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Observations placeholder

Mudang spiritual experiences – The kut for Chisun's Grandmother – 03 Chisun's Grandmother in Possession



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Korean Shamanism – The Cultural Paradox – Dr Chongho Kim

Chisun's Grandmother in Possession

It was around 11 o'clock when we started the possession phase. Soh Bosal asked for something flat on which the Spirit Stick could stand. Chisun's Mother brought a wooden chopping board from the kitchen. It was Chisun's Grandmother who held the Stick. She did not hesitate and closed her eyes while Soh Bosal was hitting the drum and the gong. All the eyes of the participants were focused on the Stick. It did not take long for Chisun's Grandmother to become possessed, and the Stick began to shake within ten minutes. It looked as though energy was entering the Stick. Immediately following possession, Chisun's Grandmother suddenly rose, ran through the corridor brashly opened the door of my room, next to the ritual room, and entered. Feeling very surprised, I followed the Stick, saying to myself, 'Is the Stick finding something impure in my room?' At the time, I was very nervous about my tape-recorder and recorded tapes, which I had put in my room. Tape-recording had been one of the big issues with the villagers. Some people were so suspicious of my tape-recording that they called me 'Spy' (gancheop).

What if the Stick points at the tape-recorder and the recorded tapes? In that case, I will probably be expelled from this village, and I will not be able to continue my fieldwork here.  A picture of this worrying situation flashed across my mind. Electricity ran down my spine. However, the Stick was not interested in my tape-recorder, but in Chisun's Father. Chisun's Grandmother smacked his sleeping face with the Stick saying, 'How dare you! Do you still feel sleepy even though your father has come? Get up! You bad boy! Is this the way you treat ancestors? Get up!'

Chisun's Father seemed to be frightened. He sprang to his feet, and made a kowtow on his knees to the Stick. The audience fell silent with surprise. The event was so dramatic that nobody would be able to argue about whether the Stick was possessed. The spirit possessing the Stick and Chisun's Grandmother was Chisun's Grandfather!

Holding the Stick with her right hand, Chisun's Grandmother returned to the ritual room. Chisun's Father and I followed her and sat down. Soon after entering the room, the Stick bowed to every person sitting in the room one-by-one. When the Stick bowed, people bowed too. This meant that they were exchanging greetings with each other in a polite way, as if they had not met for ages (Chisun's Grandfather had died five years before the kut.) The Stick also approached me, and bowed, so I bowed to the Stick in return. It seemed to me that the way in which the Stick bowed to me was especially polite.

'He is now expressing his special thanks to you,' explained Songil's Grandmother, one of the neighbours who was sitting beside me. I imagined that this was because I was a guest in his house, unlike the other participants, and had been assisting in the preparations for the kut.

'Please be seated (jwajeonghasio)! '

Soh Bosal asked the Stick, using a very old fashioned way of asking, which was used only in ritual situations. Even though the expression was no longer used in contemporary everyday Korean, everybody seemed to understand it, because old-fashioned words such as these often appeared in historical dramas on the television.

As the conductor of the ritual, Soh Bosal gave an order to the Stick. 'Please find any impure things in this room! 'The shaking Stick went around the room, trying to find something impure. It reminded me of a sniffer dog such as those used at the airport to search for drugs or bombs. My heart began to race again. As an outsider, I was always at risk throughout the fieldwork, especially in its early stages, to being pointed out as 'impure' in this sort of witch-hunt-like-ritual.

Fortunately again, the Stick was not interested in me, but pointed out an 'impure’ object in a wardrobe. This was a man's grey jacket. Chisun's Grandmother (or Chisun's Grandfather) smacked the jacket with the Stick many times. Watching the scene, Soh Bosal said on behalf of the spirit, 'Who put this jacket here? Who was it? Why has it been kept? Get rid of it quickly!'

Following Soh Bosal's instructions, Chisun's Grandmother (or Chisun's Grandfather) threw it out into the front yard. It all seemed quite ironic, because the jacket had been used by Chisun's Grandfather before his death, and the person criticized was Chisun's Grandmother herself.

'Please be seated!' Chisun's Grandmother put the Stick on the chopping board according to Soh Bosal's request.

After a few minutes of beating the drum, Soh Bosal asked the Stick, 'I'm going to ask you about your wife's illness. The illness is a result of her children's naughty behaviour? Is that right, sir? '

In this way, the shaman pointed out the main issue for which Chisun's Grandmother was having the ritual.

The Stick nodded, meaning 'Yes'.

Soh Bosal then asked, 'Can it be cured by medicines? Can it be, sir?'

This time the Stick shook sideways, meaning 'No'.

Soh Bosal questioned the Stick further. 'What about special medicines for arthritis? That sort of medicines will work. Am I right, sir?'

The Stick shook sideways again.

The shaman continued, 'If not, it will be cured by physiotherapy (mulrichiryo). Is that right, sir?'

The Stick shook sideways again.

Beating the drum in a fast rhythm, Soh Bosal then asked, 'Then, it is due to the involvement of a spirit wandering here and there. Isn't it, sir? 'This time, the Stick nodded.

However that was not the final answer Soh Bosal wished to have. 'No! No!' She objected to what she herself had proposed just before. 'That's not exactly right. It cannot be a wandering spirit, but a spirit living inside of the house. The illness is a result of the dead person's clothes (sang or). Am I right, sir?'

The Stick nodded.

Smiling, Soh Bosal asked again, 'I've made a good hit, haven't I? Please let me confirm the matter. The clothes which the gods disapproved of caused the illness.

Am I right, sir?'

The Stick nodded.

As Soh Bosal had predicted before the ritual, the spirit of Chisun's Grandfather turned out to be responsible for Chisun's Grandmother's illness. 'Please tell me what we can do,' asked Soh Bosal who had finished the diagnosis. 'Her illness can be cured if she takes a holiday. Is that right, sir?'

The Stick shook sideways.

After apparently thinking for a couple of seconds, she then asked carefully, 'Do you mean that you will take her?'

To this question, the Stick strongly responded, trembling with excitement. The atmosphere was suddenly frozen. For a few minutes, a tense silence hung in the air. The message of the Stick was that Chisun's Grandmother would die soon.

Soh Bosal objected, 'No way! You must be an evil ghost (heoju kwisin)! If you were Chisun's Grandfather, you could not say that you will take her. You must bless her with long life if you are really her husband.'

 Many neighbours participated in this protest. 'It's not fair if you take her in the near future. She is still young! What a liar you are, Grandpa! I'll stab your neck,' shouted Pilsok's Grandmother, picking up a metal chopstick from the offering table. 'If you take her, what should she do with her property?'

Soh Bosal moved the issue to how to distribute the property after Chisun's Grandmother's death.

Chisun's Grandfather, still possessing the Stick, stroked Chisun's Mother gently on her chest several times.

Chisun's Grandmother, possessed, then hugged her daughter-in-law, who at last burst into tears saying, 'Father, Father! Please don't take Mother! Please, Father!'

However, Soh Bosal teased, 'Does it make any difference? Your daughter-in-law belongs to your son. The properties you give to her will be given to him soon after, won't they? Is there any way for your daughter-in-law to avoid giving them to her husband if she is asked?'

The Stick shook sideways roughly. It seemed that Chisun's Grandfather did not want that to happen. And then Chisun's Grandmother, still possessed, smacked Chisun's Father with the Stick in the face and on the head, saying, 'You bastard! You bastard! I am not giving anything to you! You bastard!'

Chisun's Grandmother (or Chisun's Grandfather) smacked Chisun's Father so strongly that many of the paper leaves were detached from the Stick and scattered into the air. Chisun's Father, startled at what was happening, shrank back, flinching. Yet Soh Bosal continued to tease the Stick, 'But you should give the properties to your sons. They are supposed to receive them.'

Again Chisun's Grandmother smacked her son several times and then stroked her daughter-in-law, saying, 'oh, my miserable daughter-in-law! How hard your life is! I'll help you, I'll help you, my miserable daughter-in-law! You must have a bruise in your mind.

Chisun's Grandfather, possessing Chisun's Grandmother, then touched Chisun's Mother with the Stick. Chisun's Mother cried, while holding Chisun's Grandmother's left hand which was free. Soh Bosal stopped beating the drum, because all the participants were in a sad mood. Nobody spoke, and everybody sat still. After a few minutes, Soh Bosal asked, looking at Chisun's Father, 'Have you got anything to ask? Ask whatever you wish to know.'

Because Chisun's Grandfather had died, Chisun's Father was the head of the family (daeju), and had a right to ask something. But Chisun's Father hesitated. Soh Bosal prompted him, 'Come on! Don't be shy!' However, as it seemed that he was too embarrassed about what was happening to ask proper questions, Soh Bosal suggested instead, 'In that case, let me ask on your behalf.'

The shaman then asked the Stick held by Chisun's Grandmother, 'Your eldest son wants to sell his house. Is it all right, sir?' Then, apparently unsure of the question, she asked Chisun's Father, 'You want to buy a new house, don't you?'

'Well ... not a house. I was thinking of changing my vehicle ...'

Chisun's Father equivocated. He seemed to feel ashamed not only because he was going to be the object of attention, but also because he did not have his own house yet. He was already past 40, and most people of his age had their own houses whereas he still rented a small apartment in Chungju City, where house prices were high. Soh Bosal addressed the Stick again, 'Sorry. Your son is going to buy a new car. Is that all right, sir?'

Suddenly Chisun's Grandmother, possessed by Chisun's Grandfather, hit Chisun's Father's face with the Stick and abused him, 'You bastard! Does that make any sense? Don't resign your current job, either! If you quit this job, it will be hard to find another job at your age. Understand? Never consider it again!'

Soh Bosal added, 'He's going to buy a seventy million won oil truck.' The Stick continued to smack Chisun's Father, yelling, 'Seventy million? Screwball! You wretched boy! Bum! Loafer! Rotter!'

 Soh Bosal then moved on to another issue with which Chisun's Grandmother had been also concerned. 'Please let me ask another question. Your youngest daughter is of an age to be married. Is she likely to get married soon? The matter of marriage worries the housewife very much. Tell me when she will be able to get married, please. Will she get married before this June?'

The Stick shook sideways. Soh Bosal asked again, 'You answered no. Then the marriage will happen before September or October. Am I right, sir?'

The Stick shook sideways again.

'Then, the marriage will be done in this year, and won't go further to the next year.  Is that right, sir?'

The Stick still shook sideways.

 Soh Bosal seemed to pretend to be annoyed. 'Then how far? She will get married next year then. Is that right, sir?'

But, again, the Stick shook sideways.

The Stick's message was that the marriage would not be easy and would take a long time. I heard some sighs from the ritual participants, including Chisun's Mother. Minji, whose marriage problem was being dealt with here, was not attending the ritual, but staying at her sister's house in Seoul.

Apart from being ashamed of the ritual, she might not want her marriage problem to be dealt with in the presence of other people, especially in my presence. Several days later, when she came down to Soy, I heard her shouting at her mother: 'Don't talk to other people about me! And don't believe the shamans any more! I can manage myself!' Minji seemed to have heard of the happenings in the ritual. She had a sharp tongue and was not at all interested in shamanism. Nor was she interested in her neighbours. An attractive woman, she seemed be dreaming of urban life in Seoul or somewhere else such as Japan, and was looking for a wealthy husband from a higher social class.


The source of the experience

Korean mystic shamanism

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items

Activities and commonsteps