I’ve been reading Laura Kendall’s new ethnography of South Korean shamanism, Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF. Traditionally, Korean shamans have been mostly women, rural, and low in social and economic standing. In the second half of the Twentieth Century, they were often regarded as backward, and as representing a rapidly retreating, agrarian past. By the turn of the present century, this had changed dramatically. Many shamans had become economically and socially well situated, providing services for mostly middle and upper class patrons.
The role of the shaman in Korean society has been to mediate relationships between the gods and ancestors on one hand, and individuals and families on the other. Illness and economic woe are understood to be symptoms of displeasure on the part of ancestors or family gods. In this time of relative economic prosperity, shamans are increasingly engaged to correct relationships between living humans and the spirits, who may feel forgotten or betrayed by the increasingly well-to-do humans. People are called on to share with ancestors and family gods, yet this sharing has seemingly diminished markedly, even as individual and family wealth has increased.
In this well written book I have found much resonance to the position of shamans in North America. Let’s look at some of the similarities and differences. Traditionally North and South American shamans have shied away from the label “shaman”. In many cultures in the Americas, advertising oneself as a shaman was a clear indication that one was not a shaman. (In the Nineteen-Eighties persons who advertised themselves as shamans or medicine people were frequently labeled “Plastic Medicine Men and Women”.) The assumption was that only clients and other shamans could determine the effectiveness of the potential shaman. One became a shaman when others labeled one as such. Frequently shamans and other healers were poor, and poverty was frequently considered essential to the practice of the craft. Others worked full time jobs and acted as healers on weekends and in the evening. Often, they essentially had two full time jobs!
Much has changed over the past thirty years. Most practicing shamans in North America are of European descent and have been trained in mystery schools, like that of Michael Harner. Most live in urban settings and do not have a defined community. Many practicing shamans understand their shamanic practice to be their full time job, and charge professional level fees. Shamans work on behalf of a predominately middle and upper class clientele, including entities such as associations and corporations. Lacking formal communities, shamans advertise services just like any other professional. While traditionally shamans understood themselves to be working with the spirits (including ancestors and local gods), contemporary urban shamans may discuss their work in terms of psychology and the Collective Unconscious.
Both Korean and North and South American shamans live in market driven cultures. Distant political and economic entities such as the IMF and the Federal Reserve cast enormous influence over the lives of people, including shamans. Yet, shamanism has been, and continues to be a remarkably resilient practice. In the Americas shamanism survived the Inquisition, genocide, and missionaries. Shamanism in Korea has survived war, classism, and unimaginable social and economic change. Today, even in our increasingly fragmented, materialist culture, shamanism remains a dynamic force for healing, and at its best, social change.