In Jeju, ‘halmang-dang’ or goddess shrines dot the island.
The word ‘halmang’ can mean both ‘goddess’ and ‘grandmother’ or ‘old woman’ — the veneration of an elder female, perhaps reminiscent of the clan structure.
The shamanistic shrines of the Korean mainland are typically perceived as ghost-filled haunts, inspiring a certain measure of fear and avoidance except for those times of ritual during which the shaman serves as mediator. Jeju shrines, in contrast, are sites of comfort regularly visited, as Jeju people relate to their deities in a familial way.
One must arrive early, however. Goddesses, like all women of Jeju, are hard-working, and shortly after sunrise, they have already left their shrines in order to travel about the island and tend to their duties.
Those who cannot visit the shrine so early have an alternative: they carry a white sheet of paper close to their hearts, on which they have superimposed their concerns or desires — either literally or metaphorically — and, after saying prayers and providing offerings to the goddess, leave the paper tucked in a cleft of the central tree or rock altar.
The halmang-dang typically consists of such an altar and tree, surrounded by a low stone wall. Multi-colored ribbons are tied to the tree, and food offerings left on the altar along with lit candles and incense, to attract and please the resident deities.
Those by the sea, referred to as ‘haesin-dang’ or ‘seaside spirit-shrines,’ may not have a tree but altar only, often with an inner compartment to keep the paper prayers dry. While shamans facilitate public rituals, supplicants are permitted to visit the shrine on certain days of each month as needed.
Often, baring one’s soul to ‘Grandma’ in this way is sufficient. By releasing the burden within, it is said, the answers — or perhaps simple comfort — can take its place.