Wednesday, June 19, 2024


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

June 9, 2024 2:47 PM IST

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.”
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.)
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.

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Last updated on: 19th June 2024