Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Yeonsan Daegam Nori, a rite to please the deity who controls wealth (Photo by Song Bonghwa, courtesy of the NRICH, Korea)

Shamanism, the Distinctive Cultural Heritage of Korea

Korean shamanism is a collective term to designate a religious folk tradition that includes private, domestic, and communal rituals. Shamanism is an accumulation of five thousand years of Korean life, thought, and culture, so it is a representative folk belief of Korean society. It also has played a key role as a carrier of traditional culture, such as music, dance, myth, and epic poetry. Furthermore, most Koreans, even though many of them are skeptical about shamanism these days, believe that shamanism helps preserve the deep-rooted national ethos. Indeed, the influence of shamanism is so prevalent that one might say that the worldview and symbolism found in shamanism constitutes Korea’s fundamental religious system.

Since the 1960s, Korean shamanism has been revived through government support. The authorities have promoted shamanic performing arts as a representative of traditional culture. The government’s exertion in establishing traditional culture resulted in the system of intangible cultural heritage (ICH), which was legislated in 1962. Since shaman rituals preserve the past in the Korean mind, the authorities regarded them as the most forcible type of promotion for traditional culture. Eleven shaman rituals have been designated as ICH since the 1970s.

The local shamanic rituals designated as ICH have become representations of national culture. They no longer represent solely local culture but are instead more generically representative since the rituals remind Koreans of what they used to signify culturally, and at the same time, they remind Koreans about what is representative of their contemporary lives in modern Korea.

After identifying the means of shaman recruit, the manners of conducting a ritual, the ritual materials, and the shamanic performing arts, Korean shamans can be roughly divided into two types: spirit-descended shamans and hereditary shamans. Typically found in the northern half of the Korean peninsula, the former have a spiritual experience through which they become capable of telling fortunes during a ritual. Found in the southern half of the peninsula, the latter do not experience spirit possession but rather inherit the profession from their parents. The boundary that separates the two types of shaman is the Han River that crosses the center of the Korean peninsula.

Hwanghae provincial shamans are bona fide spirit-descended shamans. They experience spirit calling and fulfil the rituals through communication with deities. They are capable of telling fortunes by being possessed with spiritual power. A shaman identifies one who has undergone the following procedures in her lifetime: (1) she has suffered from an illness that is interpreted as a symptom of shaman calling, a sine qua non of the spirit-descended shaman; (2) she has received the initiation ritual, an indispensable ritual for the spirit-descended shaman, under the guidance of a matured shaman—hence the relationship between the spirit-mother and the spirit-daughter is established. When she becomes a full-fledged shaman, she performs rituals with singing and dancing, and thus is identified as those who reveal the genuine nature of shamanism in Korea.

The shamanic ritual is a composite performance of song, music, dance, and drama. A shaman sings to usher, revere, entertain, and see off gods and spirits. She dances to gratify divine beings and to enter a trance state. She performs a comic mime to amuse not only deities but also her clients at the ritual site. The shamanic ritual, furthermore, has long exerted a potent effect on the development of many performing arts, such as sinawi (instrumental ensemble music with improvisations), sanjo (soli instrumental music), pansori (epic vocal music), and salpuri (exorcism dance).