Research on Korean Shamans

Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits

Research on Korean Shaman

Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits (University of Hawaii Press, 1985) began as a dissertation project. An “ethnography of Korean women’s ritual realm,” the book explores the question of why women dominate the shamanic ritual called a kut (ix). I found myself writing against standing interpretations of kut and the roles that women have in it as either a fragmentary survival of ancient practices long-ago abandoned by men or as exclusively a "cathartic release from oppressive patriarchy" (x). I argue, rather, that male and female ritual roles are complementary, and that housewives’ activities in kut are part and parcel of their significant responsibilities as mothers and wives.

The book is based on nearly two years of participant observation in a village near Seoul, where I was able to document village women’s lives and shamanic practices as I watched specific client histories unfold over time. This in-depth access to the world of Korean shamans and their clients in the intimate context of village life has not been matched. That world has now largely vanished.

The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman

Research on Korean Shaman

As a companion volume to Restless Spirits, The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman (University of Hawaii Press, 1988) is centered on the life of one shaman, Yongsu’s Mother. This book is at once an as-told-to autobiography of Yongsu’s Mother and an assessment of the life history method of ethnographic writing. While weaving together stories told by Yongsu’s Mother about her own life, I reflect on my place as an anthropologist in recounting them.

30 Years in and out of the Korean Shaman World

Research on Korean Shaman

Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF (University of Hawaii Press, 2009) details changes in the Korean shaman world that I first encountered as a novice fieldworker in the mid-1970s. In the intervening decades, South Korea experienced an unprecedented economic, social, political, and material transformation. Korean villages all but disappeared. Even so, the shamans are alive and well. The book describes how shamans and their clients have absorbed changes in South Korean life over the last thirty-odd years and how they continue to make sense of the ground that moves beneath their feet. They are active in a place where common sense would not place them at all: not in villages, although some remain there, but in the high-rise cities of a relatively affluent and technologically sophisticated South Korea, working with clients who are arguably middle class. Emphasizing the open and mutable parts of shamanic practice, I describe both how gods and ancestors give voice to the changing concerns of clients and how the ritual fame of these transactions has, itself, been transformed by such developments as urban sprawl, private cars, and zealous Christian proselytizing.

For most of the last century Korean shamans were reviled as practitioners of anti-modern superstition; today they are nostalgically celebrated icons of a vanished rural world. However, heritage recognition is a double-edged sword that privileges the past over the present, causing even shaman advocates to regard what contemporary shamans do as "diluted" or "inauthentic" rather than "adaptive" or "timely." By contrast, I describe a dynamic realm of popular religious practice where shamans who once ministered to the domestic crises of farmers now address the anxieties of entrepreneurs whose dreams of wealth are matched by omnipresent fears of ruin. New wealth and access to foreign goods provoke moral dilemmas about earning and spending, expressed in shamanic rituals through the longings of the dead and the playful antics of greedy gods, some of whom have acquired a taste for imported whisky. I make comparisons between a 1970s "then" and a series of more recent encounters - some with the same shamans and clients - as South Korea moved through the 1990s, endured the Asian Financial Crisis, and entered the new millennium. Old and young shamans speak for themselves in a complex portrait that suggests different and contested ways of doing shamanship in South Korea today.