The Mudang and Tietäjä

Posted On May 3, 2011

Filed under shamanism

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My mom recently sent me a flash drive of mine that I had left behind there. I opened it a couple days ago, and came across an essay that I wrote during my undergraduate years, comparing the shamanic traditions of Korea and Finland. I remember that I was fairly proud of my work at the time, and other people I shared it with enjoyed it, so now I will post it on here for you as well.

If it seems choppy or Korea-centric, it’s because I cut out the parts that explain what a tietäjä does, since that’s already been covered in the Healing Rituals entry, and other spots on this blog:

The countries of Finland and Korea both have had many centuries of a rich shamanic tradition. As modernization and other religions entered both countries, the practices threatened to fade away, but in reality never did. Shamanic practices in Finland and Korea continued to go relatively strong up until the present day. The origins of the shamanic techniques of these two countries likely were originally from northern Asia and migrated to their permanent places. However, the practices of the mudang of Korea and tietäjä of Finland are distinct from the Siberians in many ways; one being the way in which they communicate with the spirits. The mudang and tietäjä often times instead of entering into a deep trance where they battle with spirits, they sing songs to guide the spirits to them or to bring about whichever changes their client would like to have done.

A mudang refers to a person who has a special connection with the gods, and can perform healing and other abilities by communicating with the spirits. They use dance, song, and offerings to appeal to the spirits and ask them for their favor. Other services that mudang perform for clients are divination and counseling. The original term referred to only women, but men were eventually able to become one. There are two types of mudang, and these are possessed and hereditary. A possessed mudang is one whom at a certain point in their life, a god entered their body and they developed a divine illness, or shaman sickness. One who is possessed will remain sick until that person submits to the will of the particular deity that has entered them. The symptoms of the shaman sickness are mainly psychological, with insomnia, lack of eating, or drifting around town with no purpose. An established mudang will become their mentor, known as a “divine mother”. They go through an initiation rite called a naerim kut, where tests are performed to determine if the person is really to become a shaman by having a spirit possess her, and this also will cure the shaman sickness. A hereditary mudang is one who is born into a family where there is a shaman, either a parent, aunt, or in-law. They will receive their instruction from parents or relatives that are mudang and learn how to perform their duties from them. The possessed shaman is bestowed with supernatural powers, and is able to fall into a trance through dancing and rapid drumming. A hereditary shaman, however, cannot do this. They are able to communicate with the spirits, but they keep their separate identities. The dances that the hereditary shaman performs are slower, including strings and wind instruments along with the drums (“Songs” 5).

The main ritual that a mudang performs is called a kut. A kut has three purposes, and these are to bring good luck and prosperity, guiding souls to the land of the dead, and curing illness. A client meets with a mudang to have one of these services done for them. Unlike the Siberian shaman, a mudang does not engage in battles with the spirits and is not even supposed to leave her body. She cannot journey to other worlds, but in the case of possessed mudang, the spirit can enter her body and speak through her mouth (“Review” 243). When great misfortune happens in the village or family of a mudang, this is the main occasion when a kut is performed. Chom is the term for the divination that the mudang uses, and this starts the beginning of the kut to determine what spirit or ancestor caused the misfortune. The person who is performing the chom is known as a chomjaengi. A person who performs divination does not necessarily have to be a mudang, though in the context of a kut, no one else but a mudang can do so. The chomjaengi is able to find out the diagnosis of the illness by the sensations that they feel while doing the divination:

“If a chomjaengi falls asleep during chom, an ancestor who has died of a narcotic is responsible; if she smells fish, it indicates one who had met a bloody death; if she suffers from abdominal pain, it means one who died during childbirth; if she is thirsty, it means one who was hanged or committed suicide by hanging; if her shoulder aches, it means one who has died in prison unjustly.” (Guisso 133)

Other than this, a chomjaengi can also simply question the client to find out the answers. Once the answer is discovered, then the kut is performed.

In a kut, a ceremonial table is placed on the floor of the hall where it is taking place. This table is dedicated to whichever god is being invoked. Along with this, flowers and tools for the mudang to use are placed in the same area. The mudang will perform in front of this table, with the assistant called a kidae, beating the drums, accompanying with the music, and singing along. This assistant is one whom a spirit has not appeared in. Another job of the kidae is to purify the area in which a kut is going to be performed. In Seoul, there are more than twenty different kut rituals used for a variety of occasions. During the dance that a mudang does, by either becoming possessed or getting in communication with the gods, they will be able to relay a message to the audience from the deity of the occasion (Huhm 13-15).

One of the most important kut that a mudang must do is called a chinogwi, and this is where she guides a spirit to the land of the dead. This is performed at a shrine right after one dies. It starts off with a purification ritual, then an invocation to the gods. Once the god is invoked, the mudang will sing a song of divination and give an offering to them. The offerings given to the gods can be rice cakes, wine, meat, fish, or various other foods. The next step is Cho yongsil, where the spirit of the dead transfers to the mudang, and she will tell a narrative and contact with other ancestors of the family. In the case of a hereditary mudang, they will simply be able to communicate with them in separate bodies. The ghost will also tell the mudang about his/her own life, and what they did while they were alive. In case there is a demon attached to the spirit, the mudang will leave an offering by the front gate, and dance in that area to give the demon a well-wishing back. During this ritual, the mudang will, as usual in rituals, give messages from the deceased and give blessings to the family. The last step is to send the spirit to its final resting place. The mudang narrates the last wishes of the departed and the ritual comes to a close (Huhm 93-96).

A striking similarity between Korean and Finnish shamanism, which sets them a part from Northern Asian shamans, is that traditionally, would-be shamans do not develop the shaman sickness. In Korea, the original way that one became a shaman was through hereditary lines, and in Finland, this was the only way that a person could become one. In both cultures, the hereditary shaman would learn the ways from a teacher, whether it was a parent, aunt or uncle, or in-law. In Finland, occasionally one who did not have a tietäjä in their bloodline could become one if they showed promise. This person would then learn from an established tietäjä in their village. In the family situation, a child was watched from birth to see if they had the power inside them needed to follow that path. A strong luonto and väki was a must. The would-be tietäjä would then learn from an elder in the ways of secret rites and learning of the universe through incantations. With the mudang, one was taught by an established mudang in the history, music, rituals, and sewing of the costumes that they wore (Siikala 84).

In both countries, the shaman was viewed as a very important person in the community, as they were able to heal, prevent illness, and bring good fortune such as harvest and hunting. The tietäjä could also expose a noita, which is the word for a sorcerer. If a noita had done harm against the client, the tietäjä could help them by finding out who it was, and then punish that person. Stolen items were also able to be found through visions. With marriages, a tietäjä could do a lempi-raising, which was a bathing ritual that helped give confidence to young women at a marriageable age. This made them appear more attractive to suitors. Other services that they could do were breaking up disapproved relationships by the family, and securing luck for a bride and groom. The latter was called a patvaska, and in this, the tietäjä would appear at a wedding, speak for the bride and groom, then perform a magical ritual to give luck to the newly-wedded couple. A mudang also had a role in weddings, though in a different sense than the tietäjä did. One way that a spirit may remain a ghost is if they had died without having a marriage partner. A mudang was able to do a ritual where she would find another wandering spirit and then would marry them. Once this was done, then the spirit could rest in peace (Siikala 80-84).

While in Korea, the mudang‘s profession was normally their only one, in Finland, it was not often the case. Occasionally a tietäjä could become so successful that it was their only occupation, but often it was simply a side job. If one’s healing duties were incredibly demanding, then that would be the time when it was their only profession. A tietäjä, unlike a mudang, did not ask for money for their services. It was only implied that a gift could be given that the client felt suitable, whether that be an item or money, but it was not required(Siikala 83). A mudang‘s services were, and still are, often very expensive, especially if a kut needs to be performed, though they have many other duties besides the performance of rituals. They meet with their clients for counseling, make amulets, practice fortune-telling, and are in general promoters of traditional Korean culture (“Songs” 5).

In the traditions of these two countries, there are many commonalities in regards to their abilities as shamans, status in the community, and methods to find answers for their clients. Finland and Korea, being relatively far from Siberia and Northern Asia where the practices originated from, formed their own unique rituals which have characteristics of the societies they live in. The tietäjä and mudang look after those in their community by healing the sick and bringing good fortune to the village, and sometimes the entire country. While the performance of the rituals differ in several areas to one another, the shamans of both Korea and Finland are able to bring about the desires of those who seek their services.

Works Cited

Guisso, Richard W.I., and Chai-sun Yu, ed. Shamanism: The Spirit World of Korea. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1988.

Huhm, Halla Pai. Kut: Korean Shamanist Rituals. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym International Co, 1980.

Siikala, Anna-Leena. Mythic Images and Shamanism: A Perspective on Kalevala Poetry. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2002.

Walraven, Boudewijn. “Review: Korean Shamanism.” Numen 30 (1983): 240-264. JSTOR. 27 May 2008.

Walraven, Boudewijn. Songs of the Shaman. London; New York: Kegan Paul International, 1994.


2 Responses to “The Mudang and Tietäjä”

  1. Jeong-uk

    Hello, I am a Korean who is interested in neo-paganism of Europe and old rituals of Confucianism. (I personally believe Roman Catholicism.) I have heard about Wicca, Asatru, Neo-Druidism etc, but never heard about ‘Suomenusko’. The home my family lived in for about 20 years is next to Mudang’s home.

    This blog is amazing to me. I really feel regrettable that you already decided no longer update it. If I knew yours enough earlier, I can have communication with you. For your information, I have visited Finland twice. Helsinki, Turku, Pori, Kuopio, Jyväskylä, Lestijärvi etc. I was helped in Finland by a lot of Finland Esperantists. I accepted the book, Kalevala (Esperanto version) as a present from an old and wise Finnish woman. (But I can remember only 4 Finnish words, ‘kiitos’, ‘hyvä’, ‘Joulu’ and ‘Järvi’.)

    There are few English text of Suomenusko on internet. I had thought that Finnish old faith didn’t exist no longer when I was there. You are the first Suomenusko-follower I have seen.

  2. Adele

    You post very interesting articles here. Your blog deserves much
    more visitors. It can go viral if you give it initial boost, i know very useful tool that can help you, simply type in google:
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