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Dionysus in Seoul:

notes from the field on a shaman ritual in Korea

 by Eleanor King



For thousands of years shamanism has been a primary religious force in Korea. It continues to be of importance today. In seven months' study of Korea's traditional dance forms—court dance, Buddhist monk's dance, farmers' dance, masked dance-drama—none was so fascinating to me or seemed so richly devel­oped as the shaman dance.


Shamanism, Eliade tells us, is a "technique of ecstacy" (1964:4) and "the ecstatic experience 'a primary phenomenon' ... in the human condition, and hence known to the whole of archaic hu­manity" (1964:504). The shaman is literally the medium who brings the spirits—the gods, the ancestors, the ghosts—from the supernatural world to man. The early religion of northern Asia and Europe, shamanism also exists among the Eskimos, North and South American Indians, in Oceania, and wherever the spir­its respond to shaman rites. Shamans are those who experience the sacred with greater intensity than the rest of the community—those who . . . incarnate the sacred, because they live it abundantly, or rather "are lived" by the religious "form" that has chosen them (gods, spirits, ancestors, etc.), {Eliade 1964:32).

In Korea, a female shaman is a mudang; a male shaman is a paksu or a paksu mudang. In direct address, however, one uses a more polite term, mansin, literally "ten thousand spirits" (Ken­dall 1977:9).

The Korean kut (shaman ritual) is a "positive ritual . . . origi­nally aimed at bringing about good luck or happiness" (Ryu 1973:13). Further, according to Ryu, the kut symbolizes the ab­original world of oneness—the mythical "world before sacred de­ities and profane man were divided, and before the Yang and the Yin (the cosmic dual forces) were separated from each other" (1973:14). A full kut has twelve kori (sections), each with its spe­cific purpose, costume, properties, music, symbolic actions, and dance. Occasionally there may be as many as twenty-four kori lasting many days and nights. The general pattern of a kut begins with an invitation to the gods to descend; then they are enter­tained with feasting, singing, dancing, and playfulness; and fi­nally they are returned to the other world.

The pantheon of spirits worshipped by Korean shamans in- eludes the spirits of heaven (especially Buddhist and Taoist saints); the Sun, Moon, and Seven Stars; the Earth, the Mountain Spirit (iconographically, this is usually an old man sitting under a pine tree with a tiger curled about his feet); Water (Dragon), Fire, Wind, Tree, House, Gate, and Road spirits; the gods of birth, agriculture, disease, and the ten gods of hell; and a few earthly kings, queens, princesses, commanding generals and their wives (Kim 1972:22). The shaman serves the welfare of the people from their birth to death. A song about the Samsin {Grandmother Spirit), protectress of women in childbirth, goes:

Sitting three thousand li,2 standing three thousand li; the spiritual world, ten thousand li, the whole earth.... The Samsin considers the position of the peo­ple. The spiritual, famous, Samsin she is. The rainbow is her feet coming down, coming down on frost feet, coming down on cloud feet and going up again.

Truly children are always born because of the Samsin. (translated by Kinsler 1976: Appendix A38).

If at birth a child's fate3 indicates that it will have difficulty reaching adulthood, the mother or grandmother may present the infant's name and birthdate on a piece of cloth to the mu-dang who becomes its adoptive spirit mother. The mudang is consulted about matters of health, fortune, family crises, troubled relationships, and moving to another area. A shaman has the power to exorcise a sickness-causing spirit. At death, the mudang conducts the soul on its hazardous journey through hell (Lee 1977). On behalf of her clients, the mudang suppli­cates, bargains with, and obeys the commands of her possessing spirits. She scolds, teases, comforts, weeps with, and prays for her clients.

Transvestism is often found in Korean shamanism: a paksu's tutelary spirit is female, and he wears women's dress; a mudang's spiritual guardian is usually masculine, and she may wear the garments of a general—a typical Yin-Yang alternation. Shaman costumes comprise many richly colored skirts, jackets, long-sleeved coats, always a head covering, sometimes a flowered wig, tall red hats with feathers or small helmets with bead chains as formerly worn by Korean generals. Incorporated into the dance are complementary motions of huge wide sleeves, scarves, wands, a large fan, clusters of bells, pairs of knives and swords, tridents and scimitars graduated in scale from small to huge. As with the bacchantes of ancient Greece, animal offerings are danced with—a means of sharing with the spirits. A pig's head is a stan­dard kut offering. Sometimes a whole pig is strapped to the dancing shaman's back, or the head of an ox is tied to the mudang's head.

For divination purposes, shamans use rice, coins, flags of five basic colors {green, red white, blue, yellow); the shaman's principal instruments are bells, and a bow and arrow. One remarkable accomplishment is to make an unsupported iron trident stand upright and to remain balanced with meat offerings hooked onto it. The supreme feat is the shaman's dance on knife blades high above the ground. Sometimes a shaman runs through the Spirit Path (a length of white cloth about two feet wide), splitting it apart as she does so, to symbolize her triumphant journey through hell on the soul's behalf.

The shaman's role as intermediary between man and the spirit world requires an altered state of consciousness. This is achieved by various means; one of the principal means for attaining this altered state is through dance, and the stimulation of repetitive drum beatir and cymbal clashing. An ecstatic level—when the material body transcends itself and be comes light—is easily reached through the euphoric power of rhythm. All types of damj have some degree of ecstasy, but in general Korean dance manifests a highly ecstatic—in \ joyous sense—quality. To me the shaman dance seems to epitomize the spirit (ethos) Korea, Dance is also entertainment wanted and enjoyed by the visiting spirits. In the mugam kori, which occurs in a full-length kut, clients may also partake of the releasing joy of movement. Individually encouraged by the shaman who chooses appropriate costumes and helps dress each one, clients imitate the medium's gestures and actions.

Of greatest interest to this dance observer are the dance movements performed in kut. Limited space before the home altar leaves the shaman soloist with two possible directions: she can jump repeatedly into the air (as is done for long periods of time), or she can whirl about in the space of one mat.4 Female shamans turn to the left, males to the right; both reverse directions to unwind.

From the ecstasy of turning and jumping, the shaman passes into the tranced state with the receptive body slanting backward, eyes closed and sometimes fluttering, then the right shoul­der, followed by the whole extended arm and hand, trembling. Possession by the spirit soon follows, with the shaman speaking, praying, singing in altered voice. This may go on for a long time. Although the shaman in trance exhibits extraordinary behavior, shamans never completely surrender their powers of self-control. This element of self-control, conforming to cultural expectation of trance behavior, distinguishes shaman trance from the psychotic's un­predictable and involuntary behavior (cf. Eliade 1964:30).

I had been told by Japanese dancers that Koreans are the best dancers in Asia. My first and strongest impression of them was that, in contrast to the form-loving, restrained (as if Apol­lonian) Japanese, the Koreans are the Dionysians of Asia. Orgiastic scenes have come down to us in Greek poetry, vase painting, sculpture, and in "The Bacchae" of Euripides, for Diony­sus is the great god who gives the elixir of life with the shadowing knowledge of the power of death. We shall see how the shaman's ecstasy sometimes parallels that of the bacchantes.

I was fortunate to attend a kut in Seoul, an unusual three-day kut at Halrnoni ("Grand­mother") Chan's house in Imun-dong, Seoul, May 11-13, 1977. Traditionally, about once a decade a shaman honors his or her spirits with a great ceremony. Chon was now seventy, so this in all likelihood would be her farewell to her spirits. A well known, highly respected shaman, Chon is small boned, compact of body, with keen eyes in a lively face. Her home is a medium-size Korean house with a half-dozen rooms and an open courtyard. She has a large clientele, some of them moderately wealthy. When we arrive the rooms are filled with mature or older women, dressed in their best, looking like flowers in their full Korean skirts. A few men, a few children, and other guests crowd into the three rooms opening onto the important space containing two altars. Strung across the ceiling are bright banners of five basic colors; paintings of mostly female shaman deities line the wall above the side altar, which is decked with a series of hanging brass gongs, a mirror, and multiple bowls of fruits, vegetables, and rice cakes.

At two-thirty in the afternoon Halmoni, robed in a green coat with rainbow-banded sleeves, holds up the mirror and waves it over the changgo (large hourglass-shaped drum). She revolves to the left, extending her right hand, circles her arm, and turns again. She directs the drummer and chegum (cymbal) players by lifting and lowering her shoulders, and swing­ing her arms up and down. She moves to the farther altar, returning with a packet. Smiling, she rubs her palms together, then puts on four rings, necklaces, and a large jade pin which is thrust through the little knot of hair at her nape. After setting a small gold crown on her head, she begins to dance with lifted fan and the pangul (bells). On top of the drum she inverts a kkwaenggwari (small gong) and puts a rice bowl in it, then strikes the brass bowl. She places silver bowls of melons, vegetables, rice cakes, and apples on the altar and bows deeply. She sips makkoli (rice wine), then sings in a soft voice. A strikingly beautiful assisting rnudang, Pak Mansin, helps Chon pass food from the altar onto papers and to the guests, both of them laughing. Accompanied now by the rasp of the haegum (two-stringed fiddle), Chon sings a number of short songs. Seven assisting women pass frilly cellophane bags to each guest to hold the fruits. The music becomes louder; Chon sips tnakkoli, then waves her folded green coat over the altar; she takes some brocade pouches from the wall, dances with them, at­taches them to her belt. Smiling, she collects money from the clients, stuffs it into the pouches, and whirls six times. The gift giving continues: each guest receives a commemora­tive towel with Chon's name and the date imprinted in blue. After turning ten times with the cup of wine on her head, she drinks, draining the cup, and wipes her face.

Pak playfully beats the attending paksu (who is Chon's son) on the head with the drum beater as a cue for him to take over the drumming. Chon dons the Buddhist-derived white long-sleeved robe and triangular peaked hat to dance with scarves and a large white fan the Pulsa Maji (worship of the Heavenly Buddhist Spirit, the Sun, Moon, and Seven Stars). Whenever she stops turning and leans backward, an assistant or two come to support her. After dancing with two cymbals as Buddhist monks do, she steps and hops around the large covered water jug on the floor, she balances with her two bare feet on the rim and bows to the spirits in the cardinal directions. After a bit her body falls backward. Two assistants close in around her and support her hips. Her right shoulder quivers, the closed eyelids flutter, her raised arm begins to tremble. She whispers for a long time, then sings. Now the clients crowd around her, first placing their won (Korean money) notes on the altar, rubbing their palms together in a gesture of supplication and gratitude as she addresses them individually. Repeat­edly they bow deeply, their knees and hands to the floor and their heads touching the floor in the ultimate gesture of respect.

For the next kori, Halmoni changes to a handsome blue coat, enhanced with a magnifi­cently embroidered stole, and flowered hat, to dance with the cluster of bells and scarves, then the largest trident and scimitar, pointing their tips in front of her, then at her shoulder blades and hips, while turning.

Now it is the paksu's turn to dance in honor of the Mountain Spirit. While Chon's possess­ing spirit is that of General Ch'oe Yong, her son's is that of an aristocratic woman. Like all paksu, he wears a woman's undergarments and a woman's socks with turned up toes. He wears a red robe and a tall red hat with peacock feathers. To an accelerating tempo, the paksu starts jingling the bells in one hand; both shoulders move up and down, he jumps and turns fifty-three times, waving his fan in and out. Holding wands so that the tips are at his back, he whirls twenty-four times, swinging his arms up and down. He tosses the contents of a cup of makkoli toward the altar and spins thirty times, with eyes closed, shrugging his shoulders. After wiping his face with a towel, he dances through the rooms, crossing the wands in front and in back. The drum rhythm slows to a one-to-three-rest in a four-beat measure. He re­volves with arms out, wrists relaxed and eyes closed, flourishing in succession the wands, the fan, and the scarves. He sings to a palm-rubbing client, and gives oracles to the others. This kori lasts two hours.

A reluctant young man is then dressed in the same robes which Chon wore for her opening kori, and brought to the altar. Three times he bows, hands and knees on the floor, culminat­ing with his forehead resting on the floor. In time to the strong four-four rhythm of p'iri (double-reed pipe), cymbals and drum, Chon lifts one of the client's arms, then the other. The client's wife also tries to get him to dance. While his arms gradually pick up the rhythm, his body remains stiff. Finally he bows again in the same manner as before. Chon removes the coat she is wearing and swings it twice over his back; this ceremony of blessing has come to an end.

Now that the spirits have arrived, the final kori of this first afternoon is a kind of vaudeville entertainment performed by the vivacious Pak. She jumps and turns holding pink baby clothes, and bounces altar cakes into the basket on top of her head. With a fold of hemp (the cloth worn for funerals) she plucks three threads, holds them in her mouth to make a cat's cradle, a knot, and a square. She mimes making up her face, holding a rice cake as a mirror, and cleans her teeth with the drum beater over the upturned gong. Pretending to make her clothes fit, she nibbles at the panels of her coat. Holding a walking stick, tied with hemp at the top, she burlesques the walk of a yangban (nobleman); she bounces, swings herself off the ground, suddenly sits, drinks, offers a cup to the drummer, and smokes. She mimics the old, the greedy, the lame, the inebriate, to the clients' appreciative laughter. Her physical and verbal characterizations at top speed are extraordinary, as is her two-hour endurance.

The second day's events will bring us closer to Dionysus but first in the morning is the generally happy time when clients and guests individually participate in dancing shaman dance. The mugam kori begins with bestowal of a thousand-won note (about two U.S. dol­lars) on top of the altar rice cakes or wherever there is room. Chon and her assistants select the costume from Chon's seemingly inexhaustible wardrobe, dress a client, encourage the drummer and support the performer, talking, laughing, initially swinging her arms to start one dancer off. Invariably the dance begins with three bows to the altar, rubbing the palms, flinging up a single sleeve, then both; the client steps and hops, repeatedly turns and jumps upward into the air. The drummer's young sister jumped continuously to 236 bars of an eight-beat rhythm—1,388 times.

Accepted as a guest of honor because I came accompanied by Dr. Lee and Laurel Kendall, I am urged to participate in the mugam. They insist on dressing me in a red coat with the long white sleeves, embroidered girdle, and flowered hat. Like the others, I imitate the shaman, flinging up the sleeves, turning, wafting the fan with streamers, but when I attempt to dance with the iron bells, they are so heavy I quickly put them down. The deafeningly loud vibra­tions in the closed space intensify the impulse to move. The costume helps too, but what is most remarkable is the ongoing support from all the observers. Euphoria fills the air—every Korean loves to dance. Mature, white-haired women who themselves do not dance encour­age the ones dancing, even as they sit sipping makkoli. In the mugam kori one sees the usually restrained Korean womanhood released in joyous movement. Soon the altar is so covered with won notes that Chon begins decorating her person; the green notes make a fringe under her hat brim and protrude from her belt.

Following the mugam kori comes a prolonged interval for rest and communal feasting. Then another visiting mudang of exceptionally refined face, beautifully dressed, donning a general's hat, officiates with small swords and flourishes pairs of knives, with three drummers alternating to keep up with her fast rhythms.

It is with the ensuing ceremonies that we come close to what we know of Dionysian rites. Befitting this great celebration, Chon's bounteous offerings to the spirits include a whole ox, a whole cow, a whole pig and a cooked chicken. At four-thirty the white-skinned ox head is impaled on the tallest trident, which stands unsupported in the courtyard, and won notes are placed on top of it. All the shamans bow before it. Now the paksu prepares himself for the scmg-ta sal kori, tying on a black headband which is stiffened with paper inside, adding a blue coat, embroidered red belt, and military hat. He turns with a hemp-tied stick having some bells at the top; the tempo becomes accelerated; his eyes are closed, his shoulders heave, his whole body vibrates. The animal carcasses, sectioned and piled in deep round bowls before the altar, receive his ministrations: he prods and pushes them with his staff, thrusting his jaws forward rhythmically as he does so. He whirls with the ox head in both hands; he digs with the end of the staff into the pig, swings scarves over the meat, and revolves with wand tips held below his hips. Addressing the altar painting of General Ch'oe Yong, he swings his head in a circle five times, then thrusts the trident into the meat, and works his jaws as if spitting; he dances with the scimitar, lifting and lowering his shoulders, then kisses the blade. He car­ries the scimitar back and forth, then balances it upright and unsupported on a dish placed in the middle of the pig's body. He prays, rubs his palms, lays the scimitar on the flesh, then puts it against the wall. Alternately whirling then thrusting, he sticks successive knives and smaller trident into the pig. To a faster tempo, he flourishes two big swords. He points the two blades at his chin, making a triangle; he spins eleven times with the smallest set of blades before thrusting them into the pig's head. He turns with the cutting blades on which Halmoni will dance next day, and with the flags arid a wand, which he puts on the altar. He pauses to wipe his face; his sleeves are pulled up and tied behind.

The music is deafening. The excited paksu runs through the rooms of the house and out into the empty courtyard, where he quickly dips his hand into a small bowl and smears blood from it over the lower half of his face. He drinks some and spews some. From a nearby plate he pulls off, chews, and gulps down tissues of raw meat; then he runs back to the inside altar where he drinks makkoli. After tying a white band around his head, he turns, hands free.

Now truly Dionysus would be at home here. The paksu secures a slab of carcass with his teeth and whirls with it, running through rooms with it placed on his shoulder. Climactically the body of the whole pig is strapped to his back; he gives it three whirls and the same journey through the house. Women follow mopping up the drops of blood on the floor, which must be kept scrupulously clean.

After a long divination, he speaks to his mother. Because Chon can scarcely expect to live another decade to repeat this great ceremony, he becomes more and more upset and turns away, weeping. All the shamans are crying; exiles, all of them, from North Korea where since 1948 shamanism has been prohibited, they cry for the fate of their divided country as well as for Chon.

The paksu attempts to make the biggest trident stand alone, and fails. Chon, singing and rubbing her palms together, succeeds. With strenuous efforts the paksu, assisted by three strong mudang, hooks the slabs of raw meat onto its prongs. Chon steadies it with both hands, praying rapidly. After a time she releases her hold; the heavy mass balances. She tests it, slapping it sharply three times, and it does not budge. Again the paksu divines for Chon. Now it is she, speaking softly, who comforts him. Openly sobbing, he leaves the room.

With the paksu taking a well earned rest, Pak continues the rites with the offerings, first dancing with one large sword pointed at her throat, another at her navel. Arching into a splendid backbend, she frenziedly shakes her head from side to side. Over her red skirt she adds a green coat and puts on a tall brass-buttoned and streamered hat. After fast jumping, she repeats the backbend. Then holding onto the drum, on her knees, she continues the head shaking, then sings and dances marvelously from kneeling to standing, arms free. She offers pieces of raw meat to the other mudang, dances with a cup of rice grains, and tosses the cup in parabolas without spilling its contents.

By this time two big bowls of cooked meat are brought before the altar. The fine-looking visiting mudang repeats rites with the hemp-tied stick and sets of knives, dances with the bowls of cooked meat, whirls a rib section in the air, then the ox ieg. She succeeds in making the tallest trident stand alone; more slabs of raw meat are hooked onto it; the pig's head is added to the top and as garnish two pig's feet and three dried fishes are placed in the pig's mouth. The clients gather around offering their won, which she tucks behind the pig's ears and on top of its head. For a few seconds the whole mass balances, then it begins to wobble. As she prays and sings to it, the assisting shamans press close. It takes the power of Chon, the "old master," to make it steady again. Kim, a sober-faced shaman, dances next with big brass or aluminum bowls containing cooked and uncooked meat. After rice wine is ladled around the trident, it is dismantled. Chon sings a soft benediction to the flesh offerings, staggers a little when leaving, balances herself and laughs.

On the climactic third afternoon, the scene shifts to the open courtyard. The candle, food, flowers, and sacred sharnan paintings, now of mostly masculine deities, are arranged on and above a table on the porch. A large oil drum supporting a small table with a covered bowl on top awaits Halmoni's knife-walking event. Twenty-seven of Chon's brilliantly colored silk costumes hanging on a line make a vivid background.

In her green coat with rainbow-banded sleeves, Halmoni begins telling fortunes, offering {for a donation) each client a choice from the stick ends of the five rolled-up flags. Red is the most auspicious color. An unfortunate girl who selected a flag which turned out to be yellow is directed by Chon to light incense at the altar, for yellow means the ascendancy of restless ancestors.

With a change to a black coat and hat, Chon dances energetically, sometimes with eyes closed, sometimes arching backward, sometimes jumping and kicking her left foot forward. She performs with the progressively larger sets of knives, ending with the two biggest swords, which she elevates and crosses. Then she bows twice to the north,

After this prelude, Halmoni dons the elaborate beribboned, brass-studded coat and helmet of her guardian spirit, General Ch'oe Yong, and tests the two straw-cutting blades against her wrist and her cheek; she runs her tongue down the blade, licking her lips, and swallowing. She presses the blades vertically, then diagonally across her face and under her chin; she cuts at her wrist, twice cuts her arm, reacting to the cuts, though no blood appears. She cuts into the wooden table with the knives, holds them in her teeth, turns about, and leans back; circles with them three times, then dances and sings, hands free. It was impossible to tell how sharp the blades might be, but on a later visit to Seoul, in a Buddhist and shaman supply store, when 1 tested several pairs of similar cutting knives, I found them razor sharp.

Attendants bring out the symbolic Spirit Path—in this case a bolt of white cloth imprinted with tiny flowerets—stretching from the inner altar along the floors of the house onto the porch floor, then along the ground to connect with the top of the oil drum. (Later, when I return to the house for my purse, rather than have me profane it, the women raise it up; perforce I crawl beneath it.)

Smiling, Chon dances, turning with two knife points at her shoulders. She jumps ten times, then tosses her head rapidly until the helmet slips over one eye. Pak removes it and the head­band. Holding onto the drum, on her knees Chon continues the intense head shaking, goes into trance with eyelids quivering and mouth open. She picks up the blades, waves them in all directions, throws them away and bows to the altar. Pak rearranges her hair and restores the helmet. To keep impurities from contaminating the communion with her spirits, Chon seals her mouth with a white pad, then turns and turns.

The ascent begins. Halmoni steps onto a chair, holding onto banner poles, one on each side of the drum; she mounts to the drum, steps from the drum to the cutting blades on top of the water jug where she slides first one foot then the other, lifting her skirts so that we can see her naked feet. With happy face she bows twice to the north, then the west. She slides one foot across the blades and lifts it up. Now the drumming accelerates and she shakes her head frantically, and dares to lean backward. Triumphant up against the sky she whispers, croons, chants for a long time to her spirits. She turns on the knives, singing. While Pak and the other mudang reach up to stroke her feet, she weeps and with a simple moving gesture reaches for the small Korean flag on the right-hand pole, to wipe the tears from her cheeks, eyes crinkled with pain. Her spirit's voice returns to her; she intones for a long time. With a final bow to the north, she twists from side to side, bows forward twice, then lowers first one foot then the other onto the drum. To the rasp of the two-stringed fiddle, the Spirit Path is wrapped about her ankles. She sits on the drum, speaking naturally, scattering rice grains; suddenly, in the masculine voice of her possessing spirit, she shouts.

Halmoni rises briefly onto the knife blades again, lifting her skirts to her knees so that all can see her feet. Again she tilts backward in trance, recovers, and speaks in a strong voice. Grimacing as if her feet hurt, she descends to the ground, lifts and waves the blades, puts them down, relaxes with a sip of makkoli, rattles her bells and receives envelopes of won. Earth Mother in a general's hat, she sits like Demeter, while Pak tenderly rubs her feet and the clients crowd around. Throwing rice grains into the women's held-out skirts, ringing her bells, she divines for them.

At the conclusion of this triumphant performance, euphoria fills the air; everyone breathes more easily. But now it is supper time; the guests and most of the clients leave. As he departs for the university, Dr. Lee mentions that the next, third from last, /con will be interesting from the aspect of movement, so I remain.

There is a long rest and refreshment interval before the drumming and cymbal clashing resume inside for the kollip kori ("begging for offerings")- Inspired by the new blessings from the supernatural world which Chon has bestowed, the three mudang and four other women begin a Mardi Gras-like dressing up, tying towels and hemp crazily about their heads, stuff­ing vests, coats, skirts, scarves, sleeves into their girdles. Swinging costumes around in the air, Pak sings verses; the others chime in with the refrain as they all dance at once, first with wands, then with the carcasses. One whirls with a side of beef, one with the ox head; another makes two ox feet dance; one turns with the cooked chicken on her head. One, like a Greek maenad, picks up a huge rib section, holds it in her teeth, and whirls with it from the house to the courtyard, out through the gate and into the street. Between sips of makkoli and shouts of laughter they stuff rice balls and bites of the crisp Korean pear into each other's mouths.

Now they begin to recreate, with a comic male-female interchange, that mythical world of unity before Yin and Yang were separated and gods and men divided. Ever the ringleader, Pak picks up a male attendant and gives him a piggy-back ride around the room before Kim transfers him to her back. Halmoni reappears, looking on, and receives the same treatment on Pak's back; she dances with her arms while being whirled about. Stolid-faced Kirn smears black on her cheeks and chin, making a beard, while Pak rolls some paper into a phallus shape, puts it under her skirts, and rubs her hips up against the other women. Someone throws blankets on the floor; Kim gets under them, Pak tumbles down on top of her; the two heave up and down together in mock mating as everyone shouts with laughter. One mudang ties her own legs together and tries to dance. With wands, Pak spins twenty times, hops repeatedly on one foot, stretches out on the floor, rolls over and over, ending with a somer­sault. Finally, as it must, the tempo slows down. It takes seven women seated on the floor a long time to collect, fold, and put into order Chon's wildly scattered wardrobe.

After another rest period with time for more communal feasting, the next-to-final kori, hushed and reverent, sends the spirits back home again. Now it is Kim Mansin, face scrubbed, restored to sobriety, dressed in yellow coat over a red skirt, with tall black yangban hat, who lights the candle while eight bowls of rice with spoons stuck in them, three covered bowls, and silver drinking cups are placed on a table in the third room. Holding a hemp cloth over one arm, she sings; the others chant the refrain. She revolves slowly, achieves ecstatic level shaking her head from side to side, rattles her bells over the offerings, and is divining for a palm-rubbing client as I leave to get home before the curfew which brings all traffic to a standstill between midnight and four a.m. Having been so lavishly entertained, the spirits were now peacefully withdrawing.

For me it was an unforgettable experience, spread over two afternoons and a third day's afternoon and evening. And truly we had witnessed what indeed turned out to be Chon's farewell to her spirits. When the hot weather came, a few months later, Halmoni Chon died.


Korean shamans dancing with raw flesh in their mouths in ecstatic communion with their spirits seem but one step removed from the ancient Greek maenads who ritually tore live animals to pieces and ate them. The progression of the kut from ecstasy to trance-possession, the blood rites of the slain offerings, the satyr-like sex play are so much in the spirit of the Greek god of wine and inspiration that one is tempted to hypothesize a connection between these parallel expressions, even if widely separated in space and time. However, Kirby's view is that it "seems probable that shamanism occurs at times through parallel development rather than diffusion" (1975:1). In any case, Guthrie's description (1935:111) of a Cretan rite adopted by the Greeks in which he states that a "live (i.e. raw . . .) bull is torn in pieces and eaten by the worshippers . . . land there orgiastic music of flutes and cymbals adds to the din" could be applied, with little change, to a Korean kut, as could his statement (1935:114) that in the orgiastic worship of Dionysus, a Thracian god, the "ultimate aim was union with the god [and] the attainment of ecstacy." Guthrie further states (1951:87) that a "resemblance has been noted between the behavior of Aristeas, Abaris and their kind [soothsayers and magi­cians from Propontis on the TurkishSea of MamoraJ, and that of the Shamans of northern Asia." The legends of the Argonauts who penetrated to the Black Sea in pre-Homeric times and of the early Greek heroes are replete with shamanic behavior (cf. Lindsay 19'65-.passim).

Comparing Korean shamanism with the Dionysian cult, we find these parallels: women predominate as followers, transvestism appears, and pigs (in Korea, a pig's head if not the whole animal) are used. There is also similarity in government attitude toward the cults: the Dionysus cult was suppressed by the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus in 187 B.C. (Guthrie 1951:179) and shamanism has been officially disparaged by the Korean government.

However, shamanism has not lost its hold on the people. In fact, in June 1977, the city of Seoul staged a kut for the Dragon Spirit (Protector of the Five Fortunes) in the middle of the Han River for the people to enjoy.

Also that month, a professor of Ewha Woman's University (now the largest women's uni­versity in the world) ordered a day-into-night memorial kut for departed members of her family, held on the campus in the city of Seoul. There the paksu's advance on the Spirit Path, dancing two steps forward and one back, toward a floral Gate of Paradise, disappeared from view under covering spotlights and cameras. How can the shaman dance with spirit if he has to disentangle his feet from television cables? Here zealous academe is almost defeated by technology. But inevitably the intangible spirit world and the electronic are meeting. One can only hope that the latter will not destroy but help to preserve in its purity the most artistically developed shaman dance which this observer has been privileged to see in Asia.

The old view of Western science of the shaman "as a neurotic at best, a charlatan at worst" (Kendall 1977:8) is changing to serious consideration of the shaman as a successful folk psy­chiatrist (Kiev 1964:28ff.). In Lommel's view (1967:8), the shaman is more than that and is the originator of all the arts. Kirby states that an "understanding of the origins of ancient Greek theatre, of tragedy, comedy, and satyr play, cannot be arrived at without an understanding of Dionysus and of Dionysian worship. Dionysus was the god of an ancient shamanism, and his rituals were essentially cathartic and apotropaic" (1975:100). Korean shamanism, sacred and therapeutic, is also supremely dramatic. Differing in their time zones and places, sha­mans have been needed in the East and in the West as essential mediums between the world of the sacred and that of the profane.




1 This is a revised, reinterpreted version of a paper presented at the ADG-CORD Conference held in 1978, based on research in Korea in 1977 supported by a Fulbright grant. Some mate­rial is from an article, "Reflections on Korean Dance," which appeared in the Korea Journal (17[8]:36-55) published by the Korea National Commission for UNESCO, Seoul, Korea. Permission to use portions of that article is gratefully acknowledged. The Fulbright grant happily coincided with Laurel Kendall's intensive research in Korean shamanism in connec- tion with the doctorate at Columbia University. I am indebted to her and to our mutual consultant, Dr. Lee Du-Hyun, Seoul National University, authority on Korean masked dance-drama, who is now documenting the shaman tradition. Both generously provided background and opportunities to observe some seven kut, three in rural areas and four in the city of Seoul. Their photographs illustrated the presentation of this paper at the ADG- CORD Conference in Honolulu. The contents of the paper come mainly from notes made during one kut; the conclusions drawn are my own.

2A measure of distance, approximately one-third of a mile; here used figuratively.

3Determined by divination at birth.

4Confining dancing space to the size of one mat (somewhat larger than a Japanese tatami mat) is essential in one well known Korean court dance. Though Korean shamans usually dance on a porch with a wooden floor, the space of one mat is meaningful as a general description.



References :

Eliade, Mircea SHAMANISM: ARCHAIC TECHNIQUES OF ECSTACY. (Translated from French by Willard R. Trask.) New York: Pantheon Books. 1964

Guthrie, William K. C. THE GREEKS AND THEIR GODS. Boston: Beacon Press. 1951

Guthrie, William K. C. ORPHEUS AND GREEK RELIGION: A STUDY OF THE ORPHIC MOVEMENT. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd. 1953

Kendall, Laurel, Caught between ancestors and spirits: field report of a Korean mansin's healing kut. Korea Journal (Seoul) 17(8):8-23. 1977

Kiev, Ari, ed. MAGIC, FAITH AND HEALING. New York: Free Press. 1964

Kim T'ae-gon, Components of Korean Shamanism. Korea Journal (Seoul) 12(12):17-25.1972

Kinsler, Arthur W. 1976 A study in fertility cult for children in Korean shamanism. Dissertation submitted to GraduateSchool, YonseiUniversity (Seoul), for Th.D. degree.

Kirby, Ernest-Theodore 1975 UR-DRAMA: THE ORIGINS OF THEATRE. New York: New YorkUniversity Press.

Lee Du-Hyun, Personal communication.1977


Lommel, Andreas, H SHAMANISM: THE BEGINNINGS OF ART. (Translated from German by Michael Bullock.) New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Ryu Tong-shik 1973, The world of "kut" and Korean optimism. Korea Journal (Seoul) 13(8):13-20.

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