“There are probably just ten or fifteen years that those people will be able to tell those stories,” explains Joey Rositano a filmmaker exploring the culture of Jeju Island shamanism. “It is just the oldest generation now, even people in their fifties don’t really know.”
In Jeju, shamanism is mainly practiced by the older residents. However, the stories and myths associated with shamanism are often just passed down through the generations. If the younger generation are no longer interested, what happens to these stories?
It is this problem and knowledge of a deep culture that is in danger of slipping away that is driving Joey in his search to help preserve Jeju’s shamanic culture.
Joey is the director of the upcoming film, “Spirits: The Story of Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines” He has also released a book about shamanism and keeps a website related to the topic.
However, when he first came to Jeju he had none of these plans. Living on the island since 2005, it wasn’t until 2011 that he heard about a story originating in the village of Nado and decided to investigate.
To do this properly, he knew he would need to get a first-hand telling of the myths as told by the people of the village. Initially, he was worried that they either wouldn’t want to or would be unable to talk to him.
In fact, a Korean friend who he was planning to go with said no one would remember the story as shamanism was something that happened 200 years ago. However, undeterred Joey decided to go to the village anyway.
“Once I got into the town, once I started asking about the myth, a whole group of old people gathered around me telling me the story. We went to every house in the village and I realized that actually, all the people in the village knew the myths still.”
It was in this moment that Joey knew there was something important to record.
Wanting to document some of these myths, Joey started to go to the various shrines around the island to try to record the stories. As with the residents of Naedo, Joey found that the villagers were all enthusiastic about sharing their stories with him.
In fact, they were almost too enthusiastic. What was originally planned to simply be a film soon grew into an archive with around 12 terabytes of interviews of villagers telling their village’s myths.
This is what makes Joey’s work unique. He explained that “whereas a lot of researchers have focused on a small number of shamans that report on the epic myths [stories that run throughout all of Jeju’s mythology]. Not many people have gone out to record the village myths.”
While the rituals and myths related to shamanism are no doubt important. In the day to day beliefs of the villagers, shamans and the shrines also play an important role.
The village shaman is the center of each village’s belief system. It is up to this person to perform the ceremonies and, crucially, to remember the myths of each village and pass them on to future shamans.
“Each shaman is like a village priest. He is responsible for performing village rights and for attending to sick people and helping people with psychological distress and other personal choices about their life.”
Another problem is that the number of shamans on Jeju is declining rapidly. In fact, Joey points out that nowadays the majority of villages don’t have their own shaman, instead they hire someone in from outside or have a buddhist monk take over the proceedings.
He explains that he is “trying to reach those people to get the remainder of those myths.”
The shrines themselves aren’t without problems of their own. These shrines are where the villagers go to pray. There are currently around 200 of them on the island (around 100 of those have been rebuilt). However, the number is slowly dwindling. In fact, according to Joey, around nine or ten have been destroyed since he started his research.
“Some of those shrines are being destroyed in different villages […] Sometimes shrines are rebuilt but the original shrine with 500-year-old trees, and that certain rustic atmosphere where the stones have been there in the same place for 500 years, that is irreplaceable.”
However, Joey has noticed some positives signs during his time researching shamanism on Jeju. He points to a definite increase in the interest people are showing, much of this from an unexpected source, artists from the mainland.
He explains that these artists, who make up a good number of new arrivals to the island, are naturally curious about culture and are keen to use the shamanic culture of Jeju in their work.
This has coincided with efforts on behalf of the local government to bring more attention to the culture, as well as the designation of one of Jeju City’s shamanic rituals the “Yeongdeung Gut” as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Joey himself has finally managed to get through his 12 terabytes of film and his movie is close to completion. He hopes to have it finished soon and have an initial showing in the second half of the year, adding his own input to the attempts to preserve this unique culture.