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Pop culture and an economic crisis have helped put shamanism back on the map.
Strangely, in the 1970s, under a pro-American government, some mudangs embraced General Douglas MacArthur as their deity, throwing on sunglasses and smoking a pipe to resemble him when they channeled his spirit.
Aside from that short-lived fad, shamanism isn’t funny business in Korea.
“Koreans take shamans' advice seriously,” said Kim Seong-nae, a professor of religion at Sogang University in Seoul, pointing out that mudism (the mudang belief system) is more a cultural custom than a religion like Christianity or Buddhism. “Most contemporary Koreans do not fear shamans or mudangs, but instead rely heavily on their counseling for significant life decisions such as birth, marriage, house moving, success, business and politics.”
To advise their clients, mudangs — most of whom are women — oversee religious ceremonies called kut, during which they bang loudly on cymbals to call spirits for guidance. Most charge between $20 and $80 for fortune-tellings; shadier shamans have been known to warn their clients of their impending death, then demand thousands of dollars to convince the spirits they should live.
Today, seeing a mudang is a practice is so widespread that even politicians consult mudangs, sometimes asking where they should relocate their ancestors’ remains to ensure good luck in their next election.
But with Asia’s largest population of evangelical Christians, the recent growth of mudism has sparked some uneasiness, too. “Mudangs’ activities come from ghosts who are the puppets of Satan,” said Park Young-mo, a Christian pastor in Seoul. “Their resurgence is thanks to young people who are having an identity crisis,” he added, pointing to teenagers experimenting with the art.
But critics of that stance point out that most Koreans, regardless of their religion, perform rites for their ancestors in a manner similar to some mudang ceremonies. David Kwang-sun Seo, a Protestant theologian, argues that Korean Protestantism itself draws heavily on pre-Christian customs like mudism.
In South Korea’s version of Protestantism, he says, Koreans often interpret “receiving” the Holy Spirit as being literally possessed by it — a striking resemblance to mudangs, who also claim to be possessed by spirits. Therefore, he claims, Korean Protestants should take a more nuanced stance to their traditional ways.
For Mu-gyuk, the growing tolerance of mudangs in pop culture is good news, despite harking by skeptics. He’s particularly fond of a Korean reality TV show called "Exorcist," in which the crew follows a mudang on her daily works. “With the pop culture references, Koreans are starting to like mudangs again,” he ponders. “I don’t think old ways could really ever die.”