Jeju is the “Island of 18,000 Gods,” also known as the “Island of Spirit”. The Jeju pantheon includes gods and goddesses — with emphasis on the latter — for every phase of life, indicating the islanders’ deep connection to the spiritual as well as natural worlds.
There are deities of the mountains, land, and sea. Both snake and dragon spirits are also prevalent. Each village has its own deities — and so does every household.
In fact, the home has spirits of the hearth, granary, kitchen, living room, bathroom, threshold, space before the door, garden, gate, and nearby ancestral gravesite. There is a moving season–“Shingugan”–during the final week of the lunar year, the only fortuitous period for moving house. The household spirits are busy giving “annual report” to their deity superiors, and thus won’t try to follow the family to a new location–which would confuse the system and potentially wreak havoc.
At its core, Jeju’s creation myth is one of a giant grandmother goddess, Seolmundae. This volcanic island culture is deeply connected to the spirit of Mount Halla. She is the Creator, and her 360 offspring are embodied in the parasitic cones, ‘oreum’ in the local dialect, which surround Her. Now, it is said, She sleeps, benignly watching over her Jeju family.
In the 21st century, the idea that a reasonably modern civilization such as Jeju Island would continue traditional animistic beliefs and worship of an enormous pantheon may come as a surprise. This is the very fabric of Jeju society, however. Based on the local concept of ‘”gwendang” (궨당, dialectical pronunciation for the Korean word 권당 or ‘relatives’), Jeju’s community is conceptualized as one family, with Seolmundae Halmang as their grandmother and the oreum as their relatives. There is little distinction between the material and immaterial worlds, with not only a pantheon of gods but the bodily-felt understanding of manifest deity.
In other words: everything in the natural world represents spirit.
This indigenous form of deep ecology is not unique to Jeju. Animism has historically defined cultures across the globe. That it remains a deeply held belief system today, however, with regular practice of ancient customs, is somewhat remarkable.
Do Jeju People, as they typically call themselves when conversing in English, truly believe in these gods and spirits even today? Or is it merely empty ceremony, devoid of meaning, or worse: touristic display?
There is a third option, found in the concept of “pre-rational ~ rational ~ trans-rational” evolution of human society as developed by scholar Ken Wilber.
In this view, which echoes that of individual human development, the pre-rational phase of a culture is the earliest, in which the boundary between self and other, between material and immaterial, and between human and spirit — or, for that matter, animal — is only marginally perceived. The world is magical, rife with hidden significance.
Some few centuries ago, humankind in a majority of locations around the world entered what is known as the rational phase, in which experimental science is the ultimate validation and all other perception generally dismissed as superstition.
The third stage, trans-rational, is not a romanticized view of nor attempt to return to a pre-rational state, neither does it accept that the rational state of being is all-inclusive. Rather, the pre-rational is passed through the filter of the rational and into a new form which also validates the metaphysical and spiritual experience.
The gods are now metaphor, and we can comfortably embrace both science and mystery.
In Jeju Island, as daily household worship of local gods continues — just as it does for those of all world religions — the underlying beliefs may well have taken a new and more modern form. It is the practice, however, which contributes to personal and communal meaning-making.
This sense of “walking in spirit” serves to define Jeju culture, to enrich individual lives, and to form the bonds of community.