Hoguassi at Yongmun-dong bugundang in Seoul © Tea-han Hong

Theories of Disease—Shamanistic Healing Rituals in Korea

In the days before modern medicine, severe illnesses were thought to be the mischief of spirits. Thus, the best way to cure a disease was to exorcise the disease-causing spirit through a byeonggut (shamanistic healing ritual). This ritual went by different names according to the region. In Hwanghae Province, it was known as the toesong-gut or hajik-gut; in Seoul and the Gyeonggi Province region, it was called chibyeong-gut; and in the Chungcheong region, it was known as the judangpuri-gut.

The gut, or shamanistic ritual, held during epidemics was called sonnimmama-gut, the word sonnim for guest and mama for measles, a disease that used to cause widespread suffering. A sonnimbaesong-gut (sending off a guest ritual) was held to send away the measles spirit when one fell ill to the disease.

Shamanistic healing rituals usually fell into the category of byeong-gut. Ancient Koreans used to think that there were various spirits in charge of their respective diseases. The sonnim spirit, found all over Korea, used to refer to a measles spirit, but the scope was later expanded to include all diseases. Although the ssitgim-gut (washing ritual) of the Honam region and byeolshin-gut of the east coast are not strictly categorized as byeong-gut, they include sonnim-gut held in honor of the measles spirit and thus can be thought of as a kind of byeong-gut. In Seoul and the Gyeonggi region, an unmarried female spirit whose life was taken by measles was called a hogu spirit. Having passed away from measles, a disfiguring disease, the female spirit is shy to show her face and enters the gut stage, covering her face with her red skirt. She asks for money to buy powder and a mirror so that she can let down her skirt as she leaves and bless the gathering. The people donate willingly, eager to chase away the disease. As part of this belief, village shrines in Seoul, where the various patron spirits of the village are enshrined, have pictures of hogu spirits to pray for good health and recovery from diseases. In the bugundang (village patron spirit shrine) of Yongmun-dong in Seoul, the hogu spirit is called hoguassi (mistress hogu) and enshrined in the form of various paintings. Spirits that controlled diseases were called byeolseong spirits in many islands around Ganghwado Island of Incheon. They were thought to be greedy spirits who had to be appeased through reverence and respect at all times. Many spirits were embodied in various physical forms and worshipped to avoid disease.

Although byeong-gut were performed during outbreaks of disease, disease spirits—hogu, byeolseong and sonnim—were included in ordinary rituals such as jaesu-gut (good fortune ritual) and jinogi-gut (ritual to send off the dead into heaven). Caution was exercised in everyday life and all gut included some form of disease-related ritual to prevent outbreaks.

The judangpuri-gut is a primary example of a healing ritual still being performed today. The shaman lays the patient down and mimics chasing away spirits with a variety of tools. The patient is also covered with a cloth and exorcised of the ill spirit through the power of the patron spirit. All participants, including the shaman that performs the ritual and the family of the patient praying that the disease will be chased away, firmly believe in the effectiveness of the ritual.

Even with the development of science, byeong-gut are still carried out around the country, based on the belief that the fate of humans is not up to their own will, that there are larger powers at play. Therefore, the continuing existence of byeong-gut in the present day shows the humility of people who believe in powers greater than themselves.

Tea-han Hong (Expert Advisor, Cultural Heritage Committee)

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