Sacred geography - Korean mystic shamanism – Poles
Type of Spiritual Experience
The pole takes its symbolism from the Celestial pole and is thus a very specific marker of spiritual experience as it generally indicates a place of 'ascent'. But Korean mystic shamanism is different in that the shamans do not ascend the pole to meet the gods, the gods descend to the people and this results in a form of communication achieved via shaking poles.
A shaman's spirit pole. (Gireum Market, 2005)
A description of the experience
Korean Shamanist Ritual - Symbols and Dramas of Transformation - Daniel Kister
The Village Shrine is often a rather small, Korean-style building located in an enclosure marked by an old tree on a knoll somewhat apart from the village itself. The procession to the shrine to greet the Village Spirit is led by a specially chosen, ritually purified man from the village, who carries the spirit pole. The band of mudang and musicians add colour to the file of villagers. The women mudang are dressed in full-length embroidered gowns and the men musicians in traditional Korean garb. At the shrine, participants spontaneously enter into a buoyant Korean dance accentuated by graceful arm movements.
The procession and dance give visual and kinetic expression to a sense of expectant joy that finds ritual fulfillment when one of the mudang invokes the Village Spirit to be present in the bamboo pole and asks the god to address those present.
In a Chejudo rite, the shimbang merely states what he knows the god wants to say to the community. He does so briefly and with little fanfare. But in this East Coast rite, the mudang asks questions of the god and interprets responses in the shaking of the spirit pole for more than an hour.
The exchange between the god and the mudang can be quite dramatic and draws the apt attention of the villagers. Punctuating her chant with quick beats on the gong, the mudang asks about the present state of the village and seeks predictions for the coming year: What will the fishing and farming be like? Of what should the villagers have particular concern? What about their health and that of the village children?
The man holding the pole must be strong.
For in response to the mudang's queries, the pole shakes, lightly or violently, with a movement that is believed to originate not in the man himself, but in the power of the god.
If the Village Spirit is reluctant to respond or if he says things that give cause for concern, he can put a damper on the gaiety.
When the pole did not shake in a kut held inland, village representatives bathed ritually in the cold water of a nearby stream as a sign of the community's desire to approach the god with pure devotion. Meanwhile all present anxiously renewed their prayer. Then the shaman tried again.
In any case, the villagers welcome the god's presence; and in the end, renewed once more as a god-centered community through the power of the rite, they escort the god to the main kut site in a repeat of the colorful procession. They may do so directly or by way of various village homes, where the god is greeted in each case with ritual toasts, chanting, piping, and renewed dance. At the main ritual site, for two or more days, various gods are evoked; legends are chanted and mimed; and skits are acted out in lengthy kori, or kut segments, that extend long into the night.
Participants are eager to learn what the god wants to communicate, not just through the shaking spirit pole to the village at large, but in private rites conducted concomitantly with the main events to divine the fortune for the coming year of individual families.
Participants are at least as eager, moreover, to enjoy the performance of a particular mudang whose skill in song, mime, and narration has proved to be a delight in past years. The legends chanted have more purely human interest than the Ponp'uri origin myths chanted in a Chejudo village rite; and comic skits transform the traditionally harsh and risky realities of ordinary village life into uproarious celebrations of life.