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Pop culture and an economic crisis have helped put shamanism back on the map.
SEOUL, South Korea — When I told my friends I would visit a Korean shaman, or mudang, their responses weren’t exactly reassuring. One Korean university student explained to me that evil spirits would hijack my body, prompting me to slit my wrists and drink my own blood until I became a minion of Satan. “Are you nuts? They’re evil!” another friend exclaimed.
I’m a skeptic, but even I was spooked. So I was relieved when the mudang — a mellow 44-year-old man who goes by the alias Mu-gyuk (literally “male exorcist”) — approached me with a gentle smile and a warm bow, hardly the appearance of the flesh-thirsty Dracula everyone said he would be.
For hours, Mu-gyuk reminisced about his life as a former gambling addict and prison convict, when he swears he “saw the light” and became a spiritualist. After his reform, Mu-gyuk claimed he got strange headaches and chest pains; doctors couldn’t uncover his ailment, so he consulted a mudang master who advised him to become one, too. At that point, he also claimed he could see ghosts.
So Mu-gyuk underwent a rigorous initiation ceremony that included balancing on swords to show the evil spirits his strength. Today, he couldn’t be happier.
44-year-old shaman who goes by Mu-gyuk.
“People say bad things about us [mudangs],” he reflected. “But we’ve managed to regain our popularity in Korea. I think people can see most of us want to help.” (He warned this correspondent of bad luck should he write stories about communist North Korea.)
Indeed, South Koreans are seeing a resurgence in interest in shamanism following decades of squeamish stereotypes, like those I encountered. That’s thanks to a wave of attention from popular culture — and to an economic crisis that has left jobless Korean youngsters in need of ancestral blessings and fortune readings.
After the Korean War, some scholars argued Korea’s indigenous religions would die out as the country entered a period of rapid modernization. Since the 1960s, the country has leaped from being one of the poorest in the world to a powerhouse of skyscrapers and Samsung gadgets. Mudangs were seen as backwards, and because of this, presidents tried to eliminate the craft until the 1980s.
As Korea’s cities sprouted up throughout those years, migrants from the countryside sought opportunities in Seoul. The mudangs, who wanted to keep their clientele, followed them — and today, most shamans can be found in cities, contrary to a stereotype among some foreigners.
Today, however, mudangs are living in a different Korea, and they’ve found ways to fuse their ancient customs with their modern surroundings. It’s old meets new. Mudangs, for example, can pick the gods they worship among thousands — which, in addition to indigenous Korean gods, can include Jesus, Buddha, and oddly even former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee.