Korea: a religious history
by James Huntley Grayson
BA (Rutgers), MA (Columbia), MDiv (Duke), PhD (Edinburgh)
Revised Edition 2002
A revision of the original work of 1989, which established itself as the authoritative work in the field, this book is an historical survey of all the religious traditions of Korea in relation to the socio-cultural trends of seven different periods of Korean history. Beginning in the middle of the first millennium BC, the work has been revised to bring the story to the end of the twentieth century. The book includes a discussion of the history of the study of religion in Korea, and a chronological description of Korean folk religion including shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Islam, and Korean New Religions. There are also some final observations about the unique characteristics of religious beliefs and practices in Korea.
James Huntley Grayson is Reader in Modern Korean Studies in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. His research interests are in traditional Korean religion, Korean Christianity and Korean oral folklore. His most recent work, Myths and Legends from Korea, was published by Curzon Press in 2001.
page 210: “In July 1955, Mun [Sun Myung Moon] was imprisoned for gross immorality, but was subsequently released.” LINK
page 211: “As one of the most important functions of the Lord of the Second Advent is the physical restoration of mankind, Mun selects suitable marital partners for the faithful and conducts sacred ceremonies of marriage in large groups. It should be noted with regard to the purging of physical sin that Mun has been accused of acts of gross immorality which are denied by church authorities.” LINK
Chapter 17 contents
MUSOK-KYO – Folk Religion in Modern Society
1. Historical Background
2. The Practitioners of Musok-kyo
b. Ritual Leaders
3. The Spirits
b. Gods of the Air
c. Spirits of the Earth
d. Spirits of the Water
e. Nameless Spirits
f. Ancestral Spirits
4. The Ceremonies
a. Purak-che, The Village Ritual System
b. Household Ceremonies
c. Community Ceremonies
d. Non-village Ceremonies
e. Material Aspects of the kut
3. The Spirits
The spirit world of Korean Musok-kyo may be divided into six classes: the Supreme Being, the gods of the air, the gods of the land, the gods of the water, nameless lesser spirits, and the ancestral spirits.
The Koreans from the earliest recorded period have worshipped a high god who resided in the heavens from where he exercised his rule. He has been known in Korean variously as Hananim, Hanallim, Hanǔnim, or Hanǔllim – the Ruler of Heaven. Everything in the universe was attributed to him, the lives of the people, their harvest, the rain and other natural phenomena. However, as is the case with other high gods amongst tribal peoples, there was only occasional, if any, worship directly offered to him. He was the invisible and ultimate cause of everything. Worship was given to those spirits to which he had delegated authority.
❖ Additional material
▲ The Big Dipper, (the tail of the Great Bear or Ursa Major) is referred to in Religious Taoism as the Seven Stars or the Bushel constellation. The cluster of stars commands a pre-eminent place in Taoist ritual symbology because it is believed to be the locus of yin and yang forces and therefore the controller of all order in the universe. A dipperful is a measure for dry grain, hence the alternate name for the cluster of seven stars as the Bushel Constellation.
In Eastern Asia, these stars compose the Northern Dipper. They are colloquially named “The Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper” (Korean: 북두칠성 北斗七星 ), Bukdu Ch’ilsǒng).
Daoists believe that this star constellation is the seat of the celestial bureaucracy of the gods. The Seven Stars Constellation is also said to be the chariot of the Heavenly Emperor.
Another spirit of the heavens whose shrine is frequently found behind the principal hall of Korean Buddhist temples is Ch’ilsǒng-nim or the Seven Star Spirit, the Pole Star. We have encountered references to his worship in Koryǒ times, along with that of Chesǒk. Ch’ilsǒng together with Chesǒk and Ch’ǒn-sin are the guises of or the alternative names for the Ruler of Heaven, Hananim. As Ch’ilsǒng, he is the Ruler of the Pole Star, the central and pivotal constellation of the northern hemisphere. In primeval times, Ursa Major was probably thought to be the residence of the supreme ruler. From this belief developed the cult of this star cluster and its powerful spirit. The shrine dedicated to Ch’ilsǒng, the Ch’ilsǒng-gak, is invariably a small, tiled-roof structure usually situated to the left and rear of the principal temple building. The interior often contains only a simple altar with a painting of the deity who is often depicted as a Bodhisattva.
b. Gods of the Air
1. Obang changgun. Immediately beneath the Ruler of Heaven are his highest subordinates, the Generals of the Five Cardinal Points, the Obang changgun. Although the belief in these spirits is found amongst the Chinese as well, the source for their cult may not be China itself but Central Asia and Siberia. Tribal groups as distant from the Chinese world as the Samoyed and the Yenesei Ostyak in the far west of Siberia propitiate the rulers of the five directions. The worship of the guardians of the cardinal directions is not unique, as we also find the cult of the Sach’onwang or Four Heavenly Kings in Buddhism. What is distinctive about the cultus of these five spirits is the designation of the centre as a point of the compass. The use of the number five indicates that the origin of the cult may well be autochthonous to Siberian peoples as they use a five-directional division of the world.
Each of the directions is associated with a particular colour. Thus the Ch’ǒngje changgun (Azure General) governs the East, the Paekche changgun (White General) governs the West, the Chǒkche changgun (Red General) governs the South, the Hǔkche changgun (Black General) governs the North, and the Hwangje changgun (Yellow General) governs the Centre.
These five great spirits resemble the Siberian master spirits who rule or govern a portion of the cosmos. The division of the spirit world into five grand hordes is also reminiscent of the great tribal hordes which swept across the plains of Central Asia and Manchuria. Neo-Siberian peoples, such as the Mongols, often conceived of their spirits as being divided into hordes under the authority of a superior spirit.
2. Sinjong. These spirits are subordinate to the Obang changgun and may be thought of as the aides-de-camp of the generals. There have been estimates that there may be as many as 80,000 of these spirits. Beneath them in turn are minor spirits such as the saja which constitute the heavenly troops. This orderly hierarchy again reminds one of the hierarchy of the Central Asian hordes. The sinjang or mansin are important because it is they who are the confidants of the shamans and the p’ansu, the blind fortune-tellers and exorcists.
c. Spirits of the Earth
1. San-sin [Sanshin]. Without question, the most important of the earthly spirits is San-sin, the Mountain God. His cult is celebrated in two places, in small shrines behind the principal hall of a Buddhist temple, or in front of the village altar. We have seen that the cult of Ch’ilsǒng or Samsǒng (Three Star Spirit, another guise of Ch’ilsǒng) is also celebrated in such shrines. More common than the shrines dedicated to either Ch’ilsǒng or Samsǒng is the Sansin-gak or Mountain God Shrine. These plain shrines have only a simple altar behind which hangs a painting of the god. In this painting he is depicted as a benevolent, white-bearded figure of great antiquity seated on a tiger beneath a pine tree. Often to the side there is a small boy offering him a sǒndo (hsien-tao in Chinese) or Peach of Immortality from the Taoist land of the Immortals.
The unique characteristic of San-sin is that he is not the god of a particular mountain, but the god of all mountains, and the founder of the first Korean state. According to the myth, as the grandson of the Ruler of Heaven, Tan’gun was born on a mountain, and after completing his reign on earth he became the God of the Mountains. Historically, the worship of San-sin is very ancient. The oldest known stele in Korea is dedicated to this spirit and is dated to AD 85.
The association of the tiger with San-sin is significant in that the Tungus tribes of Siberia worship a master of the hunt, an old, white-bearded man who rides on a tiger. This spirit, Bainaca, is propitiated on mountain passes and river banks. So too with San-sin; Koreans to this day will place a pebble on a pile of stones at the summit of a mountain pass in order to propitiate this great spirit. The depiction of Tan’gun, the conception of his role, and the manner in which he is commonly propitiated would indicate that he belongs to the class of spirits known in Siberia as master spirits, rulers of aspects of nature.
Apart from the worship accorded to San-sin at the shrines in Buddhist temples and on mountain passes, the cult is practised in the villages, especially on Tae porǔm, the evening of the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. On that night, all the village elders or heads of households will gather before a plain stone altar or shrine erected beside the most ancient tree in the village. Written petitions for prosperity and health in the new year will be set on fire and allowed to ﬂoat upwards to Heaven to be received by San-sin. Thus, San-sin is the benevolent protector of the household and of the village as a whole. There is one other simple rite which is offered to this god. Women who are barren or who have not produced male offspring will journey to some famous temple or revered rock deep in the mountains to offer up their petition for a child.
2. Ch’on-sin. The Ch’on-sin is a minor spirit of the land which is responsible for the fertility of the soil. It used to be common for farmers to offer a portion of their noonday meal to this spirit. The cult of this spirit is no longer widespread.
3. Changsǔng. in front of the entrance to most villages in pre-modern Korea, there were two standing posts frequently made of wood but in some areas made of stone. These posts, called changsǔng (which many early writers mistakenly called totem poles, or devil posts) were crudely carved in the shape of male and female figures and were labelled Ch’ǒnha tae changgun (Great General Beneath Heaven) and Chiha tae changgun (Great General Beneath the Earth). These spirits are the tutelary spirits of the village and are situated so as to block the entrance of malevolent spirits into the village precinct. The duality of male/female, sky/earth characteristic of the changsǔng is a primeval statement of the Yin-Yang Theory. In our discussion of Confucianism in the Three Kingdoms period, we have noted that Yi Ǔrho holds that prior to the advent of Confucian philosophy there was already in Korea a folk philosophy which had many of the characteristics of formal Confucian thought. The changsǔng are one important reflection of this folk philosophy. On the volcanic island of Cheju off the southwest coast, these tutelary spirits are represented on statues of carved lava called Harubang (Grandfather) and Halmang (Grandmother) in the local dialect.
4. Sǒngju and other household spirits. There is a variety of guardian household spirits worshipped in the home, among which are Sǒngju, the chief guardian of the home; Samsin holmoni, the guardian of childbirth; T’oju taegam, the guardian of the house site; Chowang, the Kitchen Spirit; and Pyǒnso kakssi, the guardian of the toilet. Although a minor spirit in the Korean celestial hierarchy, Sǒngju is the supreme guardian of the home. He makes his residence in a packet of pine needles tucked away up on the central beam of the maru or central, wooden floor room of the home. Worship is offered to Sǒngju at harvest, when a new home is erected, when there is a new male head of the household, and on other occasions. If members of a household feel that Sǒngju is punishing them for some infraction or that he is not performing his duties well, this spirit will be specially propitiated. Samsin halmoni resides in an earthenware jar of rice grains kept in the inner room or woman’s quarters of the house. Conceived of as a grandmother or matriarch, this spirit protects women during the ordeal of childbirth. T’oju taegam patrols the precinct of the household, while the Kitchen Spirit and the Toilet Maiden reside in those places guarding against the predations of evil spirits.
d. Spirits of the Water
There is a variety of water spirits, all of which are conceived of as dragons. The yong or dragons live in the rivers and streams, in the springs and wells, and in the seas and heavens where they control the rains. The worship of these spirits is very ancient and similar in many ways to the practice of the modern Tungus groups. Stories in the Samguk yusa record various legends told about dragons during the period of the Three Kingdoms. One legend tells us that the construction of a royal palace was halted because of the presence of a dragon. Upon completion, the palace was named the Hwangnyong-sa, the Temple of the Yellow Dragon.
The most grand of all the dragons is the Yong-wang (Dragon King), also known as Hae-wang or King of the Sea, who is the ruler of the sea and all that moves within it. There are many legends about the Dragon King and his relations with the human world. The Hae’in-sa temple has a magnificent portrait of the Yong-wang, showing him dressed as a Korean king in state with a ferocious dragon-face and surrounded by his watery realm. Villagers propitiate the dragons at times of drought, while fishermen worship them before venturing out to sea. In addition to the normal village shrine, fishing villages will often have separate shrines dedicated to the Yong-wang.
e. Nameless Spirits
Beneath the spirits discussed above come a host of spirits, ghosts, imps, and such which constitute the lowest level of the Korean spiritual realm. Some of these spirits are benevolent, such as the kitchen spirit and the spirit which inhabits the rice storage jar, There is also a class of malevolent spirits full of vengeance towards humanity. These spirits are often the souls of those who have died before fulfilling themselves, such as drowned persons, young boys, and unmarried girls. Another class of spirits would be the tokkaebi or imp-like creatures which delight in mischievous acts such as mislaying household items or cracking the kitchen crockery. All of these spirits had to be appeased to ensure harmony in the home.
f. Ancestral Spirits
The Confucian cult of the ancestral spirits has been discussed above in relation to the chesa ceremony. It needs only to be stressed here that ancestor worship is indigenous to Korea. Confucianism only codified and organized a pre-existing practice. The Myth of Tan’gun, which dates back to the tribal states period, is one early indication of the importance of the cult of the ancestors. In this case, the ancestors worshipped are the progenitors of the royal family, and by extension the ancestors of the nation as a whole. In Siberia to this day there are ancestral cults presided over by shamans. In Korea there is a parallel to this in the shamanistic ancestral ceremonies which are unrelated to the Confucian ritual system, as well as the non-shamanistic, non-Confucian rituals.
Shamanism: The Spirit World of Korea
Any understanding of the so-called New Religions of Korea would be difficult without some knowledge of shamanistic influences upon them.