The ancient rituals of shamanism

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The ancient rituals of shamanism

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Left: Items used for shamanistic rituals in Nepal, including jewelry, belts, necklaces, a cane, a flute and others.
Center: A figurine of a shaman that shows a wardrobe with snake prints. The snake is said to repel demons.
Right: A drum found in Siberia. The drum can be divided into three parts from top to bottom - heaven, earth and the underworld. Provided by the National Folk Museum of Korea


What makes life interesting mainly lies in the fact that nobody knows what’s going to happen in the future. But some don’t enjoy life’s surprises. Instead, they try to predict what might or might not happen through shamans - spiritual guides who some believe can see the future.

Shamans don’t just tell people what’s destined to happen. They also tell people what to do to stop inauspicious events from happening or advise people to do certain things to improve their luck. Wouldn’t it be tempting to know more about the future, especially when the economy is faltering and the news one hears every day is how bad stock markets are and how high the unemployment rate is?

As each culture has developed different rituals regarding the supernatural, looking through a variety of traditions at once might help people get more insight into how to read the possible good or bad signs around them. Curiosity about different types of shamanism can be satiated at the ongoing exhibition at the National Folk Museum of Korea, which runs until Feb. 27 next year.

The exhibition, “Mediator Between Heaven and Earth - Shaman,” embraces shamanism found in the Himalayas, Siberia and Sakhalin in Russia, and Korea. More than 500 artifacts, including masks, talismans and accessories used for shamanistic rituals in these regions, fill the exhibition.

A shaman is known as a communicator with a spiritual power and is called mudang in Korea. The shamanistic rituals mudangs perform are called gut. Mudangs still exist locally, and the story of people being possessed by spirits and becoming mudang are still known in Korea. But the idea of these shamanistic traditions is not always welcome.

Although some curious people look to shamans for help, many have looked down on the rituals and their practitioners. Even some TV shows have picked up the life story of mudang, including “Heaven’s Fate” (2004), which is also known as “Lotus Flower Fairy.” It portrayed an ordinary girl whose fiance left her after her spirit was possessed.

Although many have discredited the idea of being a mudang and their practice as superstition over the years, shamanism has continued in Korea and elsewhere. The Rai tribe living in the Nepalese town of Dhankuta still practices some shamanistic rituals, such as tapping on the sick with a twig to drive disease out of the body. The ritual is so common that almost everyone in the village knows the music for the rituals.

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A shaman’s outfit from Siberia

To compare and contrast, the exhibition recreates the scene of these shamanistic rituals from Nepal, Mongolia, northern Siberia and Daejeon in Korea. The accessories used for the rituals and decorating the sites where they take place are displayed so that visitors can see what is unique about each culture and what is similar.

Mudang take it as a good sign when they pierce a fork into a pig and the fork manages to stay vertical. Minus the pig, Nepalese shamans believe they have communicated with a supernatural power when a trident can stand vertical.

The prints and decorations are different, but the fact that the tent where the Siberian tribe’s ritual was held has a pointing top is similar to Korean sotdae, a wooden pole with a bird-shape figurine on top.

Both seem to show that shamans desire to appeal to a supernatural power overlooking human beings on the ground. Even the garments worn by the late shamans are displayed. If you’re more interested in how those tools are actually used now, it would be better to wait until the exhibition holds another shamanistic ritual at the museum. Although the Nepalese rituals were already demonstrated at the opening of the exhibition late last month, the museum is planning to do some more demonstrations of Korean rituals next year. The exact date has not yet been scheduled.

One might wonder why a national museum studying Korean folklore would do extended research on rituals found in other countries. But it is done in an effort to discover what influenced the development of the Korean cultural traditions.

“The museum is expanding the area of research from local to international to see how these folk cultures are organically connected,” said Gwon Sun-young, an assistant researcher to the exhibition at the museum.

The museum has been studying foreign cultural traditions since 2003, and the exhibition is heavily based on the research done in regions around Siberia in 2005 and near the Himalayas in 2010.

“The more barren the natural environment is, the more the local people living there tend to engage in shamanism,” Gwon said. “Based on the research results, it seems that shamanism has become more a part of everyday life in the regions near Russia than it has become in Korea.”

The museum also offers a lecture titled “Gut & Dance with Explanation” on Dec. 24, Jan. 14, Jan. 23 and Feb. 4 at the museum for anyone who would like to expand their knowledge on Korean shamanism.

*The exhibition “Mediator Between Heaven and Earth - Shaman” runs through Feb. 27 next year at the National Folk Museum of Korea. A subsidiary lecture “Gut & Dance with Explanation” starts at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday, at 1 p.m. on Jan. 14, at 1 and 2 p.m. on Jan. 23, and at 1 p.m. on Feb. 4.

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Wednesday to Monday. The museum is closed on Tuesdays. On Jan. 1., admission to the museum is free. To get to the museum, go to Anguk Station, line No. 3, exit 1, or go to Gwanghwamun Station, line No. 5, exit 2. For more information, call (02) 3704-3114 or go to www.nfm.go.kr.


By Lee Sun-min, Lee Kyong-hee [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]
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