[KS] KSR 1999-06:_Korean Shamanist Ritual: Symbols and Dramas of

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Tue Nov 2 13:04:51 EST 1999

_Korean Shamanist Ritual:  Symbols and Dramas of Transformation_, by Daniel
A. Kister. Bibliotheca Shamanistica, 5.  Budapest:  AkadŽmiai Kiad—, 1997.
(ISSN 1218-988x).  178pp.

Reviewed by Kang-Nam Oh
University of Regina

[This review first appeared in Acta Koreana 2 (1999), pp.156-59.  Acta
Koreana is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

       Would you like to read an informative, comparative, reliable, and
most importantly, readable book on Korean shamanism?  I believe you can
find just such a book in Daniel A. Kister's recent work which has just been
published as volume 5 of a series called Bibliotheca Shamanistica by the
International Society for Shamanistic Research of Budapest, Hungary.

       The book is composed of three parts and seven chapters.  Part One
introduces various facets of Korean kut ritual; Part Two discusses its
"dramatic aspects;" and Part Three deals with the worshipping community.
The first chapter tells of the various forms of shamanist rituals in Korea.
Kister is interested especially in the village Py™lshin-kut or P'ung™je
performed mostly in the eastern coastal fishing villages of Korea in the
spring and fall, for he believes that this communal rite exemplifies "the
general tendency of kut to mix prayer with play."(p. 11)

       Chapter Two deals with the "kut signs" or ritual symbols. The
revelatory signs are what religious historian Mircea Eliade has called
"hierophanies," manifestations of the sacred.  These are found in such
extraordinary phenomena as the shaman's dance-like gestures performed
barefoot on well-honed straw-chopper blades, or speaking in a trance-like
state.  In this context Kister brings up the main argument of the book.  He
argues that although these extraordinary signs may testify to the presence
of divine power at work, they are not necessarily the indispensable
elements in the kut performances.  He agrees with Roberte Hamayon that
trance "is neither sufficient nor necessary to shamanic ritual action."
The more important elements for him are what he calls "aesthetic signs"
that transform the kut into an artistic dramatization of a community's
religious symbols.

       Kister proposes that a mudang or shaman, more often than not,
"creates signs of contact with the gods and spirits with mimetic gestures,
music, dance, and visual symbols."  He further suggests that the rite the
mudang performs "constitutes an aesthetically satisfying symbolic
dramatization of what it aims to achieve, the transformation ofdisparate
individuals into a community centered on contact with the realm of the gods
above."(p. 21)  The kut ritual to Kister, therefore, is basically
"controlled artistic activity springing from a human urge to transform
time,space, and a community's life together into a realm of contact with
the gods and ancestral spirits."(p. 24)

       A kut's effectiveness to heal, Kister argues, depends not so much on
whether a shaman is in a state of trance or performs extraordinary feats,
but rather on whether the ritual expresses the sympathy of the shaman and
"the prayerful concern of the ill person's family and the concern of the
praying community."(p. 29)

       Chapter Three shows how Korean shamanist rituals concern themselves
basically with "nature, birth, death, and the mudang's life."  It is also
argued that these rituals ultimately have three goals:  "harmony with the
gods and spirits,release from life's evil, and an awakened self-awareness
that opens up one to accept reality."  Chapter Four discusses the mudang's
role in helping the community achieve these goals.  Kister contends here
that the God of Heaven and the multiplicity of other gods and spirits have
more to do with the community's dramatic imagination than with
philosophical and theological abstractions.

       In the fifth chapter Kister explores the basic characteristics of
the kut for the dead.  It is interesting that the shamanist purificatory
rite for release from evil is compared with a death rite of the Roman
Catholic tradition.

       Chapter Six, which begins the second part of the book, is dedicated
to the analysis of the dynamics of kut "as a drama."  Kister claims that
kut provides "a forum, not only for manifestations of the gods' presence,
but also the cathartic purification and growth in objective self-knowledge
and in acceptance of destiny."  He contends that kut drama has most of all
a "transforming, purifying, and objectifying power."

       Chapter Seven explores the laughter and comedic elements that are
indispensable in kut ritual.  Kister examines the theories of such
authorities as Baudelaire, Freud, Bergson, Nietzsche, Cassier and Northrop
Frye, and claims that laughter as found in kut dramas transmutes woe into a
surge of zestful triumph over life, brings the gods down to the level of
human beings, and dissipates anxiety, fear and grief in the face of crises
and death.  Kister gives a number of examples of k™ri-kut such as the
"Schoolmaster" (hunjang-k™ri) and the "Blind Man" (pongsa-k™ri), which are
quite interesting to read.

       Chapter Eight continues to analyze the theatrical language of kut
drama.  Kister, using the dramatic theory of Antonin Artaud, the French
critic, argues that all kut speak the spatial language of theater, which is
characterized by the alchemical fusion of the comic and the sublime.  Here
Kister also points out that kut can be studied "in thelight of theoretical
language of folklore, anthropology, sociology, and the history of
religions; but the study of any shamanist rite bears its best fruit when it
is rooted in the rite's own theatrical language of symbolic gesture, farce,
spatial imagery, and aesthetic form."(p. 150)  Kister in this vein
concludes that "kut drama," at its best, "achieves
purifying transformation through a deft fusion of anarchical comic farce
and sublime spatial poetry."

       Kister, however, is aware that kut rituals are not just aesthetic
events.  He insists that we should appreciate "the real-life religious
drama to which kut give theatrical expression."(p. 151)  This means that we
should see kut rituals as "living events" and find the "religious spirit"
in them.  This leads to the last chapter, in which Kister discusses kut
rituals in the context of the shamanist community and Korean culture at
large.  He concludes that kut rituals most clearly reflect the "Korean love
of communal play," which "perceives contact with the gods in terms of a
community in which worshipers, the ancestors, and the gods become almost
equally one through the leveling power of playful laughter and through
symbolic participation in life's pain, beauty, and mystery."

       Kister's book is outstanding in many respects.  First, his study
focuses on the shamanist ritual or kut rather than on the shaman or mudang
themselves.  It has been customary until now that most studies on shamanism
have dealt mainly with the shaman, rather than their ritual performance.
Of course it is almost impossible to separate the shaman and their ritual
in any study of shamanism.  But at least Kister's intention of focusing on
shamanist ritual is methodologically refreshing.

       Second, the book is also of great interest in that Kister, who has
taught drama in the Department of English Literature at Sogang University
in Seoul for more than twenty years, tries to see the shamanist ritual as
dramatic performance more than anything else.  Kister disagrees with Mircea
Eliade, one of the greatest theoreticians on shamanism, who characterizes
the shaman as one who "specializes in a trance."  Kister rather goes with
Andreas Lommel who defines the shaman as "an artistically productive"
person.  This means that for Kister the shaman is above all "a dramatic
artist, working often with the simplest of means" to bring about "the
transformation of people's lives through the manipulation of their
imagination."  His analysis of shamanist ritual primarily as a
sophisticated form of drama is at least pedagogically stimulating.

       Third, this book is based on extensive research as well as on the
author's own field trips and observations in Korea.  It incorporates a
number of specific examples drawn from many sources to support the author's

       Furthermore the book is comparative in two ways.  It compares some
elements found in Korean shamanist rituals with those found in the other
traditions such as Roman Catholicism.  More importantly it also compares
the theories of many scholars engaged not only in the area of shamanist
research but also in the fields of history of religion and other related
academic disciplines.

       I understand that this book does not intend to be exhaustive in
dealing with Korean shamanist ritual.  I also understand that the book
concentrates on the dramatic nature of shamanist ritual.  Although I
understand these points, I wondered while reading if focusing on shamanist
ritual essentially as drama is the best way to understand shamanism.  Of
course Kister does not deny that shamanist ritual can be examined from many
other perspectives, and his approach should be taken as an excellent
complementary work to such approaches.  Another approach that I personally
hope to see in the near future is one that analyzes shamanist experiences
in terms of "the spectrum of consciousness" in the transpersonal view of
human evolution.

       Overall this book is an outstanding addition to the list of
references on Korean shamanism.  This can be recommended as a good
introductory book on Korean shamanism in general, as well as a book
specifically dedicated to the understanding of Korean shamanist ritual as
drama for transformation.

Oh, Kang-Nam  1999
Review of Daniel A. Kister, _Korean Shamanist Ritual: Symbols and Dramas of
Transformation_ (1997)
Korean Studies Review 1999, no. 6
Electronic file:
[This review first appeared in Acta Koreana 2 (1999), pp.156-59]


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