Bujeok: Korean paper talismans


Korean talismans are varied and original, but without a doubt, due to the rise of Western viewing of Korean audiovisual productions, one of the most striking is the bujeok. The bujeok (부적, literally, "talisman") basically consists of a strip of yellow paper - a traditional Korean paper called hanji - on which one writes with red ink. Yellow in Korean culture is a color that scares away evil spirits, and red symbolizes blood, fire, life, luck... although, on the other hand, there is also the taboo of not writing one's own names with this color, since that is how the names of the deceased were written. The bujeok is inserted into the yeongbu (靈符), spiritual talismans.

The use of Bujeok seems to be found in the second millennium BC, judging by its mention in the medieval Korean texts, Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms of Korea), and is inserted within traditional shamanism. Although in China and Japan shamanism was strongly influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, Korea knew how to preserve its local traditions and conveniently isolate some of its oldest rites. However, despite what people try to say, bujeok is not a native practice, and in fact it evolved a lot over time. In the Goreyo era (918-1392) 10 types of bujeok were registered, but in the Joseon era (1392-1897) there were already 76 different types, with all their consequent possibilities. Although in the texts bujeok seems to be an exclusive preparation of Buddhist shamans and priests for the high nobility, archaeological remains and collective memory have shown that its use was extended to all social strata. It seems that the origin of the Bujeok talisman is found in shamanic practices of certain Chinese Taoist sectors. It basically consisted of the inscription of esoteric characters inside a box, which could be drawn or engraved on walls, doors, fences or clothing, or on stones conveniently placed at the entrances to certain lands. These inscriptions were intended to protect houses, property and people from the influence of evil spirits, or to enclose them so that they could not walk beyond the marks. These esoteric marks and symbols even today continue to be written in the so-called classical or literary Chinese. The paper format seemed the most appropriate for the court, however, tracing or copying the symbols on other materials seems to have been considered equally effective.

Bujeok have ended up being useful for practically everything. Rather than being talismans (active), they are understood as amulets (passive), and many people decide to carry a small bujeok in their pocket, purse, purse, or in their mobile phone case. They are also common in seasonal celebrations or important dates, as will be seen below, such as New Year's or an end-of-year exam. They serve both abstract and concrete requests, both for common purposes and personal purposes. They are placed in tombs and in jewelry boxes, for military service and for the first day of school: in other words, they are an example of practical magic for use in any circumstance. Generally, there are key symbols, which are repeated due to their tradition and meaning, and others that the shaman who writes the bujeok can include because they have been visualized in a trance, that is, inspired writing, or because they are a magical seal developed in exclusive for a specific situation or person. These seals often include circumferences, or geometric shapes that only the shaman who made them is able to interpret. However, there are also "standardized" forms of lines, patterns, which have a magical meaning and power generally recognized by shamans and eastern esoteric practitioners: the case of rings, the most common being yeon-hwan (연우 환), that represent infinite cycles, or also, the closure and end of a stage or objective.

On the other hand, along with traditional Chinese writing, calligrams can be found, that is, spellings and ideograms are used to recreate a scene in relation to the request: an example of this could be a request to find a partner or to reach a goal. happy marriage, where the chosen ideograms tend to be symmetrical, or to be represented in pairs, two by two, or in a balanced and ordered set. Another example could be those intended for protection, where the particularity of oriental writing is used to represent arches, bridges and homes in which the requested wishes are inserted, or ties, if what is sought is to strengthen a relationship or achieve an objective. . Some scholars have believed to identify Sanskrit spelling among the bujeok images, and it would not be strange, given the Buddhist influence, although it has not turned out to be the most common.

The most common pure symbols are the falcon with three heads and one leg, which warns of the three greatest evils, understood as hunger, war and plague, or natural disasters caused by rain, fire and wind. These talismans against the three evils are called samjaebu. The representation of the tiger is also common, a symbol of power and strength, which wards off negative energies. The dragon is recurring for its wisdom, longevity and power in all aspects of life. The turtle throughout the East is a positive symbol, of longevity, of protection. Birds, especially sparrows or migratory birds, represent freedom, change, but also company and friendship. The bat, the magpie, the crows and the pig, unlike in the West, represent abundance and good fortune. Some of these animals have that meaning because of folklore, but others have a curious background, such as the fact that the ideogram for "bat" is pronounced the same as that for "good luck."

In the past, it was common, along with the preparation of these amulets (engraved in wood or stone or written on paper), to take certain foods that were also considered magical, such as honey or red beans, for greater effectiveness. Even if it was an illness, there are records that confirm how some individuals came to eat or drink the ashes of this type of talismans, considering that this way their magic would penetrate their bodies.

Bujeok can be named for their holiday or for their functions. Among those of festivities, the Dano-bujeok stands out, or Dano Day Talisman, that is, the celebration of the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, a day where it is believed that Yang energy is at its maximum exponent, and that therefore Therefore, it is easier to capture and take advantage of. Or the Dongjibujeok, the talisman of the winter solstice, which featured the inversion of the Chinese ideogram of the snake, to ward off evil spirits and yin energies. Based on their functions, we can list some common bujeok: to ask for divine protection we have seonsinsuhobu; those intended to scare away spirits receive the generic name of byeoksabujeok, although within these there are many categories (depending on whether the aim is to ward off a family ghost, a demon, a spirit from the home, etc.); jilbyeongbu served to prevent and ward off diseases; To attract good fortune, we would have gilsangbujeok, which also contain variants depending on the specific desire or search for luck (money, love, work, travel...)

But, despite their popularity, and despite being within what we would call a domestic belief, the role of shamans or sorcerers (mudang or sunim, 스님,比丘), or also by Buddhist monks, does not end with the simple inscription or writing. For specific situations, such as home purifications or exorcisms of certain places, as well as when it is an individualized request, shamans perform a series of recitations and rituals, including the making of seolgyeong, written strips of paper that should not be confused with the bujeok: in the seolgyeong, names of deities or sacred words are inscribed, since they are normally intended for the elimination of spirits and purification, and require their help. In bujeok it is not obligatory, and the power lies more in the words and symbols than in the spiritual entities themselves. In any case, when this request is given to the gods, the ritual is also accompanied by offerings to the gods, which include rice cakes, liquor, bows, and incense.

However, nowadays bujeok can be found for sale in Buddhist temples and esoteric stores, as well as on different internet portals, where you can purchase generic, personalized talismans, and even buy the hanji and its corresponding ink to make them personally, if one feels capable of it. Even simpler, it is also considered that the power of a bujeok can be found even in a photograph or digital file that you can carry in your mobile phone gallery. Shamans know that luck can move through all paths. It has also become a gift for friends, family, and even as a festive gift for companies. The bujeok, which are not intended to be hung, but to be kept or carried with oneself, are folded a symbolic number of times and delivered in gold or red envelopes, which preserve the paper and ink, and, according to esotericists, concentrate their energies.

This ease of acquisition (not always so simple, since some prices are exorbitant) has currently caused, either by fashion or by tradition, a flood of requests and uses of these talismans (although, as we have seen, people use them more like amulets), among all classes and ages, which has led both esotericists and priests, as well as psychologists, to send some messages to the population, to avoid unnecessary expenses and broken hopes: bujeok is a great help, both for the believer and for those who consider it psychological support, but in both psychology and magic, the true energy for change is found within each one.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


- Beirne, P. Su-un and His World of Symbols: The Founder of Korea's First Indigenous Religion. Routledge, 2016

- Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Beliefs: Encyclopedia of Korean Folklore and Traditional Culture Vol. II. The National Folk Museum of Korea (South Korea)

-Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs: Encyclopedia of Korean Folklore and Traditional Culture Vol. 1. The National Folk Museum of Korea (South Korea)

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