The shamans of Jeju Island, South Korea, like other shamans across Eurasia, are village priests concerned with the physical and spiritual well-being of their community’s residents. These shaman, called shimbang, also serve in leadership roles, helping to settle disputes and organizing rituals. Traditionally, the position of shimbang on Jeju Island is inherited through family lineages, both females and males being selected by their parents. The training process to become a fully competent practitioner often lasts more than a decade. Shimbang are charged with memorizing and reciting epic myths, which amount to scores of hours of recitation. Mastering the techniques involved in rituals, as well as learning to work with people, also demands intensive study.
Jeju Island, located sixty kilometers south of the Korean Peninsula, is one of the many pockets across Eurasia where a shamanic community still thrives. Many regions, where adherence to traditional shamanism hasn’t been disrupted by political dogma or the expansion of monotheistic religions, are unique—areas that have evaded the control of dominant cultures and their governments. It hasn’t been until recent decades that substantial threat to shamanism finally arrived to Jeju Island's shores. In the 1960s, and intensifying in following decades, effort to suppress shamanism in South Korea moved through official channels. On Jeju Island, many shimbang were forced to publicly renounce their faith. The island lost many shamanic shrines during this process. Most of these were later rebuilt.
The people of the island fought to maintain their religion despite the mid-century repression. Many brave shamans continued to practice, in secret when necessary. In villages where shamans had renounced, or where elderly shamans had passed away without individuals coming forth to replace them in their role, people continued to celebrate shamanic holidays even without a shaman. They still do until this day. Alas, the Jeju people are no strangers to conflict. Even now, communities across the island are aggressively combating a proliferation of commercial development. The struggle to protect shamanic shrines continues as well.
I have had the privilege to study the shamanic community on Jeju Island closely for more than half a decade. I first started visiting the island’s shimbang in their homes. Just a few short years ago, before massive amounts of tourists flocked to the island, when the villages were still quite remote, I would visit and inquire about the location of the village shaman’s whereabouts. My interest was to document the large number of myths that the shimbang possess knowledge of—myths particular to each village, that recount the origins of village-specific deities—and the epic myths that describe the origins of deities worshiped across the island. The shimbang recite these myths in ritual context. The myths often come alive in the play of the ritual itself. Shamans tease a broad spectrum of emotions from their followers, who come into acknowledgment of their own personal struggles during the process. In many ways, the shamans of Jeju Island are less dramatic in presentation that their cousins in the cities of mainland Korea. Their songs are said to be sweeter and personalities less esoteric. The dramatic and, at times, intimidating techniques employed by many consulting shamans in urban areas is unnecessary in the Jeju Island village, as the shimbang is a familiar and integrated part of the community. The dangwol, adherents to Jeju’s traditional religion, are in my experience ‘shamanic holy rollers’, which is to say they are imbued with the fiery energy of the religiously charged. Their zeal often eclipses the shimbang's.
Dangwol keep the gods in their hearts always and reflect upon their faith often. Visiting shrines and consulting with shimbang is an emotive occasion. It is the shimbang’s duty to assess the psychological needs of each dangwol, to administer appropriate treatments and offer helpful advice. One prominent Jeju Island shimbang told me, ‘there are conditions that western medicine cannot treat, in this situation the gods must be consulted'. Treating such conditions—trauma, loss, emotional distress, illnesses of mysterious origin—these fall under the responsibility of the shimbang. Shimbang also preside over numerous private and public ceremonies—funerals, healing ceremonies for children, ceremonies for launching a new business and various annual village-wide rituals among others.
Since I began documenting shamanism on Jeju Island, more and more attention has begun to be paid to these traditional healers, especially with the increase in tourism to the island. Even so, it is certainly not evident that the tradition of shamanism on Jeju Island will continue in its traditional form. There are young shamans on the island, but their numbers are few. Telling is the fact that the dangwol—an aging population—are quickly decreasing in number. Gentrification, too, is diversifying the local population. While thousands of new-comers to the island capitalize off of native symbolism in their various tourist operations, legitimate interest in preserving the culture is mostly hard to assess. The profusion of commercial development has lead to the destruction of many shamanic sites and other cultural assets.
In this series, I offer a photographic profile of a number of shimbang I have spent time with over the years. Included are some video interviews, footage of village rituals and a short documentary. Some of the material is excerpted from my film Spirits: The Story of Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines.
The shaman, Sun Shil Seo, is one of the few shamans on Jeju Island whose name is known to all. Like other traditional shimbang, she is responsible for the village of her birth, performing rituals within the village and nearby areas. Seo leads the Keungut Preservation Society, a group of shamans united with the aim of preserving the art of performing Jeju Island's keungut rituals. Keungut is a set of rituals that form the core of shamanic practice. She often leads rites in an urban context that are commissioned by Jeju City, the island's largest metropolitan area. She also appears in local media and in performative art that draw from shamanic practice. The photo set below is from a village ritual and reflects how much of shamanism on the island appears today.
The shaman, Sun Shil Seo, discusses the difference between shamanic healing and western medicine in this short video. On Jeju Island, shamanic ceremonies today serve healing functions which are seen as complimentary to western medicinal practices. Seminars have been held in local hospitals to educate medical professionals on the role shamanic practice plays, for instance, in helping resolve the effects of trauma.
The mid-winter rite in Waheul Village demands a large team of shamans to accommodate its sizable population of fervent believers. The shaman Young Chul Kim (below) traveled from another village to assist with the rite. Kim is the vice-president of a preservation society dedicated to continuing the shamanic traditions of coastal peoples. He has traveled inland to assist with the ceremony.
The shimbang, 'Stone Mountain' Kim, is the seventh shaman in her line to be responsible for her village. She is the keunshimbang or senior shaman, which means she is required to make house visits to perform rituals of all sorts. Not long ago on Jeju Island, teams of five or six shamans of various rankings would live and work in a single village. Now, Kim, being the only surviving traditional shaman, must call on shamans from other villages to help her perform large rituals. This is especially the case for the rites held for the entire village. Shamans across the island network both through organizations and informally.
A look into the role Kim plays in her village. Short doucumentary (25 minutes).
The shimbang, Bok Ja Go, is one of the most respected shamans presently working on Jeju Island. Go is known for her expert command of the epic myths that are recited at ceremonies. Like many other traditional shimbang, she is in high demand. Whenever I had questions about some aspect of the complex procedures performed during rituals and she was present, other shamans would refer me to her—fearing that they might make a mistake and provide imperfect information. Admonishments and chiding are an important way in which elder shamans correct the performance of younger shamans. Go herself, underwent a very strict tutelage, likely much stricter than the experience of young shamans today. She is responsible for Hado-ri, a large village of women abalone divers and farmers.
In the village of Saewa, three generations of shamans work together. In-suk Oh, now in her mid-nineties, has long tried to retire from her position of head shaman. Village residents refuse to readily accept her resignation. Even recently, when she attempted to announce publicly that her duties would be passed to the next shaman in line, her announcement failed to have the intended effect. Oh came to be the village’s head shaman quite late in life and isn’t originally from a shamanic lineage. At the age of forty, she began to perform rituals and reciting the epics. In those days, recitation of an epic, which generally lasts a couple hours or more, fetched about an American dollar. Oh is very special in that she still remembers myths that have been placed in a category of having fallen out of use in the modern era. An example would be myths employed in rituals aimed at treating smallpox, a disease which is no longer a concern in modern South Korea.
In-suk Oh is old enough to have experienced the suppression of shamanism in her community during the 'prohibition of superstition movement' of the 1960s-1980s. Try as it might, the national government was never able to dispel shamanic practice from Jeju Island, though it waged substantial destruction. In the 1960s, more than a hundred shrines were torched along with precious relics. In the clip below, shaman Oh talks about her memories of when relics from the major shrine in Saewa Village were burnt. Much of the superstition prohibition was carried out during president Chung-hee Park’s reign. Ironically, in 2017, his daughter would be ousted, partially for her involvement in a religious cult.
The shimbang, Sun-shil Seo, on her memories of practicing shamanic rituals in secrecy. (Below)
Shamans under head shaman, In-suk Oh, take charge of the more active parts of shrine rites that she can no longer perform. Being that shaman Oh is in her nineties, her subordinates have already been practicing for decades and are masters in their own right. The practice of tying cloth offerings to the shaman's body is a standard feature of shrine rituals.
A number of younger shimbang have appeared on Jeju Island in recent years. A few of them come from shamanic lineages, but others felt a calling to pursue the occupation. It’s not an easy profession. Not many of those who grew up in a lay household can cut it, but some have been successful in learning. Senior shamans are often hard on new recruits. This strictness is necessary as the demands of the position are many. Through whatever hardships, shimbang must put their community first. There is no quitting. Once someone becomes a shaman, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it is for life.
Support the Project/ Buy a Photo Book