Shamanism and Interreligious Dialogue about Mary


Shamanism17 cannot exactly be considered a religion, or even a practice with a religious character. It is rather a cultural phenomenon connected to specific religious ideas. The term is of Tungusan origin (the Tungusans are a Siberian people). However, even though Shamanism is typical of the Siberian region, it is also found with very similar aspects in other cultures.

Currently the followers of religions that have a Shamanist character live predominantly in Mongolia, in Siberia and in Korea. Among these countries, Korean Shamanism has a special character. This is mixed with the Korean myth of Dangun,18 and so filtered into the Korean people.

In Korean Shamanism, there is no discrimination against women. On the contrary, women take the central places in Shamanist ritual celebrations. the celebrants are mostly women and are called mudang.

How to speak about Mary

In the action of the mudang, we can trace some elements that refer to maternity: mercy, compassion and reconciliation, etc. Both in their origin and in their current situation, the mudangsuffer social persecution.19 Despite this, they understand the others who suffer, especially the suffering of women. Many poor who don't know where they can be defended go to them. The mudang console them with maternal care and with mercy even though we don't deny that there are some negative results (financial exploitation and gullibility of followers). At times people can make the experience of reconciliation at all levels and among all people, while the mudang celebrates the rite of calming down the spirit of the dead. The reconciliation through the mudang, the reconciliation between a family and one of its deceased members is achieved. For the dialogue with the followers of Shamanism we can think of the maternity of Mary and her earthly sorrow. One can present the Madonna exerting herself for the reconciliation between God and people. The mudang respect the faithful of other religions. Therefore, we don't need to worry. We talk to them with a maternal heart, listening to them like our normal neighbors.

17 Cf. PARK II-yong, The Community Feast of Shamanism, in <lnculturation> 3 (1989), pp.50-53; ---Mentalito di Sciamanismo e di Cattolicesimo coreano, in <Kyong Hyang Jab Gi> ,6 (1997), pp.28-34.
18 Dangun describes the mythological origins of Korea: "Once there was a divine prince named Hwanung, who was the son of Hwanin, the God of the Heavens. Hwonung wanted to help mankind, and asked his father to grant him the Korean Peninsula to govern. Hwanin granted his wish, and Hwanung was sent to Earth with three thousand followers. Hwanung appeared near a divine sandal-wood tree on the slopes of Taebaeksan Mountain. He took the title of Cheonwang or Heavenly King and established Sinsi, the City of God. He appointed three ministers to be in charge of sind, rain, and the clouds, and taught the people 360 useful arts including agriculture, medicine, carpentry, weaving and fishing. He also taught them what was good and what was evil, and set up a code of law. In those days, there were a bear and a tiger living in a big cave near the sandalwood tree where Hwanung became human, and everyday they went to the sacred sandalwood tree to pray to Hwanung to make them human. Eventually, the Heavenly King was moved by their prayers. He called them to him and gave them twenty bulbs of garlic and a divine spray of mugwort, and said, "Eat these, and do not seek the light of day for one hundred days. If you do this, you will become human." The bear and the tiger ate the garlic and mugwort and went back to their cave. The tiger was too impatient to survive this ordeal and left after a short while. Meanwhile, the bear patiently waited and after only twenty-one days, she became a beautiful woman. She became known as Ungnyeo. The woman was overjoyed, but she could find no one to marry her, so she visited the sandalwood tree again and prayed that she might be blessed with a child. Hwanung again took pity on her, and temporarily transformed himself into a human. She conceived, and gave birth to a son, who was called Dangun. He became the first human king of the Peninusula. He established his capital at Pyeongyang and he gave his kindgom the name Joseon. Later, he moved his capital to Asadal on Taebaeksan Mountain and ruled for fifteen hundred years. After that, he abdicated and became a mountain god. (Korean Information Service, Hello from Korea, Seoul 1997 , p.5).
19 They are frequently demonized and at times rejected by society.

– This presentation was made by Dr. Choi Kyong Sun. It is a partial and modified text of observations developed in her dissertation, "Inculturation della chiesa Cattolica e Pietà mariana in Corea," (Dissertation Marianum, Rome 2001).

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