Divination was a significant part of daily life in old Korea. For some, it still is. We predict you’ll get something out of this episode. 

Media suggestions: horror movies with fortune tellers –

The Dead Zone

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors

Don’t Look Now

The Psychic

Nightmare Alley (original and remake)

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Credits

Produced by Joe McPherson, Shawn Morrissey, and Mia Roncati

Music by Soraksan

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Notes

Divination was a significant, daily part of old Korea (same in most cultures); still prominent for many modern Koreans; saju remains popular 

Famous/legendary diviners

  • Yi Ji-ham (mid-16th century scholar)
    • Wrote Tojeong Bigyeol (Divinatory Secrets of Tojeong)
    • Used for New Years fortune-telling
      • Similar to I Ching – readers choose three trigrams, create combination
      • Combination corresponds to entry in book (type of paja-jeom/glyphomancy) 
      • Entry reads fortune 
      • Process repeated once a month
    • Legends surround Yi and family
  • Wonhyo
    • Beloved legendary Silla monk (7th century)
    • Foresaw landslide in China, used powers to save 1000 monks
    • Supernatural monk tales (including divination) called goseung-jeonseol (see: Divine Monks & Shapeshifters episode)
  • Muhak
    • Advisor to King Taejo (Yi Seong-gye)
    • Allegedly advised Gwanghwamun (not necessarily Geunjeong-jeon) to face east to bring long fortune to Yi dynasty (i.e. 1000 years); not doing so would lead to shorter kingdom (i.e. 500 years) 
  • Samyeong-dang (aka Yoojeong)
    • Buddhist monk
    • Predicted Imjin War
      • Built ten temples in Samgak-san divined to be linked to kingdom’s prosperity; we visit one on Seoul Hike
  • Jeong Yak-yong
    • Joseon philosopher (19th century)
    • Wrote many books on divination 
  • Folktale type specifically focused on divining called jeombok-dam
    • Tales often focus on importance of following divinations, highlighting belief 
  • Blind fortune teller motif 
    • Tales often include blind fortune-tellers; widely found ‘inner sight’ characters, though able to see the dead and communicate with divine beings 
    • Tale included in comic (‘The Truly Blind’), often transmitted as Hong Gye-gwan, sometimes not 

In old society

  • Discussed in various past episodes 
  • Pungsu-jiri (geomancy; linked to feng shui)
    • Important for divining auspicious locations (i.e. Seoul itself, including Blue House, homes, tombs, etc)
  • Gwangsang-gam (Office for the Observance of Natural Phenomena) 
    • Government office employing soothsayers (still recruited through civil exams)
    • Suggested many employees were blind (may not be true)
  • Fortune tellers and shamans widely sought for counsel
  • ‘Monthly divination’ important (dal-puri)
    • Soy beans put into well; removed next morning; if beans are swollen or not determined rainfall that month (specifically called kong-jeom) 
  •  Some signs used in common divination
    • Sun
      • Circle appearing around sun foretells major national misfortune
    • Moon
      • Clouds covering moon rising over horizon foretell great disaster 
    • Rain
      • Rain on Chuseok foretells poor barley harvest
      • Rain on day of one’s death foretells rain on every death anniversary 
    • Snow
      • Yellowish snow on New Year’s day foretells bountiful harvest
    • Rainbow
      • Rainbow over well is sign of divinity
    • From the sky
      • Meteor falling into sea foretells of poor catch 
    • Cows
      • First food cow eats on New Year’s day foretells good harvest of that food
    • Chickens
      • Roosters crowing in trees foretell drought
    • Crows/magpies
      • Crow cawing at night foretells disease/epidemic 
      • Magpies cawing very early in morning foretells good fortune 
    • Spiders 
      • Spider descending from ceiling in morning foretells good fortune; descending from night foretells bad fortune
    • Butterflies
      • Seeing a while butterfly in early spring foretells death of a parent
    • Owls
      • Owls hooting near home foretell tigers roaming nearby
    • Trees
      • Trees dying near a shrine foretell misfortune
      • A pine tree dying foretells national misfortune (red pines very important to Korean lore)
    • Dreams
      • Dreaming of rainstorms foretells disease
      • Dreaming of heavy snow/being trapped in snow/hit by snow foretells the death of parent
      • Dreaming of water foretells financial fortune (know someone who believes this) 
    • Through spirits/deities 
      • Possession could result in powers of divination (i.e. shamans, the blind, young boys)

In modern society

Divination still prominent in Korea today (research/poll results will be released with the episode); 

  • Some claim shamanism is feared and ridiculed – disagree, no more than any other religion in Korea (Korea is mostly irreligious); hardship of shamanism dates back 1000+ years;  shamanism/fortune telling has boomed (see: Interview with the Shaman episode) 
  • Saju (four pillars) remains popular
    • Four pillars: year, month, day, and hour
    • Visited saju reader once
    • Easy to find around Jongno; interestingly, tarot readers are common
    • Many meet readers for marital advice (compatibility, dates, etc.); ‘marital compatibility’ is called gungham
      • Mother-in-law met one for my gungham and wedding date
      • Gungham folktale (peddler and wife) 
    • Saju readers (and other fortune tellers) often advise changing one’s name to improve fortune
      • Poor marriage compatibility? Change your name
      • Friend’s daughter has health issues; fortune teller advised changing child’s name; family changed child’s name
  • Yoon Seok-yeol allegedly hired a shaman (Geonjin Beopsa) as a campaign advisor; denied this
  • Yoon allegedly met with many high profile fortune tellers 
  • Yoon moved presidential residence; rumours say he was informed to do so; most previous presidents experienced misfortune; Blue House suggested inauspicioius
  • Kim Geon-hee, Yoon’s wife, receives consultation from self-professed spiritual leader Mujeong 
  • Contemporary legends
    • Children conduct games (rituals to them); contact ghosts to divine the future, ask questions, etc. (see: Urban Legends episode