Pagans We Are does TEDx (video inside)


This past November, I gave a TEDx talk on Jeju Island, where I’ve been documenting shamanic shrine culture for the past five years, as you well know if you follow my blog. I talk about my video and photography work and the importance of preserving sacred spaces, many of which are in danger on Jeju Island as well as world wide. I made my own version of the Tedx talk because the audio of the original is not so good and some of the content was cut during the editing. Here is my version. Please share!


Text of the talk in English with Korean translation:



I have been documenting shamanic shrine worship on Jeju Island, South Korea, for the last five years. Jeju Island is a beautiful, once more remote place than it is today located about 60 kilometers south of mainland South Korea. My interest was peaked in shamanism and shamanic shrines years ago when I started working on a related project with Korean friends.

저는 5년간 한국에 있는 제주라는 섬에서 shamanic shrine worship을 기록했습니다. 제주도라는 아름다운 섬은 한국 본토에서 부터 60키로미터 쯤 떨어져있습니다. 처음 저의 관심을 끈것은 “샤머니즘” 이였고 한국 친구들과 프로젝트를 하며 접하게 되었습니다.

I became addicted to the the thrill of discovering new shrines around the island, and new myths of ancestor gods that villagers would relate to me. I heard amazing stories in every village that I visited, stories of faith and stories of survival, and those stories seemed to get more and more interesting as time went by. I felt a moral obligation to do this work as so much about these minority, polytheistic religions have been misrepresented. On Jeju Island, as is the case across the Eurasian continent, knowledge of theses religions was deliberately suppressed by governments and other forces. So, I decided to make a documentary. I wanted to make a record of the culture but also to give a voice to a people who have faced great hardship and whose religion has been censored from history.

이러다 저는 새로운 신전들과 전설들에 대해 아는것에 관심이 생겼고, 주변 이웃분들이 저와 연관도 시켰습니다. 항상 제가 방문한 마을에서는 믿음과 생존에 관련된 좋은 이야기들을 듣고, 그 이야기들이 시간이 지날수록 저에게는 더 와 닿았습니다. 이런 조그만한 다신교들의 정확치 않은 의식때문에 제가 일을 시작해야되겠다는 의무를 느꼈습니다. 제주도는 유라시아처럼 이런 다신교에 대한 지식을 알리는 일을 정부가 지압했습니다. 그래서, 저는 다큐멘터리를 만들기로 결심했습니다. 이것으로 통해 다양한 문화를 기록하고 종교 진압으로 통해 힘든 일을 겪으셨던 분들의 의견과 경험을 담고 싶었습니다.

It is my belief that shrines are as natural to humans as dams to beavers, as webs to spiders, as nests to birds. On Jeju Island, shrines are like joint art projects, created and maintained by village residents over hundreds of years.

제 생각으로는 신전은 사람들에게 자연적인것으로 비버에게는 댐, 거미에게는 거미줄, 또는 새에게는 둥지 같은 존재라고 믿습니다. 제주도에서 신전은 미술 과제와 비슷하고, 주변 거주분들이 몇백년동안 만들고 지켜온 것 입니다.

They are the ultimate outsider art consisting of stone walls, the individual stones of which were stacked and re-stacked by thousands of hands over scores of generations. The offerings left at shrines are unique to each village, and most splendidly their myths, the bonpuri, the myths of how the gods came to be guardians of each village, are also distinct. All effective healing shrines in the world have the component of a myth attached to them.

그 중 바위 벽은 수많은 돌들을 몇세대를 거쳐서 쌓고 쌓아서 만든 결과입니다. 그 벽 앞에 많은 제물들이 있던 점이 독특했고 ‘본푸리’ 라는 신이 어떻게 마을의 수호자가 되었는지에 대한 신화도 독특했습니다. 이 세상에 영향이 있던 신전들은, 항상 관련되있는 신화들이 존재합니다.

I want to introduce some of the shrines that I explored over the years. I returned to these places many times to shoot parts of my documentary, Spirits: The Story of Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines. But I didn’t just make a film about the shrines, I did years of research. I collected recordings of myths recited by shamans and interviewed people to make a real record of individual stories. In the last couple years, I made a point to photograph the people I met along the way.

저는 몇년간 찾은 신전들을 공유하고 싶습니다. 제 다큐멘터리, ‘Spirits: The Story of Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines’를 위해 몇몇 장소를 다시 방문하게 되었습니다. 저는 비디오만 만든게 아니라, 이 주제에 대해 몇년에 걸쳐서 조사와 연구를 했습니다. 무당들에게서 받은 조사결과와 관련된 사람들의 인터뷰들을 담은 현실적인 기록을 남기고 싶었습니다. 지난 몇년동안에는 제가 만난 분들을 사진으로 남기기 시작했습니다.


The first shrine I want to introduce you to is in a village called Weoljeong. Weoljeong is a now a popular village for tourism, hosting a number of coffee houses and restaurants. Tourists line its beachside road which appears in advertisements on the internet and on national TV. The visitors’ favorite pastime is taking group and couple photos on the beach. Wuljeong Village is no stranger to the selfie stick as of late. But if you head inland from the beach, away from all of this, you will find quite a different world, you will find a shrine in the forest, dedicated to the Grandfather and Grandmother gods of the village. The Great Shaman of Wuljeong is the 7th generation in her line to be responsible for the shrine. You can see her there in the foreground of the photo. Now, what is a shaman? That is a big topic for another day, but for the purpose of this talk, know that on Jeju Island, a shaman, called shimbang in the local language, is essentially a village priest. Shimbang share a lot of the same responsibilities that community religious leaders all over the world do, for instance, a country pastor in the Protestant sects in America, or Catholic priests for that matter. There are, of course, many differences in the details. The stories of how village shamans came to have their positions are often interesting and involve an amount of suffering. This fits in with the pattern of ‘wounded healer’ found in shamanism and other faiths all over the world.

처음으로 소개하고 싶은 신전은 ‘월정’ 이라는 곳에 있습니다. 지금에 월정은 관광객들이 많이 방문하는 마을인만큼 커피숍들과 음식점이 많습니다. 관광객들은 텔레비전과 인터넷 광고에 나오는 해변가를 둘러싸곤 합니다. 관광객들은 이곳에서 단체와 커플 사진들을 찍는것을 제일 좋아합니다. 이제 셀카봉은 월정에게는 익숙한 존재이기도 합니다. 하지만, 이 것들을 떠나서 깊숙히 들어가면, 다른 세상을 볼수가 있고, 이곳 숲에는 이 마을에 할머니 할아버지 신들을 위한 신전들이 존재합니다. 그녀의 7세대는 월정 신정을 맞고 있습니다. 여기 사진에서 그녀를 볼수 있습니다. 여기서 무당이 무었인가요? 이 이야기에서는 또 다른 큰 주제 이지만, 여기 제주도에서는 제주 방언으로 ‘심방’이라 불리는 마을의 목사입니다. 심방들은 다른 종교의 지도자와 같은 책임을 지는데, 예로 미국에 있는 신교도 목사들이나 천주교 신부님들이있다. 물론, 다른 세부 사항들도 있습니다. 이 마을 무당들이 그들의 자리까지 이르기까지 가끔 신기한 고통이 포함되었다. 이것은 샤머니즘을 포함한 다른종교들은 ‘아픈곳을 치료하는’ 방법이 있습니다.

Village residents are usually concerned about things like safety while working and their children’s health and education. They are eager to hear the gods’ advice on these matters which is communicated through the shaman, working as a medium for the gods.

마을 주민들은 보통 안전성, 아이들의 건강, 또는 교육에 대해 많이 신경을 쓰고있습니다. 그래서, 무당은 신과 사람들의 연결고리로써, 신에게서 조언을 받고 소통할 수 있습니다.

Myth is extremely important to shrine culture. The myth of Miss Hyun’s shrine in Shincheon Village is one of my favorites. The heroine of the bonpuri, the shrine myth, is Miss Hyun, a real person who lived some 300 years ago.  Every morning, this young girl would circulate the tiny country roads of the village, shouting out the wind conditions so the women divers would know what kind of work they could perform safely that day.

신화 역시 신사 문화에서 굉장히 중요합니다. 제가 좋아하는 신화 중에는 신천 마을 현 양의 신사에 관한 신화가 있습니다. 본푸리의 여걸, 현 양은 300년 전에 실존하던 인물입니다. 매일 아침, 이 소녀는 여성 잠수부들이 어떤 일을 안전하게 할 수 있는지 알려주기 위해 바람 상태가 어떤지 외치면서 아주 좁은 마을의 시골 길을 돌아다녔습니다.

We can’t talk about Jeju Island without talking about the women divers, the now world famous haenyo or sea women. Jeju’s sea women are usually adherents of Jeju shamanism.

This diving work is treacherous work, entailing free-diving to great depths and sometimes holding ones breath for up to two minutes.

제주의 여성 잠수부들, 해녀들의 이야기를 빼먹게 된다면, 그건 진정 제주에 관한 이야기라고 할 수 없습니다. 제주의 해녀들은 보통 제주 샤머니즘의 지지자입니다. 이들은 굉장히 깊은 곳에 잠수하고, 가끔은 2분간 숨을 쉬지 않기에 굉장히 위험한 일이라고 할 수 있습니다.

In the end of the myth, Miss Hyun’s brother dies at sea. A gift he bought for her on the mainland washes ashore. The gift was a set of ritual clothes for his sister, as she herself had been a shaman. The women divers of Sincheon village still hang those sort of clothes, a gift to Miss Hyun, in the shrine tree today.

신화의 마지막에는 그녀의 형제가 바다에서 죽고 맙니다. 그가 육지에서 현 양을 위해 산 선물은 해안가로 사라지게 되는데, 그 선물은 무당이었던 동생을 위한 의식적인 옷들이었습니다.

Now, the shamans have quite a daunting responsibility to assist residents of their villages in dealing with the stresses and hardships of daily life and, more importantly in this era, the deep trauma that has plagued Jeju Island. Starting in 1948 there were a series of massacres carried out at the behest of the national government where some 30,000 people, accused of being communists, were killed in cold blood. I won’t show you photographs of the mass graves or of the people who cry every year at the memorial ceremonies. But they are out there and you can easily find them online. Amongst Jeju Island’s elderly community are many survivors of this horrific period which is referred to commonly as the April 3rd incident, April 3rd Uprising or simply the April 3rd massacre. I want to show you a short video clip about how a woman’s relationship with the grandmother goddess of her village’s shrine helped her to survive after her entire extended family was killed. This woman was trapped in her home, with daily visitations from hostile soldiers, coping with a sick son and expecting a new child. When all else was lost, in the most desperate of situations, she turned to the village Grandmother Goddess for help.

이제, 무당들은 매일 매일 겪는 압박감과 어려움을 갖고 깊은 트라우마를 가지고 있는 마을 사람들을 도울 의무가 있습니다. 1948년에 시작된 수많은 학살들은 중앙 정부에서 공산주의자일꺼라는 이유로 고발해, 약 30,000명이 학살당했습니다. 사람들이 매년 위령제에서 우는 사진이나 공동묘지의 사진들을 제가 보여주지 않겠습니다. 하지만, 관심이 있으시다면 쉽게 인터넷에서 찾으실수 있습니다. 제주도의 어르신들중 많은 분들이 제주 4.3 사건에서 살아남으신 분들 입니다. 여기서 제가 어떤 여성분이 온가족이 학살을 당한후 할머니여신이 어떻게 도왔는지 비디오를 보여드리겠습니다. 이 여성분은 집에 갖혀 살고, 매일 군인들에게 감시받으며, 병든 아들을 돌보며 새로운 아기가 태어나길 기다렸습니다. 모든 것을 잃었을때 여성분은 마을로 가서 도움을 받으러 할머니 여신을 찾았습니다.

3 VIDEO (Wasan Video 3:30 minutes)

Anyone who is from Jeju Island, will know that these stories of miracles, are not at all uncommon. We don’t have to speculate about the deeper reasons about why so many of these stories exist here right now, but I hope to delve into that deeper in my film.

제주도에서 오신 분이라면 이 기적적인 이야기들은 흔하지 않다는 것을 알 수 있습니다. 저희들은 여기서 왜 이런 이야기들이 존재하는지 더 깊게 파고들 필요는 없지만 제 영상에서 보여드릴 수 있으면 합니다.


I’d like to talk about another village now that suffered during the massacres of 1948. In this case, the entire village was burnt to the ground and the few survivors were forced to flee. Those who did survive, still live in nearby villages a few kilometers further down the mountain.

지금부터 제가 1948년 대학살 당시 피해를 입은 또 다른 마을의 이야기를 들려드리도록 하겠습니다. 이 마을은 무자비 하게도 온통 불에 타버리고 무자비 하게도 이 마을은 온통 불바다가 되어버려, 어렵게 살아남은 사람들 마저도 결국 마을을 떠나야만했고, 그리고 그렇게 살아남은 사람들은 여전히 몇 킬로미터 떨어지지 않은 근처 산간 마을에 거주하고있습니다.


The shrine located in the old destroyed village is called Sulsaemit Shrine and came to fame two years ago when its holy trees were deliberately cut. The message the desecration was sending was clear.

오래전 무너져버린 마을에 있던 Sulsaemit 신사는 2년전 그곳의 신성했던 나무가 잘려버렸을때 사람들의 입에 오르기 시작하였습니다. 이 나무를 자르면서 그들이 신사를 방문하는 사람들에게 전하는 뜻은 강했습니다.

The perpetrators were saying to the survivors and their families who still make the trip up the mountain to pray that they were no longer welcome to practice their religion on the very land that used to be theirs. This wasn’t the first time that Sulmaemit shrine had been desecrated I later learned. I had to start talking about the destroyed shrine at Sulsaemit. I felt that responsibility as people from areas with traditional shrine worship had really opened up to me and shared their stories. These are stories that people weren’t talking about. The destruction of shrines were very much underreported.

그들이 이곳에서 하는 종교적 행상들은 더 이상 반겨지지 않다는것을, 이제 그 땅은 더 이상 그들의 것이 아니라는걸. 하지만, 나중에 저는 이 일이 Sulsaemit 신사를 막아버렸던 처음의 일이 아니라는 것을 아게되었습니다. 그곳에 거주하고 Sulsaemit 신사를 방문하던 분들이 저에게 자신들의 이야기를 열정적으로 들려주시는걸 듣고있으니, 이 일을 사람들에게 알려야겠다는 책임감이 생겨났습니다. 사람들이 전혀 알고있지못한 이일을, 널리 퍼뜨려 모두가 알게되며 신사의 가치를 느낄 수 있게 하는게 제가 할수있는 유일한 일일 것 이라고 느꼈습니다.

Some local friends and I started a group whose purpose was to rebuild the shrine. We started by making a safe path to the altar. Our bigger message was, that in the face of old prejudices and unbridled development, that Jeju Island’s sanctuaries should be left intact as they are holy places for traditional islanders. The townspeople did indeed return to worship at the shrine.

그렇게 저의 책임을 다 하기 위하여서, 저는 저와 제 지인들을 포함하여 신사 재개발 활동을 시작하였습니다. 제일 먼저 제단으로 향하는 안전한 길을 만들면서, 제주의 유산들은 보호되야할 가치와 권리가 있으며, 이 곳의 주민들의 소유이다라는 말을 전하고싶었습니다.

Later, they thanked us for our efforts, but said that until the shrine was officially protected by law, that they feared the problem would continue.

그렇게 저희의 노력은 그들이 다시 신사에 돌아와 종교적인 행사를 할 수 있게 그들을 도왔지만, 여전히 법이 이 곳들을 지켜주기 전까지는 걱정을 그만할 수 없다는 그들의 말이였습니다.

These two women, now in their late 70s, are survivors of the massacre that occurred near Sulsaemit. I consider myself lucky to have spoken with people who survived such a tragedy. Sulsaemit was not the only shrine to be destroyed during my five year project. In fact, I have counted around 8 shrines that have been destroyed in that time.

현재 70대 후반의 이 두 여성은, Sulsaemit 근방에서 일어난 학살의 생존자들 입니다. 이러한 비극에서 어렵게 생존한분들과 얘기를 나눌수 있는 기회가 주어졌다는 자체부터 감사하게 여기고있습니다.

Sulsaemit 마을이 저의 5년간 프로젝트 안에서 파괴되어버린 유일한 신사가 아닙니다. 그 외에도 8개의 신사가 무자비하게 파괴되었습니다.

Some examples of these shrines would be the shrine in Yaerae Village where the woman divers celebrated the famous Youngdeung Gods. The several hundred year old shrine tree was cut and the shrine wiped out to provide space for a single unit of this huge tourism complex.  The village has been embroiled in legal conflict over this development since its inception.

예래동에 위치해있는 신사는는 해녀들이 제주도의 바람신인 영등할망에게 축제를 열며 사용되었지만, 관광지의 작은 일부를 위해 예래동 신사의 100년 나무는 한치의 망설임도 없이 잘라져 버렸고, 신사마저도 흔적없이 사라졌습니다. 이 일에 화가난 예래동의 주민들은, 법적 조취를 취해보고 관광단지 관리자들을 고소했지만, 여전히 배상없이 법적 다툼을 이어가고 있습니다.

In the town of Seongsan, two shrines were destroyed despite nearby Sunrise Peak being designated as a Unesco protected site. Many local businesses make use of the diver’s image for promoting their services, but yet the community failed to protect their most sacred sanctuaries.

또 다른 마을 성산에서는, 근방에 위치하여있던 성산일출봉이 유네스코 보호 구역으로 관리되어있음에도 불구하고 두개의 신사가 개인 사업, 투어리즘의 목적으로 파괴되었습니다. 마을 사람들마저도 다른 관광단지 들의 개발보다 훨씬 가치있는 문화유산을 지키지못했던 것 입니다.

This woman was brought to tears just talking about the recent incident. She had prayed at the shrine all her life.

일생을 신사에서 열심히 기도한 한 여성은 최근에 호텔설립 목적으로 사라진 또 다른 신사를 떠올리며 더욱 속상해하며 울었습니다.

The shrine that the woman was crying about had been located here, in a hotel parking. The lot had perhaps fifty to one hundred spaces. The shrine, that only took up two of these spaces, could have easily been spared.

그녀가 속상한 마음을 드러내면서 말한 그 신사는, 최근 호텔 주차장이 모자라다 는 이유로 파괴 됐던 것 이였습니다. 50에서 100정도의 크기를 차지하는 주차장에서, 2만큼도 채 되지않는 신사를 위한 공간이 정말 없었던 것일까하는 그녀의 마음이 전해져왔습니다.


Jeju Island’s shrines are deeply tied to the island’s past, to the trauma and struggles that the people of the island have faced. I believe these shrines should remain now as they always have been, natural sanctuaries, places for prayer and ritual centers. We must protect what is sacred and not convert that sacredness to the profane. These shrines represent a common polytheistic shamanic heritage that we share across national boundaries. When our traditional heritage lands and sanctuaries are desanctified I believe there is something in the community and in human spirit that is lost. These spaces give us identity through myths, community and personal solace. Above all, in the case of Jeju Island, they give healing. Well, this shouldn’t end on a negative note. And I’m not just saying this only because these talks are supposed to end upbeat. Right now is the right time for Jeju Island to protect its shrines. In fact, this issue is something that is being discussed around the world. For example,

제주도의 신사들은 이 섬 사람들이 과거에 마주한 정신적 외상과 투쟁들과 얽매여 있습니다. 저는 항상 그래왔던 것처럼 이 신사들이 자연 조수 보호구역, 기도하는 공간, 그리고 의례의 중심으로 남아있어야 한다고 생각합니다. 우리는 신성함을 반드시 보호해야하며 그 신성함을 불경함으로 바꿔서는 안됩니다. 이 신사들은 우리가 국경 내에서 나누는 공동의 다산교적 샤먼 유산을 상징합니다. 저는 우리의 전통적 유산 지역과 보호구역들이 신성화되지 않았을때 공동체와 인간의 정신 안에서 잃는 것이 있을 거라고 믿습니다. 이 공간들은 신화, 공동체, 그리고 개인의 위안을 통해 우리에게 정체성을 부여합니다. 무엇보다도, 제주도에 관하여 말했을 때 이들은 우리를 치유합니다. 자, 이는 부정적인 내용으로 끝나서는 안됩니다. 그리고 저는 이 이야기들이 긍정적인 분위기로 끝나야하기에 이 말을 하는 것도 아닙니다. 지금 이 순간이 제주가 신사들을 보호하기에 적합한 시간이고, 또, 이 쟁점을 전 세계에서 논의하고 있기도 합니다. 예를 들자면,

the country of Estonia has been making serious efforts over the last few years to protect its some 500 shamanic shrines. With the increase of tourism on the island, there will also be more incentive to protect cultural items that give the island its true character. In our complex world, we need sacred spaces. I will only say this. Keep these shrines as they are. Don’t make parks out of them or tourists attractions with parking lots. Maintain them as holy places. The gods know we need more of that in the world today. Lastly, I want to leave you with some images of healing shrines from around the world.

에스토니아에서는 지난 몇 년간 500 여개의 신사들을 보호하기 위해 진정한 노력을 만들어 왔습니다. 이 섬에서 관광산업이 늘어나고 있는 만큼 제주의 진정한 아름다움과 과거의 세월을 고스란히 나타내는 유산지들을 보호해야하는 더 큰 이유가 생겨났습니다. 점점 복잡해지고 얽혀가는 세상속에서 저희가 가장 먼저 해야할일은 신성한 유산지들을 지켜나가는 것입니다. 더도 덜도 아닌 단지, 이 신사들을 지금 모습 그대로 보존해야하는게 저희가 해야할 진정한 일이라고 전 굳건히 믿습니다. 관광지, 주차장, 공용화장실 들 보단 옛 세월을 담아온 신사들이야 말로 저희가 진정히 지키고 관심을 가져야 할 신성한 곳이라는걸 신조차도 알 것 입니다. 신사를 보존하는 것 그것이 저희가 지금 일어나서 해야할 일입니다.

마지막으로, 여러분들께 전 세계의 신사 사진들을 남기고 가도록 하겠습니다.

Thank you very much.


I don’t want to give you the impression that I, as a foreign person living on Jeju Island, am the only person worried about the future of the island’s shrines. There are plenty of local researchers, artists, activists and interested citizens that are very much trying to make a difference. This is likely the case in a majority of regions where such cultural treasures are being threatened, from Estonia to India, to South America, to here in South Korea.

마치 제가 제주 신당에 대해 걱정하는 유일한 사람인 것 같은 인상을 드리고 싶지 않습니다. 저는 지금 제주에 살고 있지만, 지역 연구가, 예술가, 활동가, 시민들 등 다양한 사람들이 변화를 위해 많은 노력을 하고 있습니다. 이러한 보석과 같은 문화유산들이 사라질 위기에 처한 대부분의 지역들-에스토니아, 인도, 남아메리카, 한국 등-이 비슷한 경우라고 할 수 있습니다.

The original talk:


Jeju Island’s Haenyo: A User’s Manual, bil-le, bil-le, beach of death



The women of one coastal village on Jeju Island, South Korea are so tough, even the shamans feel a certain hesitation to perform rituals there.

I can attest to their toughness. Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri was one of the first villages I explored and probably the village, over several years, that I returned to the most. One afternoon in late spring, I found myself  in a small country lane, squaring off with a woman, probably in her late sixties, who’d raised her fist higher than my head. She was threatening to smash my camera right out of my hands.

In retrospect, her trying to smash my camera would have made for great video. I tried to joke my way out of the situation, but her face remained stern. So, I made it clear I was only trying collect some information.

“What information?” she asked.

“About traditions, stuff like that,” I said.

“There’s a foreign guy who comes here to ask about that kind of thing,” she said.

“That’s me!” I assured her.

“That’s you?”

“Yeah, it’s me.

Soon, I was being led through the village’s narrow roads, to the house of a man who knew about the particular thing I was interested in that day. I wanted to know if the shrine goddess (an actual person who died in the 1700s), who the women divers of the village worshipped, was really buried in the earthen floor of the shrine.  And why was it that the men of the village said the maiden goddess was buried elsewhere, while the women maintained the opposite?

The diving women of the village were abrasive until they sussed your intentions, then they turned sweet and full of purpose. Let’s not diminish their toughness, though.



One day, I’d set up my camera on the village bille–a bille is a large expanse of basalt rock. On Jeju Island, where there isn’t coastal sand, there is a bille.  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s bille runs for a couple kilometers along the coast and is one of the most expansive on the island.  I had my video camera positioned atop a small rise in the basalt surface which had flowed as molten rock out of some hot-hole hundreds of thousands of years ago, or a million years prior even. I have no idea when the last eruption was. I believe experts dispute that matter. I imagine that in places like Kauai and Kyushu, islands that haven’t drifted off of the ring of fire, seaside billes are still forming. You found these basalt outcrops, spaces like moonscapes, inland as well, emerging from farmer’s fields. You found them in the mid-moutain region, too,  hundreds of feet above sea-level, exposed to the wind whipping down from Halla-san, the island’s central mountain. Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s bille, seen from above would look like a surface that had been indiscriminately beat with a hammer. Sections of the expanse were a mass of oblong rectangular chunks. When these ancient lava beds had cooled, the chunks stuck to what lay beneath them, like splintered glass from a shatter-proof mirror clinging to its acrylic sheet-backing. The whole thing was fractal, the same forms reiterated large and small. Sections of the bille are not easy to walk over. They are far too jagged. That day, I was filming long shots, trying to capture the expert way in which divers navigated the bille.



Before long,  two old grannie divers discovered poachers–illegally removing sea urchins from their foraging territory. A man and his two teenage daughters, submerged to the waist in the sea water, unabashedly collected the creatures, items that belonged to the village divers’ association. Outsiders weren’t allowed to collect sea life.  And, even divers from nearby villages weren’t permitted to take from other village’s beachfronts. I carried my camera upright on the tripod over to the scene, steady as I went, not to fall off into the rocks. I was determined to document the women of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri in action, being tough and all.

After giving him a good scolding, the divers told the man to bring to them what he’d caught. They ordered him to redistribute the urchins he’d taken, back into the ocean, lest they call the police. They told him to make sure he spread them out evenly and he did so, tossing the creatures out like he’d been told. His teenage daughters, who’d been ordered to stay put, were still in the water, suffering under the waves which broke onto the jagged edge of the bille. One of the divers taunted them.

“If you are going to steal our urchins, why don’t you stay out there?”

“C’mon, let’s see you swim.”

“Go ahead, now. If you want to collect our things, then you need to be able to swim.”

“Go on! Swim out, you’ll be dead in no time. If you want to dive like us you better stay out there and learn.”

“You can’t even swim! What are you doing out there?”

“You better study hard in school, because you’ll never be a diver!”



Another day, I met with a long-retired school teacher and his diver wife, Mrs. Hyeon. There we were, seated in their living room, the seventy-five year old woman in her undershirt, gesticulating–waving an arm-cast around as she spoke.  She went about her business, using the arm, whipping it about as if there were no cast at all. I don’t doubt that she had taken a fall on those bille rocks. The husband, Mr. Park, was a soft-spoken scholar who wrote a local history and performed the village Confucian rites. Mrs. Hyeon spoke to us in the coarse manner of older divers and it made her husband blush. She’d burst into the room, to his chagrin, to correct something he’d misstated in our interview.

The couple married early. Mrs. Hyeon funded her husband’s university education with money from her diving trips to Japan. That’s how he’d become a teacher in the local high school. My friend, the daughter of a woman diver from a few villages over–she’d accompanied me–thought this morsel was a hoot.

“Did your wife really put you through school?” My friend asked.

“Yeah. She put me through school.” Mr. Park blushed. Mrs. Hyeon grinned, real big, showing off a row of false teeth.

“My mom put me through school, too,” said my friend, ” with money from her Japan trips.”



One day in the village, on recycling day, when the divers all get paid 50,000 won (approx.  $50 U.S.) to collect refuse along the bille, I joined the women in the town hall parking lot for a free lunch.

After lunch, while waiting for a truck to arrive, the women got chatty. I told them I wanted to talk to someone about the infamous fight that had occurred some thirty years prior between Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri and the neighboring village.

“To understand that fight,” said a woman sitting nearby, “you have to go way back.”

It was back to 1948, a year that martial law was declared and counter-guerrilla units showed up in force on Jeju Island to combat rebels who had rejected national elections imposed on the country.  Following the elections, tension on Jeju turned to chaos as conflicts broke out across the island. In the end, national police forces would end up launching a campaign of all out terror, torturing and raping villagers, executing some 30,000 people accused of being communist sympathizers. These acts were committed in cold blood, with a majority of victims being unarmed civilians. Reconciliation came slowly, and finally in 2003, president Roh Moo-hyun apologized to the people of Jeju for the government’s inhumane actions. For many decades following the atrocities, mentioning details of the period, referred to commonly as the April 3rd Incident, was risky. (April 3rd, 1948 was the date of a riot at an anti-Japanese commemoration march which is perceived as being the catalyst for the horrors which followed) Speaking out meant incarceration or worse. People I have spoken with personally have told me the same. Mass graves have been discovered all over Jeju, including under the runways of the international airport. The period is still a source of great pain for people indigenous to the island.

Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri, was one village where not a single person perished.

“Back then, many people had been killed by the national government’s forces,” the woman informed me. “Many of the bodies from neighboring villages washed up on Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s shore. The bille was strewn with bodies. The women of our village were offered a deal. If they cleaned up the corpses, then they’d have the rights to the neighboring village’s territory.”

And clean up the bodies they did. The women of  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri, many in their twenties and thirties at the time, some much younger, scoured the jagged bille, combing over each and every surface for the remains of the neighboring village’s dead.

“That’s how Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri got the wide beach that we did. Nowadays, Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s territory only reaches to the stream that divides it from the village to the west, but it wasn’t always the case.”



Of course, residents whose families were involved in the macabre incident knew the story. Many directly involved were still alive in the 1980s when tension between  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri and the village to the west came to a head. The women of the village to the west- its beach was a wide swath of white sand about as large as  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s rocky bille- were known to be soft, soft on the scale of women divers anyway. Navigating across a treacherous moonscape of basalt one hundred days a year had hardened the women of  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri. 

The women divers of the village to the west, harboring a sense of indignation, took to, over the years, breaching into their old territory. They would enter the water on their side of the new boundry, via the sandy beach, then swim into the rocks on the far side of the stream that separated the beach from  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri’s bille. Once in the rocky territory, they gathered up sea life that thrived there (women divers on Jeju call sea life items), turban shells and abalone, octopus–then swam back to their side of the boundary line. Over time, they became emboldened, simply crossing over on land.

Wounds festered and tensions built. The two villages, as far as I can tell–sometime in the early 1980s, erupted into outright physical conflict. Details are fuzzy. Everyone seems to have their own version of the story and many of the eldest residents of  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri seem to conflate several incidents. Some underplay the intensity of the conflict, while others either exaggerate or perhaps give an accurate depiction. I can’t say which. Two incidents described to me stick out. One day, I was told, the divers of  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri snuck into the workshop of the village to the west, gathered up their diving gear and dumped it all into the estuarial stream dividing the two villages. Rubber diving suits and diving caps, styrofoam floats and nylon nets were propelled by the swift current of fresh  water out to sea, lost forever. Spears and hand trowels that divers used to pry shellfish from rock sunk under their own weight.



The second incident, was the infamous knife fight that occurred perhaps as a result of this first event. Where did it happen?  The fishery. That much is certain. What exactly happened? According to some, a fight between scores of divers wielding knives; according to others, only two armed divers engaged, one from each village. In the second version, one diver (I never heard from which village) was cut across the wrist and subsequently hospitalized. Women I spoke with in Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri tended to give the more dramatic account, while the men played down the violence, touting the two-divers-squaring-off narrative.

At the picnic, on recycling day–the divers just in from beach combing of a much different nature than that of 1948–I asked more about the incident.

The mayor of  Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri, a fit, demure man in his fifties, had this to say:

“The event at the fish farm wasn’t all that bad. One woman was cut, but it was a minor thing. She was hospitalized. It really wasn’t that serious. A few years after that incident the provincial government got tired of the conflict so they built a bridge over the stream that runs between the two villages. They joined the two villages’ territories and named the bridge ‘peace bridge’. People in both villages, we’re all fine with each other now. No one is getting red in the face about it. No one is holding a grudge.”


Now it’s 2017 and villages in the area of Pyeol-ro-Neo-man-ri are engaged in a new fight, this time aligned against a common foe, a foe that might very well be the end of their livelihood, but that is a story for another post.

For more on Jeju Island’s tragic past:

Wikipedia on the Jeju Uprising HERE

The film ‘Jiseul’, a dramatic rendering of the events following April 3rd, 1948

The Ghosts of Jeju, documentary film

Jeju Weekly article

Historian Bruce Cummings on U.S. involvement in the massacres of the 1948


Jeju Island’s Haenyo: A User’s Manual, the diver who heard music underwater

I had a beautiful experience once, one night drinking wine on a coastal boardwalk, in a village just outside of the city.

It was mid-summer.  I think in those days I was inviting whoever I could to come out where I lived to share some wine and conversation. Otherwise, it was pretty lonely. On this particular evening, a young woman I found walking down the boardwalk, Young Ji, joined me.

As we walked along, Young Ji told me about herself. She had grown up on the southern coast of Jeju Island, in a woman diver’s house, right on the beach. The diver wasn’t her grandmother by blood, but one of her grandfather’s wives. In those days, many Jeju Island men had several wives. Not because they were upper class (upper class men often did have several wives long ago in Korea), but because there were so few men. Many died in the war with China during the Japanese occupation, others in the massacres of 1948, others during the Korean War, and still others at sea.

If you wanted to keep cool on such a night, then you’d head out to one of the mid-mountain villages overlooking the night-scape of sea, starred with the lights of boats. The boardwalk was atrociously humid. The coast of Jeju is as much fresh water as sea water, with streams spilling off the mountain. Grass and thick coastal brush grows waist deep. Feral cats, many missing tails, circulate and tease out fish from the pools that have collected in furrows of the basalt rock.  Sweat beaded on Young Ji’s chest and rolled down into her shirt. She told me that she wanted to tell me a story.

She laid a whole other world out before me. She was describing her childhood on the south side, in that costal house with the grandmother who wasn’t her blood grandmother. She lived there because she had been turned out by her family. She was considered a nuisance child, while her brother was given the privilege of attending all the right schools in the city. So, she grew up a country girl. In fact, in her corner of the village, there were no other children. She spent her childhood amongst these elderly divers, with little diversion and not a tv in the house, only a radio. And this was really quite recent, the girl was only around twenty three or so when we met on the boardwalk.

Young Ji grew up with the divers. Their economy was very thin. She recounted a time when her grandmother, who she insisted was her real grandmother, since the others had abandoned her, had come in from a dive early. The woman had a huge grin on her face as she rushed to the house out from the sea, flippers in hand. “You won’t believe it,” she said huffing from the exertion of paddling in, “I heard music.”

Young Ji was shook with fright. She must have been around twelve at the time. “Really,” said her grandmother, “not music like we have here– real music, like an orchestra , with all the instruments, brass and strings—real music.” Young Ji asked her grandmother if she was ill, her state of extreme worry intensifying. Her grandmother was beaming. She had just experienced a miracle. The sea deities had given her music, music like she had never had the opportunity to hear in her life, not like this, not for real.

Young Ji asked her grandmother if she had caught any sea life that day, abalone or other shellfish. But her grandmother was too elated to really pay attention to her. Young Ji told me she’d pleaded with the elderly diver. “How can you be excited about thinking you heard music when we have to eat? I have to go to school. Who will pay for my school books?” In this moment, it was the granddaughter being the responsible, anchored one.

“But didn’t the grandmother deserve the ecstasy?” I asked. She had spent a life at sea.

Eventually, the old sea woman who had provided for Young Ji died. And Young Ji went off to Seoul to go to university. She attended the best film school in the country. Following this turn of events, which defied all odds considering her upbringing, her parents took her in again. But this produced in her great anger. They could never claim to be the reason for her success. So, every year, when she came home from university for summer vacation she would go out to the coast and watch the sea, just as she did when she was only a kid.

Back then, she’d lived with the constant paranoia that her provider, her true grandmother wouldn’t come back from a dive. Terror was losing sight of her small float in the water, merely a speck on the horizon, with no way to help. Now, she would look out over the sea for another purpose, to give thanks to the woman who sacrificed everything for her, even though she wasn’t a blood relation. Her parents, who had turned her out, would never understand and that filled her with even more anger.

“You might not be able to understand anger if you haven’t been locked up on an island before,” said Young Ji, back then on the boardwalk, “in some prison hole, locked up by an illness or your social station, I mean an anger that never dissipates. A gnawing, lifelong anger that doesn’t mean you are always red in the face, but that forms a base part of you. An anger that is equally a helplessness. This anger is part of your deeper disposition. Say you escape, to the outside, say you are the first generation to make it out, then do you think when you sit in your high tower, speaking in the language of the big city, that that feeling of helplessness will just disappear? Or will it remain part of you always?”

I saw Young Ji, recently, years later now. She is a successful film editor. She wore designer clothes and fancy heels. She spoke in standard Korean without a trace of an island accent. I asked her if she remembered the beautiful story she told me one night about her grandmother hearing music under the sea. She told me that she had forgotten the story. When pressed, she said she didn’t want to remember anymore. The island was nothing to her now. And anyway, it wasn’t the same island she had known.

Jeju Island’s Haenyo: A User’s Manual, interview with a young diver


The first in a series of posts for 2017 in which I explore issues affecting the women divers (haenyo) of Jeju Island, South Korea– issues primarily related to the gentrification and rapid development of South Korea’s largest island.  I’ve been speaking with the haenyo in depth over the last five years as part of my ongoing documentary project on the spiritual aspects of island life.

The following is an interview with one of the island’s younger divers who I will be calling Kyoung Jin Park. Kyoung Jin wishes to remain anonymous and asked not to have her photo featured in the post.  On our first meeting, we sat down together at a coffee shop. In the following interview, she reflects on the trials and joys of being a young diver. We discussed her experiences with overbearing photographers, the artisans capitalizing on the women divers’ image and the recent environmental disaster in her village that may force her to give up diving, her life’s passion.

Jeju Island’s women divers have recently received the much-deserved distinction of being recognized by Unesco as intangible cultural heritage of humanity . (More links following the interview)

I’m also currently writing on cold-exposure as practiced by the haenyo. Post

Enter Kyoung Jin:

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Kyoung Jin Park. I was born in 1975. I have young children at home and work solely as a woman diver.

How did you start diving?

I was living in another part of South Korea and, as a result of my divorce, returned to my home village on Jeju Island. I would sit and cry wondering what I could do with my life. It was then that it occurred to me. My mother was a woman diver and so was my aunt. If they could do it, then so could I. I said to myself, “I can really do this.” There was a great benefit for me, because divers work only three hours a day. This way, I could have plenty of time to spend with my children. I started diving in the month of February and the water was so cold I couldn’t dive for more than a few minutes.

At first, when I went into the water I couldn’t stay in very long, but my mother taught me the correct methods. My mother would go out with me and stay at my side.

How did you manage to dive in cold water later on?

There are two types of diving suits. One is 3mm in thickness, the other 5mm. I chose the 5mm and a thick diving cap. With these you can manage to stay in the water for two to three hours while you work. At first, when I went into the water I couldn’t stay in very long, but my mother taught me the correct methods. Back then, my mother would go out with me and stay at my side. She would help to pull me down into the water as I had trouble with my buoyancy. Long ago, before divers wore modern suits it was much easier to navigate. Now, you have to attach weights to your waist in order not to pop out of the water. Once I found the appropriate weight, it was much easier.

Divers prepare for a day’s work.


Which sea life is the most difficult to catch?

Octopus is much harder than other sea animals. Particularly, the larger octopus. They tend to hide in the rocks in small holes where they can’t be seen. And if you try to catch them they can easily escape.

We see on science programs that the octopus is a smart animal. Do you think so?

Yes, they are smart. There is another issue, too. Objects in the water appear larger than they are due to visual distortion. Sometimes you try to grab for something and your judgement is off. You get used to this later on and can compensate for the mistakes in your vision.


When you are in the water can you identify each diver by the way they breath when they break the surface of the water? I’ve heard that this is true.

Yes. It’s true. Each diver has a unique sound they make when they break out of the water. Most divers make a typical breathing sound, and a few make the famous ‘hui hui’ whistling sounds. I can tell where someone is in the water by the way they breath.

How does it make you feel when you hear the other divers breathing around you?

Hearing the other divers makes me feel a sense 0f security. I feel safe because I know if anything is to go wrong, someone will be nearby to help me. This is just my own idea, but having someone nearby is better than diving alone. When you come up, you can say to yourself, “Ah, so-and-so is close and so-and-so is far away.” Knowing where everyone is signifies that you can be confident when you dive.

I only know diving and that is my only job. I spent long years learning techniques and having experiences to learn what I do. I can’t just get on the TV and speak about being a woman diver unless I have the experience, which means extensive experience and study.

Some of the younger women divers have become famous due to appearances on social media and TV. What do you think about this phenomenon?

Yes, that’s right. I know some of these women and have a Facebook friend who appears on TV all the time. The biggest problem concerning this, in my opinion, is the women diver’s school. They have a school set up where women come down from Seoul to Jeju Island to study (our style of) diving. They are able to get into the water because they have experience with scuba diving. I draw a distinction between them and myself. I only know diving and that is my only job. I spent long years learning techniques and having experiences to learn what I do. I can’t just get on the TV and speak about being a woman diver unless I have the experience, which means extensive experience and study. Some of the girls from the woman diver’s school get called up for interviews and then do another interview the very next day. It’s really not fair to the established divers. It’s especially dumbfounding to the elderly women and the experienced divers get upset. Honestly, there aren’t any real master divers except for the elderly divers who are already grandmothers in their seventies. You can’t replace the current population of divers on Jeju Island so easily. The experienced divers working now have been doing this all their lives and the skills have been passed down from generation to generation.  I think the women who take the diving school course need to be careful. They come out of the school thinking they know how to dive after studying only a couple months. Experienced divers dive in all seasons of the year and we know what to expect when we go to sea. I don’t think that is the case for the graduates of the woman diver’s school.

It seems like this would be dangerous because the inexperienced new divers could make a mistake and have an accident.

It’s possible. There’s another problem, too. Women divers are very ambitious. So, if a new diver comes to the neighborhood she would need to study with another diver for six months maybe. Not many of the elderly divers would want to spend this amount of time since they are focused on catching as much as possible. Even in my experience, my mother and aunt tossed me off as soon as I got the hang of it. They were concerned about their own catch. If someone is right beside you in the water it can be hindering, so for that reason my mother and I dive on opposite sides of the harbor. I dive on the east side and mom dives on the west side. Plus, if I am anywhere near my mother she will keep nagging me. (laughter)

The information on TV always talks about how much the haenyo work together in a tight-knit team. Why is it you say each diver is so ambitious?

That’s because what each diver manages to catch is their income. There is a lot of comradery when it comes to issues in the village, but otherwise each diver works on their own. Personal conflicts cause people to fight, but for the most part, people make up the following day. The following day, they are already eating lunch together.

Divers travel to their access point on foot.

I think you live in two worlds. The world of the older generation that takes place in Jeju Island’s native language, which is very different from standard Korean, and your own generation’s world, a world that has abandoned much of the native culture.

Honestly, sometimes I can’t understand things that the oldest divers say. I have to ask them. I’ve lived on Jeju Island since I was young, but sometimes there are things that escape me. I have to whisper to someone and ask, “What did she say?” Jeju Island’s native language is very difficult.

How about religion? Do you practice shamanism or Buddhism?

The other divers attend the shamanic shrines for prayer twice a year. I’d say, out of our group, maybe ten or fifteen people regularly visit the shrine. My father, because he is a boat captain, visits as well. I don’t visit the shrine, but I’ve been there with my father when I was young. For sure, the women divers have a strong belief in that sort of thing. Some divers wear bracelets or necklaces that they believe protect them at sea. I have one necklace that I wear. When I was at sea, I saw a dolphin. I think I was supposed to be scared when I saw it, but it was like we were instant friends. I wasn’t the least bit afraid. I’ve seen turtles as well. We say that turtles are gods themselves. For this reason, you are never to attack or kill a turtle. I’ve been out to Gwan Tal Island (a small islet off the Northern coast of Jeju Island). When the fishermen see a turtle out there, they will chum the water with rice to honor the turtle as a god.

Tell me about Gwan Tal Island.

Gwan Tal Island? (laughs) Gwan Tal Island is dangerous. The sea life is large and worth a lot of money. But, it’s dangerous. There are sharks out there, too.

Have divers died out there?

No. We head out for one day, then head back. It’s not somewhere where you can go very often. If we go, we’ll skip lunch and just work as hard as we can. When you go out to Gwan Tal Island you really can’t maneuver very much because of the rocks and the waves. The area in which you can forage is very limited.

Have you ever almost died at sea?

I’ve had that kind of experience. Nowadays, women divers wear proper rubber flippers. When I started, I went out in plastic flippers. Once I was harvesting sea urchin, my foot got caught between some rocks while I was deep in the water. I tried to get my foot out and couldn’t. At that point my breath had ran out as well. Finally, I twisted my foot out and was able to escape. I’m the sort who will go after sea life under dangerous circumstances. The older divers hate it. If I see the smallest hole in the rocks I’ll go for it. When you use plastic flippers there is no give and you can get stuck.

I guess you use rubber flippers now?

Of course I do! (laughter)

When you are working does time move fast or slow?

When I’m catching a lot of things, three hours goes really fast. If I don’t catch very much or if it’s a day where I’m sick or not feeling well, then time drags on.

Do you love the ocean?

Yes, I do. I’d lose my mind without it I think.

Will you encourage your kids to be divers?

No way! I won’t encourage them.

Why not?

Because this work is too hard on your body. My children know it, too. They often tell me, “Mom, don’t go out to sea. It’s dangerous.” I tell them it’s dangerous, but it’s also enjoyable for their mom. Truthfully, hardly anyone is encouraging their children to be divers now.  A lot of people ask me why I’m diving.

I’ve heard there are problems with pollution in your area.

The pollution has been severe in our area since 2013. Starting around 2014, I began to sense there was something wrong. I started talking to people, telling them that there was something strange about the water. At first, people denied it. I was going out and coming back with nothing but two sea urchins. I started to notice a foul smell when I went out to sea. I’d get a headache and sometimes need to vomit. I kept telling the older divers that there was something strange going on. But they kept denying it. Eventually, I went to the head diver and told her that it had come out on the news that there was a lot of pollution in the water. Honestly, for two months during the summer I couldn’t dive.

It was too polluted?

Yes. Usually, when we divers work at sea, we have a good time. We love going out to do the work. But, now, it really isn’t that enjoyable. The water has become really fetid and people are vomiting after they come out of the water. People are starting to go a little mad. If there were more things to catch, it would be better. But that’s not the case.

Can you move to another neighborhood?

We can’t. Because of the laws in place. Frankly, if this was a farming neighborhood then I’d give up diving for farming, but we can’t farm here. There is no land for it. Diving is our primary source of income. Sometimes there are days when we can only go out for a few minutes and have to return, and mostly there is very little sea life left. Sometimes I return with only enough to make 20.000 won (approx. twenty dollars). How am I suppose to live on that? I ask myself, will I have to get a part time job? Maybe at the supermarket?

A couple on a scooter trip take a moment to spot women divers in the water.
Tourists on Udo Island await divers who will soon come to shore after their shift.

Nowadays there are a lot of touristic items such as jewelry, statuettes and other items featuring the women divers’ image. You’ve become a symbol of the island.

I think that it is good and realize that it is also due to the push for Unesco designation. It is good that we are recognized and I guess the outside world has the image in their mind that we are tough because we are divers. But we don’t seem to benefit from these touristic items. The people who make them are the ones who benefit. The ama (Japanese women divers) are more well-known in the world than we are, and in their villages the divers receive money for the touristic items they sell. This is not the case on Jeju Island. They (the local government) could make a certain item particular to each village and give us a cut of their revenue, but they aren’t doing this.

How about when you are photographed?

That, too, doesn’t benefit us. It benefits the photographer. My mother’s image travels all around the world. I have the artist’s information, so I see her image being featured in galleries in Europe and other places. I can easily find out which museums her image is shown in and which magazines, but I don’t know much about the artist really. When I get news of a new exhibition, I usually send a message back to the artist that says, “oh, that’s nice”, and I guess I’m alright with that. But there are other people who get furious about it and curse when they see their image somewhere.

What do you want me to tell English speakers about the women divers?

I don’t know about foreign people, but Korean people have many bad ideas about the women divers. They think we are lower class. Some of my friends always tell me how great of a job I do and others wonder why in the world I do this. It’s about fifty-fifty. Some people think we are ill-mannered because when people come to take photographs of us, we yell at them and curse. Well, this isn’t that bad because you have to understand that we are at work and need to focus. It really pisses me off when I come out of the water and people are snapping photographs. Sometimes, they ask nicely for permission. We tell them no, and they keep taking them anyway.

The truth is, I am the same person in the water and out of the water. I’m just a person trying to make a living like everyone else. Don’t think of me as a woman diver. Think of me as a person.

Is that right?

Yes. And get this. You have to understand. Women divers are women. When I come out of the water after three hours of diving my face is red and exhausted from working. Do you think I want to have that image of me floating around? Usually I don’t even know if people are taking my picture. Sometimes there are people on the shore screaming like crazy and I look up from the water and see them. The truth is, I am the same person in the water and out of the water. I’m just a person trying to make a living like everyone else. Don’t think of me as a woman diver. Think of me as a person. I want people to know that I’m not doing this work because I couldn’t go to school or was born poor. No, that’s not it. I’m a woman diver because I chose to be a diver.

To learn more about Jeju Island’s women divers, I recommend Brenda Paik Sunoo’s beautiful photo essay Moon Tides, available from Seoul Selection: It’s truly a very comprehensive exploration of the life and culture of Jeju Island’s amazing divers.

A number of documentaries have been produced on these amazing women, all of them are excellent to my knowledge. A google search should put you in business.

* visiting Jeju w/ daniel paul marshall

The Friday Influence

IMG_9433.jpg photo by Joey Rositano

This week’s post features a poem by Daniel Paul Marshall. Marshall writes about the Haenyeo, female divers from the Korean province of Jeju. The Hangul for the word, (해녀)roughly translates to sea women, and serves as the title for this poem.

When I informed Marshall I planned on featuring this particular poem, he was kind enough to share the following:

The tradition of the Haenyo, the lady divers of Jeju, sometimes mythologized as the mermaids of Jeju, dates back some 1500 years.Their tools, other than their updated wet suits, have not changed. They dive as a group, for safety & socializing. They dive in all weather, all seasons. Their strength & endurance to the elements is astonishing.Their shamanic traditions are dwindling from what i gather, their mean ages is 70 odd & the younger generation is not being trained in this ancient custom. 

This poem…

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Choi Soon-sil, the “Rasputin” who Controlled the South Korean President, is no Shaman.

People have been suggesting over the last week that I write a post on the current presidential political scandal in South Korea and the media’s mischaracterization of shamanism.

The truth is, I’m up to my armpits in TEDx preparation and don’t have much time to put together a proper post. I need to return to my room-pacing, pretending there is an audience out my window. How do I hold my hands when I speak? That sort of thing. I think I will opt for a podium in the end.

I will be giving a TEDx talk the 26th of November here in Korea and plan to drop some major truths about the shamanism of Jeju Island.

I’ll be building a shamanic shrine on stage, accenting my talk with a bit of the theatrical.

So, sorry for the abbreviated post. I’ll do the best I can off the cuff.

The situation, briefly stated: The president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, as it turns out, has been under the influence of an interloper in Korean politics, Choi Soon-sil, that many are referring to as the Korean Rasputin. Choi, a long time friend of Park’s family, had access to official state papers and even tailored the president’s speeches, although she held no official government position in the state apparatus. What is clear is that the Choi family has long held an influence over the Parks.

Choi Soon-sil’s deceased father, Choi Tae-min was the head of the Church of Eternal Life, one of South Korea’s many cults. Her father, the cult leader, was a known mentor to Park’s father. Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was the authoritarian leader from 1961-79 who recast South Korea in his own industrial vision. Park is a hero to much of the older generation, praised for pushing the country into modernity, but is also hated by many on the left for his use of cruel and suppressive tactics. His daughter, the current Park, is anything but popular. Her ratings have fallen to 5% in the last couple weeks, 1-2% amongst surveyed youth. 

What does all this have to do with shamanism? 

I’m not schooled on Choi Tae-min’s cult. Nor am I familiar with the Church of Eternal Life’s dogma, but from what I can gather it falls under a category of pseudo-faiths that use a melange of various traditions’ dogmas to influence its members. In the end, these operations always end up being all about the money. They aren’t built on long surviving traditions and often have a charismatic leader at the helm. Sometimes, the leaders aren’t even charismatic, but nevertheless seem to get their job of manipulation and thievery done.

Cults like the Church of Eternal Life often mix elements of several prevalent religions. This is a common feature I have personally witnessed in Protestant sects who employ shamanic ideas and ancestor worship to lure in the desperate. Ancestor worship is important to the Korean world-view.

A woman I know personally, on Jeju Island where I live, was once going through hard times. She was in the business of looking for a church to join. One aggressive proselytizer, after several Bible study meetings, realized that she wasn’t having any success with my friend. So, she readily switched gears to talk of ancestor worship. She claimed that if my friend didn’t join their church (and tithe regularly, of course) that her ancestors would have revenge on her. This was supposedly a Christian church. This type of thing is very prevalent in South Korea. In fact, many people join churches, not for salvation, but for monetary benefit. My neighbor was considering joining a church in order to give his business a boost.

Choi Soon-sil’s operation seems to have been a mix of Buddhism and Catholicism along with shamanic elements. Her father used his connections with Park’s father to wrangle bribes from businessmen and officials around Korea. The daughter ran many of the same scams with the present President Park. Choi, according to Korean media, used the president as a puppet. 

You can read all about it here. It’s a wild ride. A good read for sure. The story is a dark wonder in this world.

Yes, shamanism. Shamanism is in South Korea. Shamanic religions are spread across Eurasia. (Your ancestors were shamanists, too. Thus the name of this blog.

Shamans, true shamans, are not spooky witch-doctors. Choi Soon-sil and her cult-leader father are NOT shamans, despite what some of the Korean media would want you to believe. Choi Soon-sil, working from the articles I’ve read and the chaos of outrage I’m seeing around me, is an opportunist, a typical South Korean cult-leader who prays on the weak by employing whatever dogma is convenient to manipulate her victims.

Now, this is the part where I get pissed off.

It was the present president Park’s father who was greatly responsible for an assault on Jeju Island’s shrines and shamanic practitioners during the Anti-superstition Movement he ran during his reign. We can say that it is in part due to his policies that non-traditional shamanic cults and fake shamans moved in to capitalize on people’s fears.  During Park’s time some 120 shamanic shrines were destroyed (the majority of which Jeju Island’s residents rebuilt) and many traditional shamans were forced to give up their instruments and ritual tools. Many had to denounce their position as village shaman. This period caused a massive amount of pain locally on Jeju Island where wholesome shamanism is still widely practiced.

Hear testimony about this period from some of Jeju Island’s shamans and shamanism experts HERE in a prior post. (VIDEO)

Choi Soon-sil is no shaman.

This is a REAL shaman:


She is a village priest. She is a guardian of sacred lore. She is the officiator of rituals. A spiritual leader. In South Korea, and especially on Jeju Island, she is the center of the village. She is the rock that members of her flock turn to in hard times. When a loved one passes, she is there to perform the funerary services. When a new business is opened, she is there to consecrate the new venture. When a new house is erected, she is there to usher in the harmony.

This is a REAL shaman:


She is a counselor. She is a healer. If the suffering is due to emotional or psychological pain, she is there to lead her patient down the path to healing. She has deep ties to her community. Her position was inherited from a long line of shamans before her. She knows every name in the village. She is held to excellency by the village residents. She knows their private affairs and is sworn to secrecy.

This is a REAL shaman:


He is a master reciter of myth. A master performer. An artist. A master of conveying emotion. A dancer. A drummer. He spent decades mastering his craft. But his hardest challenge is mastering the human heart. This he must do, if he is to be healer. He knowingly sacrificed everything to choose this path.

This is a REAL shaman:


She is a teacher. The knowledge she carries is the true root of culture. She is the guardian of identity, the cultural identity that comes from myth. She is even a comedian. She knows well, that levity is an important key used to unlock the human heart. She has the residents of her village cracking up over some joke that she’s made and in tears moments later.

This is a REAL shaman:


She is at the center. The shrine gods are at the center of the village. And she is at the center of their shrine. She is the medium. To sit close to her, is to sit close to the gods. To brush up against the divine. In many places in the world, where life is hard everyday, people still understand this.




Field Notes #2: Saewa Village’s Shamanic Shrines Were Burnt to the Ground


During the Anti-Superstition Movement of the 1970s, over one hundred of Jeju Island’s shamanic shrines were burnt, along with many holy relics. President Park Chung Hee’s government had implemented the misin-tapa as part of the movement for the modernization of South Korea. The aim of the misin-tapa was to eradicate traditional religion from rural communities, replacing it when possible with Christianity. As a result, much of Korea’s native culture was lost, but the people of Jeju Island rebuilt their shamanic shrines and continued to worship native gods, in secret when necessary. Shamanism has always been widely practiced on Jeju and the island’s remoteness may have played a role in the fact that shamanism is still present today.

The great shaman (keun shimbang) of Saewa Village, Jeju Island’s most senior shaman, talks about the era of ‘superstition’ prohibition in this ‘field notes’. Formal interviews with the shimbang will be included as extras in the documentary Spirits: The Story of Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines.


Great shaman, Seo Sun Shil, on her childhood memories during the ‘superstition’ prohibition years. Shamans on Jeju Island were forced to practice in secret.


Jeju Island cultural researcher, Mun Bong Sun, on the Anti-superstition movement.


The threat to Jeju Island’s shamanic shrines continues

For other posts on the ongoing present threat to the cultural treasures which are Jeju Island’s shamanic shrines, here:

Tear’s in Seongsan. How one UNESCO designated village allowed its most valuable cultural asset to be destroyed, leaving many locals heartbroken. BELOW.

Shrines under attack. A development corporation in tandem with hoteliers destroyed a historic shamanic shrine in Yaerae Village. BELOW.

Isn’t it time we talk about Sulsaemit? The case of the desecration of Sulsaemit Shrine. BELOW.