South Korea's young shamans revive ancient tradition with social media

By Reuters   June 9, 2024 | 06:32 pm PT
With statues of the Buddha and local gods, candles and incense sticks, Lee Kyoung-hyun's shrine looks similar to those of Korean shamans from centuries past.

But the 29-year-old shaman - also known as Aegi Seonnyeo, or "Baby Angel" - reaches her clients in a thoroughly modern way: through social media accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers.

"Shamanism ... was believed to be an invisible, mysterious and spiritual world," Lee said, adding that she had noticed more South Korean shamans posting videos about the spiritual practice since she started her own YouTube channel in 2019.

South Korea is among the world's most modern and high-tech economies. More than half its population of 51 million is not religiously affiliated, polls show. But the appeal of shamanism has stood the test of time.

Kim Dong-kyu of the Academic Center for K-Religions at Sogang University, a private research university in Seoul, said shamans used to promote themselves in newspapers. It was a "natural phenomenon" to turn to social media, he said.

Google Trends shows that searches on YouTube for "shaman" and "fortune-telling" in Korean have nearly doubled over the past five years.

The spiritual tradition was central to the plot of a blockbuster South Korean film this year, 'Exhuma', in which shamans are tasked with lifting a curse on a family.

The movie depicts well-dressed shamans in their 20s and 30s and director Jang Jae-hyun said he discovered many young shamans while doing his research.

The movie has grossed at least 132 billion won ($97 million) internationally, raising interest in the religious tradition. Roughly one in five South Koreans has seen 'Exhuma,' according to Korean Film Council data.

"People used to hide that they live as a (shaman). There was a lot of stigma," said 51-year-old Eunmi Pang, who has been a practitioner for almost 20 years. She said that shamans today were more willing to express and promote themselves.

Shamans - who are believed to have divination abilities - typically charge around 100,000 won ($73.09) for a consultation of between 30 and 60 minutes, according to Pang and online pricing lists seen by Reuters. They offer relationship advice, guidance on job searches and predictions about the future, said Lee.

Shamans typically answer queries after conducting rituals that may involve ringing bells and tossing grains of rice.

They also sing, dance and walk on the edge of a knife to call on divine intervention. While practices vary, many Korean shamans worship local deities such as the Mountain God, Great Spirit Grandmother and Dragon King.

Park Chea-bin, a 33-year-old Buddhist, visited Lee when she was struggling to find a job in 2020. She said she felt "peace of mind" after consulting the practitioner.

"I was very anxious at the time but I became a little relaxed after deciding to let things go and focus on what I need to do," said Park, who found employment at roughly the same time.

"I'm a Buddhist but I know Christians around me who come for their niggles."

Economic anxiety

Lee says she has felt physical pain and experienced psychosis since she was a teenager - symptoms that some believe are signs of a deity possessing a budding shaman.

She decided to embrace her calling in 2018 and soon started a YouTube channel that now has over 300,000 subscribers. She posts videos on topics such as the items she carries in her bag and the country's fate for in 2024. (She's not optimistic.)

"The current state of South Korean society is a factor that can't be ignored," she said, adding that many of her millennial and Gen Z clients come to her with concerns about affordable housing and the cost of raising children.

In Seoul, where Lee is based, the price of a home was more than 15 times the median salary in 2022, up from 8.8 in in 2017, according to a government report. The country has also suffered from high inflation and interest rates.

The younger generation of shamans who live in the city can connect well with younger clients facing economic challenges that they can't find an answer for, said Han Seung-hoon, an assistant professor at the Academy of Korean Studies, a research and education institute that operates under the Ministry of Education.

Battling stigmas

A culture ministry agency estimated in 2022 that there were between 300,000 and 400,000 shamans and fortune-tellers in South Korea.

Shamanism is an "important and powerful part of the Korean character," the agency wrote on its website.

The roots of shamanism on the Korean peninsula go back at least 2,000 years, said Han.

Politically powerful Christians - who make up roughly a quarter of the population - have also criticised shamans and their followers.

Han noted that larger religions such as Christianity and Buddhism - which about 40% of South Koreans say they are followers of - are more influential in society, yet do not draw similar levels of criticism.

Lee said Christians also visit shamans in South Korea. "Even ... churchgoers want to have their bad dreams read," she said.

More recently, some practitioners have found themselves in legal trouble. A 66-year-old shaman in Seoul was sentenced to four years' imprisonment in February after being convicted of defrauding a client of more than $200,000, according to local media reports.

The court ruled that the shaman had been pretending to speak to the client's dead mother.

Lee thinks it's wrong for shamans to make decisions for clients. Instead, she said that shamans served as guides - like friends and family offering advice - rather than decision makers.

Some in South Korea's elite have links to shamans.

Min Hee-jin, a top entertainment executive embroiled in a business dispute with a major K-pop label, defended herself in an April press conference against allegations that she consulted a shaman for business purposes.

Min said that she had a conversation with a shaman in hope that talking would make her feel better: "Don’t you guys all do that too?"

A 2022 study in the journal BMC Psychiatry noted a "huge" gap between South Koreans needing mental health treatment and getting it, which it partly attributed to stigma.

"Shamans have been playing the role of counselors," said Kim, the religious professor.

"People have stigmatized shamanism as something dirty, suspicious, and scary," said Han, adding that people were sometimes accused of visiting shamans in attempts to hurt their reputation.

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