There are an estimated 300 shamanistic temples within an hour of Seoul’s bustling city center, and in them, shamans perform their clamorous ceremonies every day. They offer pigs to placate the gods. They dance with toy guns to comfort the spirit of a dead child. They intimidate evil spirits by walking barefoot on knife blades.
“We used to do our rituals in hiding,” said Ms. Yang, who performs two or three rites on a busy day. “Our customers kept it secret from even their own relatives. Now we have no shame performing in public. I can hardly take three days off a month.”
Its syncretistic and cultural flexibility is credited with the practice's longevity:Korean shamanism is rooted in ancient indigenous beliefs shared by many folk religions in northeast Asia. Most mudangs are women who say they discovered their ability to serve as a mediator between the human and spirit worlds after emerging from a critical illness. They believe that the air is thick with spirits, including those of dead relatives, a fox in the hills behind a village, an old tree or even a stove. These spirits interact with people and influence their fortunes.So when tradition-minded Koreans are inexplicably sick or have a run of bad luck in business or a daughter who cannot find a husband, they consult a shaman.
“In our latest survey, we found 273 categories of gods venerated by Korean shamans. If you look into the subcategories, you find 10,000 deities,” said Hong Tea-han, a professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul who researches shamanism. “Korean shamanism is a great melting pot. It never rejected anything but embraced everything, making endless compromises with other religions and social changes. That explains why it has survived thousands of years.”
There are shamans who venerate Jesus, the Virgin Mary, even Park Chung-hee, the late South Korean military strongman. Under the pro-American military governments of the 1970s, there were shamans who took Gen. Douglas MacArthur as their deity. When MacArthur’s spirit possessed them, they donned sunglasses, puffed on a pipe and uttered sounds that some clients took for English.