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In Jeju dialect, the word halmang means both ‘goddess’ and ‘grandmother’, and rightly so. A matrifocal, egalitarian society — with a creation myth centered on a giant goddess embodied by the central volcano which created this island some 200,000 years ago — Jeju is unlike any other culture in the world.
Jeju women are known for their strength — of prowess, stamina, and will. From the famed haenyeo free-divers, a majority in their 60s and 70s, to those of the farms, businesses, and positions of social leadership, the women of this island are in many ways the mirror opposites of their mainland Confucian sisters. Through time they have internalized and projected the stories of the powerful and independent goddesses which are at the island’s cultural core.
The shamans of Jeju and their traditions have existed for millennia on this island, once a sovereignty known as Tamna. This magico-religious system is a heritage of the Altai and Tuvan regions of Eastern Siberia, Korea’s neighbor to the north. Active to this day, shamans serve as keepers of the people’s oral tradition, their myths and history, and as indigenous healers and spiritual counselors.
The island is not without its tragedies. Life through the centuries has been harsh, due to the nature of volcanic topography with its base of hardened yet porous lava, the windy climate of an island at sea, and the dangers of typhoons and other natural disasters. Repeated invasions and colonizations, cultural obliteration, war and politically-based violence, and poverty with high infant mortality, have added to the deep sorrow and stalwart character of the island’s people.
It is both nature and community life that have sustained the inhabitants of Jeju. In the context of hardship and geographic isolation, they have relied on one another in the form of mutual aid societies and communal village traditions, and paradoxically — or perhaps as a matter of survival — have forged a profound relationship with the very nature that brought difficulty.
The central volcano stands as a Great Mother archetype, the entire island representing Her body. The nearly 400 parasitic cones created by its multiple eruptions are viewed as familial, even sibling in nature, and female. The sea, despite the threat that it brings, provides a womb in which this island persona rests. The fierce winds for which the island is well-known cleanse the air, all the while energizing and inspiring its people. Above all, it is the stone — prolific and often in dramatic, even personified shapes — that is at the core and even comfort of every native Jeju person.
And yet, despite its uniqueness, Jeju shares common ground with the world’s cultures. Stories of the ‘18,000 deities’ for which the island is known identify far more goddesses than gods in the traditional pantheon; the term halmang literally indicates ‘ancestor’ as Jeju people have a very familial view of their gods – and indeed, include their ancestors in worship as do a majority of Asian cultures. Yet their stories carry themes, motifs and archetypal images repeated in the world’s mythologies, and integral to the human experience.
Enter, and meet Jeju Island through its goddesses. Serving to empower the island’s women throughout time and now the women of the world as well, at the same time bringing a sensitivity and egalitarian sensibility to the men who are fortunate enough to meet them, they are with us even today. You will find yourself enchanted by their stories, at once fascinated by this unusual island culture — and convinced that you have come home.
Welcome to Jeju, Island of Women.
—excerpted from Preface to Goddesses and Strong Jeju Women: Women’s Empowerment through Goddess Mythology, author Anne Hilty, ©2023
Living Mermaids? Archetypal Mothers? Asian Amazons? Sea Goddesses? Diving Grannies?
Jeju Island, South Korea, is home to the world’s famed breathhold- or free-diving women. Many may know of the ama pearl divers of Japan; in the past decade, however, Jeju haenyeo (a term that literally translates as ‘sea-girl’) have been gaining global recognition.
But who are they, really? How do we separate fact from fiction?
Read 10 international newspaper accounts, and you’ll get 11 versions of the story. Watch films and videos made about these women, and you’ll witness an all-too-frequently sensationalized mix of details meant to describe them. Are they really so mysterious?
Remarkable, without a doubt. Unique, yes, in their own way, and surely in regard to their greater cultural milieu, including both a tradition of shamanism stretching back millennia and a system of collective economics that remains relevant today. But they are not superhuman — though their prowess, professional skills, and knowledge of the marine ecosystem may indicate otherwise.
Alongside those impressive skills is an equally fascinating culture. Shamans, goddesses, a dragon god of the sea, mystical islands of afterlife, labor songs of longing, indigenous women’s cultural space, foods that tell stories, and a dialect unintelligible to the mainlanders — these are the ingredients of the rich and picturesque milieu in which the diving women of Jeju are situated. While Japan’s ama or the sama-bajau of various Southeast Asian countries also free-dive for marine products, it is the cultural features of Jeju haenyeo which render them truly distinct. UNESCO, in fact, agrees.
This is social cohesion at its finest: common purpose found in shared labor and collective economics, direct democracy by consensus, mutual aid and social inclusion, social enterprise through community engagement, animistic spiritual traditions that bind them to their land and sea, matrifocal mythology rich in strong goddess imagery, women’s cultural space in which to share work and daily life, and an insider language. These are the bonds that do not break — except, perhaps, in the face of mass trauma. For the island has also had its share of tragedy.
A living tradition even today, their lifestyle is all too soon destined to drift into the mists of time. Many of today’s haenyeo are indeed grannies of the sea, with almost none under the age of 50 and a large percentage in their 70s and beyond. After centuries of this practice, intergenerational transmission has all but ceased, and the remaining population is rapidly dwindling. Many preservation efforts have been initiated, but the young women seek higher education and corresponding employment at their diving mothers’ encouragement, and it is possible that the time is soon coming for this noble profession to be gently laid to its rest.
These women, and their countless antecedents, deserve to be honored and memorialized — and, perhaps in some new, 21st century form, for their work to continue. Come — meet these sea women, the Jeju haenyeo. Once you have, you will never forget them.
—excerpted from Introduction to Sisters at Sea: Jeju Haenyeo, author Anne Hilty, ©2023
In January of 2005, I set out on a remarkable journey: a completely new life.
I’d been a clinician and educator in New York for 15 years when I finished my doctoral degree…and turned forty. In a classic midlife reevaluation, I decided that, while my career to date had been rewarding, it was simply time for something new. I didn’t know what was next; academia was also pleasing but not ultimately fulfilling. I gathered my courage, closed my practice, resigned all positions, and offered myself on the altar of synchronicity. The pursuit of ‘global citizenship’ was the only goal I had, a rather abstract one at that.
As my practice had included an integration of traditional Asian medicine and transpersonal psychology, East Asia beckoned. But which country? I considered Taiwan, China, Japan, Thailand, and finally settled on South Korea.
“Why South Korea?” I was asked by many Koreans, and of course, by family and friends in the US. My answer evolved over time, and the longer I lived there, the more I determined that for my purpose as I’ve come to understand it — creative writing through the lens of cultural psychology – there was no better place to begin.
Why South Korea? A number of key cultural features intrigued me from the beginning, and to this day. Korea is one of the few remaining ‘intact’ cultures in the developed world, at the time of my arrival in 2005 still 99% Korean and a mere 1% foreign, primarily Asian. [As of December 2022, it is 3.4% foreign, and 8 of the top 10 origination countries are in Asia.] With heritage from Siberia and Mongolia, there also exists a 5-millennia practice of Shamanism, unusual in developed countries and a longstanding interest of mine. The rate of development in South Korea is unprecedented, from underdeveloped to developed status in a 30-year span and from UNICEF recipient to donor – and what does that level of stress do to a society? Despite the preference among Asian cultures for emotional reticence, Korea is known for being unusually expressive. Feminism and efforts toward gender equality are in a ‘third wave’ in the country, an area of society rapidly evolving. The people’s history of multi-layered trauma, particularly throughout the 20th century, and its ongoing process of recovery is of keen interest to this former trauma psychologist. Korea is also considered to be ‘the most Confucian’ of nations, has a form of Buddhism all its own, and has a long history of placing high value on education and scholarship. Equally intriguing is the equation of conflict and possible reunification between South and North, making for a fascinating political dynamic, especially for this pacifist – and how does living under the shadow of war for more than half a century affect a culture’s psyche?
I once told a Korean friend that I’d set out on a quest to meet all of the most interesting people in South Korea. She allowed that she didn’t think Koreans were all that interesting.
I beg to disagree.
These essays were written during that first (what I thought would be my only) year in Korea, a time when I fell in love with the country and its people. I spent 4 years in Seoul, and later another 6 years on Jeju Island. I’m still living abroad 18 years later, now in my fourth country, embracing the world, trying to be a good global citizen. Korea was first — and will always hold a place in my heart.
—excerpted from Preface to Love Letters to Korea: A Year in Seoul, author Anne Hilty, ©2023