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Mudang and Korean Shamanism

Photographer: Hayoung Jeon


South Korea is a “multi-religious society” which is sometimes also called a “religious department store” or a “religious market”. There are many religious groups in the Korean society that exist as a kind of selectable good according to similar principles of a market economy. As a result of a 2008 survey by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, it was found that there are more than 510 religious bodies and sects in Korea, including both native and foreign religions.

According to 2005 National Statistical Office’s survey data, more than 53% of Korea’s total population perceives itself as a religious. The practice of Christianity in Korea revolves around two of its largest branches, Protestantism and Catholicism, accounting for about 8.5 million and 5 million members respectively. Korean Buddhism is strong as well having around 10.5 million members. However, the believers in traditional Korean Shamanism did not lose their faith until our days. According to the media, around 550,000 people are estimated to work in the Korean shamanism and fortune-telling related businesses such as tarot card readers, palm readers, Saju (fortune-telling) experts and professional psychics, including Mudang (the Korean traditional shaman-priest.) The Mudang’s ritual is called 'Gut' in which a shaman appeases and exorcises the gods and ghosts through a performance such as singing and dancing. Clients pay shamans to perform 'Guts' in order to fulfill their spiritual or mundane needs. The shamanism and fortune-telling market is amounting to up to 3.5 billion US dollar in a year. More than half of Koreans are believers in various religions and consume time and goods to satisfy their religious desires.

The religious situation in Korea is of a multi-religious society despite Korea being a society composed of a mostly homogenous population. Moreover, the religions coexist mutually and in peace. Given the relationship between religion and Korean society, culture, and history, the religious realm serves as a window or path for understanding Korea. For example, except for Buddhism and Confucianism, it is impossible to understand the society, culture, and history of Goryeo and Joseon. The fact that more than half of all cultural assets and relics are related to religion proves this fact. If we ignore the religious realm, it is impossible to deeply understand the society, culture, and history of modern Korea.

It is necessary to have an active interest in the religious sphere in countries that are seeking religious segregation though. In modern countries, religion is an important cultural capital. Therefore, this photo essay is focused on the Korean indigenous religion which has a history of more than 5,000 years.