[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly website]
Behind the Shaman’s Mask
- Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut Preservation Society
Shamanic rituals are a riotous display of color, music, dance and dramatic performance, their appeal often beyond our understanding.
Shamans, with their reported psychic abilities and seeming supernatural powers, have been simultaneously feared and respected in every culture.
Behind the mask, however – behind the ritual and mystery, power and spirits – are real people.
Highly trained and gifted people, to be sure.
Shamans, called by spirit, go through a rigorous training that continues throughout their lifespan.
Here on Jeju, they are called ‘simbang’ rather than the ‘mudang’ or ‘manshin’ of the mainland.
The word is an amalgam over time of two: ‘sinwi’ (divine) and ‘songbang’ (wise one), as shamans are universally considered to be both human and spirit.
The Chilmeoridang Yeongdeung-gut Preservation Society is the largest and most prominent group of shamans in Jeju.
Maintaining the Chilmeori shrine (‘dang’) and the annual UNESCO-designated ritual (‘gut’) to the goddess Yeongdeung, they have offices and an educational facility in the Jejusi Intangible Cultural Assets Initiation Hall at the base of Sarabong.
Kim Yoon Su is the ‘keun-simbang’ or Great Shaman and Skill Holder of the society, as well as one of two founding members. Several others, including Kim’s wife Lee Yong Ok, are known as ‘su-simbang’ or chief shamans. Ranking, determined by the keun-simbang, is according to training levels and abilities as well as spiritual and familial shamanic inheritance.
Shamans, like artists, typically come from a long family line of such, and Kim is a living example. Additionally, he inherited spiritual skills from his teacher and the first Skill Holder of the Chilmeoridang association, keun-simbang Ahn Sa In. Kim became keun-simbang upon Ahn’s death in 1995.
Lee Yong Ok may well be the next keun-simbang of the Chilmeoridang society.
Kim is deeply concerned that he has no spiritual successor; his descendants do not wish to become shamans. Last year, he filed the required documents with the government’s cultural policy division to officially designate Lee as the next Skill Holder.
While the position is typically held by male shamans on Jeju Island, and the process for approval is slow and ongoing, Kim is hopeful that his wife will be able to assume this position.
The society currently includes 21 shamans and approximately 11 registered trainees. Students of traditional musical instruments also study with the society.
Training is rigorous; while some trainees begin to perform after assisting in 3 major annual rituals, this is based on their ability, experience, and shamanic heredity. Their status is determined by the keun-simbang, who seeks the spirits’ advice on this and all matters.
Beyond the facilitation of rituals, trainees must also learn the oral history and mythology of Jeju, a lengthy and detailed task.
The Yeongdeung-gut preserved by this society takes place every year in the second lunar month. It was designated by UNESCO as an ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’ in 2009 and by the Korean national government in 1980.
The gut actually includes 2 ceremonies: the first and lesser heralds the arrival of Yeongdeung, goddess of fishing and farming, and the greater, held 2 weeks later, signifies Her departure. Devotees seek Her beneficence for a bountiful season.
In addition to the Yeongdeung-gut, the Chilmeoridang shamans regularly perform several other annual public rituals.
Among them are Sasam-gut (for the victims of the 1948 massacre), Seolmundae Halmang-gut (in honor of the creator goddess of Jeju), Ipchun-gut (to welcome spring), and Tamna-gut (a cultural event honoring Jeju’s origins as Tamna Kingdom). They have also performed at festivals on the mainland.
Beyond public ceremonies, however, the primary work of shamans is in private rituals.
Devotees of shamanism seek shamans for healing, divination, and spiritual counsel. Shamans serve as religious leaders, healers, fortune tellers, teachers, counselors, and keepers of tradition. They maintain the oral history and mythology of Jeju culture, expressed in storytelling and song.
Jeju’s earliest spiritual tradition includes an enormous pantheon and maintains a profound connection to both the spirit world and nature. As such it is considered a form of deep ecology as well as indigenous medicine and psychology.
Both Kim and Lee are concerned about the future of shamanism on Jeju Island.
While the traditions remain firmly entrenched, their devotees are aging. Younger generations, seeking ‘modernity and sophistication,’ are rejecting the shamanic traditions much as those in many other cultures have done.
The rituals, some fear, are devolving into public festivals and displays of Jeju’s traditional culture while losing their spiritual significance.
Kim fears that in 20 to 30 years, the shamanism of Jeju will be gone.
With it would go Jeju’s oral history and mythology, its dynamic transmission traded for a static preservation by scholars.
If and when this occurs, shamans and their ways will become relics of the past – and the culture of Jeju will have suffered a great loss of tradition.