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Reviewed by:
  • Shamanic Worlds of Korea and Northeast Asia
  • Peter Knecht
Shamanic Worlds of Korea and Northeast Asia. Korean Studies Series No. 45. By Daniel A. Kister, Paju: Jimoondang, 2010, xviii + 324p.

By training Kister is a specialist in comparative literature who taught for many years in Korea, where he became attracted to the worlds and rituals of shamans. The present volume, a collection of revised articles published in various places since the late 1980s, is a document to his empathetic interest and his ability for perspicuous observation and imaginative interpretation. The collection is a comparative study in a double sense: 1) rituals (kut) of Korean shamans are compared with shamanic rituals in other areas of East Asia so as to highlight the specific nature of these rituals, but especially that of kut; 2) in the analysis of the rituals insights from other fields such as folklore and anthropology are applied, but the main inspiration comes from theater theory, especially the theory of Absurdist Theater.

Differing from the approach of many students of shamanic rituals, Kister does not concentrate on the state of mind of the shaman performing a rite. Instead, he sets his eyes on the audience, in particular on the participants for whom a rite is performed and their response to the shaman’s actions. In other words, he relies on what can actually be observed by a non-involved person like a researcher, rather than on explanations of the action elicited either from a shaman or from an involved participant. From this standpoint, the question of whether or not the shaman acts in a state of trance is not of primary interest. More important are the questions of how the participants become involved in a ritual, what it means, and what it is expected to do for them. Kister suggests that a researcher’s empathy for the people involved is of advantage for the understanding of what is happening. With this attitude he focuses his discussion on a rite’s observable elements that can and need to be taken into account when trying to understand what a ritual may mean for its participants. First, he says, one needs to observe the action of a rite so as to grasp its form and structure. This is to say, the observer has to pay attention to a rite’s theatrical aspects, such as gestures. Second, one needs to know what the ritual action means in view of the people’s beliefs about gods or spirits and their actions. And third, one has to pay attention to how participants react in ratifying the beliefs as relevant for their personal situation. This is the ritual’s dramatic [End Page 157] aspect which yields a cathartic effect on the part of the participant and prompts the person to recognize the nature of the problem for whose solution the rite is held. It encourages a change of mind which frees the person from the anxieties that are the reason for the ritual.

Kister argues that in a shamanic rite reciprocal movements in two opposite directions can be identified. One is a movement from the gods or spirits to the human, the other is a reversed movement in the opposite direction from a human toward the gods or spirits. In both the shaman functions as mediator, yet Kister’s main concern is not the shaman but the response of the human participant in whose behalf the ritual is held. In the course of the ritual performed in order to be relieved from the influence of an evil power the participant acknowledges that power and his/her own attitude. As a result, the participant can expect the rite to be successful, yet the success is not automatic and not readily identified. It is at first virtual, i.e., it is a possibility in the sense that for it to become a recognized fact depends on how a person individually interprets his/her actual situation. In other words, for a rite to be successful it needs the active cooperation and interaction of the one who has it performed. However, a rite also employs gestures and images that strongly engage the mind of the participants. Kister distinguishes...


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