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Giving rise to dancing spirits:

mugam in korean shaman ritual.


By Laurel Kendall



Through dance, the Korean shaman invokes the gods and en­courages them to descend into her person. In kut, the Korean shaman's most elaborate ritual, she puts on the costume of a par­ticular god—the white robe monks wear for temple dances, an antique high-crowned hat and broad-sleeved robe for an official or king, or the blue vest and broad-brimmed black hat that petty functionaries wore in dynastic times. The drummer plays. The shaman sings an invocation, then stretches out her arms to dance, gracefully at first, lightly moving to the music. A burst of drumbeats and a series of leaps from the dancing woman reveal the descent of the gods. She kicks and flails her arms; the gods are strong.

Korean women sometimes cail themselves "half shamans" (pan mudang). They dance to appease their own personal gods. At a kut, after several shamans have invoked a number of the sponsoring family's household gods, the shamans take a rest. During this interval in the formal sequence of the kut, the women of the household, relatives, and neighbors put on the shaman's costumes and dance to the sound of the shaman's drum, one after the other. When her god "comes up" and possesses the dancing woman, she jumps rapidly up and down, flailing her arms like a shaman when the gods descend. The woman twists her face into a grimace suggesting intense pain or pleasure. This is the mugam, the dance in shaman's clothing.

The mugam is a "trance" dance. The spectators at a kut con­sider the dancer's actions involuntary, willed by the presence of a personal deity.2 Comparative ethnography suggests that posses­sion trance brought on with music and dance in the context of a healing ritual offers a cathartic release from socially induced ten­sion and deprivation. Ethnographers have considered a number of "possession cults" where trance dancing is an essential element in ritual curing. These cults include Haitian vodou (Bourguignon 1976:15-41), the zar cult of Ethiopia (Messing 1958), the Hamad-sha brotherhood of Morocco (Crapanzano 1973), the main peteri rituals of Kelantan, Malaysia (Kessler 1977), and Burmese nat dancing (Spiro 1967-.passim), among numerous other examples.

The prime participants in possession cults are most often women. In view of this fact, Lewis suggests that "... it is in terms of the exclusion of women from full participation in social and political affairs and their final subjection to men that we should seek to understand their marked prominence in peripheral possession" (Lewis 1971:88). Ac­cording to Lewis, possession trance affords women "oblique redressive strategies" for coping with their subordinate social position, for in trance one may speak the unspeakable. The possession cult is thus interpreted as "... a feminist sub-culture with an ecstatic religion re­stricted to women and protected from male attack through its representation as a therapy for illness" (Ibid:S9). Lewis provides a bold theory, likely to tantalize those familiar with the Korean case.

Certainly Korean women enjoy a "subordinate status." Korean women have traditionally lacked power and prerogatives outside the home. They have consistently enjoyed fewer so­cially sanctioned opportunities for pleasurable release of tension—drinking, dancing, and playing—than have their male counterparts. The Korean shaman's kut affords women one abundantly exploited opportunity to drink, dance, and play among themselves.

Is the mugam, then, one manifestation of "ecstatic religion," Korean style? Does trance dancing provide Korean women with a "redressive strategy," a means of compensating for a subordinate and circumscribed existence? Does the complex of ritual practices associated with Korean shamanism and maintained primarily by Korean women reflect a potentially subversive "feminist sub-culture"?

Kim Kwang-iel, who has studied Korean shamanism from the perspective of psychother­apy, considers the mugam a means of attaining "catharsis." "When dancing in mugam, they [participants] discharge their longstanding frustration and rage, and elaborate them into trance" (1973:44).

According to a Korean proverb, "No matter how much the daughter-in-law wants to go to the kut, her mother-in-law won't let her dance." Another proverb relates that, "When the family has sold its rice fields to hold a kut, the daughter-in-law dances." In the popular view reflected here, dancing the mugum is an expression of self-indulgence, a hedonistic escape from, indeed a rebellion against, the daughter-in-law's constrained existence. But in flat con­tradiction of both the scholarly and the popular view of mugam dancing, I recall a mother-in-law urging her bashfully reluctant daughter-in-law, "Quit stalling! Get out there and dance!" The resolution of this seeming paradox should lend some insight into the nature of the reli­gious activities of Korean women. In addition, a consideration of mugam may further our general understanding of the interplay between dance and possession trance.


The Mugam

In Northern and Central Korea, inspirational shamans are politely addressed as mansin: the title means "ten thousand gods." In kut, the mansin's major ritual, she invites the gods and ancestors of the sponsoring household to feast and play. Possessing the mansin, the gods and ancestors scold, advise, and console the family. Most of the action of the kut takes place on the wooden porch of the house, a narrow space crowded with trays of food offerings, musi­cians, and spectators. By the time the shamans call for a long rest and invite the assembled women to dance the mugam, several of the sponsoring family's gods have already appeared in sequence, the spectators have drunk wine circulated by their hostess, and everyone is in a playful rnood.

The sponsor of the kut, the senior woman of the household, is the first to "wear the mu­gam" (mugamul ssunda). Her friends coax her out onto the porch. She makes a bashful show of reluctance appropriate to a modest Korean housewife unused to public display. But this reticent woman appears for mugam with her best Korean dress hastily donned on top of the household apparel she has been wearing to bustle in and out of the kitchen. A mansin selects one of her own costumes and helps the woman put it on while another mansin starts to tap the drum. The woman places some money on one of the offering tables.3 She makes a series of prostrations, drawing her hands over her head, kneeling, and pressing her palms and fore­head to the floor.

The mansin at the drum plays slowly and the woman begins to dance, much as she would at a hillside outing or village party. She clutches the front openings of her costume in each hand so that the front panels, gored to the waist, trail up and down as she moves her arms. If the woman remains bashful, one of the mansin or a friend will clasp the woman's arms and move them to the music, or dance in front of her to coach her. But most women immediately fall into a rhythmic dance. The woman takes a series of broad diagonal steps, knees slightly bent, balancing the weight of her body on her heels. With torso held straight, the dancer improvises broad, sweeping gestures with her arms.

In the second phase of mugam, the drummer picks up speed, still preserving the initial rhythmic pattern. The drumming becomes very rapid. Now the dancing woman jumps up and down on the balls of her feet, or she performs a series of alternating kicks, toes pointed upward. She may jump in place; she may revolve on the balls of her feet. Still gripping the sides of her costume, she pumps her hands up and down in unison or in alternation. She may spread her arms wide to the sides, then fling them back together again in front of her chest. She may thrust her arms, again and again, away from her torso, as if attempting to flail a musician or spectator with the hems of her costume.

Most of the movements described here will be incorporated into a single performance of mugam. All of the movements described here are also found in the mansin's dance of posses­sion. The mansin describe these movements simply as "jumping."

When the woman reaches the end of her strength, she collapses in front of the drum in another head-to-the-floor bow. A mansin removes the costume and shakes it over the wom­an's head, asking the possessing deity to provide good fortune. The women praise each oth­er's skill: "Well done," "You've so much strength," or "You're going to wet your pants!" The last remark is an acknowledgment of physical exhaustion.

A long dance is best. After a noticeably brief performance, a woman will be teased: "Why didn't you dance longer?" Most performances take from five to ten minutes from initial cos­tuming to final bow.

After the lady of the house has danced, otber women are urged to wear the mugam: the mother-in-law, the sponsor's own mother, married daughters, sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law, aunts, neighbors, and friends. A husband, father-in-law, or brother-in-law may be called out to dance, particularly if the man's health or fortune is a reason for sponsoring the kut. Having danced, the men return to their own party in one of the other rooms and leave the porch to the women.

The women all make a modest show of refusing to dance. Sometimes friends gleefully drag them to the drum. Head towels and winter caps are removed before dancing. Skirts and Ko­rean blouses are passed from friend to friend so that a woman can feel properly clothed when she dances. In her dance, she will contact the gods.


The Mansin's View

In the mansin's perception, mugam is a possession trance. The god "ascends" (olatta) when the dancer begins her rapid jumping. A mansin explained the role of the drum in this process:

The slow drumbeats coax up the god. If the god comes up spontaneously, the drummer plays faster to follow the dancer. If the dancer is slow, the drummer beats quickly to help bring up the god.

The various costumes used in mugam imply a special relationship between the woman who dances and the particular deity invoked in the dance. Many women wear a blue vest bound with a red band across the chest and a broad-brimmed black hat. This is the costume of greedy low-level supernatural Officials (Taegam). Like their human counterparts, the super­natural Officials make trouble if their demands are not met. In principle, everyone has a Body-Governing Official (Momju Taegam). Some of these personal Officials have more "force" or "vigor" than others. The presence of an active Official is revealed in the way one dances mugarn. A mansin explained:

There are people who don't have a strong Body-Governing Official, and their feet are heavy when they dance. But people with vigor, when they wear the mugam clothes, their hands and feet go up and down, up and down, lightly and rapidly. People without vigor, their feet are heavy and their legs drag. It isn't very amusing to watch. But people with vigor, as they dance, the supernatural force comes up. That's better.

Mansin and women see a positive value in exercising, not exorcising, an active Body-Gov­erning Official. They do not seek to drive this spirit out through ritual means, although they would exorcise an intrusive ghost or baleful spirit. Rather, they appease this zealous spirit with music and dance. Given a chance to "play" and so temporarily satisfied, this god works to one's benefit rather than to one's detriment.

A woman dances her own Body-Governing Official. If her husband also has a strong Offi­cial, he must dance when his wife sponsors a kut. The mansin note, "There are many houses where the wife's Body-Governing Official is stronger than the husband's."

What is it like to have one's own Body-Governing Official rise up in the dance? I will present my own subjective reactions to my own subjective experience, a step never willingly taken by an anthropologist. I will also provide a reliable mansin's evaluation of my experience.

As a "participant observer," I had danced mugam on several occasions, always feeling self-conscious and anxious to get it over with. But on this particular day, as I watched several women dance mugam, I found myself unconsciously shaking my shoulders to the drumbeats. This is not an unusual reaction for any member of my generation and culture. I would be told afterward that people with active Body-Governing Gods always want to shake their shoul­ders to drumbeats.

On this afternoon, the mansin seemed particularly eager to have me dance. Once I started dancing, I found myself filled with the sound of the drum. My usual self-consciousness van­ished in the pleasurable sensation of jumping and flinging my arms up and down. As I told the mansin, "I felt as though I had to keep moving my arms. I could not stop. When it was over, I felt as if I'd been swimming and swimming and I didn't even have any strength left. But it felt good." She said, "You have a Body-Governing Official all right.'" I asked if there were people who did not have Body-Governing Officials. She replied, "No, but some Officials can't dance. So when these people go to a kut, they can't dance. When you go to a kut, you should always dance mugam because your Official dances."

Indeed, there are people who do not seem able to dance mugam at all. In some kut, the mansin will lead out a member of the sponsoring family and put her or him in costume. Arms are held and moved to the drumbeats, but still the unwilling performer is unable to muster the enthusiasm to dance. The drummer tries a few bars of rapid rhythm before giving up. Some­one will invariably comment: "People who can't wear the mugam, can't." They acknowledge that some people lack the capacity for mugam dancing; although they put on the shaman's robes, nothing happens. But when the reluctant dancer is a direct recipient of the benefits of the kutthe senior woman of the household or a family member who is persistently ill or plagued by misfortune—the mansin will not accept an unenthusiastic performance. When a dancer, in the mansin's perception, "does not dance well," the dancer must try again and is usually soon jumping to everyone's satisfaction.

Mansin and dancing women consider the mugam a key element in the healing worked by kut. A step in the process of a mansin's cure, the mugam brings the ritual's beneficiary into direct contact with the supernatural forces mustered on her or his behalf. But the curative benefits of the mugam are not restricted to the sponsoring family. According to the mansin, "It brings good fortune to go to someone else's house and dance mugam." For one informant, the good effects of mugam dancing were almost immediate: "I was watching a kut. My stom­ach hurt so much that day I thought I'd die. The old women told me to dance the mugam. I wore the blue vest and jumped a lot, and then my stomach felt better." The benefits of danc­ing mugam, even in someone else's home, are transmitted to members of the dancer's house­hold. One woman explained, "My eldest son is a taxi driver. When I went to that kut a while ago, they told me to dance mugam so he wouldn't have accidents. I danced mugam so my son will have good fortune."

While an active Body-Governing God can work to one's benefit, an active Body-Govern­ing Official soon becomes a greedy, restless Official if not properly appeased. According to the mansin:

People whose Officials have a lot of appetite scrunch up their faces as if in pain when they dance mugam. They pound their arms and legs. Their Officials aren't satisfied. They should have played like this in their own homes [i.e., been entertained with a kut], but instead they have to come to someone else's house to play, so they behave that way.

When feasting and play are overdue, a Body-Governing Official will vent his wrath. Danc­ing mugam at an overdue kut, the senior woman of the household stamped her feet and punched and pounded at the air. She struck at her own mother-in-law with the hems of her costume, then sat down hard on the floor and gave way to dry sobs. The mansin rubbed the woman's head and urged the Official: "Please, honorable Official, accept this offering of a kut. Please go away, please go away." To the accompaniment of rapid drumbeats, the woman arose, danced for a bit, and returned to normal. Then she complained that her shoul­der was sore, and the mansin had her dance again. After this dance, the pain went away. I have seen this same woman dancing mugam in other kut. Her dance is always marked by a giimace and vigorous, pounding steps, but I never saw her repeat the foot-stamping, sulking performance described here. Her Official is greedy but is, for the present, mollified by an occasional dance.

On another occasion, a young matron's Official took over for almost an hour. With pushes and shoves, she indicated that a favorite mansin must take over the drum. The dancing woman imitated various actions performed by a possessed mansin. She divined by offering colored flags to the assembled women and collected a payment in small coins from her gig­gling friends. Hers is, by all accounts, a very active Body-Governing Official. Sometimes a woman's Body-Governing God will—to the wonder of all—correct an oversight of the man­sin, filling empty wine cups on the altar or sobbing at the omission of a particular offering,

People with active Body-Governing Officials are advised by the mansin to dedicate a blue vest and black hat at the mansin's shrine. The client's name is embroidered on the vest and written on the hat. The mansin keeps the hat and vest with her other costumes and wears them in a kut. The client gives rice, wine, and meat offerings to her Official at the mansin's shrine at the beginning of the year and wears the blue vest to dance mugam.

While everyone has a Body-Governing Official and can wear the blue vest for mugam, the other costumes imply a special relationship between family members and certain household gods. A white monk's robe and peaked cowl are often worn for mugam. The women in some families worship the Seven Stars (Ch'ilsong), deities concerned with the birth, health, and success of children. A household tradition of Seven Star worship passes from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. Women who maintained a powerful covenant with these gods in life may, after death, rise up as a Body-Governing Seven Stars when their household successors dance mugam in white robes.

Some families claim an ancestress who served Buddha and gave divinations. After death, a Buddhist diviner (posal) becomes a god in the household pantheon and influences family fortunes for good or ill. If the family honors her by dedicating a white robe at the mansin's shrine, she will help them. Women in these families also dance mugam in the white robe. When they dance, the ancestress ascends as a Body-Govern ing Buddhist Sage (Momju Pulsa). The white robe signifies the supernatural force of an ancestress who served the spirits, either as an ascetic diviner or as a private person, a grandmother praying for her children and grandchildren.

Similarly, where an ancestress was a mansin, she continues to influence the affairs of her descendants as a Great Spirit Grandmother (Taesin Halmoni} in their pantheon. When a woman dances mugam in the Great Spirit Grandmother's yellow robe, she sometimes seizes the mansin's various weapons for battling malevolent spirits—tridents, swords, and knives— and flourishes them in the air to indicate the presence of a shaman ancestress. Some families dedicate a red or blue robe to a distant ancestor who served as a high official. Women whose families honor a powerful Mountain God (Sansin) may dedicate a robe to the god and wear this robe in mugam.

Some women acknowledge more than one Body-Governing God. They may wear a monk's robe over the Official's blue vest when they dance mugam. While jumping, a woman casts off the white robe and grasps the edges of the blue vest in her hands as she continues her dance, The mansin say: "The Buddhist Sage has played and now the Official is playing." Or a woman may begin dancing in the Mountain God's robe and cast it off, draping the white monk's robe over her shoulders as she continues her dance. She worships the Mountain God but also acknowledges a diviner ancestress; claims of both the Mountain God and the Bud­dhist Sage are strong upon her when she dances mugam.

Costumes worn in mugam illustrate a family's supernatural history, a continuation of tra­ditions of worship passed down through generations of in-marrying women. In the world of mansm and dancing women, the force of past obligations colors present fate. A mansin di­vines that her client's ill luck stems from a failure to continue a family tradition of honoring the Seven Stars or a Mountain God. She suggests that her clients dedicate robes and perform appropriate rites. She speaks of households whose fortunes improved dramatically once they dedicated a robe.

On rare occasions, a powerful ancestress uses the mugam to speak her mind. Although the mugam dancer is usually silent, sometimes her Body-Governing God claims her lips much as high pantheon gods speak through the shaman during the formal segments of the kut. On one occasion, a Great Spirit Grandmother possessed the family's living grandmother, a woman who lived with her married son's household but had retired from active management in favor of her daughter-in-law. The Body-Governing God lamented the family's contemplated move to Seoul, Another woman, possessed by her natal grandmother, spoke out while dancing mugam at her sister-in-law's home. She lambasted the sponsoring family for failing to give her a special offering of rice cake, then commiserated with the daughter-in-law's misfortune. In life, the grandmother had rigorously worshipped the Seven Stars and had thus acquired the spiritual force to rise up as a Body-Governing Seven Stars when her descendants danced mugam. In both of these cases, the dancing women may well have been articulating their own less readily expressed feelings. Here, at least, is a shred of evidence for possession as a covert strategy


Why They Dance

What is the mugam all about? According to the mansin, there is positive value in letting one's personal spirits "play." Entertain them, and they will do well by you; but deny and frustrate them, and they will give you trouble. Some people's spirits must be exercised more often than others'. These perceptions are not at all incompatible with the tenets of modern psychology.

For the women who dance, the mugam is fun. Women claim that it feels good when the spirit ascends: "It refreshes the insides." A few urban women, including a woman the mansin consider possessed by a particularly vigorous Official, told this anthropologist that they use the mugam simply because they "like to play." More often, women will give as their primary motivation, "They say it brings good luck." There is yet some giggling and embarrassment about using the mugam. So public a letting-go is considered a bit shameful for most women and extremely shameful for certain categories of women, those who are not yet established matrons with households of their own. According to my mansin informant:

Maidens aren't supposed to dance or people will think they're wild. Young brides aren't supposed to use the mugam either. When a woman has a child, or two children—that's even better—then she can use the mugam.

In addition to the unfavorable connotations of dancing, there is some muttering in families at the money the woman sets on the shaman's drum before she dances mugam.

The perceived positive and pleasurable effects of dancing, the perceived harmful effects of frustrated spirits, and the vague sense of improper and extravagant behavior all lend them­selves to the expected interpretation of mugam as "catharsis." One can also view mugam as a manifestation of "ecstatic religion." Ritual provides an avenue of pleasure and emotional re­lease not readily attained in daily life. Possession trance in mugam occasionally—in this ethnographer's experience, most rarely—sanctions speaking the unspeakable. But to stop here is to stop short of a full appreciation of the role of women in Korean ritual life.

Women maintain a special relationship with the household gods. The matron, successfully integrated into her husband's household through the birth of children and the passage of time, deals effectively with the family's own gods. From her mother-in-law, she has learned the family traditions. From the mnnsm's divination, she learns what special ritual actions she must take to keep the spiritual forces in the house appeased. It is her responsibility to feast and entertain the gods, in no instance more directly than in the mugam where she manifests a significant spirit in herself and dances for the good of the family. We can comprehend the seeming anomaly of a mother-in-law urging her daughter-in-law to dance. Living with her husband in a separate household, the daughter-in-law's dancing would enhance the son's good fortune. Ritual context transforms the ecstatic pleasure of a dancing woman into luck and happiness for her household.

The spirit of a family's own history is at play in the dance.



1This paper is based on observations and interviews during a field study of Korean shaman­ism in northern KyonggiProvince, Republic of Korea, during 1977 and 1978. Research was supported by a Fulbright dissertation fellowship (HE), a Social Science Research Council Foreign Area Fellowship, and a dissertation research grant from the National Science Foun­dation. I should like to thank Dr. Lee Du-hyun of SeoulNationalUniversity, Dr. Soon Young S. Yoon of Ewha Woman's University, and Maher Benham for their constructive criticisms of an earlier draft of this paper. Special thanks are due Mr. Choi Woon-sok of Korea Journal for invaluable assistance in rendering Korean expressions into acceptable Mc-Cune-Reischauer Romanization. A preliminary version of this paper titled "Mugani: The Dance in Shaman's Clothing" appeared in Korea Journal, Volume 17, number 12. Korea Journal has kindly consented to the publication of a revised version here.

2Both the experience of the Korean shaman in ritual and the experience of the nonprofessional mugam dancer fit Bourguignon's definition of possession trance:

. . . possession exists when the people in question hold that a given person is changed in some way through the presence in or on him of a spirit entity or power, other than his own personality, soul, self, or the like. . . . possession trance exists in a given society when we find that there is such a belief in posses­sion and that it is used to account for alterations or discontinuity in conscious­ness, awareness, personality, or other aspects of psychological functioning. (Bourguignon 1976:7-8)

By this criterion, the Korean shaman experiences possession trance when the spirits "de­scend" (naeryotta) on her person during appropriate ritual. Similarly, the spirits "ascend" (olatta) on the dancer during mugam. The participant's perception is accepted here as the sole criterion for the existence of possession trance. I have not attempted to examine the validity of the dancer's experience through the imposition of external criteria for "altered states of consciousness." I can suggest, however, that percussion, dance, and the expecta­tions and stimuli of an audience all contribute to the dancer's experience of possession trance (Ibid.AS; Needham 1972; Norbeck 1961:90-93).

3In theory, one pays what one will. In practice, five hundred won is standard in the country­side, a thousand won in the city. The senior woman of the household sponsoring the kut commonly presents two or three thousand-won bills, approximately four to six U.S.A. dol­lars. These figures are from 1977 and 1978 observations; more recent inflation has possibly affected ritual costs.



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Messing, Simon D. 1958 Group therapy and social status in the zar cult of Ethiopia. American Anthropologist 60(6):1120-26.

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