Jeju’s mythical past still alive and well
Story and photo by Brian Miller
For many in Jeju, this island is a haunted place. It’s home to 18,000 gods, and nearly every rock, tree, mountain, pond and home is claimed by one kind of spirit or another. If you want to communicate with these spirits and gods, you can either visit one of the island’s many shrines, or contact a simbang. The ‘simbang’ (or shaman) is a man endowed with supernatural powers. He’s a conduit between gods and humans who uses his psychic abilities to transmit messages between this world and the next. They perform in ceremonies called 굿 or “gut” (pronounced like “good” with a hard d). There are three levels of simbang. The first level simbangs mainly do manual chores at guts while learning the skills required to perform ceremonies. Once they’ve graduated to the second level, a simbang will be allowed to perform minor guts, but is most often found performing music at the major ceremonies. The greatest of them has attained all the supernatural powers of a simbang. One such man is Kim Yun Su, a simbang of the highest order who lives here in Jeju and can often be found leading major guts on the island.
Shamanism here is seen more as a kind of traditional medicine than a religion. There isn’t a complicated system of beliefs that leads one to redemption and a higher spiritual realm.
In the past, many mental illnesses were treated by simbangs who believed the afflicted had been possessed by angry spirits. In the world of shamanism, sickness is caused by angry gods, spirit possession or by souls trying to leave the body. The simbang can also conduct special ceremonies to predict the future, and a special type of female shaman, known as samsin halmang, assists in childbirths.
The gods can help to influence harvests and weather patterns, but getting the gods help in this is not easy. The gods tend to be a bit selfish and won’t grant your wishes purely out of the goodness of their own hearts. The simbang must therefore act as a human diplomat to the spirit world. He delivers wishes and prayers in such a way as to make the gods think that granting them is in their better interests.
Aside from being a unique cultural experience, a gut is also a great show. There are a lot of people on the island who perform in drum outfits and do so with varying levels of skill. But the musicians who take part in the gut ceremony are highly trained musicians who’ve dedicated themselves to a very obscure and profound form of art. Seeing them play while a simbang’s body is taken to possession by a powerful spirit can be an incredible experience.
Seeing a private gut, however, can be difficult. They’re held according to the needs and schedules of the adherents and are usually closed to the public. Yet there are several public guts in Jeju that are open to the public and are well worth a visit.
The Yeongdeung gut is perhaps the most accessible gut on the island. It’s held to celebrate the arrival of Yeongeung, the god of wind. On February first of the lunar calendar, he arrives at the harbor in Jeju-si with the god of the northwest wind. Together, they tour Jeju before leaving again on the 15th day of the lunar month of February. Guts are held to celebrate both their arrival and departure.
Ib-choon gut is currently scheduled for February 3-4 (lunar calendar), but islanders are petitioning local officials to have the gut changed to a more convenient time.
Singwasaejae is a gut held to pray for bountiful harvests in the new year. Though the exact dates vary from village to village, these guts are held in villages across Jeju between the 1st and 15th days of the first lunar month of the year.
Several other large, public guts are scheduled to be held throughout the year, but, as of yet, no solid dates have been set for them. To learn more about these guts as further information becomes available, please contact Brian Miller at email@example.com