Seeking Jeju’s Goddesses


[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]

Seeking Jeju’s Goddesses

A feminist tour with Gloria Steinem

At Waheul Bonhyang shrine. Photo by Kim Yeon Mi.

Sixty-five women – and one enlightened man – descended upon Jeju Island in search of its goddesses.

A tour co-organized by Seoul International Film Festival and Feminist Artist Network began with a session at 6th Jeju Forum for Peace & Prosperity – entitled, “Women, Creativity and Culture: She’s Coming” – and continued with multiple events over the two following days.

Some might think that the tour’s star attraction was its famous attendee, American feminist leaderGloria Steinem. She was, after all, the main speaker of the Forum session, and participated in an event later that same evening, “Conversations with Gloria.”

While Steinem’s star power is unassailable, tour participants’ interests were more complex.

Dancing on Yongnunyi. Photo by Kim Yeon Mi.

“I entered this program for my own healing and rejuvenation,” claimed one, who later reported that she received many additional and unexpected benefits.

“Three days in the company of more than 60 feminists, exchanging our stories and supporting one another in community,” was the response of another when asked why she joined the tour.

The legendary strong women of Jeju, billed as a form of organic or “eco-” feminism, was a draw for many. Jeju’s traditional mythology, which includes multiple female deities and a giant grandmother goddess as creator, depicting the island itself as Her body, was perhaps the most powerful attraction of all.

Having Gloria Steinem join them was, of course, a great appeal.

Accompanying Steinem was Chung Hyun Kyung, renowned Korean feminist and theology professor now residing in New York. While her best known book is the 1990 “Struggle to be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology” (published in English), Chung became famous in Korea for another: “Letter from the Future: The Goddess-Spell According to Hyun Kyung” (2003), which was published in Korean and sold more than 100,000 copies.

In Bija Forest, Amy Richards speaking. Photo by Kim Yeon Mi.

Amy Richards, another American feminist, author, and co-founder of the feminist NGO, Third Wave Foundation, also accompanied Steinem on her trip to Korea and participated in the Goddess Tour.

The group visited several shamanic shrines dedicated to female deities, each of which was explained in detail by Jang Hae-Lyeon, a specialist of the Cultural Heritage Administration. She initially provided the participants with a presentation on Jeju’s mythology and its women’s culture.

The participants also climbed an oreum (volcanic cone), walked an Olle trail, explored a primary forest, strolled along the coast, took nature walks, toured the small outlying island of Gapado, and dined at the foot of the iconic Seongsan Ilchulbong, in order to engage fully in Jeju’s traditional animistic relationship with nature.

Meditations were facilitated by Chung and also by famed contemporary dancer Hong Sincha, who now makes Jeju Island her home. Spontaneous rituals and celebrations broke out regularly as the group members explored their ‘inner goddesses.’

The tour was facilitated by Lee Hyae-kyoung, chair of the Seoul International Film Festival and president of Feminist Artist Network.

“My intention for this tour was to find a new way, the next way, for Korean feminists,” Lee said. “Many of us have become exhausted; we have lost our energy for this cause. I hope that this event will re-energize not only these women but our whole feminist movement, so that we can move toward the future together.”





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