Good Gut Hunting


Gut or kut, also spelled goot (굿), is the ritual performed by Korean mu (shamans) in the tradition of Sinism (or Muism), involving offerings a[sic] sacrifices to the gods and ancestor worship,[1] rhythmic movements, songs, oracles and prayers.[2]

Wikipedia [of course!]

Desperately looking for shamans…

“Whether you see a shaman is already predetermined, it’s all in your luck: if you are lucky, you will, if not, you won’t.” That’s the verdict I am getting from a Russian woman in her late 30s – early 40s. We are talking on the shuttle bus from Incheon airport to downtown Seoul. She is doing a layover in Seoul on the way home to Vladivostok from Hokkaido, between which there are no direct flights. She is traveling with her husband, a Russian-Japanese translator. Hokkaido was the location of a business conference, followed by some relaxation time. They had been to Korea so many times by now that there was little left for them to see. Shamans had not been on their list, however, thus her prediction is typical Russian fatalism.

The lions of the Westin Chosun Hotel

A hotel concierge, the very model of a cheerful office girl, pauses pensively when I ask about shamans. She does not know if and how often shamans or mudang (무당) perform their rites on Mount Inwangsan, reportedly a hotbed of shamanism in Seoul. “People don’t like to publicize it,” she says confidentially, “if others find out that you deal with a mudang, you will be considered superstitious, and that may hurt your social standing and your career. Still, some order gut ceremonies, but keep quiet about it.”

Visiting the spirits of the Jongmyo Shrine

If shamans are on the fringes of today’s Korea, Jongmyo, the Royal Ancestral Shrine, is as central to the Korean identity, as they come. It’s the site dedicated to communicating with the spirits of deceased royalty (also a UNESCO site). Once a year, royal descendants make a huge production out of the ancient rites of honoring the royal spirits (did I mention that Korea is a republic?). You have to be accompanied by a guide to visit the shrine, and you are advised not to walk on certain paths, which are assigned exclusively to the spirits.

But this spirit/ancestor worship really has the same roots as the more plebeian shamanism. Who then but the Jongmyo guide would know about hot spirits happenings around the town? The lady in a traditional Korean dress makes a few calls on my behalf, but none of her contacts can provide any more certainty. Maybe if she were a royal and had a direct line to spirits…

St. Petersburg on the Han River

“If you want to see a gut, you simply need to find a reputable mudang and pay for a gut.”  This is the opinion of the platinum-blond owner of the Russian restaurant “Gostiny Dvor” (named after a famous shopping arcade in St. Petersburg, Russia, because it’s located near no less famous Dongdaemun Market in Seoul). She hails from Novosibirsk in Siberia and has never been to St. Petersburg, but has lived in Korea “more than half of her life.” Unlike other advisors, she puts her money where her mouth is: she goes online and finds a mudang with very good reviews (TripAdvisor?) near Mapo-yok Metro station. Note: for those interested in shamanic services, coordinates of that distinguished practitioner are listed in the appendix.

The road up

Having trudged through several royal enclaves of the Choseon Dynasty, each smaller than the Forbidden City, but not by much, I am starting my ascent of the formidable Mountain of the Benevolent King (that’s what Inwangsan stands for). The first view out of Dongnimmun subway station is of a typical busy Seoul thoroughfare, albeit less glamorous and clean than in the posh central districts. It’s overlooked by numerous 25-stories high buildings climbing up the slope of the mountain. Some are finished, some under construction. I can see how this building size became popular in China. Korea started the trend.

Gate to the holy mountain (it would be Inwangsanmen)

Now is the moment of truth. I will either descend the mountain full of pride, having captured the mysterious magic of a religion going back to Genghis Khan and before, or will skulk down in shame never to mention my failed escapade. Needless to say, I have not contacted the highly recommended professional from Mapo station, suspecting steep fees and significant lead times. The road is bending sharply up and up. It’s still asphalt, and I even see a truck gingerly coming down, yet ribbed rubber soles on my hands in addition to shoes would have come very handy to aid in climbing. 

On the road to Inwangsa – the Buddhist temple

 A traditional temple gate marks the next stretch of the path. The sign on the gate says: “Inwangsan Inwangsa.” The second word means “Temple of the Benevolent King.” It’s a Buddhist temple reportedly not far from the spot I am looking for – Guksadang, the shamanist shrine.

The road morphs into zigzagging flights of stairs between walls covered with Buddhist murals. Other than the topic, the whole feel is very Mediterranean, indeed Italian. Inwangsa, the Buddhist temple, comes into view in a minute or two. It’s very small – no comparison to major affairs like the famous Shaolin temple in Henan province, or anything you see in Beijing. It has a requisite prayer bell in a gazebo and a symbol of Three Treasures of Buddhism – three solid white circles inside an outline of a circle – on the pediment. The last time I saw this image at the Roerich Center in Moscow, where it was called Banner of Peace, proposed by artist Nikolay Roerich as a universal symbol of cultural heritage.

Guksadang – food for spirits…

Just a few more steps up and I am at my destination. A low-flung nondescript building with walls consisting mostly of shutters and screen doors in malachite green is the shrine to Mongmyeok the Great. The tiled roof, colorful eaves and a plaque with Hanja characters (堂師國 – Guksadang, written traditionally right to left) are in a typical Buddhist temple style.  A picture of god Mongmyeok is reportedly inside the shrine, but there does not seem to be a way to get in. I walk around and see some men’s shoes by the door at the far end and a broom, also malachite green. I manage to peek through the crack in the door, but all I see is a couple of men in black… watching TV! There are aquamarine bottles of some drink in front of the building, cardboard boxes of fruit, wooden ladders and even fire extinguishers.

… and a place for shoes

I walk around and see women’s shoes in front of the door on the opposite side of the building. At this point, two women arrive and head for that door. Gathering scraps of my Korean I ask if I too can enter and see the temple. The answer is no. Move on, folks, nothing to see here, nothing at all! Time to switch to plan B and try to at least see the rest of the mountain, if there is something left to see. The path between rocks narrows and comes to a metal, grasshopper-green fence. A big multicolored sign attached to the fence seems to prohibit something, but I don’t have time to decipher it and decide not to go beyond the fence.


Seonbawi – Zen Rock

Turning left I come to a staircase that leads up to a big black rock. This is Seonbawi – Zen Rock. Legend has it connected to the Buddhist Master Monk Muhak from the Choseon Dynasty founding time. Others maintain that it was a sacred shamanist site until relatively recently. Stone Buddhist lanterns flank the ascending stairs. The rock is fronted by a platform surrounded by a wall. There are prayer mats hanging on a rope, boxes for candles and offerings, and another sign, similar to the one I saw by the fence. The rock itself has a suggestive whimsical form that could be taken for two monks (Muhak and somebody else?), or a king and a tiger, symbols of Inwangsan. To me it looks like a cartoonish death in a hooded cape minus the scythe. 

The Tiger of Inwangsan

I keep going up. Another structure, similar in architecture to Guksadang, sits above Seonbawi. On its wall is a flame-breathing tiger that even Le Douanier Rousseau would envy. It also seems to be some kind of a shrine, but I don’t quite understand an explanation given by an old woman who is doing some chores at that site.

I look around. On the left, the ancient city wall is snaking down the mountain – the “Great Wall” of Korea.

Mount Namsan with N-Tower

Behind my back a trail is leading up to the summit, not seen from here. Just below is Seonbawi rock. Beyond, spreads a vast city valley filled to the brim with a jumble of almost skyscrapers. The brim, at the horizon edge, is Namsan – South Mountain – the original home of Mongmyeok the Great and his shrine, Guksadang. In 1925, the Japanese kicked it over to Inwangsan to make room for their own Shinto shrine. 

Now Namsan is capped with an 800-feet tall TV tower, surrounded by kitschy displays of eternal love, thanks to a K-pop TV drama – but that’s a story for another time. I am too tired to summit and decide to start my descent. At the bottom of the Seonbawi staircase I can go back to pass Guksadang again, or choose a different path back to the subway station.

Preparations for a gut

Suddenly, I hear sharp sounds from down below. They come from Guksadang, freezing me in my tracks. I haste to turn on my vintage Flip camera. The shrine is locked, just as before, but the drone of some wind instrument with a good helping of rhythmic cymbals and tom-toms, simultaneously chaotic and monotonous, announces that a gut is under way.  At the same time, men in black, the ones I spied through the door crack earlier, are scurrying around preparing a stand for some outdoor action. They lay out a carpet leading to a red flight of steps with two high poles at the top. A few female pilgrims walk by, bow towards the shrine and keep going. I am sure now that something more is about to happen.

The Gut!

Moments later the central door is flung open and a woman in a blue robe and a shorter bright red ceremonial garment on top of it steps out. The garment is covered with yellow and white images that I can’t clearly see, but some look like dragons. The hem ends in a wide multicolored fringe. This is the mudang. She is followed by a woman in a flowing angel-like white robe, but instead of a harp, the white woman holds a pair of cymbals. The mudang walks on the carpet to the red ladder, which is apparently the equivalent of an altar, climbs to the top and grips the poles. The cymbal player stays by the side of the ceremonial carpet and keeps the beat. Another woman in black, with prayerfully folded hands, faces the altar in reverent ecstasy. I am guessing that this is the “customer.” Assistants hand the shaman a fan, a string of bells and a white banner. Several other banners in various colors are kept at the ready. As the gut proceeds I happily keep the video rolling, while also managing to click my photo camera. Looking from above, I feel like that invisible spirit they are trying to reach.

Running down (by a little white Buddha)

A gust of chilly winter wind blows away the carpet. A man in black rushes to fix it. The mudang recites incantations now, and maybe because of that my luck as an invisible spirit runs out. One of the men in black has noticed me and motions to another to go up and stop my sacrilegious intrusion. I decide not to wait for a frank talk that is unlikely to be very friendly. My video stream ends in a frantic zigzag a la Blair Witch Project, and I flee down the opposite slope, back to a less exotic world, passing a white statue of Buddha, now familiar and homey.

I still have to cross the whole city to get to Namsan, “the Love Mountain,” before the sun sets.  When I later translate the warning signs I had photographed, I realize that they prohibit any shamanic prayers and activities in the Nature Park Inwangsan! They promise punishment to the full extent of the law for violators, and are issued by the administration of Jongno District in central Seoul. Was what I saw at Guksadang also illegal? Yet another mystery of an already mighty mysterious orient!

P.S. After returning to Boston I join a group of Boston Literary Translators. A Korean woman, member of the group who translates Korean poetry, views a video I made and explains to me that what I saw was not a gut, but rather an initiation ceremony, in which an older mudang consecrates a younger aspirant into this difficult and elite calling. Good to know!


Here is the contact information for the highly rated mudang, recommended by the Russian restaurant owner.

츼두령 – shaman’s name

윤닥신당 – shaman’s affiliation

마포역 – Mapo Station (Mapo-yok) area






Guksadang videos