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Mu is an ancient Korean word defining a shaman–priest intermediary between the first god, gods of nature, and men, in the Korean traditional religion. They perform rituals called gut. In modern Korea different terms are used for this ministry, the most notable being mudang (mostly for females), baksu (only for males), tangol.
The Korean word mu (?) is thought to come from the same root as the Chinese wu (?), defining a shaman–priest of either sex. The Korean language and culture, however, has developed its own terminology: already in Yi dynasty records, mudang(hangul?, hanmun?) is used prevalently instead of mu. Also mudang apparently derives from Chinese, and originally meant the “altar [or shrine] of mu” and not the person itself.
Mudang is used mostly for female shamans, though not exclusively. Male Korean mu are called by a variety of names, such as sana mudang (literally “male mudang“) in the Seoul area, or baksu mudang, also shortened baksu (“doctor”, “healer”) in the Pyongyang area. It is reasonable to believe that baksu is an ancient authentic designation of male shamans, and that locutions like sana mudang or baksu mudang were formed because of the prevalence of female shamans in recent centuries.Baksu may come from a Korean adaptation of several Siberian names for male shamans, such as baksi, balsi or bahsih.
Role of the mu
The mu is known as “magician, medicine man, mystic and poet” (Eliade, 1974). What set him apart from other healers and priests is his ability to move at will into trance states. During a trance, the shaman’s soul leaves his body and travelled to other realms, where helping spirits guide him in his work. The mu provides healing on many levels: physical, psychological and spiritual.
The work of the mu is based on the holistic model, which takes into consideration, not only the whole person, but the individual’s interaction with his environment, both his inner and outer world. The soul is considered the place of life breath, where a human’s essence (life energy) resides, and any physical illness is inextricably linked with sickness of the soul. Illness of the mind has its origins (root cause) in soul loss, intrusion or possession.
Myths of the origins
In all the myths explaining figuratively the role of the mu, it is implied that they are not self-ordained priests, but they come as media, intermediaries, of the highest forms of being. In other words, they are heavenly ordained, as the “Heavenly King” (Haneullim or Hwanin) has a key role in all the myths.
Another key feature is that mudang and baksu, who in the most recent history of Korea are regarded as belonging to the lowest class (cheonmin ), are instead explained as having a forgotten princely origin in myths, often a lineage that can be traced to kingly founders of civilisations. Further features are symbols of divine presence such as the cosmic mountain and the holy tree, and tragic or painful experiences.The bear is a significant symbol in Korean myth, also found in Siberian myths.
Sungmo–the Holy Mother
In a collection of myths, the origins of the mu or mudang are linked to a mother goddess associated with a mountain. She has different names according to different regions and mountauns associated: Sungmo (“Holy Mother”), Daemo (“Great Mother”), Jamo (“Benevolent Mother”), Sinmo (“Divine Mother”), Nogo (“Ancient Lady”), and others. In other myths she is a princess who is later transformed into a goddess, with divine investiture of the mu passed down through female princely lineage.
The myth of the mother goddess usually tells of a man, Pobu Hwasang, who encountered the “Holy Mother [of the Heavenly King]” on the top of a mountain. The Holy Mother became a human being and married him, giving birth to eight girls, the first mudang. According to philological studies, this myth was formed in the Silla period, when Buddhism and influences from China had already entered the Korean peninsula.
The myth of the princess is the most popular, and it differs from a region to another. In one of the versions the princess is Ahwang Kongju of the Yao kingdom on the Asian mainland or another kingdom. The princess had a strong connection to the Divine, granting welfare to her people. The king sent the princess among the people, who began to worship her for her healing powers. The mudang were established as her successors. The princess is worshipped at the ritual of seasonal offerings in Chungcheong. The yellow and red clothes worn by the mudang are regarded as Ahwang Kongju’s robes, at the ritual.
In the north of the peninsula the princess is known as Chil Kongju (the Seventh Princess), seventh of the daughters of the king. The myth tells that she was rejected by her father, who sealed her in a stone coffin and cast it in a pond, but she was rescued by a Dragon King sent by the Heavenly King, and ascended to the western sky becoming the goddess of healing waters. Names in other provinces include Pali Kongju and Kongsim. In the tradition of Jeju Island, where there are more male baksu than female mudang, the myth of the origins tells of a prince as the ancestor of all mu.
Dangun–the Sandalwood King
In a Korean myth and in Sinist theology, Dangun is the son of Hwanin, the “Heavenly King” and initiator of the Korean nation. This myth is considered older than that of the mother goddess. Accounts similar to the Dangun myth are found in Ainu and Siberian cultures.
The myth starts with prince Hwanung (“Heavenly Prince”), son of Hwanin. The prince asked his father to grant him government over Korea.Hwanin accepted, and Hwanung was sent to Earth bearing three Heavenly Seals and accompanied by three thousand followers. The prince arrived under the holy tree of sandalwood (Sintansu , ) on the holy mountain, where he founded his holy city.
At the time of his reign, Ungnye or Ungnyeo (, ) the she-bear and a tiger were living in a cave near the humans, praying earnestly that their wish might be granted.Ungnye patiently endured weariness and hunger, and after twenty-one days she was transformed into a beautiful woman, while the tiger ran away for it could not tolerate the effort. The woman was overjoyed, and visiting the sandalwood she prayed that she might become the mother of a child.
Ungnye’s wish was appreciated, so that she became the queen and gave birth to a prince who was given the royal name of Dangun, the “Sandalwood King”. Dangun reigned as the first human king of Korea, giving the kingdom the name of Joseon, “Land of the Morning Calm”.
Dangun was the first mu, intermediary between the human plain and Haneullim, to whom he worshipped and prayed on the behalf of his people. Also the importance of the worship of other ancestors and gods is a mean of communion with the fountain of the universe, Haneullim.In some provinces of Korea the shaman is still called nowadays Dangul dangul-ari (also tangol, ). Later in the myth Dangun becomes the Sansin, the “God of the Mountain” (of growth, prosperity).
Types of mu
Mu can be categorized into two basic archetypes: sess?mu, who inherit the role and the right to perform rites, and kangshinmu, who are initiated into their mu office through a ceremony. Sess?mu historically were mostly concentrated in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, while kangshimu were found throughout the entire peninsula and contiguous areas inhabited by Koreans, but were mostly characteristic of the north (modern-day North Korea), the contiguous areas of China and the central part of the peninsula around the Han River.
Kangshinmu–initiated or chosen priests
Kangshinmu (; ) are historically found throughout Korea, but are especially concentrated in the central and northern regions of the peninsula and in the lands contiguous to the northern part of the peninsula. The essential characteristic of the kangshinmu is that they acquire the status with a god or spirit choosing him or her during the ceremony. There are two types of kangshinmu: one shares its name with the general Korean word for shaman, mudang; the other is called the my?ngdu.
A person becomes a kangshinmu by participating in an initiation ceremony known as a naerim-gut, during which the person undergoes a state known as a shinbyeong (). The kangshinmu-initiate is said to be possessed by a spirit during the ceremony. The act of possession is said to be accompanied by physical pain and psychosis. Believers would assert that the physical and mental symptoms are not subject to medical treatment, but may only be cured through acceptance of and full communion with the spirit.
A mudang is a type of shaman that has become possessed by a god, called a momju. Mudang perform fortune telling using their spiritual powers derived from their possession. They preside over a gut (rite) involving song and dance. A subcategory of this type, called s?nmudang or posal, are thought to have power through a spiritual experience, but are not considered worthy to preside over an orthodox gut. Certain shamans in this category are male and are called baksu.
My?ngdu differ from the basic type of mudang in that they receive the spirit of a dead person (usually a young child relative of the my?ngdu) rather than being possessed by a god. The my?ngdu invites the spirit to a shrine in her dwelling. My?ngdu are found primarily in the Honamarea of Korea.
Seseummu (; ), found in the area south of the Han River, have their status as mu passed on through family bloodlines. Two types of mu are considered seseummu: shimbang and tangol.
Shimbang are similar to the kangshimu types of mu in that the godhead and importance of spirituality are emphasized. However, unlike in the kangshimu type, the right to conduct ceremonies is hereditary. Moreover, a shimbang differs from a kangshimu in that their bodies are not possessed by spirits or gods during the gut ritual. Rather, the shimbang contacts the god through a medium (muj?mgu) and does not become one with the god. In addition, the shimbang does not maintain a shrine.
Tangol are a type of mudang found mostly in the southernmost areas of the Korean peninsula and especially in the Yeongnam area (Gyeongsang-do) and the Honam area (Jeolla-do). The tangol of Honam each had individual districts (tangolpan) in which they had the exclusive right to perform certain shamanic ceremonies or gut. The gut performed by the tangol involve song and dance that serve to entertain a god or goddess, but there is interaction with or channeling of the god. Both the rights of succession and the ceremonies themselves have been systematized through the years so that they now bear the characteristics of a religious institution. Unlike other types of mu, tangol do not receive a god as part of an initiation ceremony. A tangol will not have a shrine in his or her home and will not generally have a defined belief system in a particular god.
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. pp. 3-5
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 3
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. pp. 3-4
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 4
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 10
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 11
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 19
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. pp. 11-12
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 20
- Lee Chi-ran, pp. 6-7
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. pp. 5-12
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. pp. 5-6
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 13
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 6
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 7
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 12
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 21
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 14
- Lee Chi-ran, pp. 10-13
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 17
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. p. 18
- Jung Young Lee, 1981. pp. 16-18
- Kim 1998, pp. 32-33
- Kim 1998, pp. 41-42
- Kim 1998, pp. 28-29
- Kim 1998, p. 32
- Kim 1998, pp. 31-32
- Kim 1998, pp. 29-30
- Kim, Tae-kon (1998). Korean Shamanism–Muism. Jimoondang Publishing Company. ISBN 89-88095-09-X. Translated by Chang Soo-kyung.
- Lee Chi-ran. Chief Director, Haedong Younghan Academy. The Emergence of National Religions in Korea.
- Jung Young Lee. Korean Shamanistic Rituals. Mouton De Gruyter, 1981. ISBN 9027933782