Photo courtesy of Peter DeMarco, Nomad Within

CELINE CROSSED HER LEGS and took a long drag of her cigarette. “The shaman told me my grandmother’s hometown. She pointed to it on a map,” she recounted in her thick French accent. “Later, the adoption agency gave me the exact same information.”

A couple other exchange students and I sat on perpendicular wooden benches in the courtyard of our fine arts studio at the Korea National University of Arts, listening to her reminisce about her visit to see a Korean shaman in France, who correctly predicted her geographic roots and enabled her to fall into trance. Celine had been adopted from Korea to France at birth, and at 25 years old, she returned to Korea to study as an exchange student and search for her biological roots.

A week after she shared her story, Celine went out of town and invited my then-boyfriend and I to stay in her downtown loft apartment while she was gone. The first night, we climbed upstairs and crawled on our hands and knees beneath the low ceiling. I saw a DVD lying on the mattress: a documentary titled Mudang, the Korean word for shaman. For several minutes we watched the film, resting our heads against the pillows as a shaman performed a ritual ceremony called gut. The shaman moaned and chanted as she attempted to beckon spirits to help resolve her client’s problems. The client clutched a wooden spirit stick and her arms thrashed back and forth, as if they were disconnected from her body. Two women beat hourglass-shaped changu drums in the background.

Shamans, the film explained, performed these ceremonies in a quest to heal the misfortunes of others. I was curious, but preoccupied.

We spent the rest of the night kissing. On the TV in the background, the quest continued, on mute.

* * *
Mudang are perceived as intermediaries between spirits and human beings and have the ability to willfully move into trance. They hail from the central and northern parts of present-day South Korea, and unlike shamans from the southern provinces, mudang have not inherited their spiritual qualities; instead, they have overcome torment from shinbyeong, spirit sickness, where they claim they are beckoned by gods to fulfill their destiny as shamans.

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*NOTE: In September, I was chosen as a Fall ’12 Glimpse Correspondent, and this is the first of two long-form narratives that will be published on Matador Network.


-Text by Sarah Shaw @ All rights reserved.