Shamanism in Korea

by Lee Chang Sun

Korea, like other Asian people, maintain ancient traditions such as KUT, exorcising ceremonies, which resemble those of the Nothern American medicine man or African witch doctor. These practices have not been fully institutionalized into a religion in the way Shintoism has been in Japen. However, shamanism has been kept very alive in Korea.


Korean shamans can be roughly divided into two types: possessed, or charismatic shamans and hereditary shamans.

The former, called NAERIM MUDANG, are typically found in the northern half of the Korean peninsula. After suffering from SINBYONG, an illness which is generally interpreted as a sign of a shamistic calling, a potential NAERIM MUDANG apprentices herself to an established shaman from she acquires the knowledge and skills appropriate to her new occupation. The two Woman establish a 'spirit mother'-'spirit daughter' relationship, the spirit mother later conducting the initiation rite which transforms her apprentice into a full-fledged shaman. In the course of their rites, these shamans not only become possessed and experience ecstatic trance states themselves but may also induce their clients to do the same.

The hereditary shamans, called TANGOL MUDANG, are found in the southern half of the Korean peninsula. They are recruited not through possession sickness but simply by being born into a shaman's family. Though this type of shaman does not undergo trance possessed and herself, she may cause of a rite.


There are at least three different types of trance possession in Korean shamanism.

The first, performed by the NAERIM MUDANG, can be seen in the rite performed to guide the spirit of a deceased person to the otherworld. In this type of rite, known as a CHINOGWI-KUT, the shaman plays the role of the deceased. She talks, cries, and otherwise communicates with the dead person's family.

Second type of role playing involving trance possession is carried out by the hereditary shamans, or TANGOL MUDANG,along the eastern coast of southern Korea. In this case, one of family members of the deceased, usually a wife, mother, or sister, holding a spirit basket, is possessed by the deceased. the shaman addresses various statements or questions to deceased, and the deceased (the possessed member of his family) responds without saying a word by causing the basket to shake if the answer for the question is affirmative. In the other case, however, the deceased expresses his sorrowful message in words. this shows that members of the dead man's family, who are laymen, possessed by the spirit, play the role of the NAERIM NUDANG, type of shaman found in northern Korea. through this device, the living can communicate with an example of SUMANGOGU-KUT (shaman ritual for drowned fishermen).

The third type of trance possession is found in MUDANG. This term designates very vigorous dancing by the client of a NAERIM MUDANG (possessed or charismatic shaman) during the course of a rite. here the client puts on the shaman's special costume and dances to the drum. When the body governing spirit(MOMJU) possesses her, the dancing client beings to jump rapidly up and to the drum.


Indeed, until the end of the 19th Century, such ceremonies took place throughout the country. Nowadays, there are 120000 sharmanists in Korea, and the number is increasing again.

For another aspect of spirituality in Korea see the culture page by Im Hyo Jin.