One of our strangest and most beautiful experiences in Korea took place on the mountains near our home.
We had been in the country for perhaps two eternal months when we made our first exploration of the tree-covered, building-bare peaks that rise in craggy ridgelines out of the enfolding blanket of city. At the edge of town, just past a bowling alley decorated with a giant pin, the urban landscape gave way suddenly to an unexpected fringe of country life: small farm plots tented in clear plastic for the cold season, wooden cages for stew dogs, tumbledown farmhouses, rustic jangseung guardian posts and Buddhist shrines.
The trailhead was marked by a stone turtle that could have been carved the year before or hundreds of years ago. And then the farms too gave way, and we were climbing up under the near-bare trees, rising out of the density of the city and into another world.
In the slanting light of the afternoon, as we were making our way back down, we began to catch fragments of an extraordinary sound carried to us by the updrafts. As we moved closer, it resolved into a kind of raw ululation that seemed at first more animal than human. We had never heard anything like it before. We couldn’t tell how many people were making the sound, and we could only guess at what strange ritual might accompany such a thing. We sat and listened for five, ten, fifteen minutes as we gazed out at the concrete apartment towers and red neon crosses of the city below.
Then we plucked up the courage and hiked down to investigate. The source of that strange chanting turned out to be an elderly couple, seated on flats of cardboard behind a chainlink fence, dressed in ordinary jackets of puffy nylon. Their faces were impassive, as if producing these astonishing sounds caused no strain at all — as if they were mere instruments on which the mountain played its wild tune.
We never heard that sound again. Our friend Suky told us that it was probably some Shamanistic ritual, but that was all we could learn. Though signs of Shamanism are everywhere — in the swastika flags that mark the offices of fortune-tellers and geomancers, in the umbrella-topped fortune-teller tents along Jongno, Seoul’s central avenue, in the devilish tokkaebi mascot of South Korea’s football team — the folk religion of Korea is likely to remain opaque to an outsider. Like America’s relationship to sex, Korea’s relationship to its historic religions has a peek-a-boo quality to it. In a rapidly Christianizing society, repression and embarrassment at the superstitions of Old Korea are constantly reinforced through deracinated popular depictions that serve at once to undermine the old religious practices and to keep them always present.
Fortunately, the Korea Society in New York is offering a pair of events that might shed some light on this hidden underworld of Korean culture. The first is Shaman as Princess: The Mythic Origin of Korean Shamanism, a gallery talk by Heinz Insu Fenkl, at 6:30 on March 23. The second, on the evening of April 13, is a screening of the 2003 documentary Mudang: Reconciling the Living and the Dead, which presents several Shamanistic rituals and explores the lives of present-day Shamans in Korea. I look forward to peeking through these rare windows into the deeper parts of Korean society.