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Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion

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HONOLULU: UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI‘I PRESS, 2009
206 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0824833435, HARDBACK

Reviewed by Mary E. Connor

For thirty years, anthropologist Laurel Kendall has completed extensive fieldwork among Korean shamans. In Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF, Kendall skillfully examines the role of shamanism in contemporary Korea’s popular culture. Although many regard Shamanism as an anachronistic remnant of the past, the author explains how Korea’s oldest religion has adapted itself to changing circumstances, why it is thriving in South Korea, and how it plays a significant role in alleviating anxiety in the modern world.

In the past, shamans were treated as outcasts, but Kendall describes how they are now treated with greater respect and even elevated as national icons. She details performances of the kut. The kut is a ceremony where shamans have traditionally performed rituals in rural communities for securing good luck, curing a physical or mental illness, or pacifying a deceased spirit. Now the kut has been recalibrated to acquire wealth, improve social status, and respond to the anxieties created by fluctuations in the market economy of a highly urbanized industrial society.

Kendall describes at some length the impact of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the resulting actions of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) that were seen as an act of national humiliation, and how this era impacted the world of the shaman. In describing the challenges of the shaman, she acknowledges that major economic and political events can be so all-encompassing as to render “the gods mute and impotent—at least for a time” and are beyond the shaman’s powers (150). Korean shamans are typically reluctant to divine beyond the fortunes of their client’s families. However, she notes that the kut, offerings to the gods, and “exorcisms that expel ominous forces blunt the worst effects of a bad horoscope.”

Kendall should be commended for her extensive research, careful documentation, and clarity of writing. Her book is highly recommended for classes in Korean studies, comparative religion, and Asian studies.

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