reverence.
Bottles of soju are then poured into the water. Great bunches of incense are lighted. A bowl of rice and vegetables floats by, a large piece of paper in it, covered in writing. “That will be a prayer asking for Yong Wang’s help,” says Ms. Kim.
A pollack bobs on the water along the quay wall. “Do you see the pale fabric wrapped around it? That’s someone’s underwear ― the clothes they wore closest to their body,” Ms. Kim says. “There’ll be a coin tucked inside it. You throw the fish into the water to meet any misfortune on its way to the person who wore the clothes. The misfortune will then mistake the underwear for the person and make trouble for the dried fish instead, taking the coin as travel money and going back where it came from, without ever coming near the person it was looking for. The family may have received a warning from a shaman during the last two weeks.”
The evening air is gradually filling with chanting and ringing percussion. One shaman is sending a family’s dead on their way, to stop them from bringing disease and difficulty to their living relatives through their lingering presence. Another eases unresolved pain between a woman and her dead relation by unknotting a long piece of fabric. A third stands magnificently, shaking a bunch of small bells over the water, hailing spirits for some unrevealed business.
One figure stands out from the others ― a tiny old woman, sitting cross-legged on the frozen ground, lost in prayer. Before her are a single candle and a small plastic bag of cooked rice. “That was how Daeboreum used to be in the old days,” says Ms. Kim, “A woman praying simply, on her own, to help her family. Now that people are richer, they’ll enlist a shaman’s help because they believe that will make their prayers and rituals stronger.”
Coming back up into the world of concrete and neon is like emerging from a meditative state. Science may have altered our perception of the world, but the use of ritual and respect for the forces of nature have timeless importance. Although many modern Koreans might not give it any value, they are heading towards industrial and economic prominence in the world, armed with access to ancient wisdom.
by Helena Patridge