Dancing on Knives: An Introduction to Korean Shamanism

by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Editors Note:  This is part of our on-going series which explores indigenous knowledge and traditions from the perspective of ancient and current life practices and beliefs of peoples from all over the planet. Part of the mission of the Cuyamungue Institute is to look to the ancient ways of the world’s wisdom traditions to understand not only indigenous spiritual traditions but ourselves and which also helps us put the work of the Institute in perspective.


In using the term “Korean Shamanism” throughout this paper, I am referring to what is generally known as the northern tradition, which involves possession sickness and is practiced predominantly by women. Men also practice Shamanism in Korea (they are more prevalent on Cheju Island — see Lee 1981), and there exists another tradition in which the shaman role is inherited, but these issues are tangental to the main focus of my paper, and I will only address them peripherally. Thus, when speaking of shamanism, I will be referring to the northern tradition as practiced by women unless I specifically state otherwise.

What follows is a more general discussion of Korean Shamanism and its role in establishing power and autonomy in women. Other contemporary writers have discussed Korean Shamanism as a response to sexual repression, as role reversal (Canda 1983, Lee 1981), as a deterioration of public ritual to domestic ritual (Lee 1981), and as folk existentialism (Chang 1982). Harvey (1979), Lee (1981), and Kendall (1985) have discussed the issues most comprehensively. All of the writers mentioned above would agree that Shamanism is a powerful force in Korean culture. By examining selected historical, economic, symbolic, and kinship issues, I will show how, through its intricate structure, Korean Shamanism is a cultural institution that provides a supportive context for the expression of women’s han (grievance, grudge, spite, unfulfilled desire, regret) as well as their every-day concerns, a context which creates for them a private solidarity and autonomy not permitted them in the public, Confucian arena. (5)

A Brief Overview of Traditions
Korea has been, and continues to be, a country with dynamic religious traditions. A thorough religious history would provide valuable insights on the nature of Shamanism, but even a general overview is beyond the scope of this paper. Since this paper is concerned with Shamanism as a women’s tradition, it will suffice to briefly gloss the history of Korean Shamanism and its relation to the other major religions.

Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of shamanistic rituals as early as in the bronze age (Lee 1981:2-3); some writers like Covell (1981), who do not distinguish between Shamanism and animism, go so far as to say that Shamanism antedates all historical records and has its origins in the paleolithic. Kendall gives the general framework in which Shamanism is considered by most modern scholars: Historical chronicles of the early Korean Three Kingdoms speak of lavish state-sponsored shaman rituals and “shamanistic” warrior cults. Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient kings–or perhaps ancient queens–wielded shamanic powers. A number of Korean scholars consider present-day shamans the heirs of this bygone era, their influence diluted by infusions of Buddhism from the sixth and seventh century and Neo-Confucianism most emphatically from the fifteenth century (36; for further discussion about current scholarly interpretations from various disciplines, see 34-38).

What is important here is that there are written accounts of shamanistic practices that suggest its presence in Korea’s formative times. The historical chronicles Kendall mentions are the Samguk-yusa (late thirteenth century) and the Samguk-sagi (twelfth century). The Samguk-sagi makes reference to a king of Koguryo who ruled between 19 B.C. and 18 A.D. who was healed by a shaman (Kim 15). Since contemporary shamanism incorporates the iconography of Buddhism, Taoism, animism, and Confucianism (and arguably even Christianity), it is clear that Shamanism is a dynamic and eclectic tradition that has adapted to the different religions around it.

Buddhism was officially introduced to Korea by the Chinese in 372 A.D. and by the first half of the sixth century, had spread throughout Korea (for a more thorough discussion see Kim 16ff). Taoism according to Lee (1981:25) began to influence the indigenous Shinkyo (animism) and Shamanism at about the seventh century. Whereas the four early traditions coexisted and intermingled without much conflict, the introduction of Confucianism with the Yi Dynasty in the thirteenth century began a long period of religious repression that undermined the political power Buddhism had once wielded and relegated Shamanism, which had been a strong public presence, to the domestic sphere.

There is much unresolved debate about the nature of early Shamanism in Korea, i.e., whether the tradition was at first male-dominated or egalitarian; but whatever the original tradition, it is currently dominated by women and has been for centuries.

Although the first mythical ruler was a male shaman, female shamans were equally prominent in ancient Korea. Records on female shamans first appeared during the early Silla [3rd-10th century A.D.] period. By that time, they had already outnumbered male shamans. Therefore, reference to shamans generally meant female shamans. Those recruited from upper class women were called son’gwan and others were called mudang (Kim 1982:14).

Confucianism was able to reduce its power and change its context, but Shamanism continued as a strong tradition because of its appeal to women’s needs. Confucian ritual is a completely male-dominated and male-centered display of filial piety; the central rite, chesa, focuses on the worship of patrilineal ancestors by male family members while women prepare ceremonial foods and clean up afterwards. Kendall (1985:167) mentions the mother of two bashful adolescent sons performing chesa, but it is an extremely rare occurrence that would be frowned upon by righteous men. Buddhism allows women access to its ritual and its institutional structure, thereby expanding the bounds of their social activity, but the higher levels of the Buddhist formal hierarchy are dominated, as in most other religions, by men (Kim 1982:19-22). Shamanism, on the other hand, incorporates symbols from both of these traditions into a woman-centered practice in which women hold positions of authority. Furthermore, it also incorporates Taoist symbols and the older animist symbols which are perhaps the most deep-rooted in Korean culture; but whereas animist and Taoist rituals were often solitary, Shamanism is able to transform its practice into social activity. No wonder, then, that it has persisted to this day.

The incorporation of animist and Taoist symbols (which emphasize son-bearing, health, and longevity) mentioned above also suggests another interesting relationship between Shamanism and Confucianism. In relegating Shamanism to the private sphere and turning it into a women’s tradition, the Confucian order seems to have enforced a nature/culture division. Confucianism explicitly demeans women, and the typical Korean woman “accepts her own devaluation and takes culture’s point of view” (Ortner 1974:76). Men are not the only ones who apply the saying, Namjon yobi (“Man high, woman low”). Shamanism’s ritual context and its concern with domestic and financial security and childbirth, is a religion that is seen as close to nature whereas Confucian ritual is classed as more abstract, focused on the cultural ideas of patrilineage and social hierarchy (see Ortner 1974:77-79).

During the sequential performance of the twelve segments that comprise a typical chaesu kut, more than half of the costumes the mansin wears are male (Lee 31-36). The most interactive and dynamic portions of the kut usually occur during the mansin’s possession by the Pyolsang (spirits of the other world) and the greedy Taegam (the overseer), which require male costumes. This cross-dressing serves several purposes. First, since the mansin is often possessed by both male and female spirits and can thus become an icon of the opposite sex, it is reasonable that she use the attire of both sexes. But in a context in which women are publicly demeaned, where their symbolic value is reduced by strong Confucian ideology, the female mansin’s cross-dressing becomes complex and multi-functional.

In semiotic terms, the costume is an icon for the person or the spirit it represents. The mansin in the costume assumes the role of that icon, thereby becoming a female signifying a male; she is a cross-sex icon about 75% of the time during a typical kut. In the context of the kut, the mansin is a sexually liminal being; by signifying a man, she not only has access to the male authority in the Confucian order, she provides the female audience an opportunity to interact with that authority in ways that would, in a public context, be unthinkable. Her performance is often a parody of the male authority figures; she often makes off-color jokes and ribald comments, and argues with the audience. During one of the colorful moments of the chaesu kut held for the 1985 Summer Seminar, Yongsu’s Mother, as the Taegam spirit, held a folded fan between her legs as if it were a huge penis and jerked it back and forth at us as she made a series of lewd expressions much to the amusement of the Koreans (and to the shock of some of the Americans). She ridiculed the men present by comparing their penises to her little finger which she peered at as if it were microscopic. The mansin turned the Confucian elevation of maleness (the penis) and public power (what the penis signifies) into a joke, suggesting that she, a lower-class woman, could have a larger penis (more power) than the men in the room (including the Fulbright Director, who in Confucian terms, wielded substantial power); but at the same time, this enactment emphasized the importance of the very thing it parodied.

Later, while she played the chango drum and the Second mansin became possessed by her husband’s spirit, Yongsu’s mother insulted him, chastised him for having been a poor provider while he was alive, and told him the cigarette she was smoking was her real husband. This incident and the once described above indirectly address an issue that has yet to be adequately studied by anthropologists: Shamanism as a response to sexual repression.

Lee (1981:182-85) sees repression, particularly sexual repression, as the prime factor in the development of shamans, but his analysis of sexual themes in shaman dreams is incomplete and does not attempt to examine the sexual habits of shamans. All his case studies and most of Harvey’s (1979) indicate that at some point in their lives (usually during and after their possession sickness), the female shamans found sexual intercourse with their husbands repulsive or intolerable; most, by that time, had already borne children. Covell (1983) who writes “keeping the tourist-layman market in mind” (Heymann 1984:48) goes as far as to say that “from stories told by Korean men, their idea of sexual satisfaction is the male orgasm, with very little emphasis on the wishes of the partner.” Covell even parallels sexual repression in Korean society with the Arctic Madness of Siberia as the primary causal factors for Shamanism. His assertions are grossly simplistic and remain unsupported in his work, but he does explicitly address the issue of Shamanism and sexual relations. There are documented cases of homosexuality and homosexual tendencies in male shamans (Lee 1981), but no one has thus far studied the sexuality of female shamans. The dialogue between the Second mansin and Yongsu’s Mother presented an interesting symbolism because the Second mansin, whose relationship with Yongsu’s Mother was quite close, was speaking as her husband — i.e., the husband icon was a woman. Mansin can be considered what was formerly termed, in archaic anthropological diction, “secondary deviants,” but one wonders if Shamanism has also functioned as a culturally acceptable social niche in Korea for persons, who in a contemporary Western context, might typically be classed as homosexuals and lesbians.

Another important aspect of the cross-dressing, in semiotic terms, is that in becoming a male icon, the female is not only masculinized, but the male icon is feminized. This distinction may seem moot at first glance, since the two seem to be essentially the same thing, but the double-edged signification of the mansin possessed by male spirits, given the Confucian hierarchy of male above female and the Taoist placement of yang above yin (um), is quite profound. In the first instance, the woman, by signifying man, gains access to male power and authority; in the second, the authority of the male icon is demeaned by expression in a female medium. The difference is as great as that between a phallic woman and an emasculated (or castrated) man in psychoanalytic terms.

The mansin is not the only one given this access to cross-dressing during a kut. When the women participants make their offerings and dance in the shaman’s clothes (mugam), they, too, become double-edged signifiers. They can become men and dance (the Koreans often use the term nolda — “to play”) to exhaustion; they emasculate the male icon and masculinize themselves as much as they are able, achieving a double catharsis. In dancing in the mugam (usually a Yi Dynasty general’s outfit) they are both controlling and being controlled by the oppressor in the presence of enthusiastic, supportive women and a few uneasy, embarrassed men. (6)

Myths and Legends
An important element of the symbolic system in any tradition is the nature of its origin, whether it be fictive or historically documented. Given the low social status of shamans (traditionally one of the classes of social outcasts including butchers, courtesans, and actors), the origin myths concerning shamanism contain a prevalence of images that imply shamans had a higher social status in the past. Five major characteristics of the origin myths discussed by Lee (1981) are as follows:

  1. Shamans are not self-ordained but intermediaries and mediums of a higher spiritual authority (10).
  2. Their origins were among the kings of the past. “In almost all the cases ancestors of mudang [shamans] were princesses who were either mistreated or unfortunate (11).
  3. They are closely related to mountains (11; cf Kendall1985:129, 130).
  4. Initiation is tragic. “In almost all cases the originators of Mudang did so through somewhat unusual experiences which are associated with unfortunate events or tragedies” (11-12).
  5. Women predominate. “In almost all cases it is not men but women who became the ancestors of Mudang. . . . However, in Cheju Island, where there are more male shamans than female shamans, their ancestors are known as men” (12).

Lee ties these aspects of the origin myths into the myth of Korea’s founder, Tan’gun (a man), who was descended of a heavenly father and earthly mother, and who, as a symbol of spiritual and material synthesis, is considered the archetypical shaman (16). “To be a shaman means to be an intermediary to spiritual beings, and to be the intermediary means to be the archetype of mediation” (16). Thus, in tracing its lineage back to ancient royal families, to the mythical demi-god founder of Korea, Shamanism connects itself directly to the great Heavenly King, Hanunim, the highest of all animist gods (16ff). In a country whose major female role-models are derived even today from two narratives about self-sacrificing, chaste, filial women — Simch’ong and Ch’unhyang — the shamans’ origin myths are quite revealing. While the two female protagonists of the Simch’ong Chon and the Ch’unhyang Chon are both low-born women who, through their virtues, gain access to male authority (Simch’ong marries a king, Ch’unhyang marries a man who becomes inspector general) and thereby move up in social status, the origin myths of the shamans suggest the reverse. Since shamans are essentially trapped in their social status once they are initiated, the Simch’ong and Ch’unhyang stories would be antithetical to them; after spending a large part of their lives in the process of becoming shamans, the two role models have nothing to offer them since they are in no position to gain anything by emulating the virtuous women. (7) Better to trace their origins in their own manner since their own attempts to be the ideal Korean women have been failures.

The origin myths suggest that shamanism traces its authority beyond Confucianism to the greatest ancestor of all — Tan’gun and Hanunim; they resonate with the suffering and ostracism faced by shamans before their initiation; they associate shamanism with the old animist beliefs and symbols; and finally, they emphasize women’s roles in the symbolic structure. Not only would these myths validate the tradition and the status of its practitioners in relation to competing or ruling institutions, they suggest that in Shamanism women have simultaneous access to the symbolic structures of all the other traditions.

Kinship and the Public/Private Dichotomy

Confucianism is an extreme example of a social creed that sharply separates the domestic sphere from the public and subordinates the female to the male. Stressing male descent as the most important element of social organization, Confucianism has little to say about women; they are assigned status and duties that carry meaning only in relation to men. Women are pressed into the Confucian stereotype of daughter-in-law, wife, and mother. Their role performance is judged by their degree of compliance and social submission–the standards of womanly virtue (Mattelli 1977:ix).

In the traditional Confucian family, “the woman is conceptually an outsider, brought into the household to provide services that cannot be provided by ‘true’ family members” (Sorensen 1983:64). She did not attain more secure status as a member of her husband’s family until she has produced a son to continue the husband’s lineage; only then, with her duty fulfilled, did she “acquire the privileges and authority of motherhood” (Deuchler 1983:25). Even as a secure member of the husband’s household, the Korean woman retains her natal surname (the surname of her father) while her children take on the name of their father and become his property. The wife remains symbolically an outsider, not only in her husband’s family, but even, to some degree, while in her natal family. As Sorensen notes Korean women “have a marginal status both in their natal and marital households” (64-65).

While in her natal home, an unmarried girl or woman may be called a ch’ulga oein — “an outsider who will leave the household” (Sorensen 1983:64). Korean culture is full of proverbs that demean women. In reference to daughters, one commonly hears such sentiments as, “Why should we spend money and educate her? We’ll just have to pay more to marry her off anyway.” Korean proverbs include examples too numerous to review here, but Tieszen (1983) discusses a selection of them in relation to the attitudes they perpetuate.

Many Korean proverbs reflect the Confucian ethic embodied in the saying “respect man and despise woman.” The married woman’s devaluation as a woman and a wife is accomplished in the proverbs by casting her as a deceitful creature with a potential for causing trouble and bringing bad luck. The unmarried woman is evaluated on the basis of her virginity, and she is admonished to keep quiet and mind her manners. The conflict between the daughter-in-law and her husband’s mother comes through very strongly in the proverbs, as does the preferential treatment of the daughter over the daughter-in-law and the son-in-law over the daughter-in-law (Tieszen 1983:49).

For example, Tieszen interprets the proverb, “Get slapped at the government office; come home and hit your woman,” rather superficially as, “Like kicking the dog after a hard day at the office” (52). This particular proverb illustrates another aspect of the public/private dichotomy; public humiliation and frustration finds vent in private woman-abuse. The term Tieszen translates as “government office” — yong — is homophonous with “ridge” or “high hill” — places which would be publicly visible. Another more contemporary example in common use is: “A Korean woman is like a top; it spins best when you beat it.”

The proverb, “Sell the field to hold a kut and the oldest daughter-in-law dances,” addresses both shamanism and kinship. Tieszen interprets it to mean that “One has an exorcism only in dire situations. The eldest daughter-in-law should have felt the weightiness of the trouble instead of dancing around” (57). This interpretation addresses the first level meaning — chastisement for inappropriate behavior, but the structure of the proverb is quite complex. First, it contrasts two important events and puts them into a cause-and-effect relationship: selling the fields to hold a kut causes the eldest daughter-in-law to dance. Although the proverb does not state what the kut is for (an important detail), the selling of land suggests dire need. The daughter-in-law dancing in this context is rather inappropriate, but within the context of the kut it is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged. The proverb in Confucian context condemns her behavior, but the Shamanistic context condones it. Would it not make sense that the daughter-in-law would participate in such a momentous kut? The eldest daughter-in-law is traditionally the one most oppressed by the husband’s mother. Her dancing the mugam at the kut would, perhaps, be a cathartic release of private frustration and degradation in a more public context — an inversion of the proverb in which the publicly humiliated man beats a woman in private. The kut and her behavior at it undermines Confucian power: land, the prime commodity in its patrilineal inheritance system, is sold to solve a domestic problem; the public, for once, serves the private.

In the Confucian society, which is patrilineal and patrilocal, Shamanism harks back to a time before the introduction of rigid legal codes, when marriage rules were more flexible, divorce and plural marriage common, and residence was matrilocal (Deuchler 1977:8). Kendall (1985) discusses how spirit possession during a kut reinforces kinship ties through females.

Women protect their ritual families by learning from mother-in-law and mansin the care and feeding of powerful gods. But a woman’s concerns sometimes go beyond her ritual family, back to her own natal home and to the households of married daughters. Her gods are kindred spirits extending their influence out across families in all possible directions. In the Korean woman’s ritual realm, neither gods nor ancestors nor ghosts stop short at the boundaries of male-defined kin groups (139-41).

This shows that a woman’s kin network goes beyond the strict Confucian patrilineality. “The influence of a the wife’s dead kin may even exceed that of her husband’s” (159-60). But while a shaman ceremony may acknowledge and reiterate a woman’s ties to her dead kin, it also “reaffirms bonds between a woman and her living kin. Like natal ancestors, living mothers, sisters, brothers, and brothers’ wives gather when a woman holds a kut in her husband’s home” (160). Thus, the kut provides a context for reinforcing the ties between two lineage systems and kin groups — the Confucian patrilineal network and the network traced through her natal kin. Both the living and dead in either group can appear at a kut, thus reinforcing a much wider network of family ties. For example, a woman (e.g., a Kim, whether she be a shaman or a participant at a kut) who is possessed by the spirit of her husband’s dead father (e.g., a Lee) would, by becoming a double icon (i.e., the natal name Kim inhabited by a Lee), be symbolically elevated beyond her normal outsider status. By association with the husband’s male lineage, she may be more firmly established in his kin group.

Economic Factors
Kim (1982:129-32) notes that official Yi Dynasty policies against the practice of shamanism were not only unsuccessful, but in practice allowed for institutionalized, official shamans who often served the Royal Family; in fact, the government even resorted to taxing shaman rituals, thus acknowledging (and benefiting from) their economic significance.

The economics of present-day shamanism in Korea would be difficult to study because most of the transactions involved occur in the domestic sphere and are invisible to traditional measures of economic activity. However, the case studies in Harvey (1979) and Kim (1983) indicate economic factors are an important aspect of the development of shamans.

Namsan-mansin’s husband is an unemployed contractor with a history of failed business ventures; he spends his days socializing with his friends, doing housework, and taking care of the children (Harvey 1979:41ff). P’yongyang-mansin’s husband is also unemployed, but conducts small cottage industries that provide a nominal, but not substantial, income (89). Ttongkkol-mansin’s husband “appears to be in good health, but he does nothing resembling work about the house;” he asks her for money when he goes out (132). Wangshimni-mansin’s husband had a failing grain business, and she found her income from her own shaman work more secure (19-35). In the case of Deaconess Change, she lacks an income-generating job since her conversion to Christianity (210), but during parts of her career as a shaman, “she was able to support the family on her income alone” (227). Kim’s case history of Pak Myong-sun mentions her husband’s bankruptcy (1983:10).

Kendall (1985) includes a brief discussion the financial aspects of a shaman ritual and how conflicts between co-working shamans can be based on money, but none of the other writers discusses such matters. The fee for the chaesu kut held for the Fulbright Summer Seminar was approximately 600,000 won (about $650.00 U.S.). Deducting the cost of food preparation for the seminar participants and others who had dinner at the shaman’s house as well as the expense of preparing the special foods used as offerings, this amount was substantial compared to the $400.00 average monthly wage of a typical middle class Korean salaryman. But the event took days of preparation and the money after preparation costs was divided among the three shamans and their assistants. It is difficult to estimate how much the net profit came to, but the mansin who oversaw the ritual was evidently doing well because her house was the most modern and prosperous in her small neighborhood.

In most cases, the established shamans, if married, are the ones who support their families. Some of the shamans interviewed by Harvey explained their husbands’ financial failures as being a sign directing their wives to the practice of shamanism. One of the husbands explicitly mentioned the popular Korean belief that shamans’ husbands are fated to be unemployed.What the above discussion basically shows is that, despite other factors involved, shamanism is one means by which a woman can provide for herself and her family without relying on the income of her husband. Often her work entails supporting a husband who cannot or does not earn an adequate income himself; ironically, the popular sentiment about shamans’ husbands (which even the shamans state) can give them a perfect rationalization for exploiting their wives’ labor.


Korean Shamanism is a complex, deeply-rooted tradition intricately and uniquely adapted to its culture and society. While some contemporary Korean authorities (particularly the men in the militaristic government) see Shamanism as a national embarrassment, a tradition of ignorance and superstition impeding the modernization of a developing country, others consider it a symbol of indigenous Korean culture and would like to preserve it as a valuable part of folk tradition. Still others, especially women, would let it continue and study it as a form of cultural introspection.

I have discussed how Korean Shamanism provides women with more autonomy, reinforces their natal kinship bonds, works as a cathartic mechanism, and generally creates an atmosphere of private solidarity among those whose public power is marginal at best; for the women who is the shaman, it provides a culturally sanctioned and economically productive outlet for behaviors that would be considered deviant by the society. The social order also ultimately benefits from Shamanism because while it transgresses rules of propriety and often criticizes the ruling class, thus providing a much needed outlet of expression for the oppressed, it also reinforces the very values that perpetuate that ruling class. Shamanism has basically existed in a context that made it a tolerable mehcanism for cultural homeostasis; because of its limited power, it has never truly threatened the Korean social structure. With competition from new religious traditions (particularly the recent success of Protestantism) that provide for some of the same needs, Shamanism, despite its tenacity, may not survive for more than a few more generations; a tradition not only catering to, but controlled by, women may once again be displaced by those who submit to a system of hierarchical male authority.

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1 Covell isn’t exactly a reputable scholar in academic circles. I use this quote with some ironic intent here.
2 Like Kendall (1985) and others, I will use the term mansin (literally “ten thousand spirits”) to refer to specific shamans. The more common term, mudang, is often used in a derogatory context (for an etymology of the term, see Lee 1981:2-5). Shamans usually refer to themselves as mansin.
3 “Yongsu’s Mother” is the name Kendall (1985) uses in her own book. Since she has already established this name for this particular shaman, I find it appropriate to use it here.
4 While all 19 participants of the Seminar attended the kut, eight of the ten men left early to wait in the bus. Interestingly, the two men who stayed for the duration of the performance were both from the South; one of them was the only Black participant of the Seminar. In later evaluations of the event, the women were overwhelmingly positive (some said it was the most important aspect of the Seminar) whereas the men (with few exceptions) thought the kut was a waste of time and money. In short, positive and negative responses were divided along sex lines.
5 In a sense, the kut involves the transference of the han of the living to the dead. The dead thus bear the suffering of the living although it seems the living are alleviating the suffering of the dead.
6 Interestingly, rights to dancing the mugam must be purchased by making an offering — it is access to symbolic male privilege with a price.
7 See the story of the honest shaman discussed in Wilson 1983:113ff.