Communing with the Shamanic Gods in Incheon

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Number one on my list of priorities when exploring a neighborhood in the middle of the redevelopment process is shamans’ homes. Any artifacts, even a tiny bujeok, give more information about the former lives who once occupied the spaces. With some cultural overlap, like shared iconography, I will include small Buddhist temples as 1a on my list when exploring a neighborhood. A distant number two would be Christian churches for must see visits.

Besides the vibrant color symbology in Korean Shamanism, I think what draws me to shaman’s homes is the historical depth that Shamanism has on the Korean peninsula. It’s Korea’s first religion; elements of Siberian Shamanism found their way down here, and eventually, it became the state religion of Silla, where a Shaman was king! Shamanism here has incorporated elements of Taoism, Buddhism, and even Confucianism to survive to this day. It would be unfair to omit that even Buddhism and Confucianism borrowed from shamanic traditions where they saw fit.

I’ve pieced a lot of what I know, first from finding bujeok and then researching the meaning of these amulets, which led me down the rabbit hole of the history of Shamanism as a whole. I have gathered a better understanding, not complete, mind you, of shamanic traditions from reading books and studying the iconographies of the practice. It prepared me for what I found a couple of weekends ago when I went back to an Incheon neighborhood on a solo mission. It was the most complete setup of a shaman’s house I’ve ever seen in my years of urban exploring Korea. Discovering this place was as shocking and unforgettable as when I found the dusty, untouched Buddhist temple in Imun-dong.

This house is a place I wouldn’t want to bring Harrow to; years of neglect have made the roof cave in partially, and in the remaining part of the house, the air quality is terrible. It’s not a dog-friendly environment. On my first visit with Harrow, Jon, Coetzer, and my wife, I recall walking past this place and noticing that someone bolted the door shut.

On my next visit, the door was slightly ajar yet stuck on the ground; you had to pick it up somewhat to open it. I presume someone, a demolition worker, busted a small hole in the glass near the handle to note what was left behind. I wonder what their thoughts were when they came across the scene downstairs. You might not believe in a spirit realm, but it certainly is startling at first sight.

This is what I saw as I made my way down the staircase.

Usually, the only things I come across that indicate a shaman’s house are the dancheong wallpaper, where the altar once was, and maybe a few bujeok or pink lotuses hanging from the ceiling. I was lucky once and found some left behind burlap effigies. Years ago, with Coetzer, we found an abandoned Samshingak (Mountain God Shrine) with a Shaman’s fan but didn’t know what it was at the time. BUT what I came across on this day was the ultimate find. 

Anything shamanic was left behind, including the various costumes a shaman wears during a ritual. I found most costumes representing different Gods inside a suitcase, except one. I saw the General’s outfit on a mannequin in the corner, perhaps showing utmost reverence to that particular protective spirit.

Along with the General’s clothing, I found both of his swords. I only took a photo of one of them though. It wasn’t made of plastic, it has some weight to it.

Shamans use the knife (kal) to drive away demons. In the background is the suitcase full of costumes.

I mentioned it earlier, but this house was falling apart. A Shaman hadn’t lived here for a long time. Like the Buddhist temple in Imun-dong, the elements had worn down the house’s structure, with the roof caved in at two separate locations. Yes, I was taking a risk going into this place, but it was well worth it.

Dust filled the shinbang, or the space where the shaman holds daily appeals to the gods. Mold was eating away at the painting of the Shamanic Gods. Many books remained on the bookshelf; a few that I took a look at were an incantation/prayer book, a bujeok reference book, and a Chinese Zodiac book for 2005. Is it possible that this house has sat empty for the last seventeen years?

The most eye-catching of this room are the statues of the shaman’s main gods of worship.

A statue of a Taoist Immortal, holding a sprig of ginseng, a symbol of longevity.
The Buddhist Grandmother gave birth to three Buddhist sons (Sambul) next to her in the painting on the left.
The Mountain God (Sanshin) is a common deity of worship amongst Shamans and Buddhists.
The General of the Five Directions protects the East, West, North, South, and Center.

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