Saturday, July 9, 2016

Museum of Shamanism w/ Folklorist Yang Jong-sung

On May 25, a Wednesday, the Museum of Shamanism had an opening ceremony to celebrate its new location at the Geumseongdang Shamanic Shrine, a 200-year-old shamanic site that has been newly restored and just a 10-minute walk from Gupabal station, exit 2. The museum is the private collection of folklorist Professor Yang Jong-sung, who is also the director-curator and the owner-collector of the shamanic treasures that he has gathered over several decades. He stresses that though he was trained to be a shaman, he never was initiated and now is proud to be just a collector and researcher of the indigenous religion. His collection comprises mostly shamanic resources from Korean shamanism but he also has items from Mongolia, China and Nepal, countries also steeped in shamanism and sharing similar or curiously different shamanic objects. The shrine itself is owned by the government and by government request, Professor Yang has placed his collection at the government restored site.

The museum which was made public three years previous in its former location is the life collection of Professor Yang and houses nearly 200,000 items. The museum’s collection includes shrine-based spirit paintings, clothing, ritual texts, amulets, divination objects, ritual utensils, brass mirrors, musical instruments, candlesticks, incense burners, fans, bells, spears/swords, fabric for longevity, and handcrafted paper decorations and paper flowers. Also accessible to patrons and scholars are a collection of shamanic books, research articles, videos, recorded tapes, photographs, and event materials.

The name of the Geumseongdang Shamanic Shrine is traced back to Prince Geumseong (1426-1457), who "is enshrined as a liquor-serving spirit god of the said shrine. Prince Geumseong was the 6th prince of Great King Sejong and Empress Soheon, conferred as a prince when he was seven years old under the early name of 'Yu'. Prince Geumseong was also uncle to King Danjong, the 6th king of the Joseon Dynasty, and younger brother to Prince Suyang, who later became the 7th monarch, King Sejo, of the Joseon Dynasty. Prince Geumseong was a man of integrity and steadfast loyalty. While Prince Suyang used subterfuge to gain access to the throne, eventually achieving the position as King Sejo, Prince Geumseong endeavored to see King Danjong restored to power. As a result of his activities in conflict with the monarchy, Prince Geumseong was entrapped and killed by King Sejo when he was 31 years old.

At the end of the Joseon Dynasty, there were three government-supported Great Prince Geumseong shrines established, including Gupabal (Jingwan-dong), Mapo (Mangwon-dong) and Gaksimjeol (Wolgye-dong) in the Seoul region. However, during the 1970s two shrines were destroyed in the push toward industrialization, leaving the Gupabal (Jingwan-dong) site as the only to survive.

During their time of prominence, the people prayed at the shrines to appease the grudge of Prince Geumseong [who was the leader and is known to have promoted shamanic practices], as well as to honor the memory of his royalty and devotion. Upon the arrival of his birthday, according to the lunar calendar March 24, shamanic rituals were annually performed to foster united community, solidify bonds of kinship, to raise the spirit of standing together, and for the continued peace of citizens, villages, and the Korean nation."

The Geumseongdang shamanic shrine was government designated as a Cultural Property of Important Folk Material Number 258 on July 22, 2008.

Asadal Thought has a great overview of what shamanism is in Korea.

Explanations on items within:

Below, folklorist Yang Jong-sung in front of the patron god of the shrine, Great Prince Geumseong. Professor Yang is explaining the importance of the five flags -- white, red, yellow, green, blue or black -- which are used in ceremony. Basically the shaman offers the flag poles to the person requiring the gut in order to confer luck or fortune or wisdom onto the person. The person chooses one of the poles and the flag color is revealed. If the flag is white or red, then the person will have luck or good returns and the flag-choosing is finished. If the person chooses another color, he/she has three chances to choose white or red to change the fortune.

In a gut I saw several years ago, a man having very bad luck at his business paid for an expensive exorcism of bad luck. When it was his time to choose a flag, he chose green, a particularly bad color to choose and one which inhibits fortune. He had two more chances to choose white or red, and each time he chose green. Bad bad bad. Even the shamans were frustrated. They let him pay a lot more and then choose again. The average gut nowadays is bottom rate of W5 million and could easily go up to W10 million or even higher.

Professor Yang had a couple of the people attending chose a color. One guy chose yellow, which symbolizes ancestors, so Professor Yang told him that his ancestors, particularly his maternal grandmother, was looking out for him. The guy said he was adopted so how was that possible. Surprised, Professor Yang asked him to choose again ... this time blue. Again he chose and again blue. Professor Yang told him not to worry, that he was a strong young man so he could handle anything.

Paraphernalia, particularly pictures of a shaman's gods when he/she dies, must be burned or destroyed, and for this reason many shaman accessories just cease to exist. Professor Yang was trained as a shaman but two shamans were arguing over who would get him as their spiritual son and so that and perhaps other reasons meant he never got his initiation ceremony. However, Woo Okju (1920-1991), a very famous shaman from what is now North Korea, gave many of her spirit-god pictures that she had inherited from her male mentor Kim Ki-baek to Yang. She said that the gods weren't working for her because her gender was in conflict and told Yang to hang on to the pictures and to use them since he was a strong male who could inherit the gods and spirits from the paintings. Because she gave them to him, it was not essential that the paraphernalia be burned as the gods had been transferred.

Kim Ki-baek (1894-1932), Woo Okju's spirit mentor, was a famous shaman also from North Korea. He had an unfortunate ending and is famous for it. In a shaman ceremony while dancing on knives he spoke against the Japanese, and they struck him down for it.

Fish, usually long fish and not short fat ones, are used in shaman ceremonies. The fish symbolizes the ocean, the place where the Dragon King lives. The ocean is a place of water, which is one of the three most important icons of shamanism. The three are water, fire and matter.

The fish or commonly carp is also the symbol of a god, ghost, spirit and all of these are different in western concepts. Yet, in eastern thinking these exist simultaneously and they cooperate together; they are not viewed separately and defined individually; they are loosely the same.

The nearly 200,000 objects in the shamanism museum clearly show that sounds, smells, speaking and body movement are equally important in ceremony. Sounds include musical instruments, almost all of which are percussion, clapping, and all ceremonies begin and end with the striking of a bell three times. Three is a very important numeric in shamanism. Three can mean:

  • water, fire, matter
  • beginning #, ending #, helping #
  • heaven, earth, ???
  • left, right, center
  • ...

Smells include incense while inviting/entertaining the spirits. Often three incense sticks are burnt simultaneously, but burning one is OK. Burning an even number brings bad luck and is therefore not done. Ceremonies must have speaking because speaking is for communication with the spirits and the mortals. Body movement is important as movement shows recognition, understanding, knowledge, change. Included in body movement is the clapping of hands, which are clapped flatly and loudly together - 인양 (sp?) which is a kind of harmony, a coming together.

As for warlike paraphernalia, the knives, swords, halberds, and other sharp instruments are used to symbolize fighting against the invading army of bad spirits. The shamans can see these spirits in ceremony when his/her gods/spirits are assisting him/her and informing him/her of things in the spirits world and if the spirits are recognized as bad, the shamans can flail the weapons in spiritual battle.

Also in the museum are materials necessary for transporting the spirits of a deceased person onward to the spirit world. The dragon below was on a funeral cart and its spiritual function was to protect the spirit on the way to the grave, and to metaphysically remain with the spirit in the grave.

The duck or sometimes goose was a spirit transport to the next world. Curiously in Siberia, a shaman in spirit could ride the duck to another world and retrieve a spirit; however, in Korea shamans do not take spiritual journeys to other worlds or ride ducks; spirits my, shamans don't.

The flowered boat is the boat that transports the spirit to the other world onward from the grave. I'm curious about why the boat motif was initially used and wonder if it is because Korea is a peninsular country and depended heavily on the fruits of the ocean, which was unpredictable and unruly and therefore resulted in many deaths, so smooth transport via the form of rough passage was best said through the boat motif. I really wonder.

The museum is relatively small, smaller than the previous museum housing Professor Yang's collection, and so some artifacts are lying outside of the shrine's inner walls. The shamanic talismans really impressed me. I can't read them and they don't appear to be Chinese script (although perhaps some could be but very stylized) but their messages are various. Rubbings from the different stone talismans can confer luck, love, money, economic stability, spiritual protection, etc on the rubbing holder. Typically rubbings or shamanic stamps are smaller. A typical stamp, not pictured but several were in the museum, is a three-headed crow which gives spiritual protection; it is considered very powerful and is a common stamp-image to receive from a shaman.

Shamans are neither recognized by the government nor forbidden by law. They occupy a strange space in modern society, but certainly they fall outside of recognized mainstream Korea. Yet, the government is now giving more attention to shamanism, and as Professor Yang explains, shamanism is the only indigenous religion of Korea and therefore it has value for promoting tourism.

Traditionally shamans were predominantly female, and in the 1970s perhaps only 10% of the shamans were males. Females still predominate but male practitioners have risen to about 25%. Shamans have a freedom not enjoyed or tolerated by other groups in society. The women in olden times were to be obedient to their fathers, brothers, husbands but shamans, predominantly women, could wander around, have freedom and even were recognized as having heightened sexuality. For example, Woo Okju, Professor Yang's spiritual mentor, was married six times, and this was in an era when women just did not get divorced. Female shamans were viewed as sexual experts. A female shaman would go to an oceanic village where fishermen required a gut for luck and protection, and in performing the gut she would do 공창 -- 공 being 'public' and 창 being to do what they want as a practitioner, basically to publicly practice what he/she wanted. 


  1. Is this still open? I can't find a web site or anything on the web past the summer of 2016. My wife and I are visiting Seoul for a philosophy conference next month and shamanism is an interest of ours, but Gahoe seems too small and Iwangsan too steep for my slightly handicapped wife. We were hoping this was a possibility.

    1. Yes, it's still open but am not sure of the operating hours as it's a privately owned museum. If you contact Yang Jong-sung and tell him of your interest in shamanism, he may open it and even guide you through.