A Documentary about Jeju Shamanism at the Jeju Women’s Film Festival

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I happened to be in Jeju City during ‘And she still sings!’ the 15th Jeju Women’s Film Festival. I got a one day pass, and saw quite a few films. The one film I saw which was specific to Jeju Island is “Spirits: The Story of Jeju’s Shamanic Shrines”.

Heh, well to say that I ‘saw’ the film might be a bit of an exaggeration. The director is Joey Rositano, an American who has lived on Jeju Island for eight years, and the film had not finished post-production. The sound team had worked until 4am of the morning before the screening, and a man had told the director ‘You are a very stubborn man’. As it so happened, instead of seeing the full film, we saw excerpts from the film, and in between the excerpts the director came out and talked.

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Korean shamanism, also known as Muism, is the religion which has the longest history in Korea. Even though Buddhism was the official state religion of the United Silla and Goryeo Kingdoms, Muism remained a popular religion. The Joseon dynasty adopted Confucianism and suppressed non-Confucian religions, yet Muism continued to be practiced by many people. The elites of the very late Joseon dynasty supported Christianity, and Christian missionaries campaigned against Muism, and when Japan took over Korea they tried to replace Muism with Shintoism.

After independence, the governments of both South Korea and North Korea suppressed Muism, even more so than the Joseon rulers. In particular, the South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee tried to eliminate Muism with the policy Misin Tapa Undong (Anti-Superstition Movement).

The result is that now about one quarter of South Koreans identify as Christians, another fourth identify as Buddhist, and the rest identify as non-religious. Of course, it’s been pointed out that people who practice Muism might identify as ‘non-religious’ on surveys since they may not consider Muism to be an official religion like Christianity or Buddhism.

Muism has always been a highly local religion, and Jeju Shamanism is distinct from shamanism on mainland South Korea. In fact, Muism is now more active on Jeju Island than anywhere else in South Korea.

The director visited and filmed Jeju shaman ceremonies, visited old Shamanic shrines, listened to the stories of old shamans, and talked to old Jeju islanders about their religious practices. Even on Jeju, shamanism is mostly a religion practiced by old people. Thoughout the documentary, the director offers commentary such as ‘When the old people complain about young people going to hospitals instead of asking the gods to cure them, it’s not that they are opposed to hospitals or development. They think hospitals and development are good. What they are unhappy about is that the world they grew up in is disappearing.’

Jeju Island has a pantheon of more than 10,000 gods. They are mostly referred to ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’, and often shrines for a ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’ are paired together. Jeju shamanism also has a very complicated system of folklore and epic legends – for example, each village god(ess) has their own origin story which shamans have passed down through the generations. In one scene in the documentary, an old shaman tells the origin story of a local goddess – she was a young woman who drowned at sea, and she kept on floating along the coast of Jeju Island until she found the right village for her spirit to settle.

After the screening of the (fragments of the) documentary, there was a Q&A session with the director and a Jeju female shaman, with a Korean-English interpreter facilitating communication.

Now, I should say something about the audience. The majority of the audience were Western expats who live on Jeju Island. I saw the guy who brought me to the Peace Museum again, and apparently many people in the audience came because they personally know the director. The interpreter, who was also an organizer of the film festival, asked ‘Where were you for all of the other screenings in the film festival?’ (the other film screenings at the festival were much more sparsely attended).

As it so happens, the audience was very interested in asking the shaman questions. Some examples [warning: I am basing this on my memories of something which happened a few months ago]:

– Q: If we are walking around Jeju, say on the Olle Routes, and we go into a shamanic shrine, what etiquette should we practice to be respectful to the gods and their shrines? Obviously, angrily throwing a stone would be wrong, but is there any less obvious thing we should know?
– A [Shaman]: The gods of Jeju are very understanding. If your intentions are good, they will know … of course, if your intentions are bad and you throw a stone, they will also know. The one thing you should do is make sure you do not eat any pork or dog meat before you enter a shrine [in the documentary, it is explain that pork and people who have recently eaten pork are forbidden to enter the shrines], but aside from that, as long as you are trying to be respectful, the gods will know, and they won’t be offended by anything you do.
– A [Director]: I had difficulty entering some of the shrines while filming the documentary. Younger shamans such as yourself [the shaman in the Q&A section] have always welcomed me, but with the older shamans it was more difficult. There was one shaman who I had to negotiate with for more than 24 hours before he would let me enter the shrine, saying that he knew what Americans were like, that we ate pork all the time. When I said I hadn’t eaten any pork, he said that he didn’t believe me, that I couldn’t be trusted.

– Q: What connection do the haenyo (women sea divers) have with shamanism?
– A: [Short version] Being a haenyo is very dangerous, and they have many accidents and many die while diving … thus they have always had a very close connection with the spirits, knowing that their lives are in the sprits’ hands, and the sound they make [the shaman makes a whistling sound] is a call to the spirits.

-Q: How do you become a shaman?
-A: You can’t really choose to be a shaman, the gods have to choose you. However, if you can not see for four years, then not hear for four years, and then not speak for four years [note: I might be misremembering this part] then we can talk about making you a shaman.

The wife of the provincial governor of Jeju Island was in the audience, and she asked a question too…

– Q: I see that so many foreigners have come out here, and are asking so many questions, and that no Koreans are asking questions. I was born and grew up on this island, and I thank you for making this documentary. At the end of the documentary you say that shamanism is a world religion, and that Jeju shamanism is part of that religion. What do you think is unique about Jeju shamanism?
– A: [director] The system of the grandmother and grandfather gods, and the specific system of stories and epics, including the origin story for each god, is not like any other kind of shamanism I know about.

Then the expats asked more questions

– Q: It seems that shamanism is going away with the younger generations … if you record all of these ceremonies, stories, etc., could you preserve all that so that, if a later generation becomes interested, they could revive it?
– A: [director] The Jeju scholars have done an excellent job, they’ve recorded most of the old stories … but I think that, once it’s gone, it’s something which can never be revived … if you want to preserve it, it has to be preserved as a living tradition. However, I think shamanism is in the Korean cultural DNA. Some Koreans say they are Christian or Buddhist, but they then they will say or do something, and I will think ‘Aha, that is the influence of shamanism!’ … I think that, just as American students learn about the Greek pantheon and myths in school, Jeju students should learn about the Jeju pantheon and myths in school … our way of life now is unsustainable, South Korea imports its corn from the United States, this can’t keep on going on forever, and that when Jeju people have to live in a sustainable way, they will become more interested in the old ways, and shamanism will have a revival.
– A: [shaman] I have learned all of the old stories and rites, and as long as I am alive, as long as there is a single shaman, Jeju shamanism will be alive.

I focused on this documentary because it is about Jeju Island, but I also enjoyed many of the other films I saw, and it was fantastic to spend a day watching films selected by the Jeju Women’s Association which I probably would have never seen otherwise.

I am also really happy that I saw this presentation of ‘Spirits: The Story of Jeju’s Shamanic Shrines’ because it offered me an insight into Jeju and its culture that I would not have gotten otherwise. Even though the audience were mostly Western expats, there were very few tourists, and attending this documentary more than anything else made my trip to Jeju ‘unique’ and different from the journeys of the zillion other tourists who go to Jeju and see the same sights.

If you felt that this post did not have enough photos, Notes from a Korean Island has some photos of Jeju shamanistic dance.

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11 Responses to A Documentary about Jeju Shamanism at the Jeju Women’s Film Festival

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