Folk religion and its symbols

If you've not only been in Korea but have also traveled around such other Asian countries as Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore, there's a major difference you may have noticed: in those countries you'll come across shrines to local deities in almost every neighborhood, and even shops and private homes may have little shrines. But in Korea, while Buddhist temples and Christian churches abound and there are some special Confucian shrines, separate buildings or compounds set aside as places of worship for Korea's ancient folk religion are practically nonexistent. The reason for this is that folk religious practices are incorporated into the everyday life of the village and the objects that provide the focal point for worship are set up in natural surroundings or simply left outdoors in nature rather than being specially enshrined.

The nearest thing to folk shrines in the usual sense of the word is the altar in a shaman's quarters or Buddhist temple altars and shrines dedicated to the mountain spirit, who is depicted as an old, bearded man accompanied by a tiger. Some temples may have a shrine to the Seven Stars of the North (the Big Dipper). These are not an official part of Buddhism but were gradually incorporated to accommodate indigenous beliefs as the newly imported religion became Koreanized.

Mountain spirit shrine

A shrine to a mountain spirit

Korea's fundamental folk beliefs are animistic and spiritualistic. They are derived for the most part from the tribal culture of prehistoric times but have been augmented and modified under the influence of such imported religions as Buddhism and Taoism. All things, even inanimate objects such as hills, bodies of water, and rocks, are seen as possessing some form of consciousness because they do not exist on their own but are the physical manifestation of some spiritual entity. The souls of the dead are believed to continue to exist and are regarded as capable of meddling in the affairs of the living in either helpful or harmful ways. They can communicate with the living through a mudang (무당), or shaman, who is also able to intervene on behalf of humans in their supplications to such nonhuman entities as minor gods and devils. The mediumship of a mudang is not absolutely necessary, however. An ordinary person's acts, beliefs, and private prayers are efficacious, too, and in many parts of the country, village rites can be conducted without an officiating shaman.

If you know what to look for in your travels about Korea, you'll find many examples of folk religious symbols. There are three main types of areas where you should look: the edge of a village (not necessarily the modern edge, where a new road goes in, but the old demarcation between the village and the fields), along the old paths and roads between towns, and in the grounds and compounds of Buddhist temples and hermitages.

Near the entrance to many old villages you'll see a large cairn, perhaps associated with a big, old tree or with a pair of poles having comically grotesque faces carved into them. This cairn and its accompanying tree or other fixtures, which honor the guardian spirit of the village and its surrounding land, are collectively called a seonangdang (서낭당). Seasonal ceremonies are held here to ensure the safety and prosperity of the village.

You'll see other piles of stone, many of them quite small, along pathways in the countryside and the mountains. These stones also honor the spirits of the land, and adding your own stone to such a pile or spitting on your way by are said to keep you safe on your trip. (You must never, ever take away a stone or purposely destroy one of the little cairns!)

Jangseung

These jangseung, located at a Chilgapsan park, are said to be the biggest in Korea, at 10 meters tall.

The funny-looking poles, called jangseung (장승), are also regarded as physical hosts for nature spirits. When found in pairs, one is male and the other, female. The male governs the land above the ground and the female governs the underground regions. In some villages, new jangseung are carved and set up at regular intervals, such as every ten years, so you may see several rows of them in various stages of aging. In some parts of the country (mostly the southwest), jangseung are made of stone and are referred to as beoksu (벅수), a word probably related to baksu (박수), a designation for a male shaman.

An old tree, especially a seonang tree, may also serve as the abode of a spirit. You'll recognize its status by noting the lengths of rope or colored cloth tied to it. Such pieces of rope and cloth are also sometimes tied to a jangseung.

Here and there you may see a very tall, skinny pole atop which is perched a crudely carved wooden goose or duck. Sometimes you'll see several of them standing in a group. These are called sotdae and are thought to aid communication between heaven and earth, keeping their complementary forces in balance. Some sotdae are made of metal or stone and are supposed to make up for some lack of focus in geomantic energies in the surrounding area.

Sotdae poles

A cluster of sotdae

If you are on the lookout, you may be surprised at how many symbols of traditional folk religion are to be found around the land. They are proof that Korea's ancient animistic faith is still alive even in this modern, industrialized nation.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 20 March 2000.