Muism: how it Affects the modern Korean Mind


Hojune Kim, class 7

I.                   Introduction

“Koreans are socially Confucian, philosophically Buddhist, and are spirit worshippers in times of trouble.” Said Homer Hulbert (1863~1949). He was a missionary to Korea during the last years of the Korean Empire (Choseon). He was one of the first people to examine Muism, the oldest religion of Korea, with a scholarly perspective. Over a period of nearly 5000 years, numerous religions were adopted by Koreans. However, no other religion impacted Korea so thoroughly, over so long a period, as Muism did.

Muism is the oldest religion of Korea, and is the root of Korean culture. Many Korean musical styles derive from the Music played during a Goot (the religious ceremony of Muism, held by a shamans, or, in Korean, by a Mudang). The Korean traditional dance, known as the ‘Sal-pur-i chum*(Sal-pur-i dance) originates from the dance of the Mudang during the Goot.

However, despite all the cultural importance, Muism is not getting the attention that it needs. In fact, many Koreans look down upon it, only viewing it as superstition, or even as something that needs to be eradicated from the Korean society.

Nevertheless, Muism, over the course of over 4,000 years, have become part of the Korean mindset. Though the impact of Muism on the Korean mind may not be apparent on first glance, Muism still plays a part in the Korean mind, almost on a subconscious level.

Therefore, I plan to examine the remnants of Muism remaining in the behavior of the Korean people, which have become habits to the Korean people.

II.  Background

A. Muism and the Shaman

Before I begin examining the lives of Koreans, it is important to know what Muism is. Muism is the Korean shamanism. Being a type of Shamanism, the shaman, also known as the Mudang(women), and Baksu(men), perform as spiritual specialists. They hold religious ceremonies, called Goot. Through the Goot, the Mudang may be able to tell the future, and the sick may be healed. The Mudang may call upon many different types of spirits. His/her method of healing the sick is to call upon to spirit, to let it into his/her body, and soothe it to obey him/her.

Baksu Mudang, Mr. Hyun-gak Kim.

However, according to several papers, notably one by Mr. Gwansu Bag (KMLA Teacher), before the industrialization of Korea, another type of male shamans existed. These Shamans, usually called “Boksul” or “Gyung-Jang-e” utilized a more violent method of dealing with spirits. The Boksul would call upon the marauding spirit, would scold it, and if the spirit obeyed him, he would let it go. However, if the spirit disobeyed him, he would fight the spirit, lock it into a bottle, which is buried deep in the ground.

B. The Goot in Muism

The most important element in Muism, is, perhaps, the Goot(굿). Goot is very diverse. However, it does follow a few procedures. The first step is calling the spirit. The bell is often utilized in Muism in order to do this. The second part is of communicating with the spirit. Welcoming the spirit, the coercion and the persuasion of the spirit, can be grouped into this step. The third step is of banishing, or the sending off the spirit.

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Depending on the spirit that you are calling upon, the Goot takes on diverse procedures and forms. One example is the Chunshin-goot, which is one of the biggest, and most formal of all Goots. It is native to Seoul.

     C. The Goot and Korean Culture

The Goot serves as the origin for many intangible heritages of Korea. Sanjo is the Korean Solo music. The style of Sanjo originates from Sinawi, which is the Music played during a Goot in Southern Korea. The goot also gave birth to Pansori, which can be described as ‘the Korean one-man opera’. The Mudang would sing as she held the Goot, and the song developed into the Pansori.

Goot did not only give rise to Music, it also gave birth to the Korean Traditional Dance. The Korean dance is called ‘Sal-puri Dance’. It originates from the ‘Sal-Puri Goot’, which was held in order to help the dead be comforted , and to guide him/her to the next world. Though this Goot is meant to console the Dead, it is performed, like all other types of Goot, for the interests of the living. Therefore, the Korean Dance reaches for the Ground, rather than the Sky. Also, the Goot was performed while the Mudang was in ecstasy. Therefore, the Korean dance is highly improvisational. The dancer ‘forgets oneself’ while he/she dances, and makes moves that he/she had never made before. When one learns to dance for the first time, the teacher may teach him/her  how to make moves. However, the moves that one learns are never detailed. The Korean Dance strives to break through ‘patterns’ in Dancing.

     D. The Characteristics of Muism as a religion

Muism, like any other form of Shamanism, is Pantheistic. Spirits, or ‘gods’ may exist anywhere. The spirit Sungju was the god of the crossbeam of the house. The spirit Chukyung was the god of the Crocks, protecting the all kinds of Fermented sauces in the house. The spirit Cheuk lives in the outhouse, and is rather mischievous.

Muism is a very ‘realistic’ religion. The  The problems that a Mudang deals with are usually real-life problems. The Mudang gives ‘practical’ advice for all kinds of issues, including economic problems, health problems, the problem of naming a newborn child, the list goes on endlessly. Muism was always a religion held by the commoners. Therefore, the problems that Muism had to deal with was far from spiritual, or philosophical. Over the course of history, Muism became a very practical religion, that asked for ‘Bok(福), or personal welfare.

     E. The Weakening of Muism in Korea.

Muism served as the state religion in ancient Korea, from the times of Go-Joseon to the early Three Kingdoms Period. However, during the later Three Kingdoms period, Buddhism was imported from China.

Buddhism was much more useful for the state than Muism. Making Buddhism the state-religion meant that the people would be united under Buddhism, while Muism presented a plethora of spirits and deities, making Muism difficult to control.

Therefore, Buddhism, backed up by the Governments of the three Kingdoms, soon became the most powerful religion in Korea. However, Buddhism had to absorb Muism, in order to make the people believe in Buddha. This point goes to show how strong the Tradition of Muism was in Korea.

The same trend continued into the Goryeo period. However, when the Choseon Dynasity arrived, Buddhism was toppled from its high seat of the strongest religion in Korea. Neo-Confucianism became the ‘official’ social philosophy. Since Neo-Confucianism was a highly rational branch of Confucianism, Confucianists of Choseon heavily criticized Muism, stating that the Mudang were deceiving the people. However, Muism still survived among the common people.

The real threat to the Muistic tradition of Korea came during the Japanese Colonial period. Japan dispatched many researchers to research Muism. The researchers concluded that Muism was a dependent, inferior belief, and a superstition to get rid of. Slowly, this conclusion seeped into the minds of the Korean people.

When liberation came, and when Korea began to be industrialized, a large part of the Korean heritage was lost, or distorted. Sadly, Muism was one heritage that went through that fate.

The government branded Muism as ‘superstition’. One could be punished if seen in a Goot. Slowly, Muism disappeared from many towns. The power that Muism had once commanded diminished severely.

III. Muism, its influence over the modern Korean mind

     A. The prevalence of Fortune Telling(占)

Muism may have weakened, but the tradition of Muism did not disappear easily. Some elements of Muism have become habitual to Koreans. One such habit is the reliance on Fortune-telling.

Fortune-telling is prevalent in Korea. The number of people who practice fortune telling (including the Mudang) in Korea officially stands at 100,000. However, it is estimated that there are about 100-200,000 more people work as Fortune-Tellers inofficially. This shows that Koreans still like to have their fortunes told.

When a new year begins, the ‘Tojeong Bigyeol’(secrets of Tojeong, which is a book of prophecies put together by Lee Ji-ham, and often used for telling the year’s fortune) are always sold in bookstores, and many people by it, or download it from the internet to see how that year would turn out. ‘Today’s fortune’ is always printed on one section of any newspaper in Korea, and many people read it as they start their day. Even some Christians visit Fortune Tellers from time to time.

The Prevalence of Fortune Telling suggests that the tendency of relying on Muism in times of trouble still exists in the Korean people.

     B. The love for Music, Alcohol, and Dancing

Koreans seem to love singing, and drinking. In an Get-together, everyone drinks, and then goes to sing Karaoke. Though the love for alcohol is diminishing, Korea still tops any other OECD country in terms of alcohol consumption per capita.

Before the Three-kingdoms period began, in Korea, many nations came into existence after the collapse of the Go-Chosun. In Buyeo, the people from all across the country would dance, drink, and sing together. This event, called Yeong-Go, was meant to honor the sky. This kind of group experience, became the basis for the Korean affinity with Music and Alcohol. Such experiences were succeeded through the ages. During the Chosun Dynasty, the town Goot existed. The Goot is a unique ceremony. Unlike other religious ceremonies, it is comprised purely of Music, Singing, and Dancing. When a Goot was held, the whole town would get together in order to enjoy together. Though it is nearly forgotten, the influence of Muism exists, even in the Korean affinity with alcohol and Music.

      C. The Sense of Community

Mr. Cho Heung-Yoon, claims that the sentiment that is embedded in Muism is ‘harmony’. He claimed that Muism saw the world in discord, and seeked to solve the problems through acquiring harmony. The Goot is a ceremony where the spirits and the Mudang and a Human come together, in an attempt to solve human problems. The Mudang, the spirit, and thee human are united in one in the experience of Ecstasy, and the three are given equal authority in the ceremony.

Muism also displays ‘harmony’ as it absorbed deities from diverse religions. In Muism, deities from Taoism, Buddhism, and Folklore are all served as deities. Different religions could coexist within the Frame of Muism. \

Mr. Cho claims that strive for harmony also applies for the Korean mind. Koreans prefer a intuitive, holistic understanding of an object over a logical analysis of the object. The love for harmony also sets the rule for the Korean society. During the preparation for a Goot, the whole community, and the whole family, even the married daughters, came together for the preparations. The powerful sense of community that Koreans hold is a reflection of Muism, and its principle of Harmony.

IV.  Survey Result

Survey Questions.

  1. I have experienced Muistic practices within my family


2. I think Muism is a superstition.

3. I think that Muism is a religion.


4. I feel that 무속 is part of my heritage.


5. What does Muism mean to me?

Result: 7 people responded to the survey. All 7 people were KMLA 17th wavers.

2 people responeded that they had experienced Muistic practices within their families. Though Muism is fairly pervasive in Korea, the younger generation were exposed to Muism much less than the previous generations had.

 However, all 7 responded that they did not think Muism was superstition. Though many people think Muism is a superstition, I was very happy that most KMLA students didn’t have such prejudices against Muism.

2 students responded that Muism was not a religion. It was interesting that most studeents thought that Muism was a religion. Again, I was glad to see that most KMLA students did not have prejudices against Muism. However, I was not surprised to see some students answering that Muism isn’t a religion. Muism is not as sophisticated as Religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, etc.

3 students responded that they did not feel Muism was part of their Heritage. This probably means that most students did not have a chance to really experience Muism in their lives. Probably, they could not empathize with something they hadn’t even experienced.

For the last question, 3 people responded that Muism was an important part of the Korean Heritage. The others wrote that Muism was ‘understandable’ but they wouldn’t believe in it. The Comment that surprised me the most, was ‘I get scared’. This came from a student who commented that Muism was a part of Korean culture. Probably, this came from media coverage of different Goots. There are some Goots that look very primitive.

In the end, I was very happy that most KMLA students were free of prejudices about Muism. However, I found that Muism is becoming something distant from our lives.


  1. 김성례 교수의 무교연구
  2. 신나게, ‘음주가무’,
  3. 안토니오 도메넥, 굿, 한국의 무속 의식( )
  4. 최운식, 무속 신앙( )
  5. 정창수, 2000, 무속 신앙에 관한 신,구세대 간 의식 성향 비교 조사, 경기대학교
  6. 박관수, 2008, 강원도 지역 ‘귀신잡이’의 소멸에 관한 연구(A Study on the disappearance of ‘seizing evil spirits’ in the Gangwondo region)

4 thoughts on “Muism: how it Affects the modern Korean Mind

  1. Most fascinating aspect of Muism for me studying it as an outsider was the psychotic illness that the kangshinmu experience from ritual self-initiation through an offering of their own spirit. I’ve read of very similar methodology, for example in a book titled Aleister Crowley & The Ouija Board, of spiritualists who would hold seances and entreat the spirits to feed on the ether or ectoplasm of the sitters at the seance and primarily the medium. Muism is fascinating to me as someone more familiar with spiritualism and hermeticism . The idea of spirit energy in the body is also practiced by charismatic Christians both in the western world and in churches in Korea. The bad reputation that Korean shamans receive is mystifying to me due to how much it shares with western occultism as well as Christian charismatic practices.

    Thanks for this blog post..

  2. Muism is one of the best examples of spiritual emergence psychosis something studied mostly part of qi gong and yoga. Fun experiment… Compare the initiation illness of Muism to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, and the horror fiction of Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. We have a very similar thing in the west but it was formerly very secretive. Learning about Muism and Shinto and other east-asian shamanic practices is useful to me as a student majoring in English literature.

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