Modern South Korea's Spiritual Core

Bowls of fruit are laid out on the altar. There are also bottles of whiskey and a meter-high stack of Marlboro cigarette cartons. With a grin, Korean shaman Tae Eul says his gods like to drink and smoke.

Despite South Korea’s worship of smartphones and the latest cars, many believe in an ancient, animistic spirituality. Shamanism is the indigenous faith of the Korean people and despite centuries of influence from other religions, it still appears in many aspects of modern life there. At the center of Korean shamanism is the mudang, or shaman, the medium between the material and spirit world.

“People hear about me through word of mouth,” Eul explained from inside his temple on the slopes of Korea’s Mt. Samgak. “I try to figure out how the energy of the universe flows through, then the gods show the way,” he says.

Even his name, Eul says, was divined from the gods when he first visited the mountain to pray for his health. Eul was working in the entertainment industry at the time, but after discovering his connection to the gods he now devotes himself entirely to his work as a shaman.

“If god commands that their problem can be solved through ceremony, I will perform one for them,” he says of his clients. “I make their dreams come true.” The 38-year-old shaman says that even if he wanted to stop being a mudang, he couldn’t -- the spirits control him now.

Inside his mountain temple, a robed Eul asks a Korean woman to light candles and bow in front of an altar as he summons the gods of the mountain and sky and calls out to her ancestors. Amid the crashing of cymbals and the blaring of a horn, Tae Eul stands barefoot on knife blades that somehow do not puncture his skin. He spins in circles waving a sword in one hand and a silk scarf in the other.

After the ceremony is complete, Tae Eul says his client will be fine. The gods have opened a door for her to solve her financial problems, he says, and will make sure she’ll spend her money more wisely and have a luckier future.

The charismatic mudang also invites clients back to his apartment in Seoul where one of his rooms has been converted into a shamanic shrine. The room is decorated with banners depicting the gods of the mountain.

At the beginning of all fortune readings, Eul shakes a bell and then stirs a small bowl of uncooked rice with a spoon and then lets go of it. If the spoon stands straight up, that means the spirits are ready and the fortune telling begins. Tae Eul says that says many of his clients are not necessarily believers in shamanism. Some are often devoutly religious in other faiths.

“I’ve had Christian ministers come to me for help. Although after they solve their problem, they don’t usually come again,” he says, adding that Catholics also visit him, but often feel they have sinned after the ceremonies he performs.

In Korea, religious beliefs are not always mutually exclusive. For example, a mother might pray at a church, then a Buddhist temple, and then visit a mudang all in hope of bringing good luck to her family.

It’s this intrinsic search for spiritually divined good luck that keeps the nation’s 50,000 mudangs in business, says 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,” Mason says. “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.”

However, Mason says that over the years, mudangs have gotten a bad rap. Some Koreans view them as con artists or just relics of the superstitious past. Tae Eul says he sees a brighter future for mudangs like himself.

“Our lives will become even more fast paced in the future. I think shamans will once again be treated with respect,” he says.

With life in modern Korean such hard work, he says, people need help.

“We can predict the future,” he says, “And because of that people will appreciate us more.”

(This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.)