A Modern Shaman in Seoul

Eunmi has a new, and markedly different, job. She is a modern-day shaman in Seoul, practicing a 4,000 year-old folk religion in which mediums communicate with nature spirits to help the living with their most profound problems.
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Eunmi Pang is tall and walks with a self-assurance that draws attention in a crowd. She has long hair and loves chunky, designer cardigans - a trait she may have acquired during her former modeling career. Nowadays, Eunmi has a new, and markedly different, job. She is a modern-day shaman in Seoul, practicing a 4,000 year-old folk religion in which mediums communicate with nature spirits to help the living with their most profound problems.

For centuries, various political forces have tried to eradicate Korean shamanism from the peninsula. During both the Japanese occupation and post-war administrations, it was mocked as a backwards relic of a superstitious past. Yet in ancient times, shamans were the trusted advisors to Korean kings and queens. The Confucian hierarchy that has dominated Korea since the Joseon Dynasty has demonized shamans, but their influence has never truly ended. In fact, Eunmi reports that since 2005, there has been a global resurgence of interest in Korea's oldest religion.

These days, much of shamanistic counsel is carried out online. Eunmi has even received e-mails from elementary school students in Canada. Her eleven-year-old son is an exchange student there, and all of his North American friends were eager to have their futures read.

"How much longer is my dog going to live?" asked one message. Another student was worried about his career prospects. He wanted to become a teacher like his father, but he worried that the coursework might prove too difficult.

As a Korean shaman, such requests are not unusual for Eunmi. What she didn't expect was the interest Canadian elementary students took in her practice. "They think you're pretty cool, mom," her son quipped. "My friends said they're jealous!" In Korea, children are too ashamed to admit their mother is a shaman.

Despite the stigma, Eunmi reports, the number of practitioners has been steadily increasing. There is even a German national who became a registered shaman, or mudang.

This development seems to go against the national trend. As an extremely practical country known for Samsung and LG smart phones, the highest Internet speed in the world, and extraordinarily high math scores for high school students, Korea is seen as looking forward, and not to the past. But every week, people ask Eunmi to perform a kut, or ritual dance.

Sometimes the request is from an entrepreneur launching a business, or from a lonely single looking for a spouse. Others are parents fretting over scores on the nation's notorious college entrance exam. Politicians even pay personal assistants to arrange a good luck kut, worried that if they went in-person, the media might mock them as superstitious.

"It is not a superstition," Eunmi retorted during a recent seminar at The Asia Institute. "From the Japanese colonial era, certain forces have tried to dismiss us as a superstition. But we are a religion."

Eunmi was raised Catholic and attended Church with her parents while growing up. In her early twenties, she enjoyed considerable success in modeling before she suddenly came down with what is known as "shaman sickness."

"I became seriously ill, but only around 11 P.M. or midnight," she explained over diner in Itaewon. "This went on for almost four years. At first, I refused to accept this had anything to do with the spirit world. I knew little about Korean's traditions and thought that shamans were weird people." But she eventually accepted advice and visited a senior mudang for the special naerim kut ceremony. This finally cured her nighttime ailments. But the naerim kut was not only a cure for this spiritual illness; it was also an initiation into the profession.

After that, Eunmi began three years of intensive study. She completed her training in 2004 and has now been practicing for over ten years. Today, she associates with a group of her teachers and students, which she lovingly refers to as her shamanistic family. She has a "mother" shaman, who is her teacher and spiritual guide, and a "daughter" shaman, who is her disciple.

"I often compare our practices to those of Native American peoples," she explained. "We pray for the mountains. We pray for the sea and for the sky. When we perform a ritual dance, we communicate with the spirits of our ancestors who serve as a bridge between us and God. We find solutions to problems people face with the help of the spirit world. Young Koreans see us as a sort of therapist."

She considers this an apt comparison. Modern Korean shamanism, she believes, is faced with the choice of either modernizing or dying out. Many mudang have even started online consultations as a way to connect with practitioners who are increasingly spending most of their time on smart phones. KakaoTalk, Korea's most popular smart phone app, is a popular way to seek advice.

"Today," Eunmi observed, "many Korean people are too embarrassed to visit a shrine in-person. But oddly, foreigners are extremely interested Korean shamanism and participating in rituals."

The local stigma is a historical hangover. During the Japanese colonial era, and then during Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee's administrations, Korean shamanism was persecuted and largely driven underground. But in the new Millennium, interest has spiked. This may have been partially driven by the Hallyu, which has led young, Western students to take an interest in both modern and traditional Korean culture.

Eunmi wants to share the spiritual heritage of the peninsula by reaching out to the international community. "We need to keep our eyes open to the new potential of the modern world," she noted. "We should enjoy the best of cultures and have many deep friendships. But that exchange needs to be grounded in our Korean identity, which we can find in our spiritual culture."

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