Simple Sanctuaries: Photographs of Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines
A shamanic shrine (sindang) refers to “a house of gods,” and can be literally interpreted as any religious space where religious rituals are conducted. With shamanism, however, it is a space where gods are thought to always be present. On Jeju Island, Korea’s largest island that features a large dormant volcano, there are about 350 shamanic shrines left today. Jeju Island has gone through any number of ordeals over the centuries due to its harsh climatic conditions and certain historical incidents that have occurred there. Yet shamanic shrines have long remained the center of vitality and the root of the island’s identity by helping people overcome their hardships. For time immemorial there have been shrines where people could pray for their communities in every village along the coast and surrounding the base of Hallasan Mountain. There is an expression in Jeju―“The land of 18,000 gods”―which captures the belief that gods really do exist and that everything functions in the world based on the role of each god. People who have lived in Jeju have overcome a harsh history on barren lands and bravely guarded their lives from natural calamities. At the same time, they have maintained a tremendous number of shamanic shrines with a strong religiosity that are dependent on supernatural powers. However, during the modernization process after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, shamanism was regarded as a superstition and oppressed in a violent manner, so as a result many shamanic shrines were destroyed. Nevertheless, it is quite surprising that many of the villages around Jeju have maintained shamanic shrines, which to this day are still visited by the faithful. The culture of danggut (shamanic shrine rituals) in Jeju is the foundation for maintaining a strong sense of belonging to a specific village and sustaining the community. Even today, people gather at the beginning of January with offerings and perform a gut (shamanic ritual) when they wish to pray or prevent misfortune on a village or on individuals. These aspirations all come together in one place, and the shrine becomes an even more sacred space; the scene of a gut also becomes a stage for dance and enjoyment where simbang (someone who performs a gut) and dangol (believers) join the ceremony. Every shamanic shrine has a sacred body that symbolizes a god, and it is different at each shrine. Jeju Island most often represents the body of a god with a tree, which is then seen as a sacred tree. The colored fabrics hanging from a sacred tree and the bones of the animals that were offered to gods are combined to create both a mysterious and solemn atmosphere. As a result, people can sometimes feel a little scared or spooked out when they think of a shamanic shrine. However, Kang Kun’s photos show “simple” scenes that are not different from everyday life in these villages. Actually, shamanic shrines in Jeju have as many looks as the number of shrines, but what they share in common is that they capture the nature of Jeju as well as the simple lives of its island’s people who have lived alongside these shrines for their entire lives. This book is a record of shamanic shrines and the people of Jeju who have passed down these shrines to future generations. All the photos were taken by photographer Kang Kun, who became enlightened by the layered traces of time and the sincerity of the island’s people as he travelled around these areas from 2014 to 2020. Since a shamanic shrine is a sacred place only for the devoted, strong precautions are taken against outsiders. According to the requests of the hosts, the photographer was dressed in a respectful manner and acted carefully at each site while taking photos, which truthfully reflected how he visited all the shamanic shrines he went to, from a village’s ancestral home to beaches, rocky crevices, fields and schools. His work shows that shamanic shrines in Jeju are not the legacy of the past, but the life and culture itself, something that is still being passed down today. The photos in the book are largely divided into two parts, one for shamanic shrines, “sindang,” and the other for shamanic shrine rituals, “danggut,” which are performed at all these places. The shamanic shrines part, which is the core of the book, was edited with a focus on highlighting the impression of space. Later in the book, we can see the fact that those shrines are being forgotten and disappearing. Photos of shamanic shrine rituals are placed with captions in the middle of the shrine photos so that the ritualistic acts can be looked at more vividly. At the end of the book, there is a story about shamanic shrines in Jeju written by Dr. Ha Soonae, allowing readers to reflect on the history and spiritual meaning of shamanic shrines. Today’s highly advanced civilization is rapidly changing people’s lifestyles. As such, it is hard to deny that shamanic shrines—all of which have maintained vitality with the history of Jeju and its people—are also fading in terms of their meaning and function. This is because many people no longer rely on spiritual beliefs, but on capital and technology. Despite this fact, the naturalness and peaceful spatiality of shamanic shrines in Jeju and their warm relationship with the people of Jeju continue, and in that sense, Kang’s work is made so much more meaningful. It is our hope that his photos will serve as a way to understand shamanic shrines, which serve as a “flower of life” that has protected the lives and cultures of Jeju residents.