Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Korean Shaman Folklorist: Kim Tae-gon

This special exhibition presents shamanistic relics collected by Namgang, the pen name of Kim Taegon (1936-1996). Kim Taegon is considered the oldest folklorist in Korea. From 1960 he conducted field research on various types of gut, shamanistic rituals and rites, all the while collecting disappearing shamanistic data. In 2012, his widow Son Jang-yeon, donated a total of 31,742 items categorized under paintings of spirits, shaman's ritual costumes and equipment, photographs and films to the National Folk Museum of Korea (NFMK). As a result, the NFMK published the collection book, In Search of the Arch-patterns of Korean Culture and opens this special exhibition to pay tribute to the meaning of his donation. The four themes in this exhibition are:
  1. Who is Kim Taegon?
  2. Record of the spiritual world
  3. Record of communicating with the spirits
  4. Searching for shamanistic spirits in the north

Who is Kim Taegon?

Although a folklorist, Kim Taegon was simultaneously a scholar of Korean literature, and he combined his skills as he continually conducted field research at ritual sites and pursued the study of Korean folklore. He wrote 34 books, including Painting of the Spirits in Korea and over 200 academic journal articles such as "Study of Hwang Cheonmuga." When he was a university student, he was interested in folklore studies so he traveled and visited different ritual sites around Korea. After he became familiar with the various rituals around Korea, he formulated the arch-pattern concept. This perspective is his original notion that every thing in existence remains even though it undergoes both good times and hardships. Later he tried to prove this idea and to apply it to the nature of shamanism in Korea. 

Over time he expanded his study of folklore into Mongolia and Siberia, but in 1996 at the age of 61 he died suddenly. His students and fellow scholars have carried on with his studies of shamanic traditions via his many journals articles and writings, and they are pursuing his further comparative studies in the steppes.

Various types of gut (loosely translated as exorcisms)

picture taken June 15, 1972 (Chilseong gut) - 칠성굿 - Chilseong gut - an exorcism involving the Pleiades, the star formation that has influenced shamanic practices.
Picture taken June 15, 1972 (Shimcheong gut) - 심청굿
Picture taken February 24, 1976. Ogugut - 오구굿 
Record of communicating with the spirits

Shamanism is a religion that focuses on solving the problems of reality through communication between humans and the spiritual imagery of shamans acting as liaisons. Thus, Kim Taegon paid attention to how people communicated with the gods and tried to understand the origin of shamanism through conducting field research on ritual sites. His research equipment -- notes, photographs, films, research findings -- reveals his passion to trace history. In 1972, he filmed namijanggunsadangje (a ritual to console the spirit of General Nami (1441-1468) who was wrongly accused of conspiring against the government), registered as Seoul City's Intangible Cultural Asset No. 20. It was of a village gut of Youngmundong in Seoul that had been passed down from olden times and had brought local villagers together. Unfortunately, the namijanggunsadangje disappeared in 1972, but with the record caught in film and through Kim's research notes, the ritual ceremony was reconstructed in 1983.

Recording the spirit world

As gods are believed to be personifications of natural forces, they are invisible. Thus, human beings try to communicate with the gods by using tangible objects such as shrines, paintings of the gods, ritual equipment, ritual costumes as well as the intangible, via ritual songs and music. The gut, or rather the shamanistic rituals and rites, is an event for the shaman to offer a sacrifice to the spirits through speaking and performance. At shrines and other places shamans wear ritual costumes and carry ritual equipment in front of paintings of the spirits in order to pray for them to intercede in the fortune of the world. Kim Taegon collected a variety of paintings of the gods and ritual equipment of shamans from his extensive research endeavors.
Painting of commander-in-chief of the gods - 신장도
Painting of a mountain god - 산신도
Painting of rivers and streams - 수신 * 천신
Painting of a god of man - 인신
Painting of the 5 directions -오방신
Shamanic flag of the 5 directions - 오방신장기 - each color representing a direction and having different auspicious meanings. The green flag is considered the least auspicious, and it even represents misfortune and bad luck.
Painting of the goddess of disease - 호구별상
Painting of a straw cutter - 작두신령

Searching for shamanistic spirits in the north

When Kim Taegon worked as a guest professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, 1982-1983, he realized he needed to conduct field research in Siberia and Mongolia to better balance his understanding of shamanism. So he accordingly conducted research in both of the places in order to trace ethnic culture through comparisons between the Korean peninsular country and the continental cultures. This research spans seven years and was conducted in the 1990s. 

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