Sunday, May 10, 2009

Shimbang, sha-bam

This entry is going to be a small break from chronicling my adventures out here in Uijeungbu. Let me present to you: the s(h)imbang, one of a variety of mudang (shamans) in traditional Korean lore.

They're essentially witches. They can communicate with spirits, and they're also well-read in astrology. People will consult with a shimbang about the same things that some Westerners ask Tarot readers or astrology. Belief in superstitions and fortune-telling is more widespread in Korea than in the US, and it's not considered as frivolous or silly. One time I asked Mina how her weekend went, and she said it was good because she went to a fortune-teller, who told her that she had three different romantic prospects in store for her this year. People also go to shimbang for advice in naming their children.

Naming a child is tricky business in Korea (at least for some; I'm not sure what the norm is, I've only heard the naming story behind one Korean). A shimbang has to analyze the family's names, their past deeds and careers, and their birthdays to figure out their elemental make up, and to see where the family is out of balance. Based on this information, the shimbang will recommend a name that will bring the family line back on an even keel. I suspect that this practice is neither a norm nor a rarity, and that it depends on how superstitious the parents are. I can't be entirely sure, though—again, my earlier point about fortune-telling being more "mainstream" here. I imagine the other kinds of mudang can also be consulted about baby names (since shimbang are concentrated mainly south of the Han river), though unlike the shimbang the other mudang contact spirits and deities directly, becoming possessed.

Being a shimbang is a hereditary position, though there are other kinds of mudang where genetics isn't a factor. For whatever reason, when Christianity came to Korea, it was unable to eradicate the mudang—or maybe the converted Koreans saw mudang as compatible with their new faith.

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