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Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF

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9780824833985
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Thirty years ago, anthropologist Laurel Kendall did intensive fieldwork among South Korea’s (mostly female) shamans and their clients as a reflection of village women’s lives. In the intervening decades, South Korea experienced an unprecedented economic, social, political, and material transformation and Korean villages all but disappeared. And the shamans? Kendall attests that they not only persist but are very much a part of South Korean modernity.

This enlightening and entertaining study of contemporary Korean shamanism makes the case for the dynamism of popular religious practice, the creativity of those we call shamans, and the necessity of writing about them in the present tense. Shamans thrive in South Korea’s high-rise cities, working with clients who are largely middle class and technologically sophisticated. Emphasizing the shaman’s work as open and mutable, Kendall describes how gods and ancestors articulate the changing concerns of clients and how the ritual fame of these transactions has itself been transformed by urban sprawl, private cars, and zealous Christian proselytizing.

For most of the last century Korean shamans were reviled as practitioners of antimodern superstition; today they are nostalgically celebrated icons of a vanished rural world. Such superstition and tradition occupy flip sides of modernity’s coin―the one by confuting, the other by obscuring, the beating heart of shamanic practice. Kendall offers a lively account of shamans, who once ministered to the domestic crises of farmers, as they address the anxieties of entrepreneurs whose dreams of wealth are matched by their omnipresent fears of ruin. Money and access to foreign goods provoke moral dilemmas about getting and spending; shamanic rituals express these through the longings of the dead and the playful antics of greedy gods, some of whom have acquired a taste for imported whiskey.

Author Laurel Kendall is Curator in charge of Asian Ethnographic Collections in the Division of Anthropology

Publisher: University of Hawaii Press
Publishing Date: September, 2009
Softcover: 296 pages