For every misfortune, there’s a lucky charmOnce upon a time, Koreans believed that certain objects or animals had supernatural powers that could fulfill their dearest wishes or drive away bad luck.
Times have changed, of course, and people don’t put quite as much faith in these things as they used to. But it never hurts to be safe, which is why amulets are still around today, just not as visible.
The first time amulets were mentioned was during the period of the Three States, which lasted from the fourth century through the seventh century.
“Samgukyusa,” a book written during the Goryeo Dynasty, tells the story of Cheoyong, a son of the Dragon King of the East Sea, who accidentally found an ill-spirit-turned-human in bed with his wife. The spirit begged for forgiveness and promised Cheoyong that he would never enter the house again.
After that, people began placing the drawings of Cheoyong’s face in front of their houses to fend off evil spirits.
The kinds of amulets are unlimited, and even scholars differ on how to group them. One of the simplest classifications put amulets into two groups: those for fulfilling wishes or bringing good luck and those for preventing misfortune.
Buddhist monks and exorcists categorize amulets into more than 10 different types. They were used to achieve higher professional status; to accumulate wealth and business success; to get better grades; to win the love of one’s life; to prevent calamities; to avoid pain and hardship and to prevent or cure disease.
In the past, amulets were made for every occasion, even seemingly trivial ones. Some paper amulets were drawn up to prevent servants from running away; to keep a husband from falling for his concubines; to prevent a child from crying at night; to avoid stomachaches and to cure headaches.
“There were so many kinds of amulets because people believed in them,” said Yoon Yul-soo, director of the Gaehoe Museum in Seoul, whose collection is rich in amulets and folk painting collections.
Wolsan, a Buddhist monk in Busan who sells paper amulets, said, “Without faith, amulets are no more than a piece of paper.”
That faith was something amulet-makers possessed in abundance. They believed that they had to clean their body and clear their mind before working on amulets so that their creations would be imbued with power.
Makers of amulets were not limited to Buddhist monks or exorcists as they are now. “Aristocrats and intellectuals who were able to read and write Chinese characters also made amulets,” Mr. Yoon said.
Another reason that amulets were so common in the past was the lack of modern medical treatment. “As medical science was yet undeveloped, people relied on whatever they could, regardless of their social status,” Mr. Yoon said. “It was a part of folk medical practices.”
One of the most common amulets that ward off misfortune is “Samjaebu.” “Samjae” means three types of disasters: calamity, disease and famine or flood, fire and wind. Monks say everyone enters the three-year period of Samjae, which occurs every nine years, but they can be prevented by Samjaebu, a paper amulet that often contains the picture of a hawk with three heads on a single body and one leg.
These days, paper amulets seem to be most common type, but in the past, people carried around solid shapes, made of both artificial and natural materials, such as trees, that were considered especially powerful.
Peach trees’ flowers bloom well before the late spring, so people believed the trees were full of yang energy to counter evil spirits, which were governed under the principles of yin. Dodonggi, the branch that faces east, where the sun rises, was believed to be the most powerful.
The jujube tree was also revered for its mythical power because of the hardness of its branches. The most powerful jujube tree was the one that was hit by a thunderbolt. People believed that the lingering effect of a thunderbolt could stun demons.
Animals such as tigers and roosters were considered symbols that were able to repel evil spirits. Drawings of roosters, which cry out to announce the beginning of dawn, were often used in amulets in hopes of warding off demons. Rooster crowns were exaggerated in drawings for those wanting higher status. Tiger teeth, skin and fur were also used to fight off bad luck.
Fish-shaped locks were also common because fish sleep with their eyes open and thus were believed to guard what’s locked inside.
For paper amulets, both drawings and characters were used, and drawings on the paper amulets were something like folk paintings, Mr. Yoon said. Many of the subjects used for folk paintings were animals and objects that are often seen in paper amulets.
For paper amulets, different types of scarlet or red inks were used because evil spirits are supposedly afraid of the color red. The type of ink that exorcists and Buddhist monks say they use is made of a ground powder of gyeongmyeonjusa, a material whose chemical composition includes sulfur and mercury. Traditional paper called hanji, which is typically yellow or brown, is used.
The use of amulets persisted through the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the countryside, but as Korea became a more industrialized nation, the popularity of traditional amulets faded as people considered them superstitious relics.
The very existence of an amulet museum testifies to how far these talismans have fallen in popularity.
“People believed in the effects of amulets, and that’s why they bought them,” Mr. Yoon said. “But because people have left the amulets behind, they are now kept in the museum.”
However, some people still have faith in what only looks like pieces of paper, which they will keep in their wallet, place under their pillow or hang on the rearview mirror of their cars.
Other contemporary amulets are based on decidedly modern objects. A few years ago, there was a rumor that the eagle emblem and ivory emblem of some luxury cars were effective in helping students get good grades on the college entrance exam. Desperate students seeking every advantage wrenched these emblems off cars parked in the streets.
What has also changed for the amulets are how they are used or traded.
“Unlike in the past, when the most common types of amulets were about acquiring happiness, nowadays more people buy amulets for career success or more wealth,” Mr. Yoon said.
These days, amulets are sold not only directly from monks and exorcists to customers but also through the Internet. The price of amulets is no bargain. The cost varies from 50,000 won ($43) to 500,000 won, and unfortunately, they don’t come with a guarantee.
by Limb Jae-un
Gaehoe Museum (www.gahoemuseum.org) is a 10- to 15-minute walk from the No. 2 exit of the Anguk subway station, on the No. 3 line. Or take maeul bus No. 2 from the subway station. For more information, call (02) 741-0466.