We are the tradition’s shaman-priests for a reason.
I opened the temple’s “door” (a typical room divider) and breathed slowly. I put my palms together at the centre of my chest and bowed to the floor, uplifting my splayed palms, before bringing them back together and repeating the action nine total times. I bowed at the waist. Insa 인사. Formal greeting rite. Typically, this is how the start of my temple duties go. I ponder and meditate on everything I am grateful for. What my gods have given me. How blessed I am because of them and my spirit-family. I pour in freshwater for their bowls. If they call for it, I also pour them liquor. I light candles and incense. And then I sit and we talk.
Every mudang’s gods are different.
Mine may be stronger than the other or not. My War Gods are gruff and quick to retaliate. My Fairy Goddess is gentle but stern and makes sure the others get along in shrine. My Child Gods run, bringing clients and fortune, teaching me how to play with coins and rice and how to ritual dance. My Mountain God is stoic, my Dragon King God is gracious. All are in me.
I saw the images of my gods on my fan move. My Kisaeng (a sort of court style entertainer – somewhat similar to geisha) Goddess tilted her head and smiled. She knew my heart. “Ease what anxiousness fills you. Meet each day with gratitude, humbleness, and sincerity.” My Boy Child God shimmied his way up to me and slapped his chest proudly. “I taught you how to use coins and rice. I brought you clients and I gave them the right answers. Was I wrong?” I bowed my head slightly. “No, you were not wrong. I am proud of you and you have my gratitude.” “Then will you give me more chocolate this upcoming Ch’oharu 초하루 (New Moon Festival)?” I sighed and shook my head. “I can’t give you extra. The clients that came only paid for what will cover the basics of the festival this month, little one. If you want extra chocolate or toys, you need to bring me more, okay?” He crossed his arms sullenly. “..Fine.” My Fairy Goddess shoved him back. “Go, you still have plenty to do for the family.” We catch up. I tell them about everything. What I worry about, what I hope for. I move into prayer rites for my clients who commission me to take care of their spiritual wellbeing.
A mudang’s life revolves around her gods.
And where does it begin? For all mudang, it starts with suffering. … One does not CHOOSE to become a mudang. One is chosen by the gods. You are destined or you are not. And many will take advantage of you, saying you are meant to become one, when you are not. The result is a one-day initiation ceremony (내림굿) and an array of certain things of a shrine that is vaguely incomplete. They don’t really train the new mudang, don’t tell them the proper way of things. It ends in a disaster, as the untrained mudang makes horrible mistakes which can cause death in their clients’ lives and their own. Consider us as kisaeng. We train for many years (minimum of five) to learn the proper etiquette in pouring the gods’ drinks, chanting, singing, playing instruments, dancing, and many more in order to serve and please the gods. Due to this, and the immense responsibility one has for this vocation, we do not encourage others to do it unless they absolutely cannot avoid the calling. People do not realize that our life is no longer our own.
Everything must be run by our gods first.
This sudden lack of autonomy can be extremely hard to adapt to. It took me quite some time to understand that it doesn’t necessarily remove Independence from my life. It simply adds responsibilities that … Spirit sickness is our suffering. But just because we answer the calling doesn’t mean it all goes away after our initiation ceremony. We still retain certain aspects, depending on our gods and our clients. Spirit sickness isn’t entirely all the same symptoms either. Depending on our ancestors, it can be different from mudang to mudang.
Mine showed as vertigo, a loud gong sounds when I had premonitions come true, electricity-like pain rushes down my spine and shoulders. Eventually, my vision began to become affected, by a static effect blocking my vision for a second. My heart began to race and have palpitations.
Doctors could not pinpoint why any of that was a factor with me. Mental illness symptoms affecting my personality. Dreams where my ancestors visited me and showed me or told me things I would not have known. All of it turned out to be true when I decided to research about it after waking. Other mudang had it more brutally. Constant surgeries, near-death experiences, visions so strong they almost hurt themselves or others around them.
Everyone has a sense of premonition and intuition.
A typical person may be able to use 10 per cent. A person who is more in tune spiritually may end up using 20-30 per cent. But because in our initiation ceremonies our (기) ki energy is opened and aligned directly with our (신) gods, we are able to use 80-100 per cent. Just because someone has a bit of an edge with intuition and “psychic ability” doesn’t mean they have a calling to shamanism in any tradition. The safest and more surefire to know you are chosen and have the calling is to be vetted by a mudang.
We are the tradition’s shaman-priests for a reason.