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Observations placeholder

Mudang spiritual experiences – The Kut ritual for Boyoung's Mother



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Korean Shamanism – The Cultural Paradox – Dr Chongho Kim

I drove very carefully on the way to the kut. It was not easy to see out of the windows because they had frosted over. Chisun's Grandmother kept wiping them with a rag to help me.

Although I had not been living with her long, we already seemed to be together in the same boat. The road became steep as we reached the dam where the kut was to take place. When I changed gear, the car just stopped. I tried many times to start the car again, but it didn't work. Chisun's Grandmother was very worried and blamed herself: 'Isn't this going to be a problem for you? I'm very sorry. If the car doesn't start, will we have to leave it here all night?' I kept on trying, and then gave up, saying, 'We had better fetch the car tomorrow morning.' I put the car in neutral and pushed it to the side of the road, placing a stone behind the tyre to make sure it wouldn't slip down the hill. We then walked up to the kut ritual place on the bank of the dam.

The kut ritual place on the bank was about 700 metres from my village. When we were about 100 metres away, I could hear the sounds of the kut, musical instruments. As we got closer, I could see the flickering of the candles. We crossed the bridge over to the place where the kut was being held. There were only the two women there, Soh Bosal and her client, Boyoung's Mother.

It was quite scary to see them banging the drum at midnight. The drum sounds spread out over the ice of the dam. It was so cold that the ice gave a dull echo. It sounded as if the spirits were answering the drumming. I felt more scared. The black mountains surrounding us seemed to keep guard over the kut ritual. It was half-moon, and particularly cold because the night wind was blowing into the dam from the valley. The candle lights were flickering wildly. In this harsh situation, two women were having a kut secretly at midnight in the middle of the mountains.

Soh Bosal was conducting the shamanic ritual wearing a hat and a white gown - as in the Buddhist dance performance called bumpae - over her jacket. That's all she had put on for the ritual. (She used the same clothes in the kut for Oki's Mother.) She took a break not long after we arrived. During the break, she said to me,

'How can mudang know about Buddhism? They're only in kindergarten [in terms of the professional religions]. We tosa are different from mudang.'

She seemed to want to claim herself for the Buddhist religion, even though she was performing a shamanic ritual, and she preferred to be called a bosal [Buddhist practitioner) or a tosa [Taoist priest] rather than a mudang [shaman]. Ironically, she was putting the shamans down, even though she was one herself. No doubt she wanted to make her position higher in front of me.

It was too much of an effort to take out my pen and notebook because of the cold. Instead, I used a tape- recorder. This was not the first time I had met Soh Bosal and Boyoung's Mother, and they had both already given me permission to tape-record them. However, I hid the tape-recorder in my pocket. It was obvious that I would not be welcome if they saw it in this secret ritual.

Gates for a Strange Participant

Chisun's Grandmother mentioned the problem with my car. Soh Bosal simply diagnosed it as a result of impurity. She said, 'When I prayed just before you arrived here, Grandpa (halabuji) suddenly shouted, "something impure is coming up!", so I knew.' That comment pushed me into a corner.

Obviously the 'impure' thing was me, although she didn't point me out directly. It was the shaman who monopolized the authority of explanation for anything happening in this ritual. They were still not sure whether they could let me into their ritual, because I was not yet close enough to them, and I was definitely not regarded as a member in their field of misfortune. But Chisun's Grandmother saved me, saying, 'How could impurity happen within siblings? I am here to see my sister's kut. lt might have come from the fishes I handled in the preparation for the chesa offerings. The gods are wonderful. They know everything! I know they don't like the smell of fish. It was my mistake.'

A wave of relief swept over me at her words. It seemed to me that I had overcome the first hurdle. But there was another hurdle waiting for me.

When the kut ritual started again, and Boyoung's Mother was being possessed, she suddenly pointed to me with the Spirit Stick she held, and again to Chisun's Grandmother. What does that mean? Have they found some more impurity in me?', I asked myself.

I was really nervous because of the tape-recording l was making. Shivers ran down my spine. I even felt sweat running on my back despite the freezing weather. Soh Bosal was playing the drum and asking the Spirit Stick, 'What do you want to say?' The Stick held by Boyoung's Mother kept on pointing to me and Chisun's Grandmother in turn.

Soh Bosal: Grandpa, what are you saying? You mean this man will hurt her?
Spirit Stick (held by Boyoung's Mother): (nodding)
Soh Bosal: Please, be specific. Is he going to make a fire [accidentally] on her property?
Spirit Stick: (shaking sideways)
Soh Bosal: Then, will he kill anybody?
Spirit Stick: (shaking sideways again)
Soh Bosal: Then, is he going to steal something?
Spirit Stick: (nodding)

……………According to Soh Bosal, it was the spirit of Boyoung's Mother's father-in-law who possessed the Spirit Stick. He was participating very actively in the ritual by possessing the Stick and Boyoung's Mother, and by responding to Soh Bosal’s questions. While the principal participants were Soh Bosal, Boyoung's Mother and her father-in-law's spirit, Chisun's Grandmother and I were just peripheral participants. However, both of us had to pay some contributions.

When the Stick approached, Chisun's Grandmother put a 10 000 won note on to the rice bowl and bowed. I did the same.

Of course, I knew from my past fieldwork that the money would be taken by the shaman Soh Bosal, not by the spirit or anyone else, but I could not refuse to make an offering. I was expected to be a participant, not an observer. If I were a foreigner, I might not have felt the obligation to the degree that I did, but I was an indigenous anthropologist. Whenever I participated in kut rituals, I tried not to forget to bring my wallet. This time, my contributions seemed to satisfy the major participants in the kut. The subject moved on to my car problem:

Soh Bosal; Please, let the car start.
Spirit Stick: (hesitating and still)
Soh Bosal: Aren't you happy with the money and the bow? Please help this man!
Spirit Stick: (hesitating and still)
Soh Bosal: Come on! Please, be friendly again.
Spirit Stick: (nodding)

That night, the freezing cold was so intense that I could hardly bear it. Chisun's Grandmother seemed to be in the same situation. But Soh Bosal and Boyoung's Mother didn't seem to be feeling the cold as much as we were.

Soh Bosal said that she did not feel the cold very much when she was conducting a kut. She explained it as a result of Grandpa's help.

When we said that we had to go back home, they asked us to stay longer. But Chisun's Grandmother said that she could not bear any more, even if I wanted to stay longer. We got back to the car at around 2.30 am, about two and a half hours after we had arrived.

Hesitantly, I tried to start the car again. How could the car start in this cold? It was certainly below minus 10 degrees Celsius.

But, unbelievably, it started straight away!

How incredible!

I had hardly been able to start the car three hours earlier when the engine was still hot, and by now it must be frozen! Was Grandpa really helping us because of my contribution and the bow? Or, was it just coincidence?


The source of the experience

Korean mystic shamanism

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps