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Asia/Pacific - North/South Korea - Native Religions

Charms, Talismans Still Have Place in Contemporary Korean Society
by Kim Tae-jong ("The Korea Times," February 10, 2004)

Instead of disappearing into the backyard of high technology and an information-driven society, Korean shamanism still survives. Though a bit changed by the new environment, charms are one of the shaman legacies we still use and appreciate.

Called ``pujok’’ here, charms have been long believed to bring to possessors good luck and drive away evil sprits from them.

``When pujok first developed in primitive religion, people seemed to use it only in the sense of avoiding bad luck or serious illnesses,’’ Yang Jong-sung, senior curator at the National Folk Museum of Korean, said. ``Then, people gradually tried to reflect their own desires onto it.’’

According to the shamanism specialist, the origin of charms in Korea dates back to a primitive age when people drew pictures of animals, the sun and moon on the walls of caves or on the surface of rocks in prayer to supernatural powers.

Every society has a variety of charms, which have developed differently, reflecting the hopes of those people. Ancient charms have also been influenced externally by other religions or mixed with the various traditions of each society, which is exemplified in their different shapes, materials and purposes.

Especially, in January, before the first full moon of the year by the lunar calendar, the most common traditional practices were to employ charms to ward off the bad spirits that may come in the new year or to pray for good luck for the year,’’ Yang said.

Depending on the charm’s meaning or purpose, people paste a talisman to the wall of their house, put it under their pillow, carry it in their pocket or sew it in their clothing.

People usually employ a talisman from a qualified fortuneteller, monk or shaman to specially prepare it. The talisman makers usually write special characters or draw images on a small sheet of yellow or white mulberry paper with red ink.

``Sometimes talisman makers also carve a small piece of wood for the same purpose. And the red ink is usually made from cinnabar, but they also used the blood of chickens or white horses in the past. A variety of charms can be considered works of art, as well,’’ Yang said.

The meanings of charms are various, depending on what kinds of characters or images are in the charms. Each animal, symbol or character in talismans has its own meaning and purpose.

``For example, talismans that include three hawks are believed to prevent all three of the major destructive calamities: natural disasters, war and famine. The three hawks in the charm are guardian symbols that drive away the evil spirits from the three directions in the high sky,’’ Yang explained.

For those who pray for good luck, special characters for each purpose are written on talismans. ``Nowadays, many people want to have charms for good luck, especially to enter a privileged university or get a good job. Knowing what kinds of talisman are popular, you can see what the society suffers from, in a way,’’ Yang said.

Yang added, ``Though some might think that expensive charms are sure to bring good luck, talismans are nothing but pieces of paper without the effort of the possessor to improve his or her situation.’’

He also pointed out that because people make their own luck by their attitude to life, charms will help people have peace of mind or confidence.