(Photo Essay 2) ‘Gaeyang Halmi, the Sea Goddess of Korea’ by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang

Part II: The Lost Iconography of Gaeyang Halmi

We visited the Suseong Shrine a second time on July 11, 2012. I looked inside the Shrine wherein a shaman ritual was being performed by a Mudang (Korean Shaman)[i] and her assistants. The Mudang in colorful ritual outfit appeared to console her female client on behalf of the spirit. The ritual continued another hour or so and we waited outside until she finished her performance.

Mansin Gim Sunim giving a consultation to her client, photo by Helen Hwang
Mansin Gim Sunim, photo by Helen Hwang
Client conversing with Mansin Gim Sunim, photo by Helen Hwang

We had come here on the day of arrival in Jungmak-dong, Buan. The shrine was locked, apparently not being in use. On our second visit, the shrine was packed with four people and their instruments and equipment. It was so compact that it left no room for another person to sit; however, it was pumping up the sober energy. In fact, I have no recollection of which musical instruments were being played inside the shrine. Nonetheless, it feels like that I was hearing the sharp and high banging of the kkwaenggwari (gong) accompanied by the janggu (hourglass drum) rhythm [symbolizing the sound of thunder and rain respectively]. The “musical” sound that I heard shook off the debris of ordinary thoughts and took me to the Other Side of Reality. I began to see things clearly the way they are. I was stepping into the history of this place that I was going to discover.

View from the Suseong Shrine, Buan, photo by Helen Hwang
Rice offering, photo by Helen Hwang
Boat altar, Suseong Shrine, photo by Hwang Sungup
Votive offerings outside the Suseong Shrine, photo by Helen Hwang
Statue doll in the Suseong Shrine, photo by Hwang Sungup
Statue doll, photo by Hwang Sungup

The spiritual power of the place drew people from near and far. The invitation was there to be felt. Another couple sat and prayed in silence in an outdoor open hut, while another Mudang with her troupe came by in a car and talked to us at the entrance.

Prayers at outdoor hut, Suseong Shrine, photo by Helen Hwang
Mansin talking to the research team, photo by Hwang Sungup
Shrine manager talking to the research team, photo by Helen Hwang
Choi Doan, male Mansin-to-be, on the left, talking to the research team, photo by Helen Hwang

Beneath the tranquility of the surrounding nature lay a busy traffic of movements seen and unseen. The wind was blowing, the air intermixing, and the sea surging without halt. The Mudang‘s music ignited the flame of an awakening force. Whirling around the small shrine, the Mudang’s invocation escaped to the cliff-hill, the seashore, and the Yellow Sea unfolding to the horizon.

Surrounding view from Suseong Shrine, photo by Helen Hwang
Coastal view from Suseong Shrine, photo by Helen Hwang
View from Suseong Shrine, photo by Hwang Sungup
Surrounding coast, Suseong Shrine, photo by Hwang Sungup
Surrounding view, Jungmak-dong, Buan, photo by Helen Hwang

The extant shrine commemorates the history of Gaeyang Halmi tradition for modern visitors. The shrine paintings hung on the wall are the things that certainly cause curiosity or some sort of fetishism from people. However, aren’t they supposed to represent the divine power of Gaeyang Halmi? No-one seems to bother questioning that these modern paintings flamboyant in outlook are mute in telling what really has happened to the culture of Gaeyang Halmi. Only a few recognize the bygone splendid history of Gaeyang Halmi tradition. The sacred iconography is rendered as a mere object to be used.

Yes, that was exactly what our lore narrators told us in their own words. A strong sense of nostalgia permeated in their stories. The new paintings, replicas of the original five paintings, are not the same as the original ones. Among the original five, there was a solo painting of Gaeyang Halmi lost in the wake of history to this day. She, clad in white Korean traditional dress, was depicted as fearsome, standing upright holding a staff in her hand. Looking piercingly at her viewer, I imagined. Ms. Jeong Si-Geum repeatedly exclaimed, “She [Gaeyang Halmi] looked overwhelmingly powerful!” “However, that [the painting of Her] is gone now!” added Ms. Jeong. Ms. Jeong continued to tell that Gaeyang Halmi was so adamant that She expressed dislike of the entrance of certain visitors to the shrine. The Mudang was Her spokesperson.

Wall paintings of Gaeyang Halmi with her eight  daughters and Mountain God, photo by Helen Hwang
Wall painting of Eight Female Transcendants/Immortals, photo by Helen Hwang
Wall painting of Sea God, photo by Helen Hwang
Wall paintings of Mountain God, Eight Transdentants/Immortals, and General Gwanu, photo by Hwang Sungup

By Her side, there used to be the painting of Gwanu [Guan Yu (?-219) was a general during the Three Kingdoms period of China who was posthumously deified in Chinese folk tradition. He served the warlord Liu Bei who later established the state Shu Han and became the first emperor during the late Eastern Han Dynasty. He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the Collapse of the Han Dynasty.] wielding an elongated sword or a spear, as if he was guarding Gaeyang Halmi. Aha, now I can connect this with the idea of why Mudangs favorably invoke the spirit of famous generals during their rituals! The military (male) generals escalate or embody the fierceness of the Goddess!

The other three original paintings were Gaeyang Halmi with her eight daughters; Eight Immortals/Transcendants; and Mountain God.  All original paintings are replicated or replaced by corresponding ones in modern times with the exception of the solo painting of Gaeyang Halmi. [I recall that Mr. Jeong mentioned that the original four paintings are kept in the government hall of the County and are only displayed on the day of annual ritual ceremony.] It is currently replaced by the painting of a male Sea God! This is an overt cultural fraud!

Modern replicas create a look of one big happy family of Gaeyang Halmi’s pantheon. Modern Koreans may be content with the current troupe of characters presented in the paintings. However, they are not told the truth. They are spared from facing the ugly head of a patriarchal commander who can no longer allow the supreme divinity of Gaeyang Halmi to be known to the public. Where Gaeyang Halmi’s fierceness is lost, the (male) General, the (male) Mountain God, and the (male) Sea God appear to be supreme! Without it, we can’t know what patriarchy has done to the Female Divine! Dethronement has been undertaken in front of our wide-open eyes. (To be continued in Part III.)

Salpuri (dance of exorcism)

( Read Part I or Part III)


[i] A Mudang is also called Mansin (Ten Thousand Spirits) because the former often carries a derogatory meaning.