Saranghae, Spirits: The Shaman in K-drama and Popular Culture
We’ve often seen them in Korean dramas and films: women wearing traditional garb and dancing on knives, summoning spirits, and exorcising demons. The Korean shamans have inspired fascination and fear in popular culture. While they are often dismissed as charlatans, they are still consulted by many and are considered an important cultural fixture in Korean life.
Here we take a deeper look at the mudang and the role they play in Korean society.
The Korean shaman is popularly known as the mudang, although some academics would prefer to call them mansin. As shamans, they are “religious practitioners who engage the spirits for the community” (Eliade, 1964). However, unlike most cultures, the Korean shaman is usually a woman (ironic for a deeply patriarchal society), but male shamans, called the paksu, also exist.
Unlike the conventional view that sees shamans as mere “vessels” to be used by spirits, Korean mudang consider themselves “master[s] of spirits” who can convince, soothe, and persuade gods for their purposes. With this power, they are able to tell fortunes, cure sickness, and mediate between the living and the dead. Like all other shamans in the world, the mudang's primary function is to make the invisible visible—they speak to the spirits or through them in order to bring closure, comfort, and peace to the living.
A Millennia of Mudang
Although favored by the gods, the Korean shaman has always not had it easy. Confucianism believes in the spirit world, but it has long kept a low opinion of shamans, calling them “cheap charlatans.” When Catholic missionaries arrived in Korea in the 1890s, the mudang were labeled “folk exorcists," and when they demanded fees for their services, they were once again called opportunists and scammers.
When Protestantism in Korea rose in the 1900s, the mudang would also come be seen as devil worshippers, the uneducated remnants of folk superstition, and the last resort of poor countryside bumpkins who knew no better. The police would also become their eternal nemesis, harassing and interrupting ceremonies (kut), burning their shrines, and imprisoning them well into the 1960s.
Thanks to the Korean Cultural Properties Protection Law enacted in 1962 and the efforts of folklorists around the world, the mudang are now designated as “intangible heritage.” In 1982, a Korean student in the UCLA was initiated as a mudang, breaking open their mystique to the world. In 1985, Kim Geum-hwa, a popular shaman, was declared as Human Cultural Treasure and began to be referred to as son-saeng (teacher). Soon, mudang would be all over the news, on TV, and on the covers of magazines. From being dismissed as rural outcasts, slaves of the demon, and impediments to modernization to being icons of Korean heritage, the mudang has come a long way.
Becoming a Shaman
Folklorists who study the mudang reach a common conclusion: To become a shaman is to suffer. Older mudang believe that the gods themselves choose who become shamans, although many now believe that their abilities can be inherited.
Before becoming a shaman, women speak of nearly going mad and having a sense of rootlessness. Often she will try to find consolation in Catholic churches and in Buddhist temples, but she won't find it. Many times she will have a failed marriage or a broken career before she learns to accept her fate.
As “Auntie Cho,” an older shaman interviewed by Kendall (2009) explains, “To become a shaman, you must experience extreme pain. Not just anyone can take it, every imaginable humiliation down to the depths of hard living. Just short of the point of death the gods come.”
When she finally decides to accept her unique fate, dreams will instruct her to find an older shaman who will take her as an apprentice for the next few years. When she is deemed ready, she will perform a special kut. During this long and exhausting initiation ritual, the would-be mudang must speak out the “words of the spirits” (kongsu) and divine the messages of the gods while balancing on sword blades or other precarious objects. If she fails, she must go back to training and do it all again. Traditionally, multiple initiation kut are held until “divine speech” occurs, however, most modern shamans no longer undergo this ritual (Kendall, 2009).
The generational divide between the older and newer shamans is quite pronounced: the older ones feel that the young ones have not done the rigorous training needed to divine accurately, while the younger ones feel that these initiation kut are too long and costly. The older ones also bemoan how short the kut rituals have become and how the younger shamans are shoddy performers. But is there really a difference in spiritual power, or is this simply a reflection of how shamanism has evolved to suit modern life?
The elaborate and oftentimes chaotic ceremony we see depicted in many Korean shows and movies is the kut, and it is the most exhausting ritual a mudang is asked to perform. It does not follow a specific sequence; instead, it is improvised to suit the specific needs of the client. In a kut, the mudang wears the god’s costume and invokes the necessary spirits and ancestor gods in order to divine visions and come up with answers.
A kut is conducted for many reasons, but a kut to heal the sick is a common practice. In this case, Korean shamans see themselves as healing the entire context, not just the illness. In the Korean psyche, the mudang do not replace doctors, but instead fix the trouble beyond medicine. For example, when one has a fever, one goes to the doctor. But when multiple family members get sick and suffer accidents one after the other, it is time to see a mudang.
There are many kinds of kut, and some of them can go on well into the early morning. Aside from healing, a kut is also performed to send off the restless spirits of dead ancestors, release family members from jail, induce fertility for barren couples, bring wealth, find estranged children and return adulterous spouses.
Kut are also performed to secure job promotions, save a business, address financial losses, and even respond to a stock market crash. The ceremony has also been performed to release the souls of comfort women in the war, as well as for the souls of students who have died in uprisings. While holding kut is nothing out of the ordinary, it also isn't tolerated in many places, with more people asking them to stop because it just makes too much noise.
The kut is usually performed in kuttangs (shrines), but it has also been performed overseas. In fact, the esteemed mudang Kim Geum-hwa performed a kut for the victims of 9/11 at the Lincoln Center festival.
Living as a Shaman
If she is successful, a mudang can become a “superstar shaman” and be kept on the chaebol payroll to divine for rich families and their friends. But most mudang simply earn a decent keep divining for ordinary folks. But many times, mudang burn out and leave the shamanistic life, often becoming simple vendors and ordinary workers.
To recharge their batteries, veteran shamans climb mountains and say prayers to the Mountain God and the Seven Stars. Many of their shamanic sites have become popular for tourists, such as those on Samgak Mountain. But it is Mount Paektu, considered Korea’s geomantic center, that remains the best site to recharge. Mudang believe that Mount Paektu is the country’s spiritual heart and is the source of energy (ki) for all the other mountains in the peninsula (Kendall, 2009).
Whether they be genuine diviners, “folk psychotherapists,” scammers, or true cultural treasures, the mudang continues to be an important fixture in Korean society. For whenever science and medicine reach their limits, the mudang and their shamanistic kin will always be there to help us enter another world—a world of the invisible, the timeless, and maybe even, the real.
Mudang in K-Drama
Sell Your Haunted House (2021)
As the resident shaman and president of Daebak Realty, Hong Ji-ah's (Jang Na-ra, The Last Empress) is the millennial mudang. Her strength comes from a mix of physical prowess, supernatural abilities, and modern exorcism gear. Gone are the clunky two-handed swords and paper talismans. Instead, her mengdu (ritual device) is a nail gun, her ritual knives are disguised as hair bingyes, and her talismans are more IG-worthy than traditional ones. Hong Ji-ah is an aloof, jaded, but caring mudang ready to use these modernized weapons to send spirits to the afterlife, while finding a way to send off her mother’s restless spirit and deal with her latest recruit who may just be a powerful paksu himself.
Read the full review here.
The Possessed (2020)
Hong Seo-jung (Go Joon-hee, She Was Pretty) is your typical rebellious mudang descendant with a tragic family backstory and aversion to any form of shamanism. She makes a living by selling clothes in a little boutique while ignoring the countless unrested spirits that flock to her for help. Armed with street-smarts and a gaze that can subdue both the living and the dead, she finds herself helping Detective Kang Pil-sung (Song Sae-byeok, A Girl at My Door) in his quest to stop a possessed serial killer from growing more powerful. Along the way, she learns to accept her family’s traditional rites, heritage, and the responsibility that comes with being a mudang.