13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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God Pictures and Korean Shamans

By Laurel Kendall

They appear in bright colors and antique dress, official robes, military armor, silken skirts and blouses. They face us nearly straight on, their overlarge eyes engaging us. With an economy of line, the painters of these god pictures have rendered unmistakably Korean faces: imperious officials, zealous warriors, gently smiling elders, comely matrons, women encountered in a country market, swarthy men from the wine house. Some of them burst out of conventional imagery to suggest, in the manner of a good cartoon, that these are faces with personalities, faces with stories. This is how mansin, Korean shamans, encounter, engage with, and manifest the gods, gods who have personalities and stories. In kut, the mansin’s most elaborate ritual, the gods appear in sequence in the same bright costumes they wear in the pictures. Through the mansin’s costumed body—through her dancing, singing, miming, and declamations—the gods become mobile and articulate. Intimate details of family histories pour through the mansin’s lips on the gods’ authority, a mingling of criticism, sympathy, bawdy humor, threats of dire imprecation, and promises of good fortune.

Image 1: Yeosansin [Mountain Goddess], color on paper, 88 × 65 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

Imagine them away from a gallery wall. They were not made to inhabit a gallery any more than the elaborately worked ciboria in European museums were ever intended to leave a church. Imagine these paintings, these gods, in another place, grouped closely together in a narrow room, gods seated above an alter where candles flicker and incense wafts up to them. The mansin’s shrine room is a space apart from the ordinary, boldly colorful in ways disjunctive from the everyday, space commanded by the painted gods. This is where the mansin daily petitions them, requesting a clear flow of inspiration for the work she must do. When a mansin performs kut, she is enabled (or should be enabled) by the flow of divine inspiration, myônggi, literally “bright energy,” that comes to her through the paintings, through gods seated in the paintings. Inspiration enables her to make the gods present in words and action, opening the gates of fortune to her clients and chasing unclean and inauspicious things from their paths. It is her ability to call forth of things from out there, or when inspiration is illusive, to accurately improvise them, that makes the mansin’s work a living practice. Her gods address the problems of the floundering restaurateur, the child who has racked up credit card debts, the wayward spouse. The gods arrive in antique dress but in a living shaman practice, they engage a twenty-first-century moment.

When the dead appear at the kut—proper ancestors but also dead spouses, siblings, and children—the mansin gives them voice with tears and occasional bursts of humor. These encounters are intended to purge grief and maintain connection by stirring memories to an active state. The mansin’s ritual work of placating dead souls, most vividly and painfully those who died young, violently, or with other grievance, has given South Korea a powerful medium of political theater, an enduring legacy of the pro-democracy struggles of the 1980s. Mansin, and actors in mansin mode, have brought forth the massacred citizens of Gwangju, other martyrs of democracy and labor rights struggles, military “comfort women” conscripted as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army, the schoolchildren left to drown on an illegally overfreighted ferry, and other victims of South Korea’s tumultuous modern history.

As with those we call “shamans” in other places, becoming a mansin begins with an involuntary calling; the prospective mansin suffers mysterious illnesses and misfortunes, vivid and disturbing dreams, and madness. Typically, naerin saram, or god-descended people, and their families struggle against the calling, a difficult path and in the past, an outcast profession. Once initiated, the new mansin begins a long process of cultivating her relationship with her gods as well as learning the complex pantheon and the business of chants, offerings, and performance through an apprenticeship that is not only difficult but sometimes exploitative. The mansin is not a spirit medium and she is not “just” a performer. Mansin do not experience inspiration as a one-on-one possession in the manner of a spirit medium; they are not vessels to be filled with divine presence; they are not puppets moved by invisible puppet masters. Mansin do claim that they are sometimes so powerfully taken over that they move and speak beyond their own volition. Initiates describe how extraordinary divinatory words burst out of them, proof of their strong connection to their own momju, or body-governing gods (who have chosen them for the unavoidable destiny of a becoming shamans). But doing the work of a mansin from day to day and kut to kut also requires a disciplined, skilled, and knowing sense of how to perform a kut. In the mansin’s view, this means not only mastering the expected and appropriate theatrical business of a kut but more profoundly, as a work of inspiration, understanding the gods’ and ancestors’ intentions and accurately translating them into words and gestures, such that the clients engage these beings as an active presence and harmony is renegotiated between them. Or as the anthropologist sees it, when the mansin is sufficiently skilled and sufficiently inspired, the clients experience an emotionally satisfying ritual process. However strong or weak the message, the mansin must convey the god’s intentions to the client during the kut. If she fails, both she and her client will be punished by angry gods.

Bright energy charges a mansin to do the gods’ work, but energies can ebb and flow, as does the relationship between a mansin and her gods. A mansin invokes her gods daily, making offerings in front of the painted images in her shrine where she also makes small rituals for clients and sometimes performs kut. In front of the god pictures, she asks for her gods’ assistance when she leaves the shrine to perform kut in other places. Mansin who carry the tradition of Hwanghae Province (now in North Korea), fold up their painted gods and carry them with them to kut, thus paintings once used by Hwanghae mansin have characteristic creases in them. 

Inspiration reaches a mansin through the paintings and more powerfully when she encounters divine energies concentrated in sacred places on high mountains. She carries these energies back to the shrine and the images above her altar, in effect recharging her batteries (they also use this metaphor). A mansin who is favored by her gods receives a clear and strong flow of inspiration. A mansin who performs effective kut and gives astute divinations is recognized as enjoying the favor of powerful personal gods; the gods make her work efficacious. This, in turn, brings her many clients and she marks her gratitude with a well-fitted shrine, fresh costumes, and abundant offerings. A beautiful shrine testifies to a powerful and efficacious relationship between a mansin and the gods she serves. Alternatively, a mansin may offend her gods either by impure actions or by some inadvertent ritual lapse. Her flow of inspiration becomes staticky; she may hear only grumbling or weeping rather than words and lack visions or other intuitive signs. She experiences other misfortunes, a sudden falling off of business or a nagging illness, until she determines the source of the gods’ displeasure and sets things right. In extremis, angry gods depart, leaving empty paintings and silence in their wake. And some paintings may never be inhabited; initiation rituals fail where gods do not favor the aspiring mansin or where the gods themselves are weak.

Image 2: Daesin Manura [Great Spirit Wife], color on silk, 83 × 51 cm, courtesty Gahoe Museum, Seoul

Image 3: Daesin Manura [Great Spirit Wife], color on silk, 92 × 52 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

The gods become present in the paintings when the mansin sees them standing before her eyes during her initiation kut, the gods she has already identified through visions, dreams, and other inspiration during the process of her initiation. The gods who will operate through the images are thus “hers,” localized and personalized. Although many of the forms in the paintings have become standardized, such that they are identified to type—“Mountain God,” “Spirit Warrior,” “Great Spirit Wife”—each image hanging in a shrine implies a relationship between a particular god and a particular mansin. Consider, for example, the Great Spirit Wife or Great Spirit Grandmother (Daesin Manura, Daesin Halmeoni (images 2 and 3) as she is found in nearly every shaman shrine in and around Seoul. This is the mansin’s ancestral spirit, a shaman-become-a-god who helps her to divine and who leads the dead to kut. Image 2 was probably produced in a commercial workshop where most god pictures have been painted from the late twentieth century.1 The oval-faced shaman in a yellow jacket and red skirt seated behind a divination tray and posed against an aqua background is a familiar image, widely reproduced with only minor variations in skill and composition. Poor mansin can purchase a nearly identical image as a work of mechanical reproduction in the form of a cheap commercial color print. Image 3 is from a different painter’s hand, and employs a charming simplicity of line to make a figure sitting in a chair rather than squatting behind a divination tray, another woman’s face and with some variations in the decoration of her garment. Both images, despite these variations, are unmistakably the Great Spirit Wife in her costume of red skirt and yellow jacket holding the large fan and brass bells that are the mansin’s most basic tools. The image is standard, but ask a mansin who her great spirit grandmother is and you will learn something more immediate and personalized about the dead shaman who works with her through the painting. When I first met the mansin I call Yongsu’s Mother, her Great Spirit Grandmother was a deceased shaman in her matriline. Her own mother, Yongsu’s Grandmother, had a shaman’s destiny but was never initiated; I once saw her fall into trance2 and deliver an urgent message from the ancestral shaman. After her death, it was Yongsu’s Grandmother who appeared as the Great Spirit Grandmother in her daughter’s shrine, something she was qualified to do by virtue of her thwarted shaman destiny and just possibly, by her predecessor’s special affinity. When she appeared this way at one of her daughter’s kut, she greeted me: “Nice to see you, it’s been a while.”

Image 4: Ssangdungi Seongsu Daesin [Great Spirit], color on paper, 99 × 76 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

Image 5: Jakdu Daesin [Knife-Riding Guardian God], color on paper, 100 × 71 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

In the Hwangahe tradition, where the number of gods in the shrine expands over a mansin’s career, dead shamans become Seongsu in other mansins’ shrines, usually those of their own apprentices. Images 4 and 5 are these sorts of deities. The “Twin (Ssangdungi) Seongsu” who appear in image 4 wear a Hwanghae mansin’s approximation of royal garb, red robes and high-crowned hats covered with flowers. The painter’s subject is not a king per se, such as one might see in another god picture, but a shaman manifesting a kingly figure; the shaman who did this is now herself a god, a multilayered presence. The twins hold bells and fans as a mansin would and wear their kingly robes over the layering of a blue vest and the long, full skirt of a Korean dress, just as a performing shaman would. The god in image 5 is also a Seongsu, a mansin costumed as a warrior brandishing a sword in one hand while she holds her shaman bells in another and balances her bare feet on knife blades. Two female attendants steady the blades as they would do at a kut. If the faces on the twins are conventional, the pursed lips, prominent brows, and stocky limbs of this Knife-Riding Guardian God suggest someone well-remembered by the mansin who commissioned the painting.

Image 6: Yongsin [Dragon God], color on paper, 84 × 77 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

Image 7: Yongtae Buin [Dragon Queen], color on paper, 94 × 73 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

Image 8: Yongsin [Dragon God], color on paper, 97 × 72 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

Mansin do not paint the god pictures that hang in their shrines, but they are the necessary agents of the paintings’ realization. In dynastic times, failed court painters probably produced the rare paintings that have survived in old shrines, works of good quality recalling commemorative portraits. Other painters would have been Buddhist monks in the Seoul tradition and artisans closely associated with the shaman world in the Hwanghae tradition, very few of whom are active today. Old freeform paintings suggest the work of visionaries and the possibility that a mansin’s own hand was at work, but this is speculation. Gods appear in broad generic categories as generals, kings, princesses, queens, warriors, mountain gods, and the like, but within each type, great variation is possible. In order to acquire an efficacious painting, the mansin must convey her vision to the painter and the painter must focus his energy on visualizing and reproducing it. The stronger the vision and the better the painter’s work, the more receptive the deity is to inhabiting the shrine and working with the mansin. The Dragon Queens in images 6, 7, and 8 are of an easily-recognizable type, a regal woman with two attending palace women ascending from water and clouds on the backs of more literal dragons, whose ascent to the sky brings welcome rain. Images 6 and 7 were almost certainly painted by the same hand or in the same workshop line, while image 8 came from another source; the figures are stiffer, the dress more formal, the faces look straight-on rather than slightly turned, the lines are more sharply delineated, and the Queen’s hair is coifed like that of a mountain fairy. But look again at the nearly identical figures in images 6 and 7, gently smiling women with their piled-up coiled hair. In image 6, the queen wears a red jacket and green skirt and in the other a single-colored costume with embossed patterns. The difference is not trivial, for this is likely how two different commissioning mansin saw the Dragon Queen in visionary encounters, their own particular Dragon Queens.

Image 9: Hogumama [Smallpox God], color on silk, 85 × 58 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

Image 10: Jeju Hallasan Yeojanggun [Female General of Mount Halla in Cheju], color on paper, 98 × 73 cm, courtesy Gahoe Museum, Seoul

Most (but not all) mansin are female and by their account, most of the gods they serve are male, enabling an uncanny alterity when a matron becomes a brusque-voiced and imperious god or performs feats of warrior strength. Conversely, pasku mansin, or male shamans, often gain renown for manifestations of lithe, hyper-feminine gods. But the feminine comes in different registers in the shaman world as in Korean life. The Great Spirit Grandmother has the authority of a female family elder. Hogumama (image 9) is dangerous because she is a flighty maiden, one who died of smallpox or measles and is driven by unsatisfied desires; she causes domestic trouble. It is also possible that a mansin sees a conventionally male god in female form—the Dragon Queen instead of the widely replicated Dragon King. Mountain Gods are commonly portrayed as white-bearded old men with tigers, but some mountains have female deities. In image 1, a female Mountain God with the look of a mature Bodhisattva sits in repose with her tiger. A determined-looking Female General from Mount Halla on the southern island of Cheju (image 10) appeared among the gods of a shaman from the northern province of Hwanghae, carrying the legendary strength of Cheju women.

Enjoy them as art but remember them also as agents of a powerful shamanic practice that is very much alive in South Korea today.


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1The workshops are now underpriced by itinerant Korean Chinese painters.

2I use the word “trance” to describe what happens—rarely—to ordinary women when they are taken over by a god such that, glassy-eyed, they shout, curse, and sometimes flail their arms until the mansin manage to placate the god and bring the women around again. I would not describe mansin performing kut as “in trance.”


Laurel Kendall is Chair of the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History and Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections at AMNH, New York. A scholar of Korean popular religion and most particularly the shaman tradition and how it is gendered and performed, she has published many books and articles on this topic, most recently God Pictures in Korean Contexts: The Ownership and Meaning of Shaman Paintings (University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), which was coauthored with Jongsung Yang and Yul Soo Yoon. Her latest work, Mediums and Magical Things: Statues, Paintings and Masks in Asian Places (University of Hawai’i Press, 2021) explores how images are expected to work with the shamans and spirit mediums who tend and use them in contemporary South Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Bali, Indonesia. It considers how magical images are fabricated, marketed, cared for, disposed of, and sometimes transformed into art market commodities and museum artifacts. Kendall lives and works in New York City.