The Significance of Yŏngdŭng-kut

In the second lunar month, which can be around February and March, one might notice in Old Town Cheju City banners celebrating a ritual called “Ch’ilmŏri-tang Yŏngdŭng-kut” 칠머리당 영등굿 (Chilmeori Shrine Yeongdeung-gut). This is the Cheju City version of an island-wide annual ritual sequence dedicated to the Yŏngdŭng 영등 deities and Yowang 요왕 (Kr.: Yongwang 용왕, the Dragon King of the Sea). Ch’ilmŏri Shrine 칠머리당, which is now on the city park of Sarabong 사라봉 hill after being thrice moved due to urban development, is the shrine of Kŏnip-tong 건입동, a historic part of the old city.

The ritual sequence referred to collectively as “Yŏngdŭng-kut” comprises are two major rituals – the yowang maji (sea god welcoming rite) by the harbor and the songbyŏlche (sendoff ceremony) at Ch’ilmŏri Shrine. According to tradition, the Yŏngdŭng deities arrive first at Cheju City on the lunar 2/1 and then villages across the island until they return to Cheju City on 2/13 and depart Cheju completely by way of Udo island on 2/14. The ritual coincides with specific weather phenomena that occur around the second lunar month in which the winds drastically change and hence the reason that Yŏngdŭng is considered a wind deity. Before the advent of motor boats, most women divers and fishermen observed prohibitions against diving or fishing work during this season. The weather conditions on the maji (welcoming) day also indicate who else accompanies Yŏngdŭng – pleasant weather indicates that the daughter has come while foggy or rainy conditions indicate that the daughter-in-law has come and that Yŏngdŭng is feeling rather irritated. The Yŏngdŭng deities and Yowang visit the island for two weeks and shamans and worshipers entertain them with the hope that they provide blessings and bounty for the year.

Until the drastic changes to Cheju’s demographics and environment in the past thirty years, most villages observed the Yŏngdŭng rituals. Though still performed in much of eastern and northeastern Cheju, what scholars consider the most complete form is ironically in Cheju City (though of course such an assertion is problematic given that traditions constantly change whether scholars like it or not). Shamanic practice faded rather early in western Cheju and Sŏgwip’o area due to a larger Christian and Confucian influence in the former and tourism development in the latter. Many villages that still hold strong belief in Yŏngdŭng and Yowang may no longer hold the full kut 굿(shamanic ritual) but may instead opt for a Yowangje 요왕제 (Kr.: Yongwangje 용왕제, the Dragon King Rites), a Buddhist-shamanic ritual, as is the case in Chongdal-ri 종달리 for practical reasons as many of the original village shamans have died out. In other cases, the ritual merged with Chamsu-kut 잠수굿, the women divers’ ritual. Due to the revived attention since 2010 and the organizing capacities of the Ch’ilmŏri Shrine Yŏngdŭng-kut Preservation Society, some attempts are being made to restore the practice to parts of western Cheju, though based on the Ch’ilmŏri Shrine version.

Who and what is “Yŏngdŭng” can be somewhat confusing if one has a look at the actual historical material and fieldwork research. The most commonly told version of Yŏngdŭng’s myth (and one that I collected in Sinch’ŏn-ri in southeast Cheju) is as follows in abridged form: a group of Cheju sailors found themselves suddenly blown far off course and arrive at a dangerous island of monsters. They encounter a deity called “Yŏngdŭng,” who instructs them to recite a chant to Kwanŭm Posal 관음 보살 (Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara) in order to leave the island’s waters and return to Cheju. When they are far out into sea and think they are safe, they stop their chanting and are blown back to the island. Yŏngdŭng, knowing that this would be the case, offers to directly assist them in returning, provided that Cheju islanders promise to throw an annual ritual feast.

Multiple versions of the myth exist and this is where things can get ambiguous. Although “Yŏngdŭng” is referred to specifically as “Yŏngdŭng Halmang” 영등할망 these days in public based on the Ch’ilmŏri Shrine version, different villages actually had different ways of addressing the deity. In some versions, as is the case in Sinch’ŏn 신천 and Chongdal 종달 where I conducted research as well as in Sinyang 신양 (Tangherlini and Park 1990), “Yŏngdŭng” is “Yŏngdŭng Harŭbang”  영등하르방 (Grandfather Yŏngdŭng). In other versions, Yŏngdŭng is a defied ancient Chinese figure from the Tang Dynasty, a grandmother-grandfather pair, or seven deities of seven divine imperial rankings (Mun MB 1996). Some versions also indicate Yŏngdŭng as being a deity of “Kangnam Ch’ŏnjaguk” (an old Cheju term referring to ancient China). What is consistent in all, however, is that Yŏngdŭng is a sort of wind deity and protector of sailors who comes from a foreign land. Taking into account the myth’s element’s one might notice striking parallels with the worship of Matsu (Mazu) in Fujian Province of China and Taiwan. And given that the old name for China in Cheju specifically refers to the Jiangnan region, which might reference Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, one might hypothesize that Yŏngdŭng has its origins during the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392), a contemporary of Song and a period in which T’amna Cheju had engaged in some form of maritime trade. In any case, “Yŏngdŭng-kut” has a long history and a diverse array of practices. That Yŏngdŭng was historically celebrated across the island also served as an informal means to ritually re-articulate Cheju Island solidarity.


References:

Mun Mubŏng. 1996. “Chejudo-ŭi Yŏngdŭng-kut,” Pigyo minsokhak 13, pp.241-258.

_________. 2005. Param-ŭi ch’ukje Ch’ilmŏri-tang Yŏngdŭng-kut. Seoul: Golden Egg Publishing.

Tangherlini, Timothy R. and So Yŏng Park. 1990. “The comings and goings of a Korean grandfather: the Yŏngdŭng-kut sequence of a Cheju Island village,” Korean studies 14: 84-97.

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