If you’ve spent any time touring the Korean countryside, you might have noticed a single gnarly old tree standing nearby a farm village here or there. These trees are actually called Dang-namu (당나무) and according to Korean folk religion (a form of Korean Shamanism) they are actually one of the village’s Dong-shin (동신), or guardian spirits. Often these ancient trees have stone alters at their base or a plaque, and occasionally you’ll see them in pairs, representing male and female deities.
Traditionally Dang-namu were venerated in simple, communal ceremonies by the villagers (as opposed to more elaborate rituals conducted by professional Mudang (무당), or Shamans). In modern times, the ways of the Korea’s folk religion have been on the wane, especially after the Korean Government’s intentional repression of such “superstitions” during the Saemaul Movement (새 마을 운동) in the 1970’s. Still, you’ll see occasionally that a villager has left an offering for the Dang-namu, or that they might be dressed in straw rope symbolic of veneration. How many are still worshiped by villagers in group rituals, I’d be curious to know.
There does seem to be a resurgence of popular interest in the sacred trees of Korea recently, thanks to a KBS program covering rumored supernatural events surrounding some of these Dang-namu. Particularly persistent are stories of ill fortune befalling those who harm or destroy a sacred tree, as is rumored to be the case of with government officials who cut down Dang-namu as part of the Samaeul policy of the 70’s and then suffered car wrecks or other such misfortunes.
Whether or not you believe these aged arbors to be capable of such malevolence, they still serve as palpable and living reminders of the folk traditions and beliefs of rural Korea. David Mason makes a brief mention of Dong-namu in his book “Spirit of the Mountians.” But if you’re interested in reading more, you can check out Ch.8 of “Korean Shamanistic Rituals” via Google Books or the article “Thoughts about Cultural Foundation” on Korean.net.