“The Mystical experience of Shamanism in Korea”

Korean Shaman (image from samedi.livejournal.com/352949.html)

East Asia is a cultural, political and geographical sphere, much of which had been colonized by Western powers. Even in today’s post-colonial period, Western powers left a mark on their colonies through their cultures, languages, architecture and religions. Information about mystical experiences in East Asia has mostly been  interpreted and written about by Westerners. However, East Asia itself has maintained its own myths and mystical experiences, which were either influenced by Buddhism or their own indigenous views of shamanist traditions. Shamanism is referred to as a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world (Hoppál 1987, p.76) and can be found in various cultural, political and gender dimensions. For this blog, I would like to talk about a particular mystical experience of shamanism, called “spirit possession trance”, and other related mystical experiences in Korea.

What is “spirit possession trance” in Korea?

Korea has a long-standing tradition of women engaging in the religious role of a shaman whose supernatural power involved predicting people’s future, “holding ‘gut’, or services, in order to gain good fortune for clients, or curing illnesses by exorcising evil spirits” (Kim 1998, p.32). This type of shamanism is achieved through “individual experiences of spirit possession” (Harvey 1989, p.37) and subsequent rites of initiation. As a result, those shamans go through a mystical experience called “possession sickness” (38). In the Korean folk view, this illness with hallucinations and inappropriate behaviors, are a “supernatural summons” (38) to the victim that she should assume the shaman role. It is also believed by Koreans that the possessing spirits are often the victim’s or victim’s husband’s ancestral ghosts (42). Consequently, the melding between the shaman and her possessing spirits is very powerful. 

Korean shamanism is distinguished by its seeking to solve human problems through a meeting of humans and spirits by “gut” i.e., a Korean shamanic rite. The majority of shamans in Korea may be called “professional” (37) shamans since clients hire them for services by paying a fee. Before making major decisions in their life, Korean people often go to see shamans for help. Even my mom, a Christian, went to see a shaman before coming to Canada. Despite the marginalized, social status of a shaman in Korea, many of Koreans believe in shamans’ power and their mystical experiences. Furthermore, given the uncertainty of social, economic, and political conditions, it appears certain that shamans will find large numbers of clients for some time to come.

How do common people achieve mystical experience linking to Shamanism?

Koreans achieve mystical experiences through their dreams during sleep. Those dreams are considered ‘mystical’ because an individual’s dream can be interpreted and its message to the individual can be delivered with a help from a shaman. For example, a man who had the same dreams over the past weeks, in which his dead father seemed not feeling well. The man went to see a shaman and the shaman interpreted his dream as his father was wandering in the earth, not being able to go to heaven and he suggested that there is a problem at his grave site. The man dug at the grave site and found out that the root of tree was wound around his father’s coffin. This story is from the book I read when I was young. However, there are other stories associated with dreams like this, which can be considered ‘mystical experiences’!

Another example of mystical experiences is the dream of conception, called “Taemong”. The Korean Folk Dictionary defines Taemong as a dream that forecasts a child birth: ‘Tae 胎’ means ‘womb’, ‘fetus’, or ‘unborn child’ and ‘Mong 夢’ means ‘dream’. The Taemong occurs when a pregnant woman or her close relatives or friends tends to have the dream before the woman has her baby. This prophetic birth dream is so common that almost every Korean has his or her own. This dream can forecast not only a child birth but also the baby’s sex or destiny. If the baby is a boy, it is said that the dream will contain: tigers, pigs, dragons, bears, bulls, horses, cranes, clams, comb which is made from gold, and so on. On the other hand, if the baby is a girl, the dream will contain: fish, peaches, deer, lotus flowers, jewelry, carps, turtle, small colorful snakes, moon, fruits and so on. My Taemong was dreamed by my mother and in her dream she saw a wooden box filled with fresh green apples.

Taemong

So does it make sense to talk about a mystical experience in Korea? Yes, because it is a part of everyday life and is not a part of an official, institutionalized religious experience.

References

Harvey, Young-sook Kim. (1989). “Possession Sickness and Women Shamans in Korea.” In Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, edited by Nancy A. Falk and Rita M. Gross, 37-44, Belmont: Wadsworth.

Hoppál, Mihály (1987). Shamanism: An Archaic and/or Recent System of Belief, Nicholson, Shirley, “Shamanism”, Quest Books.

Kim, Tae-kon (Chang Soo-kyung trans.) (1998). Korean Shamanism—Muism. Jimoondang Publishing Company, pp. 32-33.

The Korean Online Dictionary, http://krdic.naver.com/. Accessed on March 24, 2010

Traditional Health Beliefs: Korean: Pregnancy & Childbirth. Accessed on March 24, 2010 http://www.hawcc.hawaii.edu/nursing/RNKorean08.html.

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