Book and film reviews

Shaman women in Korea

An exhibition in the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology.

A phenomenon that is particularly difficult to access to Westerners is shamanism, which we mostly only suspect in Siberia. Native American medicine men, perhaps even African wizards, are occasionally associated with it, and we tend to dismiss shamanism as an expression of "primitive" cultures.

It is all the more surprising that this seemingly archaic cult has remained alive in highly developed industrialized countries and has even found a place in everyday life. An exhibition in the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology offers access to this exotic world: “Healing rituals and cell phones - female shamans in Korea", From 22.1.1998 - 21.1.1999.

This exhibition offers insights into a strange life full of exotic colors with rituals handed down from prehistoric times. According to a well-known definition, shamans are characterized by three characteristics:

They can arbitrarily induce a trance, they use trance to get in contact with “supernatural beings”. With the knowledge gained during this contact, they help individuals or communities who accept this mediator role.

Western-trained anthropologists and psychologists find it difficult to explain such phenomena. For example, they suggest that a shaman's trance is “controlled schizophrenia”; Which, however, does not explain much, because typical schizophrenia is currently not under control of the person affected.

In the capital of Korea alone - Seoul with approx. 12 million inhabitants - there are said to be three thousand female shamans who celebrate the traditional "kut" for various occasions, that is, seek connection with the spirits. Such a Korean "mansin" does not find it easy to find its place in a modern industrial society, in which one encounters a shaman - similar to our "spirit healers" - with rejection, horror or even respect. Either way, she is an outsider, a difficult role in a Confucian society where "reputation" is important.

Sick people who doctors cannot help, business people who miss success, families whose streaks of bad luck do not want to tear off, then, despite all their reservations, turn to a shaman who often earns well as a result.

The vocation to be a shaman can - as it was centuries ago - take place in the form that the chosen one is afflicted by an illness that not only affects the psyche but can even be associated with paralysis, for example. The “chosen by the spirits” then has to be healed by a “shaman mother”, who introduces them to the kingdom of the hereafter. It is not uncommon for those afflicted by the shaman's disease to resist their calling; usually in vain, since the "ghosts" know how to force them. She then has to undergo an apprenticeship that lasts at least three years. However, there are also female shamans who grow into shamanism without a spirit disease. -

If you want to find out more, the Hamburg exhibition, for which there is an easily legible catalog compiled with empathy and expertise, offers a unique opportunity in Germany.


"Healing rituals and cell phones - female shamans in Korea" by Susanne Knödel, Dölling & Galitz Verlag, Hamburg, 1998, ISBN 3-390 802-76-7.