shamans, · 2016. 5. 30. · dang’, or seaside shrine. the lead shaman, accompanied by six...

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JEJU ISLAND OF SOUTH KOREA HAS RECEIVED MULTIPLE RECOGNITIONS FOR ITS NATURAL WONDERS, BUT ITS LIVING TRADITIONS, INCLUDING SHAMANISM AND FREE-DIVING WOMEN, ARE LESS WELL-KNOWN BUT NO LESS WONDROUS. words by ANNE HILTY SHAMANS,

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Page 1: SHAMANS, · 2016. 5. 30. · dang’, or seaside shrine. The lead shaman, accompanied by six supporting shamans, begins by invoking the local deities. With special emphasis she honours

JEJU ISLAND OF SOUTH KOREA HAS RECEIVED MULTIPLE RECOGNITIONS FOR ITS NATURAL

WONDERS, BUT ITS LIVING TRADITIONS, INCLUDING SHAMANISM AND FREE-DIVING WOMEN, ARE LESS

WELL-KNOWN BUT NO LESS WONDROUS. words by ANNE HILTY

FREE-DIVING GRANNIES

SHAMANS,

Page 2: SHAMANS, · 2016. 5. 30. · dang’, or seaside shrine. The lead shaman, accompanied by six supporting shamans, begins by invoking the local deities. With special emphasis she honours

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Page 3: SHAMANS, · 2016. 5. 30. · dang’, or seaside shrine. The lead shaman, accompanied by six supporting shamans, begins by invoking the local deities. With special emphasis she honours

The sounds of surf and seabirds serve as a constant reminder of our purpose: to mourn the dead diver and console the living

through the rites of a tradition inherited from East Siberia.

Jeju Island is a SmartGrid Testbed. It is integrating several sustainable energy resources and an electric car system, and has a model carbon-free community on an outlying island. The island aims to be completely carbon-free by 2030.

FAST FACTS

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Page 4: SHAMANS, · 2016. 5. 30. · dang’, or seaside shrine. The lead shaman, accompanied by six supporting shamans, begins by invoking the local deities. With special emphasis she honours

SPRING 2015 47

There’s a ritual tomorrow,” the shaman said. “Would you like to attend?”

“A haenyeo [female free-diver] has drowned,” Grand Shaman Suh Sun Sil elaborates, with the help of my interpreter. “We must honour the Dragon King and Queen in order to retrieve her

spirit from the sea and release her to the Otherworld – and to console her diving sisters.”

Welcome to Jeju Island, South Korea: island of women, nature and 18,000 gods — many of them fierce goddesses. Though only 50 kilometres south of the Korean peninsula, this UNESCO-inscripted former sovereignty is eco-culturally distinct – so much so, that when Korean mainlanders visit Jeju, they typically report feeling as if they are in a foreign country.

I first fell in love with Jeju in 2005. Volcano-created, its black-stone landscape is often dramatic: flowing magma meets cold sea, or rises from it. The island’s beaches vary from sugar-white sand to black basalt granules to popcorn-shaped desiccated red algae.

Primal forests known locally as ‘gotjawal’, where trees rise from a hardened lava bed, loom large in the native psyche; with deep aquifers and temperature-regulating volcanic vents, they represent microclimates of flora ranging from alpine to tropical, many used as indigenous medicine.

This 1849km² island is surprisingly hilly with 368 secondary cones, each with its own characteristics; called ‘oreum’ in

the endangered Jeju dialect, they hold status in the hearts of locals. In their midst at 1950 metres stands Mount Halla, one of Korea’s three most sacred mountains (along with Jiri in the peninsula’s southwest Jeolla Province, and Baekdu in the north). In Jeju mythology, this central volcano is the Mother Creator, the embodiment of Goddess Seolmundae who sleeps beneath in ever-present beneficence.

And then there are the diving women. And the shamans.“Is the foreigner a man or woman?” the divers at the ritual

site, most well into their elder years, ask my translator in their mother tongue. A Jeju native and daughter of a diver herself, she informs them of my gender and age, and then reassures them that I am not a tourist but a researcher invited by the lead shaman. This seems acceptable, and later, as we share a meal, these powerful free-diving grandmothers feed me with the products of their labour as we sit on the floor around low tables. The sounds of surf and seabirds serve as a constant reminder of our purpose: to mourn the dead diver and console the living through the rites of a tradition, inherited from East Siberia, which has been the spiritual fabric of this community for millennia.

Despite their sorrow, or perhaps to relieve it, these old women laugh heartily to see me eat the turban shell, sea urchin, abalone and kelp, and shake their heads over my ability to use the pointed stainless steel chopsticks. When we raise our cups of ‘makgeolli’ (unfiltered rice wine) in memory of u

(left to right): Female free-divers head out to sea; Hamdeok Beach, Jeju Island.

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Page 5: SHAMANS, · 2016. 5. 30. · dang’, or seaside shrine. The lead shaman, accompanied by six supporting shamans, begins by invoking the local deities. With special emphasis she honours

48 N AT ION A L GEOGR A PHIC TR AV ELLER

their dead companion and in celebration of life, they slap me on the back and shout out their approval. These are not your ordinary grandmas.

The breath-hold diving of Jeju is a labour practice maintained for centuries. Its participants were initially of both genders but exclusively female by the 1800s. In seaside villages all along the island’s coastline, girls historically began learning to dive at around eight years of age, joining the village sisterhood of divers by mid-adolescence. Much of their yield was exported to neighbouring countries; the practice shifted from one of manual labour to that of industry and was professionalised under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), when the work of Jeju haenyeo became the driving economic force on the island.

By the late 1960s, combined trends of modernisation, higher education for girls, popularisation of factory work, and an economic shift on Jeju toward tourism signalled the decline of the diving women’s profession. Then, at a high of more than 25,000 registered divers, today’s figure is under 5000 and in continued decline, the majority of divers over the age of 70. Preservation efforts are ongoing at local, national and international levels, including a bid for UNESCO inscription.

The two-day memorial ritual commences in the ‘haesin-dang’, or seaside shrine. The lead shaman, accompanied by six supporting shamans, begins by invoking the local deities. With special emphasis she honours Yowang the Dragon King and his queen Yowang Halmang who, in opposition to their u

(above and below): The traditional village of Seongeup prepares for a ritual; The author is the first foreigner to participate in a ceremony honoring Jeju's creator goddess Seolmundae Halmang.

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Jeju Island holds all three of UNESCO's Natural Science inscriptions: Man & Biosphere (2002), World Natural Heritage (2007), and Global Geoparks (2010). It also has four Ramsar designations and is one of the world's New 7 Wonders of Nature (2011)

FAST FACTS

Page 6: SHAMANS, · 2016. 5. 30. · dang’, or seaside shrine. The lead shaman, accompanied by six supporting shamans, begins by invoking the local deities. With special emphasis she honours

European counterpart, govern the sea and as such are deemed critical to the divers’ well-being.

The drowned woman was only 52 years old - like me, I think to myself – and in reportedly good health. The danger of this practice is never far from the divers’ thoughts, with an average of seven drownings per year. Diving to 20 metres and staying underwater for up to two minutes on one breath, one mistake or accident – such as underestimating the need for air or distance to the surface, encountering the poisonous sting of a jellyfish or bite of a sea snake, experiencing a blackout brought on by her pre-dive hyperventilation routine, aneurysm or heart attack – can prove fatal.

In one of the more touching rites of this ritual, those who found the drowned woman — two elder divers and three village rescue workers — along with the village chief and the leader of her haenyeo society, kneel before the shaman as she touches their heads, chests, upper backs, each in turn, all the while chanting, pleading with the gods to take away their shock and sorrow. In another poignant rite, the shaman travels to a nearby site where the woman’s body had been retrieved, giving offerings to the Dragon God and Goddess for the release of her spirit, which is then containerised in the body of the lead shaman as she returns to the shrine.

“Now we can help her cross over,” Shaman Suh tells me. “And then ease the grief and fears of her diving community.”

I rejoin my sisters. In a sense, I am one of them, having completed a five-month summer program at Haenyeo School sponsored by the Jeju government as a preservation initiative. In the grandest sense, I am surely one of them, despite our many differences: in the universal sisterhood and in our shared humanity.

She touches their heads, chests, upper

backs, each in turn, all the while chanting, pleading

with the gods to take away their shock

and sorrow.

HOW TO GET THERE

There are very limited direct flights to Jeju International Airport. You can fly into Incheon [Seoul] International Airport, then transfer by bus to Gimpo Airport. It's then a one-hour domestic flight to Jeju Island.

HOW TO GET AROUND

Rental car is the best way to get around Jeju (it's US-style driving

and you need an international driver's license. There are plenty of taxis and an extensive bus system.

WHAT TO KNOWi

Australians and New Zealanders do not need a visa to visit South Korea. For cultural exploration, a Jeju-native translator is necessary, and one can be booked through the Jeju Tourist Organisation.

JEJU ISLAND

50 N AT ION A L GEOGR A PHIC TR AV ELLER

The volcanic landscape of Jeju Island.