Koreans, like other East Asians, have traditionally been
eclectic rather than exclusive in their religious commitments.
Their religious outlook has not been conditioned by a single,
exclusive faith but by a combination of indigenous beliefs and
creeds imported into Korea. Belief in a world inhabited by
spirits is probably the oldest form of Korean religious life,
dating back to prehistoric times. There is a rather unorganized
pantheon of literally millions of gods, spirits, and ghosts,
ranging from the "god generals" who rule the different quarters
of heaven to mountain spirits (sansin). This pantheon also
includes gods who inhabit trees, sacred caves, and piles of
stones, as well as earth spirits, the tutelary gods of households
and villages, mischievous goblins, and the ghosts of persons who
in many cases met violent or tragic ends. These spirits are said
to have the power to influence or to change the fortunes of
living men and women.
Korean shamans are similar in many ways to those found in
Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria. They also resemble the
yuta found on the Ryukyu Islands, in Okinawa Prefecture,
Japan. Cheju Island is also a center of shamanism.
Shamans, most of whom are women, are enlisted by those who
want the help of the spirit world. Female shamans (mudang)
hold kut, or services, in order to gain good fortune for
clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate
local or village gods. Such services are also held to guide the
spirit of a deceased person to heaven.
Often a woman will become a shaman very reluctantly--after
experiencing a severe physical or mental illness that indicates
"possession" by a spirit. Such possession allegedly can be cured
only through performance of a kut. Once a shaman is
established in her profession, she usually can make a good
Many scholars regard Korean shamanism as less a religion than
a "medicine" in which the spirits are manipulated in order to
achieve human ends. There is no notion of salvation or moral and
spiritual perfection, at least for the ordinary believers in
spirits. The shaman is a professional who is consulted by clients
whenever the need is felt. Traditionally, shamans had low social
status and were members of the ch'ommin class. This
discrimination has continued into modern times.
Animistic beliefs are strongly associated with the culture of
fishing villages and are primarily a phenomenon found in rural
communities. Shamans also treat the ills of city people, however,
especially recent migrants from the countryside who find
adjustment to an impersonal urban life stressful. The government
has discouraged belief in shamanism as superstition and for many
years minimized its persistence in Korean life. Yet in a climate
of growing nationalism and cultural self-confidence, the dances,
songs, and incantations that compose the kut have come to
be recognized as an important aspect of Korean culture. Beginning
in the 1970s, rituals that formerly had been kept out of foreign
view began to resurface, and occasionally a Western hotel manager
or other executive could even be seen attending a shamanistic
exorcism ritual in the course of opening a new branch in Seoul.
Some of these aspects of kut have been designated valuable
cultural properties that should be preserved and passed on to
The future of shamanism itself was uncertain in the late
1980s. Observers believed that many of its functions in the
future probably will be performed by the psychiatric profession
as the government expands mental health treatment facilities.
Given the uncertainty of social, economic, and political
conditions, however, it appears certain that shamans will find
large numbers of clients for some time to come.
Data as of June 1990