Sunday, June 06, 2004


Chel-Mu-Ri Kut

In Korea, traditional shamanistic ritual has its birth and development deep within the roots of Korean folk culture. Before proceeding an understanding of Shamanism and ritual from a Korean perspective is necessary. Shamanistic ritual transcends any religious connotation. The Korean ritual, pronounced "Kut", defies English translation. Ritual, rite or ceremony do not fully describe the meaning of kut. Kut extends into the dimensions of entertainment and spectacle. Kut involves a show with a feast, dancing, singing, drinking as a cultural event. Kut is a service of sharing full of hospitality and serving. Not one aspect may be deleted and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The word kut is active, alive and transforming in the sense of a verb more than a noun. For these reasons, throughout this essay, I will refer to Kut rather than shamanic ritual to reinforce the roots of Korean shamanism.

The Korean Kut is divided regionally by the Han river. Shaman Dongho Choi asserts that the South part follows the transmission of knowledge by heredity (the so called study shaman) and the North follows that it is the gods who descend into the shaman (Jeong. Personal Interview). Accordingly, the Southern kut is performed without an altar of the god. North of the Han river, the 'descending god shaman' manages the gods of the sky, earth, mountain, water and humans with an ability that is learned through practice and training. However there is no distinction between the North kut and South kut, between the study shaman and the descending god shaman, kut is kut. Mircea Eliade writing that "shamanism = technique of ecstasy" (4) and the general definition of shamanism as a spirit medium with a focus on mystical trance or possession is problematic. Duk-Mook Kim, a Korean folklorist, researching Koran Kut countered: "one must understand Korean Kut in its totality and holism and in all aspects of religion, folklore, and cultural anthropology" (1). Under the concept of totality, this paper traces the Chel-mu-ri Kut in the northern province Hwang-hae do (North Korea) respecting and acknowledging the place of kut in the cultural spine of the community. The paper will then briefly examine the shaman who conducts the kut as Performer.

To place the Chel-mu-ri Kut in its proper context it is important to note that the Hwang-hae do province designates the entire canon of rituals as the Hwang-hae do Kut, of which the Chel-mu-ri Kut is one of the five main Kuts. Chel-mu-ri Kut is a seasonal Kut performed in the fall at the end of the harvest. The North, being a mountainous region, lacks good farming land and thus a rich harvest is greatly appreciated. Good weather, hard agricultural work, and the labour of the previous generations are all recognized in this Kut. As well a bountiful future harvest is requested. The Kut plays an important function of reconciliation within the community. The feast, sharing of food and drink and communal song and dance serve to heal misunderstanding or ill relationships that have troubled the community. Only when a shaman and musicians are sponsored by an individual or family (Dan-gol) will a Kut be conducted.

The particular Kut under examination took place in the village Dae-sung-ni, a two hour train ride from Seoul. A beautiful rural setting of open fields and mountains, close to the Book-Han River, the area provided an escape from the hectic city life. Ms. Han, who owned many cabins in the area, offered food and shelter to all participants of the Kut and was thus the Dan-gol. This Chel-mu-ri Kut was a three day event involving three shamans (Ok-Sun Yu, Kyong-Ok Song and Dong-Ho Choi) and four musicians (Kum-Ok Ji, Ji-Nye Lee, Young-Tak Kim and Chang-Nam Kim).

A large open room is prepared. Many colourful paintings and figures of various gods hang on the walls. Along one wall stands a large table full of different kinds of fruits, vegetables, sweets, cookies, rice, rice-cakes, drinks and alcohol. This is the altar, decorated with white Mulberry paper ornaments, where are also placed the shaman's garments, ritual objects and two lit candles. On the opposite side of the room, facing the altar, the musical instruments are set. At the center is the Chang-gu (Korean drum) with the Jing (gong) and the Bara (cymbals) on the left and the Tae pyoung-so (flute) on the right.

Before the Kut begins Shaman Choi purifies place, objects and people. Shaman Choi takes small samples of food from the altar and placing them on a small table announces the readiness of the kut to the respectful gods. The smell of prepared sesame seed fills the room. Shaman Choi then steps outside into the yard and journeys to the entrance gate throwing handfuls of salt from a bowl he carries in all directions. It is an act of cleansing the road for the gods.

The musicians now sound the instruments. The gong echoes into the early morning air reaching out to the god of the sky. The drum vibrates to the god of the earth and the cymbals summon the god of the humans. They join in a call to awaken the gods and invite them to connect and gather together in one place. Finally the human voice is heard. Shaman Yu sings standing in front of the drum clothed in many layers of colourful traditional dresses. She holds a colourful fabric fan in her right hand and plays the ritual bells with her left. Every third line of her song is answered back by the musicians in refrain. She dances bowing toward the four directions and spins gracefully. The music gradually quickens and she raises her hands above her head as if to receive the spirits from the gods. She trembles and repeats the action in the four directions. She dances and spins with each object and garment to be used in the kut and the music intensifies. The purification concludes when Shaman Yu stops dancing.

Ms. Han is now addressed. The gods express themselves to Ms. Han channelling through Shaman Yu's incantations. Ms. Han listens bowing often as a sign of respect and rubbing her hands in the motion of prayer. Shaman Yu then begins to dance. She burns a piece of mulberry paper allowing the ashes to fly through the air. Turning to the altar she dips her bells into the rice jar and releases grains of rice on a red cloth. Ms. Han counts the kernels and if they are an even number, she eats them. The dipping of the bells continues until the rice kernels produce an even number. The channelling continues and tears flow from Shaman Yu. Ms. Han listens with awe and dignity to the words of the gods.

At this point Shaman Choi takes over repeating the structure of incantation and dance outside in the front yard. He explains that all gods enter even the unclean and disrespectful therefore it is his responsibility to feed and comfort the unwanted gods and send them away while at the same time please the desired gods with welcoming song and dance. Some gods he welcomes are; the god of seven stars who manages the life span from birth to death, the god of place who manages the spirit of the house, and the god of managing goods and wealth (Jeong). The entertainment and playfulness begins. Shaman Choi exchanges witticisms between the musicians and the witnesses. He mimes unhappiness because no one has made money earrings for him. Ms. Han enters the play quickly hanging money on his hat strings. The left side is heavier than the right so with tilted head Shaman Choi begs for balance and the game to balance all the money evenly continues playfully till Shaman Choi is pleased and blesses all the participants that they too be soaked in riches. His banter and dance is recognizably in fun and the room is filled with laughter and joy.

The dance continues and Shaman Choi, without stopping, changes into new garments. These are his hunting clothes and with two sticks decorated with end ribbons he performs the hunt. He hunts a deer. He is not a good hunter and misses with his arrow as the musicians tease him. Reacting to the musician's sarcasm Shaman Choi performs a serious dramatic hunt and finally succeeds with flourish and showmanship.

The Chel-mu-ri Kut slowly moves to the outdoor stage. The sacrifice which is a central and large part now begins. The singing, dancing and incantation to the gods is repeated. Each round the intensity increases transforming and blossoming from the previous playful section into a fervent atmosphere of expectation. The offerings are served. Four pigs become the focus as the music enters a dizzying state. Shaman Song dances revealing each of the knifes and other objects to be used during the sacrifice. The very difficult and profound killing of the pigs is performed. Warm blood flows from the necks of the pigs. Shaman Song drinks the blood, paints the face of Ms. Han and disperses blood around the yard and house. Her white garments fully stained in blood she dances as the pools of blood on the ground turn black. She grabs a long white cotton cloth and calls for Ms. Han to be placed between two halves. Ms. Han is pushed through the cloth her chest straining against the fabric with Shaman Song cutting the cloth separating it into two. The pieces of cloth are collected and Shaman Song symbolically washes evilness, misfortune and illness from Ms. Han and burns the fabric. Shaman Choi explained that the releasing of the blood from the live pigs releases the resentment and blocked energy which pollutes our lives with evilness and illness (Jeong). Shaman Song cleanses herself and the pigs are cleaned and brought to the table. To observe if the sacrifice has been accepted the pig is placed on a pitchfork and stands balanced in a small salt grave. Only when the pitchfork supported solely by the salt grave stands aright holding the pig suspended in the air may Shaman Song announce in splendid song her appreciation and honour that the sacrifice has pleased the gods.

The Kut returns inside where Shaman Choi, dressed in colourful and comic garments dances in joy. He takes alcohol from the altar and drinks joking with the witnesses, asking if they are thirsty. He shares a small glass of alcohol with each witness bestowing on all good fortune, long life and wealth. A feast of pork and rice cake is served. Shaman Choi begins to dance with the sharp knives from the alter. As the music intensifies he draws the blades across his arms. No harm is done. He repeats this action on his thighs and stomach. Again no harm is done. His transformation now complete he leads all the participants outside to the blade dance altar. Sharp blades are placed on a table creating a staircase ten feet high. Shaman Choi's feet are washed with water. He opens his skirt and collects money from all placing the offerings under the blades. When the music reaches a powerful passion and Shaman Choi has built a tremendous concentration and energy through song and dance he runs and quickly scales to the top of the blade tower. He turns to face the four directions and it is a stunning site to a man silhouetted by the setting sun his voice sounding to the sky with omnipotent song. Shaman Choi explains this moment as that stepping down on the blades is an act of pressing down the dangers, uncleanliness, misfortune and ill will so that only good fortune and cleanliness remain. He further reveals that the blade dance requires a maximum of courage and thus displays the full power of the gods making the incantations of this moment especially powerful and sacred. He describes his state as one of extreme awareness and control (Jeong). In the anthology of essays titled Performing Democracy, Dong-il Lee writes about the blade dance by shaman Choi in another work: "For Shaman Choi it is a direct confrontation with his fear of death. By transforming those fears with the help of spirits and spectators, he is able to perform this dangerous act of symbolic death and resurrection" (308).

The Kut returns inside and immediately a release is experienced. The blade dance has liberated the atmosphere of extreme ardour and the witnesses are invited to actively participate. Shaman Choi even generously lets people wear the beautiful shaman clothes. One individual steps forward and shares a traditional Korean song with incredible voice. He imitates the shamanic dance shaking the bells and spinning gracefully. People go crazy cheering him. Another sings a modern Pop song and all laughingly though generously join in as the food arrives. Pork and alcohol are abundantly served. Suddenly Shaman Choi asks for volunteers to carry raw pieces of pig. Soon any hesitation disappears and many are dancing with raw pig on their shoulders. They dance outside where small camp fires have burnt to ash and the revellers apply ash and dirt to their faces. Screaming they run into the night in what is considered the play of the night ghosts.

The Chel-mu-ri Kut nears its end in what is recognized as the Aftermath. The gods of the ancestors are served with song, dance and incantation. Particularly Ms. Han's ancestors are addressed. At the entrance to the village a place of wooden carved totems, piled stones and trees decorated with colourful fabric and mulberry paper represents the gateway to the old times. The incantations are specifically sent to the god who manages the doors of good fortune that the village be protected from illness and the ancestors have a safe journey to the next world. Shaman Choi performs a final round of song, dance and incantation to expel any disrespectful spirits that may have entered the Kut. He disperses food and drink throughout the house and field as a final gesture of purification. The Chel-mu-ri Kut is concluded and the participants with open hearts and spirit continue to sing, talk and play into the night.

The Chel-mu-ri Kut is a communal event. Yet the Shaman, particularly during the sacrifice and blade dance, is regarded as the illuminating performer for and with the community. Jerzy Grotowski, a respected director of the twentieth century, researching Art as Vehicle defined performer as:

Performer, with a capital letter, is a man of action. He is not somebody who plays another. He is a doer, a priest, a warrior: he is outside aesthetic genres. Ritual is performance, an accomplished action, an act. . . He is somebody who is conscious of his own mortality. If it's necessary to confront corpses he confronts them, but if it's not necessary to kill, he doesn't kill. . . To conquer knowledge he fights, because the pulsation of life becomes stronger and more articulated in moments of great intensity, of danger. (374-375)

In this sense the Shaman is a Performer. Killing is an extreme act - a challenge to face life and death. Personally I could not watch the shaman hold the knife and poke into the pig’s neck. I did hear the squeal of the pig which tore my heart and I smelled the blood which forced my eyes open. Beautiful, rich, red blood of life flowed from the neck. At this moment I witnessed the eyes of the pig watching me watching. There was no anger in the eyes but simply a looking of innocence and purity. I was overwhelmed by my own thoughts of selfishness. Finally the pig closed its eyes. Death came and I released my breath wiping my tears. Death had been challenged and my eyes were forced open. One chooses life. The blade dance which follows this sacrifice continues the transformation of our fears. Our intensely personal and private fears made public in a communal act allow the Shaman Performer to perform these acts of symbolic death and resurrection. Attempting to question my shaman teacher about these acts and his power as a shaman he roared at me saying there is no god out there. Without the human there is no god. To be human is to be god. You are a god. The Chel-mu-ri Kut is of the human spirit. The human voice, the human movement, the human energy creates a transforming consciousness that is more than oneself. One is a god (Jeong).

At the same time the Chel-mu-ri Kut preserves the traditional way of living and expresses the traditional arts within a totality of context. The song, dance and acting are not separated but are a composite art. According to Shaman Choi the performers of the Korean traditional mask dance had originally acted in the Kut as did the court musicians. In older times the Kut troupe consisted of the most skillful artists of the high popular culture. The regional song and dances were transmitted and the treasures of traditional culture were preserved to later became national treasures of Korean tradition. The Kut allowed people to sing and dance without shame and the theatricality of the event led to extreme displays of emotion and feeling which made the song and dances a rich source of living energy. Laurel Kendall who studied a Korean kut of the Seoul area noted, "A kut honours a basic structure, a progress through the house wherein gods and ancestors appear in place and in approximate sequence" (20). The Chel-mu-ri Kut reveals a deeper insight and meaning, not only giving a sense of the place of the gods within the daily life but also details the very specific characteristics and relationship these gods maintain to the community. The detailed structure of the Kut perpetuated the many varied aspects of traditional life preserving ancient knowledge and wisdom. In older times, without the phone or e mail, it was the sweet smell of the sesame seed and the appealing music which spread far beyond the entrance of the village and alerted the community and travellers that a Kut was in progress. The open spirit of the kut welcomed all visitors treating them with great hospitality. Practical preparation of the food lead to an appreciation of the sacred place nourishment plays in the life. Rice cake made with red beans, for example, expressed the symbolic power of the red colour to expel misfortune and evilness.

Most importantly the Kut was an integral part of daily life. It sustained a connection with the past. Duk-Mook Kim observed that the radical industrialization of Korea combined with the invasion of western thought and christianity resulted in a tension and separation between traditional culture and modern daily life (12). The shift away from an agriculturally sustained community has ravaged the traditional way of life. The change in Korea mostly during the 60's and 70's has transformed the Kut. Shaman Choi states that the Kut, under the influence of modern society, has become shorter and many parts are being deleted. As they are less frequently performed the deleted sections become forgotten. More and more the Kut becomes almost a museum piece devoid of essential elements related directly to modern culture. What does this mean? A multitude of questions surface. If one traces and keeps alive the Korean Kut, does one keep alive the Korean self? If one finds a living connection to the past through the Kut what is its place in modern times? Can a universal objective function be formulated for the Kut?

Richard Schechner answers these questions with: "Both Turner and Grotowski saw the best human endeavors as Janus-like, the Roman god who looks back to the 'most ancient' and forward to 'the newest' at the same time" (245). Shaman Choi answers these questions by stating that the Chel-mu-ri Kut is human centred. It is the human who takes care of the god not the god showing mercy on us (Jeong). The Kut is not about a specific time or tradition it is about the meaning of being human. The Kut is "about a collective life of harmony based on the spirits of playfulness and inclusiveness" (Lee 308). The Kut is an act of human power, human voice and human movement.

Works Cited

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy. Trans. Willard R. Trask.
[Princeton, N.J.] : Princeton University Press, 1972, c1964.

Grotowski, Jerzy. "Performer." The Grotowski Sourcebook . Eds. Richard Schechner and Lisa Wolford. New York ; London : Routledge, 1997.

Kendall, Laurel. Shamans, housewives, and other restless spirits : women in Korean ritual life. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, c1985.

Lee, Dong-il. "Contemporary Madang Kut of South Korea." Performing democracy : international perspectives on urban community-based performance. Eds. Susan C. Haedicke and Tobin Nellhaus. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c2001.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: an Introduction. London ; New York : Routledge, 2002.


A Personal Interview ( done in Korean translated by Ae Ran Jeong)
Jeong, Ae Ran. Personal Interview with Dong-Ho Choi. 1 November and 2 December 2003.

An Electronic Source ( written in Korean translated by Ae Ran Jeong)
Kim, Duk-Mook. Essay on Korean Kut Study. 1999-2003

Thesis Proposal

Many different kinds of shamans and rituals exist in Korea according to the specific geographical regions and the shamans themselves. I have witnessed a few different rituals but for the purpose of this paper I will focus on one specific ritual titled Man-su-dae-tak Kut.

Dongho Choi, my shaman teacher of eight years, is a male mansin (shaman) living in Seoul. His rituals belong to the region of Hwang-hae province which is presently a part of North Korea. I have witnessed a few rituals by Dongho Choi, have participated in his workshop for actors and have performed rituals on two occasions. The primary source for this paper will be a video recording made of Man-su-dae-tak Kut, April 19 - 21, 2000 in Jong-nung. This video recording is not a ritual I personally witnessed but is similar to rituals I have witnessed for other clients. The other primary source will be interviews conducted with Dongho Choi during the writing of this paper.

Rituals from the Hwang-hae region can be roughly divided into four basic structural elements: 1) calling the spirits, 2) invitation, 3) play and 4) returning. Most rituals conclude with the shaman providing oracles to the participants who sponsored the ritual. Man-su-dae-tak Kut is one of the most elaborate of all Korean shamanic rituals and only shamans considered "great shaman" may conduct the celebration. The scale of the complete ritual demands at least three days and is often as long as a week or more with a number of shamans performing together each responsible for certain sections. Man-su-dae-tak Kut is celebrated to bring good fortune to a family or community, protection from evil spirits, to release the spirits of dead ancestors which may still be wandering in this world and to cleanse the spirits of the living. The great food table is prepared as an offering to the spirits with different fruits, drinks, deserts, rice, vegetables and meat. The meat, especially cow, pig and chicken are prepared for a sacrifice which is performed during the ritual. The musicians play a crucial role in the shamanic ritual leading the shaman into the next section, supporting the singing and chants as well as following the shamans rhythm both musically and with dialogue. The instruments are the chang-gu (drum), Jing (gong), Ba-ra (cymbals), and the Tae-pyong-so (korean style flute).

For this paper I wish to research the shaman's subjective understanding of his transformation during the ritual. We may call this transformation as trance and I wish to articulate how the shaman himself describes his own transformation of energy in all its psychological, physical, emotional and spiritual manifestations. I wish to document this energy transformation in three phases; before, during and after the ritual.

In order to gain a more general understanding of Korean shamanism I have consulted the following resources to familiarize myself with the already established academic study.

Clark, Charles Allen. Religions of old Korea. Seoul : Christian Literature Society of Korea, 1961.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism : archaic techniques of ecstasy. Trans. Willard R. Trask. [Princeton, N.J.] : Princeton University Press, 1972, c1964.

Harvey, Youngsook Kim. Six Korean women : the socialization of shamans. St. Paul : West Pub. Co., c1979.

Kendall, Laurel. Shamans, housewives, and other restless spirits : women in Korean ritual life. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, c1985.

------- The life and hard times of a Korean Shaman : of tales and the telling of tales. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, c1988.
Lee, Jung Young. Korean shamanistic rituals. The Hague ; New York : Mouton, c1981.

Susan C. Haedicke and Tobin Nellhaus. Eds. Performing democracy : international perspectives on urban community-based performance. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c2001.