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Korean folk religions: shamanism and cheondoism

23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

In Korea, several religions are widespread at the present time.

The main ones, along with Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism, include Traditional Shamanism, rooted in pagan beliefs. But in the 20th century new religious movements arose. Cheondoism is among them.

Traditional Shamanism

Shamanism no longer occupies a leading position as before among the Korean Religions. Traditional rituals can now only be seen in ancient settlements and at magnificent festivals held in cities. But “shaman” among the Koreans is still an honorary title. Followers often ask the Shamans to help in difficult life situations. Going through a particular ritual, they believe that the problem will be solved. “Chom chip” establishments exist in Korean cities, large and not so large. These are traditional fortune-telling houses, where followers of Shamanism read the future for anyone who wants.

Korean folk religions

Until relatively recently, Shamanism (in Korean – Muism) was one of the main religious trends throughout Korea. References to it are found in ancient documents of the history and culture of the peninsula, such as Samguk yusa and Samguk sagi.


According to historians, references to shamanism in ancient documents appear in the period of the Three Kingdoms (from the first century to the seventh century AD). It is known, for example, that the people of Buyeo and Goguryeo revered the spirits of nature, including the morning star, the land of the caves, water, sky and hills. Ritual rites existed even at that time and they flourished in the Era of Goryeo.

The decline of Shamanism in Korea can be attributed to the Joseon period (1392-1897). It was then that Confucianism became the official religion of the Korean peninsula, and those who continued to worship spirits were persecuted. But shamanism managed to survive this difficult period of its history, and among the common people many of its ritual and knowledge was passed down from generation to generation.

Shamanism was preserved largely due to the concept of freedom of religion proclaimed in South Korea after World War II.


According to mystical beliefs, a shaman is a person who can communicate with the spirits and souls of the dead. He/she is a kind of intermediary between the real and other worlds. The shaman can see what others cannot see and does so in a state of trance.

Regarding Korean shamans, the following conditional division applies:

  • These are blind-born witch doctors who study shamanism from a young age. The performance of rituals usually serves as their only way to earn money. A person can have a title of witch doctor only after a three-year probationary period in the Pansu community.
  • This is a larger group of Korean shamans, with usually women among their ranks. Knowledge in this case is transmitted from one initiate to another. To become a mudang, a person needs a special vocation and studies witchcraft skills from someone already familiar with it. A woman who has mastered the rituals of shamanism will break family ties and leave home. The men who have become mudang are called paxumu. However, it is believed that only women can implement the functions of a mudang, so the paxumu wear dresses during rituals.

Traditions and rituals

The worship of the spirit of heaven (Sanje) is at the heart of Korean Shamanism. According to ancient beliefs, it is this spirit that donates all worldly goods — from harvests to good health. To this day, in Shamanism the belief is still alive that the human soul continues its journey even after the death of its earthly shell, but to do so it needs offerings from the living.

Koreans also spiritualize elements of nature around them. Moreover, they inhabit these with demons. Evil spirits, as once thought, were everywhere — in the forests and plains, even in the homes of people. Some religious scholars have suggested that in ancient times Koreans offered human sacrifices to demons to propitiate them, but later, the rites of shamanism became much softer. Presumably, this was influenced by the formation of Buddhism in Korea.

Numerous demons, in which the followers of Shamanism in Korea believe, are conditionally divided into two categories. Evil spirits are the first and largest category, and good spirits the second. They can be won over only by sacrifices.

Rituals in Korean shamanism are called “kut” (“gut”), and any rite must include three elements — a spirit, a person and a shaman. The method of conducting the kut differs significantly depending on the specific region of the country.

The most common rites in Korean shamanism are:

  • Nerim kut (initiation of shamans)
  • Chohon kut (expulsion of evil spirits)
  • Todan kun (prosperity of a certain settlement)
  • Ssitkim kut (purification of the soul of a sick person)
  • Soul tan kut (ensuring peace and a rich harvest)


It is presumed that Cheondoism includes elements of some other religions — Confucianism, Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism. The movement originated in the early twentieth century and is one of the earliest of the new religions of Korea.  Cheondoism was the successor to the Donghak movement which was popular in the nineteenth century.

At the beginning of the 21st century, there were about 1.13 million adherents of Cheondoism in South Korea and up to 2.8 million in North Korea.


The basic principles of the Donghak movement, which became the progenitor of Cheondoism, were defined in the 1860s. This appeared as an alternative to Catholicism. The movement’s founder Ch’oe Che-u was executed in 1864 because the spread of his teachings in Korea led to popular unrest.


In 1905, following the basic postulates of Donghak, the main principles of Cheondoism were formulated. The new religion very soon found like-minded people, having received the support of Emperor Gojong. As soon as 1907, educational courses on Cheondoism doctrines for young people were organised in Seoul.

Basic concepts

The basic principles of Cheondoism were outlined in his writings by Ch’oe Che-u. They include the following provisions:

  • The existence of one God — Hannullim (or Нananim)
  • The unity of God and Man. According to the teachings, the Divine principle is present in the soul of everyone
  • The doctrine of knowledge and unknowledge, of action through non-action
  • The postulate of sacred expectation
  • The position that man must serve others as God.
  • The belief that everyone is waiting for paradise on Earth, and not in the afterlife. This is the teaching of Chisan Chonguk.

Traditions and rituals

Followers of Cheondoism in their rites perform five laws (“ogwan”):

  • prayer to God (performed by the whole family at midnight and each believer individually at 9 pm)
  • prayer in the church
  • sacrifice to God in the form of a vessel of pure water
  • the formation of a religious brotherhood
  • rice as a gift to the church (at every meal and the end of each week)

Churches of supporters of Cheongdoism vaguely resemble Protestant churches, and in these buildings the followers organize meetings and pray to God.

Even though most Koreans are followers of the major world religions, there are still many who support the traditions of Shamanism with their rites and worship of spirits. Among the “new” religions, Cheongdoism is becoming increasingly popular, incorporating some elements of Confucianism, Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism.