From Ancient Times to Today - Korea's Native Folk Beliefs

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Folk belief is comprised of religious beliefs and practices held by the people of a society which do not fall under the umbrella of an organized religion. In the case of Korea, folk religion can be categorized – shamanism, household religion, and village religion.

Shamanism can be considered the oldest Korean religion. In Korea, one can become a shaman hereditarily or after a spirit possession and initiation ritual. These shamans are employed by private individuals or a community for fortune telling or to lead rituals, called gut, to console the spirits of the deceased or to wish for good fortune. During the rituals, the shaman serves as a medium between the spirits (either the deceased or other gods) and the lay person. They always include music and dance. Shamanism was officially suppressed during the Confucian Joseon dynasty, however it was widely practiced in private and by women, in particular.

Household religion refers to spirit worship of various household gods. While the men of a family hold Confucian ancestral worship rituals on the anniversary of one’s ancestors death (jesa), on holidays (charye) such as Lunar New Year and Chuseok, and at the tomb of the deceased (sije), women of the household hold similar folk rituals to honor and appease spirits which are believed to oversee various parts of the home. These offering rituals are called gosa and are performed to ensure good fortune for the house. Examples of such household spirits are spirit of the main roof beam (seongju sin), three-spirit grandmother (samsin halmeoni) or three-spirit monk (samsin jeseok), spirit of the kitchen fire (jowang sin), lord of the yard (teoji daegam), spirit of the storehouse (eop sin), maiden of the toilet (byeonso gaksi), and more.

Village religion includes local rituals and festivals involving the worship of local spirits and sacred trees (dangsan namu). It also includes the installation of guardian posts (jangseung), sacred poles (sotdae), and other decorations which served as sign posts, boundary markers, and tokens of spiritual protection. Local rituals and festivals were a way to bring the various clans of the village together and serve as a structured and sanctioned way for people of all classes, ages, and sexes to be temporarily freed from their social roles. Some such village folk rituals, namely the Gangneung Danoje Festival and the Jeju Chilmeoridang-yeongdeung-gut Shaman Ritual, have been designated as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritages.

Korean folk religion still plays a role in modern Koreans' lives to a certain extent. Some still visit fortune telling stalls and hire shamans for private rituals. Gosa to wish for good luck are commonly held when opening a new business, constructing a new building, or before a performance. Korean Christianity has incorporated various shamanistic practices, such as mountain prayers (sangido) and revival meetings, while Korean Buddhist temples have a hall for worshiping the Mountain Spirit (sansin) – a folk, not Buddhist, spirit. Some mothers - of all faiths - pray for their childrens' success during the 100 days leading up to college entrance examinations. A great deal of traditional Korean music, dance, and performances have their roots in folk religion. This prevalence of folk religion in both secular society and organized religion demonstrates the extent to which it is a fundamental part of Korean culture.

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  • Choi, Joon-sik. 2005. Folk-religion: The Customs in Korea. Ewha Womans University Press.
  • Peterson, Mark. Korea's Religious Places. Seoul Selection. p. 104-7.