(2014 Mago Pilgrimage Report 1) Sweat Lodge in Gyodong, Ganghwa Islands by Helen Hwang

Sweat lodge, Gyodong in Ganghwa Islands
Sweat lodge, Gyodong in Ganghwa Islands

[Author’s Note: 2014 Mago Pilgrimage to Korea (Oct. 7-Oct. 20) was participated by a culturally mixed group of pilgrims from the U.S. Australia, and Korea. Among non-Koreans were Dr. Glenys Livingstone (co-facilitator), Mr. Robert (Taffy) Seaborne, and Ms. Rosemary Mattingly. For details, read 2014 Mago Pilgrimage. View the video on our visit to Ganghwa Islands by Robert (Taffy) Seaborne.]


2014 Mago Pilgrimage granted me ever unfolding revelations. The first of them that I would like to mention concerned the sweat lodge called Hanjeung-mak (汗蒸幕, Chamber of chill and steam).[1] Until we visited the traditional sweat lodge in Gyodong, Ganghwa Island, it did not occur to me that the origin of its modern variations[2] has to do with the rebirthing experience in the Womb of Mago. (Here Mago means the Great Goddess or the Primordial Mother.)


Photo by Robert Seaborne
Photo by Robert Seaborne
Photo by Robert Seaborne
Photo by Robert Seaborne








Arranged by Ms. Youngai Kim, coordinator for the program of Gyodong, Peace Island, we arrived at a dome-shaped structure located on a small flat area in the wooded ravine. Made from natural stone-bricks, it looked rather humble, neither overwhelming in size nor ornate in style, but friendly and familiar. It was blended with the surroundings of the gentle valley so well that one may think it was part of nature. A stream running by its side added the simple beauty of the natural complex.


While our guide, Mr. Gichul Han, president of the council for the development of Gyodong’s history and culture, was explaining how it came to be restored in recent years, my eyes scanned the information written in the sign board. It read that, among others, the facility of Hanjeung-mak was established as part of the medical system in the 15th century. I later looked for more data to find out the following: Its government control appears to have begun during the reign of King Sejong (1418-1450) of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). By then, Buddhist monks and medical doctors were in charge of Hanjeung-so (Office of chill and steam) in the capital city. It is also noted that the Three Great Queens (三大妃, king’s mother, paternal grandmother, and great-grandmother) went to Gyeongbok Palace to use the sweat lodge. That there was a sweat lodge in Gyeongbok Palace, the principal palace of the Joseon dynasty, and that the Three Queens of the royal house used it speak in volumes about its significance to the state and royal women of the court. I sense that the convention was likely first instated by the queens in a remote time. Normally, a facility invented by royalty spread to the commoners not the other way around. That said, it is assessed that the traditional sweat lodge was used by people across social statues and sex/gender differences including monks and medical doctors.


Author, sweat lodge, gyodong. Photo by Youngai Kim
Author, sweat lodge, Gyodong. Photo by Youngai Kim

We were about to see the Ganghwa version of Joseon dynasty’s sweat lodge! We dashed down for a close look. The surface of stone-bricks was plastered with yellow loess (黃土, hwangto). Behold! There was a small opening for entrance made into the ground. In order to enter it, one needed to squat down, lower the head, and take crawl-like steps. It was a reversing of the passage in the birth canal that everyone passed at birth. Entering it was a re-enactment of re-turning to Mago’s Womb Time/Space, I later gasped. It was designed to be the ritual! Others followed after me. Inside was a dark and empty space wherein about 6-10 people could sit in a circle. My heart was pounding! I, as director of the pilgrimage, broke the silence and began the conversation about its possible uses for women. Dr. Glenys Livingstone, co-facilitator, and others commented with excitements. We who came from different continents were re-membering the experience of ancient womb time/space that had fallen into oblivion for so long!


Women may have been of a menstruation circle, as they likely shared closeness with each other inside the womb-time chamber located in nature. They may have been given an utterly otherworldly experience, being united with each other, nature, and the moon that would have chimed in from outside. Most of all, they may have called out to Mago Halmi (Goddess/Grandmother) for healing and help! The sound of our conversations echoed in my mind.


Our guide continued to inform that it was used by local women up until 1970s. It was a women only facility. He added that its construction may have been in the late Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Under Confucian culture–Korea having been thoroughly Confucianized for nearly four centuries after the middle period of the Joseon dynasty–Hanjeung-mak, no doubt, fell to a convention of low culture, that is, for women only.


We were told that women gathered and burnt the dried branches of the pine tree inside to heat the space. The heated air worked on the stone-bricks and yellow loess of the wall so that the natural elements oozed out from them for the benefit of people. (Korean modern sauna facilities craft such effectiveness to enhance marketability.) Once the fire was exhausted, women entered inside with green pine twigs to use as a sitting pillow. (Pine trees are so favored by Koreans even to this day and proved of food and medicinal effectiveness.)


Hanjeung-mak, Gyodong, before restoration.
Hanjeung-mak, Gyodong, before restoration.

There was more to the story: Women sang or rather chanted. They sang songs under the leader’s direction. Mr. Han informed that they timed for the length of “steam” time by singing choruses. Then, they went outside to the stream and bathed for the chill. In my view, it is not just the timing that they may have aimed by singing. The acoustic harmony that they made together had a healing power. It was the sonic balance that reached certain frequencies worked in them and brought them back to Mago’s Womb Time/Space. Chakras may open and one may begin to see things with the original perspective! Through the sound effect they were able to re-gain the state of primordial wholeness. Individuals would be cured, cleaned, and rejuvenated in their body and mind.


That they sang inside the sweat lodge was not haphazard. It is not because, I learned later, sweat lodges from around the world are known for the ceremonies with songs and prayers. It was precisely because the musical element (acoustic harmony) is the key to the Magoist cosmogony. Everything was self-born through the movement of cosmic music in the beginning, says the Budoji, principal text of Magoism. It is the sonic balance that characterizes the primordial home of Mago Stronghold (Earth). Singing would be an indispensable component of the womb time/space experience for ancient Magoists.


It took a while for me to grasp that Hanjeung-mak is an ancient gynocentric invention designed to actualize the mandate of Magoists, re-turn to Mago’s origin (麻姑複本, Mago bokbon). It is a Magoist socio-cultural-ritualistic apparatus that channels individuals to have the first-hand experience of the Womb Time/Space of the Great Goddess. As a temporal station, it bridges people from where they are in time to their ancestral home in the beginning, the Womb of the Great Goddess. In short, Hanjeung-mak is a temporal symbolic space for Mago’s primordial paradise, Her Womb. One can re-turn to one’s primordial home wherever one is at in time! Her Womb is never thought to be a thing of the past or fiction. It is the reality that is ever present to those who enter.


The very architect and use of Hanjeung-mak in a traditional way embody the crux of the Magoist cosmogony. The story of Mago’s beginning needs to be told for us to know the kinship of all peoples as Her descendants. The Great Goddess is the blueprint of family trees for all beings. Without Her, earthlings lose the sight of their co-relations. Hanjeung-mak modeled as the womb of the Great Goddess hosts one’s home-coming journey. That is how Mago’s primordial home is revealed to us. Cure and healing are only a byproduct of being in Her Womb Time/Space.


A 12th century sheela na gig on the church at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England. Source
A 12th century sheela na gig on the church at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England. Source

On behalf ancient Magoists, I would count that Hanjeung-mak, alongside the ancient bell of Korea about which I have written elsewhere, is one of the ingenious Magoist legacies given to the world. Similar to the ancient Korean bells cast in the shape of female impregnated belly,[3] it is a multi-dimensional device to awaken people to the reality of the Great Goddess. It is a sublime gynoncentric heritage that is spiritual, social, cultural, intelligent, aesthetic, and healing at once. Its purpose is soteriological, helping people experience the rebirth in Her Womb. It is a multi-faceted deployment of the relief of Sheela na gig.

[1] The character “mak” in hanjeung-mak literally means a tent. However, to distinguish it from the modern day tent, I translated it “chamber.”

[2] I would say that modern Korean style saunas (alias jjimjil-bang), popular almost worldwide today, are a secularized convention of traditional hanjeung-mak.

[3] See my ongoing essay on Korean bells. Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, “Ancient Korean bells and Magoism” in [http://magoism.net/2013/01/11/bell-essay-ancient-korean-bells-and-magoism-part-1-by-helen-hwang/]


Read Meet Mago Contributor Helen Hwang, Ph.D.


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