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Amid pressures of daily life, more Koreans revive interest in shamanism

Shamanism, also known as Muism, hasn't always been accepted in Korea, and some still view practitioners skeptically. Still, many modern Koreans are turning to the indigenous practice for guidance. 

By Jason StrotherContributor / August 16, 2012

South Korean shaman Lee Soon-ae performs prayers during a shipboard ceremony intended to exorcise the demons that threaten fishermen and bring good luck to everybody on board, off Incheon, west of Seoul, on June 24. Though an ancient practice, Korean shamanism - in which singing and dancing are used in trance rituals addressed to specific gods, often to get an answer to specific questions - had long been suppressed in Asia's second most Christian nation.

Choi Dae-woong/Reuters/File

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Seoul, South Korea

The banging of drums, crashing of cymbals and blaring of a horn echo down the slope of Samgak Mountain. They’re coming from a shaman’s temple, where a goot, a spiritual rite, is underway.
 
The predominant religions in South Korea are the traditional Buddhist faith and a large Christian population, though a large segment of the population is not religious. Still, many are believers in an animistic spirituality that goes back thousands of years.

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Shamanism is the indigenous faith of the Korean people, and although it has been diminished by centuries of influence from other religions and some repression, it is still intertwined with daily life among religious and nonreligious populations alike. And due to the pressures caused by the nation’s rapid development, many Koreans are turning to shamanism for guidance from the spirit world.  

At the center of one of the temple’s rooms is a man wearing a tall hat and draped in a multi-layered red, blue, and white robe. He spins in circles, waving silk flags in one hand, a sword in another.
 
He is a mudang, a shaman priest. He carries on a tradition that is one of the most essential aspects of Korean culture.
 
“I help make people’s dreams come true,” says Tae Eul, the mudang who leads the ceremony. “I try to figure out how the energy of the universe flows through then, the gods show the way. If god commands that their problem can be solved through a goot, I will perform a goot for them.”
 
Tae Eul is helping a woman who has fallen on some tough financial times. He has her light candles and bow in front of an altar. He summons the gods of the mountain and sky and calls out to her ancestors. At one point during the ritual, Tae Eul stands barefoot on knife blades, which somehow do not puncture his skin.
 
Some observers say an intrinsic search for spiritually divined good luck is what keeps South Korea’s 50 thousand mudangs in business. That’s according to David Mason, author of Sacred Mountains, a book on Korean shamanism. 
 
“It seems to me that many Koreans are still shamanic believers at their core, underneath. Many scholars have used this analogy, like an onion, with shamanism at the core of their psychology and then layers of Buddhism or Confucianism, then Christianity and modern scientific thinking as the outer layers,” Mr. Mason says.
 
Shamans haven’t always had a good reputation.  During the 1970s the country's government tried to get rid of shamanism, and some Koreans view practitioners skeptically and write them off as con artists. But, Tae Eul says he sees a brighter future for mudangs like himself.
 
 “Our lives will become increasingly fast paced in the future,” he says.  “I think shamans will once again be treated with respect. We can predict the future and because of that people will appreciate us more.”

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