Jeju Island, off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and now my home, is often called the “Island of 18,000 Gods”. Its indigenous religion is animistic, inherited from Eastern Siberia and Mongolia with its own South Pacific cultural nuances, a dash of Buddhism, and marginal Confucian influence.
What makes it distinct even from the shamanic traditions of mainland Korea, however, is its mythology. Jeju has a creation myth in which the central figure is a Grandmother Goddess, and its mythology is rich in goddess imagery.
Seolmundae Halmang is the Creator of Jeju, and the archetypal image of the strong Jeju woman. (The island has gone by many other names in its history.) Jacheongbi is the goddess of love — and also, agriculture; Gameunjang Agi, a goddess of wisdom, governs destiny and fortune.
Many goddesses, including Seolmundae Herself, are depicted not in youthful, romantic ways, but as wise and loving grandmothers (the meaning of ‘halmang’, a term from the local dialect). Jowang Halmang is the kitchen / hearth goddess, ensuring family health. Samseung (or Samshin) Halmang manages the lives of humans, and is of particular aid in pregnancy and childbirth. Perhaps it’s more accurate to describe Her as one who determines fate.
Gopang Halmang is the goddess of prosperity, ruling over the granary and the success of the harvest. And for this island community, so dependent throughout the ages on the abundance of the sea even more than that of agriculture: Yeongdeung Halmang is the goddess of the sea, and secondarily of grain as well.
One of the many shamanic rituals, or ‘gut’ (pronounced ‘koot’), is the Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut. Held on the first day of the second month in the lunar calendar (this year falling on 05 March) at the Chilmeori Shrine (the meaning of ‘dang’ in Jeju dialect), this is one of the largest and most significant events of each year. It’s believed that Yeongdeung Halmang breezes into Jeju Island (as She is closely associated with the wind for which Jeju is so well-known), where she remains for two weeks; rituals are performed to placate Her and to gain Her beneficence for safety at sea and a bountiful fishing season.
A majority of Jeju’s shamans, not surprisingly, are female, though there are many male shamans as well. The Yeongdeunggut is distinct for its involvement of female divers, or ‘jamnyeo’, those whose livelihood of diving for shellfish and other sea creatures depends on the good graces of Yeongdeung Halmang. The profession of the jamnyeo (often termed ‘haenyeo’ for touristic purposes) is unique in all the world save for Jeju’s close neighbor, southern Japan.
What does all this have to do with the 21st century…and modern Jeju?
Tradition and cultural custom naturally contribute to the health of a society in its sense of community and collective meaning-making. There are many non-believers, of course, but even these typically view the shamanic rituals through a lens of cultural preservation, thus retaining their meaningfulness.
On an individual level, it’s well documented that a deeply felt connection to nature, or ‘deep ecology’, contributes to one’s mental and emotional wellbeing — and thus, to physical health as well. Further, ritual itself — whether one literally believes in the deities involved, or not — provides both meaning and grounding.
In this modern era, belief in all manner of religions with their gods and spirits abounds, providing comfort and direction for a majority. Those who deem themselves not religious, however, can still benefit from the sense of connectedness that tradition and custom provide. Even more, when viewed as metaphor, an animistic approach — viewing the natural world as one of manifest deity, with spirits to be found in every rock, leaf, or creature– can encourage a reverence for nature and efforts to preserve it.
Much of the disconnection felt by those in modern-day societies, as described repeatedly in scholarly literature and popular media, could well be healed by the inclusion of personal and community rituals which connect us to one another and to nature.
We can all learn, and benefit, from shamanic traditions such as those of Jeju Island.