Let’s start with the home. Most lectures (as given by the handful of experts on the shamanism of Jeju Island) on the deities that reside within the Jeju Island home, start out with an illustration that looks something like this:
It’s a typical Jeju floor plan (in the spirit of not being too formal—I’m going to be doing many of my illustrations on napkins) and below are the corresponding deities for the various areas within the house:
‘The house gods’ myth teaches us about living well within the nuclear family,” the shaman Sun Shil Seo of Kimnyoung village once told me in an interview—she was speaking about the origin myths of various deities on Jeju Island.
(In this guide I will give the shamans or shimbang first authority, the dangwol—the followers of shamanism—equal authority; on occasion I’ll be referring to and citing the very excellent native scholars of traditional Jeju shamanism and other scholars. Much of what I will have to say comes from my lengthy, firsthand investigation of the religion. I will let the reader know when I am speculating about something or conveying my own ideas. Otherwise, I will attempt to, as accurately as possible, communicate the standard view of different elements.)
It is often said that the house gods are at the center of the spiritual sphere on Jeju Island. They are, perhaps, the most commonly worshiped deities. The house deities are recognized in each of the island’s common religious traditions: Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucian rites. The overwhelming majority of natives to Jeju still recognize the house deities, including, what seems to me, the majority of Catholics—but not all Protestants do. I will speak more about the integration of aspects of shamanism into Jeju’s other religious and traditional practices in later posts .
So, who are these household deities?
Munjeon—The Door God
In every traditional Jeju Island house and most houses built in the modern era, there is a front porch or patio, usually covered, a place in which items can be stored, including tools, outerwear, shoes—this sort of thing. At times, these patios function as work areas. Neighbors often gather in the patios to chat and process the harvest together. Usually, the central room of the home, which functions as a common room, has a set of windows that give out to this porch or, if not, directly to the yard. This common room and the covered porch are the abode of the Door God.
People commonly say that the Door God is the most important deity on Jeju Island. Those that make this claim are often from younger generations who don’t necessarily understand the entire Jeju Island pantheon, but the claim also makes a lot of sense in the context of their own viewpoint. As mentioned, ceremonies dedicated to the House Gods, particular the Door God and the Kitchen Goddess, are featured in a wide range of the island’s religious traditions. Because of this, young people are likely to encounter these deities more often than others. They don’t usually participate in the full range of shamanic worship that elders do. Still, the door god is a central deity, very close to the hearts of the Jeju people.
The Door God is celebrated in most all shamanic ceremonies. Several types of ceremonies are dedicated chiefly to honoring him, as well as his mother, the Kitchen Goddess and her other offspring. For instance, shamans and Buddhist priests visit households on Jeju Island annually to perform rites dedicated to these gods. In all Confucian ceremonies that involve ancestral worship in the home, and sometimes elsewhere, the Door God is also commonly honored. A table of offerings is set for him during yearly ancestral rites. Often, a table is set for the Kitchen Goddess during these rites.
The Door God’s Myth
The Door God’s epic is related in the myth called the Munjeon Bonpuri. The Door God, Nokdisaengin, is the youngest of seven brothers. He is the hero of the myth along with his mother, the Kitchen Goddess. I will discuss the details of the house god’s myth in another post, but for now, know that at the end of the myth Nokdisaengin is awarded the position as the god protector of the front door. His six brothers take dominion over other rooms in the home. His mother is awarded with rule over the kitchen.
It should be noted that the Hearth Goddess’s husband, in some regions, takes on the role of the Door God. Legendary Jeju shamanism researcher, Sung Gi Jin, reports this in his dictionary of Jeju Island’s shamanism. Everywhere I have personally visited, and according to the shamans I have interviewed, it is the youngest son who takes the position. This is, for the most part, the common notion nowadays.
The Hearth Goddess
The Hearth Goddess is one of Jeju Island’s great heroines, an impressive goddess who is far from a domestic servant. She exercises a dynamic independence which is often emphasized as a necessary attribute for women on the island. This is one of the clear messages her myth relates to adherents of the island’s shamanic religion. Many elderly women recognize the sacrifices of the Hearth Goddess daily. These women burn prayer paper and set water out for her over the stove or on the kitchen counter.
The Hearth Goddess’s Husband
The Hearth Goddess’s husband (we will get to the details of the house gods’ myth in a future post) and the fact that he is celebrated as a god illustrates an interesting point about shamanism on Jeju Island. That is, even the characters (gods) in the epic myths who are corrupted or even sinister—or flawed in some other way—are still recognized as gods. The Hearth Goddess’s husband cannot be said to be an ideal father, as you will see. Yet, we must recognize and understand his weaknesses, as we must recognize and try to come to terms with the weaknesses of people around us; we can learn from his shortcomings, shortcomings that possibly mirror our own.
The teachings of the Door God myth aren’t naive and can still be applied today. Many of the shamans I met would remark on the modern breakdown of the nuclear family. In Suk Oh—‘Grandma Oh’—from Pyougdae Village complained about the divorce rate, the lack of decorum at the passing of family members and a disruption of communal harmony in the villages on a larger scale. These elder shamans sometimes have a sense of the world going astray, as it moves away from the traditional teachings. ‘Grandma Oh’—who I visited frequently—was in her eighties. Having limited mobility due to arthritis, she watched a lot of tv. She often used the characters and plots of K-dramas to illustrate concepts in the myths, comparing the characters of the dramas to characters in myths.
The Hanged Goddess in the Bathroom
The Door God’s father is not the only less than admirable figure in the House Gods’ myth. There is also Noiljadae-guil-guil’s Daughter, a seductress and sociopath. She is very much the ‘witch’ personage in Jeju Island mythology and the reciting of her portion of the House Gods’ Myth will bring grimaces to the faces of adherents to shamanism. Despite this goddess’s wicked nature, she must be honored, though not as highly as the Door God and the Kitchen Goddess. As Shaman Go of Handong Village put it, “A god is a god is a god, and that’s that. So, of course, we must recognize her as a goddess.”
The very telling of Noiljadae’s portion of the myth upset one shaman I visited whenever she recited it. She even apologized for including the graphic parts of the epic—stopping momentarily and issuing a sort of trigger warning to a local villager. Noiljadae’s demise is quite graphic, violent, and has sexual content. But “that’s the way we were taught and we have to include every detail,” the shaman explained. “Because it’s a religious story, nothing can be left out.”
The common image associated with Noiljadae these days is that of her corpse hanging in the outhouse, which is where she meets her demise in the Door God’s epic.
The World is Broken
In Jeju Island shamanism, not all is ideal. In fact, this very world we live in was ill-formed. We aren’t living in a perfect existence. Both creation and people, and even many of the gods, are imperfect. But the imperfect nature of this world is, as human beings, the burden we must carry. The gods, myths and rituals are there to help us come to terms with this original condition, and to help us discover truths about ourselves in order that we might better navigate our existence.
The character shortcomings of certain gods are fairly criticized in shamanic teachings, yet it is important to keep in mind that these gods are also considered with an amount of understanding.
Joey Rositano is a writer and visual artist currently based in South Korea. He has produced a documentary on the shamanism of Jeju Island which is available now, below for more details.
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