Religion and culture are inextricably linked in traditional Asian societies. In almost all of Asia religion is a determining factor of daily life, and Korea is no exception. Although the public stresses that the social orientation in modern Korean society is that of a secular society, it maintains its Buddhist, Confucian, Christian and shamanistic traditions. The Korean shamanism is but an outsider in the group of major world religions and philosophies, which in modern Korea exist peacefully alongside each other (Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, and now also Islam). Despite the general negation and the public rejection of this religious practice, shamanism is an integral part of the culture.
However, up until the present day, shamanism is not officially recognized as a religious community in South Korea. The government supports the ritual practice only as a genuine cultural heritage and indigene religious tradition. The aesthetic design of the ceremony and the folklore of mythical or legendary stories are considered to be culturally specific custom and are so promoted as religious resource of Korean culture.
The relatively large number of an estimated 100,000-250,000 shamans, particularly in the vicinity of Seoul, testifies to the vitality of this religion and refutes the thesis that shamanism is found only in hunter-gatherer societies and lacks the potential to play a role in more modern societies.
The centuries-long, not always unproblematic coexistence of recognized religions and shamanism apparently promoted in Koreans a tolerant and pragmatic approach to religion. It is not uncommon for Koreans to live in a Christian household, to visit Buddhist temples at holidays and to frequent a shaman in times of distress. Moral conflicts do not arise from this religious practice. South Koreans obviously appreciate Kant’s realization: ” There is only one (…) religion; but there can be any number types of faith.”
Unlike many other countries, where indigenous religious ritual practice has degenerated into a shadowy existence in the tourism industry, which hardly has relevance to the everyday reality of people, Korean shamanism adapted to the modernization of the country, without abandoning its spiritual and religious function.
The adjustment of Korean shamans to urban life, to new Western value concepts, the new global communication structures, the emergence of new transnational social spaces and the dynamics of global development are part of a recent process of differentiation, that reflects the fragmentation of modern society. In the light of these rapid and vehement changes to capitalization the commercialization of shamanic ritual practice in the modern era is no surprise. The critics who condemn these changes focus only on one side of the coin that all too easily stamps modifications and adaptations as degeneration. This judgment ignores the vitality of Korean shamans, who in the search for new ways of interaction and communication had to change and to adapt to a new generation of customers. The ability of modern communication media, most notably the Internet and its various applications, remove spatial barriers so that the activity of Korean shamans can cross national borders. Korean Shamans twitter, create websites and blogs, offer virtual fortune telling or background information about shamanistic traditions. They film documentaries or perform on stage and offer an international audience unusual insight into an alien world.
The Korean shaman (mudang) Lee, Hae-Kyeong is one of those modern pioneers. On the one hand, she is an active shaman, that promotes her shamanic activity in a multimedia way but on the other hand she is very conservative about the performance or form of her rituals. In her rituals (gut) she maintains the strict, traditional sequences of the Hwanghaedo Tradition (North Korean tradition). This shaman tradition originates in the North Korean province Hwanghaedo. (Due to the Korean War (1950-1953), the shamans of the region were forced to flee to South Korea. Today, those rituals of the Hwanghaedo tradition are mainly observed in Incheon and/or Seoul.)
Lee Hae-Kyeong was born in Seoul. She comes from a poor background. Until the death of her first son, she lived a normal, middle-class life. This tragic and fateful loss marked the beginning of her shaman illness, that inevitably led to her initiation as a mudang.
She has now worked for several decades as a shaman. She sees the true role of mudang as a life coach who actively contributes as a mediator between gods and men and helps in decision making. Spirituality and the so-called realities of life are not contradictory to her.
“We live in an age of science, but we all know that there are supernatural forces.” (Lee Hae-Kyeong)