5. History, Sacred Texts, and Overview of Beliefs
Korean Shamanism, also referred to as Muism, is the indigenous religion of the Korean Peninsula. Evidence of Muism as a religious practice dates back to ancient times with some estimates dating back as far as 5,000 years ago. Its rituals involve a shaman contacting the spirit world which is made up of various gods. A person becomes a shaman by either being born into the position (though matrilineal inheritance) or after experiencing an illness (as chosen by the gods), and then undergoing a ceremony.
Shamans move into and out of trances at will and, during this stage, followers believe the soul is leaving the body and traveling to other realms. In these realms, other spirits help the shaman perform spiritual, psychological, and physical healing. Other beliefs concern the soul. When a person is sick, it is believed that the soul is also sick. When a person has a mental illness, it is believed to be a lost, possessed or transitioned soul. This practice does not involve a specific religious text or theology.
4. Global Presence and Notable Practitioners
Today, an estimated 16% of the population of North Korea identify as Muist believers. The South Korean government has proclaimed the importance of Shamanism to Korean culture and beginning in the 1970’s, more South Koreans began to practice Muism. Approximately 8% of the population identifies with Muism. Shamans often perform rituals on new construction projects or new business openings. Even fortune telling, a traditional Shamanic act, continues to have a wide prevalence in Korean culture with many people turning to fortune-tellers during trying times. Kim Keum-Hwa is one of Korea’s most famous shamans.
3. Development and Spread of the Faith
Shamans and followers of Muism can be found throughout the Korean Peninsula from north to south. This practice is now considered more as a way of life than as a religion and is thought to bring harmony with nature, personal power, and spiritual and psychological enlightenment. It is also viewed as traditional medicine. Some people believe that Muism has influenced the practices of Buddhism and Christianity on the Korean Peninsula as well.
2. Challenges and Controversies
The religion was largely overtaken when Buddhism was introduced into the area in the 4th Century AD. Many followers converted at that time. Later, Neo-Confucianism became the religion of the state and Muist practitioners were belittled, viewed as uneducated, and considered unsophisticated. Korean shamanism has continuously been suppressed by both Christian missionaries and the spread of Japanese Shintoism. The New Community Movement, a political ideological party, occurred in the 1970’s and worked to remove all deity worship. The government of North Korea also named shamans and their lineage as belonging to a lower class. All of these factors have worked together to decrease the number of Muist believers.
1. Future Prospects
South Korea has seen a revival of the religion in recent years, and given the movement toward nationalism and traditional culture, shamanism is expected to continue growing. Pictured above, a group of Korean youth pay homage to their ancestors and traditional Korean deities at a local shrine. The practice is once again being presented in the public eye with shamans even appearing on local television channels. As this country continues to modernize and more people move from rural to urban areas in search of employment opportunities, they will bring their traditional beliefs with them. With increased use of the internet, shaman’s services are easier to find and request. These are all signs that Muism will not be oppressed again any time soon.