Culture Superstitions & Myths

Spooky Korean superstitions and beliefs – Never clip nails at night because…

RELATED : Forgot your crystal ball? Don’t worry! Visit a Korean fortuneteller. 사주팔자 SAJU PALJA – Koreans believe their future is predetermined, including how good of a match you are with your significant other.


Korean superstitions and beliefs

Which direction should my couch face? Furniture arrangement is something we don’t give too much thought to, but for some Koreans, it involves more precise planning because many Koreans still follow the idea of pungsujiri 풍수지리 (“wind-water-earth-principles-theory”), a Korean term for the Asian art of divinatory geomancy, more commonly known by the Chinese term feng shui (wind-water). In a nutshell, it’s the study of topography based on the belief that one’s destiny is molded by the natural surroundings. Thus, pungsujiri analysts are believed to be able to identify if a particular site is auspicious or not, by interpreting the relationship between life-force energy and its surroundings, and pungsujiri analysts claim that bad energy responsible for misfortunes can be stifled or avoided by strategic placement of various elements. According to the historical record, it was a Buddhist monk of the Silla 신라 Dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD) who brought the philosophy of feng shui from China and adapted it to make it fit the Korean culture. And there is a strong Korean belief that propitious tomb spots for ancestors can bring good luck and prosperity for descendants (some even dig up an old grave and have it relocated to a more “propitious” spot when a spell of misfortune is imputed to the ancestor’s jinxed old grave). This is a reflection of the Korean Confucian culture where respecting elders, even after they are long gone, is of utmost importance. The Silla Dynasty’s General Kim Yu Sin 김유신 (595-673) who led the unification of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and King Taejong Muyeol 태종 무열왕 (604-661) incorporated the idea of pungsujiri in the selection of their tombs, and the rich noble families went as far as delaying internment for months to find auspicious burial ground. A recent period film Myeong Dang 명당 (Feng Shui, 2018”), depicts a story where people fight over the ideal burial ground for their ancestors. Today, the tradition still lives on – high-tech Korean conglomerates hired famed pungsujiri analysts to consult for the layout of a new company building, and the government paid a good amount of (tax) money to hire pungsujiri experts before deciding where the new administrative complex should be set up. So next time you pick up your futon from IKEA, study some pungsujiri beforehand, because where you place it might affect your future…

Feng Shui Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Indie

Spooky Korean superstitions and beliefs – WHAT IS THE KOREAN SHAMANISM – MUSOK & MUDANG?

“The power of Christ compels you!” In the Hollywood movie The Exorcist (1973), fearless Fathers Lankester Merrin and Damien Karras join forces together in Georgetown, Washington D.C., USA, to desperately cast out the evil spirit from Regan, a little girl whose body is deemed to have been possessed. They fight off the evil spirit using various means such as hanging the Holy Rosary, sprinkling holy water to the body of the possessed, and reciting prayers to invoke God and angels to intervene. Now, in the Korean horror movie Gokseong 곡성 (The Wailing , 2016), after a series of horrifying village-wide homicides, every suspect displays a set of abnormality, including having a weird skin rash and uttering meaningless words. A little girl named Hyojin, suffers from the same symptoms, but her conditions worsen and she starts to scream obscenities and eat excessively for no apparent reason. Convinced that she’s possessed, her grandmother summons Ilgwang, to perform an exorcism. Ilgwang, wearing a ritual black garment decorated with colorful sleeves striped in red, green, blue, and yellow, is a mudang 무당, or a Korean shaman (technically, a male shaman is called Baksu Mudang 박수무당), and they are important characters of the Korean folk shamanism called musok 무속.

곡성 – Gokseong [The Wailing] – Exorcism Scene

Typically, the majority of mudangs are compelled to become one, rather than choosing to, and they usually go through the phase of experiencing various supernatural phenomena, (defined by scientists as “a temporary acute psychotic manic episode”) called shinbyeong 신병 (“god illness”), such as seeing ghosts and suffering from unknown illnesses, which completely disappeared after being voluntarily possessed by local deities or ancestor’s spirits through a naerimgut 내림굿, an invocatory rite of a would-be medium from another mudang. A mudang’s job description is quite vast – they are invited to perform ceremonies called gut 굿 in villages.

Korean superstitions and beliefs
An illustration from mudangnaeryeok 무당내력, a compilation of the traditional Korean shaman exorcism methods in the late Joseon Dynasty (1800s). It is currently housed in Gyujanggak, Seoul National University.

Gut is a rite or a ritual performed by Korean shamans, which typically involves the offerings and sacrifices to various local deities and ancestor spirits, and most of the time, it’s a village-wide event because it’s quite a spectacle – it consists of rhythmic dances, beautiful clothes that are changed several times, mind-bending songs, mysterious oracles, and prayers. Believed to have the ability to communicate between the spiritual beings and mankind, the shamans’ role isn’t confined to exorcism – it’s all about asking the deities and ancestors to intervene in the fortune of men, from curing illness, bringing good luck, warding off evil spirits, and a good harvest. After someone’s death, a shaman also helps the soul of the departed leave the earthly life without any regrets and find the path to heaven.

Spooky Korean superstitions and beliefs – MUDANG PROVIDES FORTUNE-TELLING SERVICES TOO

And a popular service provided by a mudang to anyone who wishes is jeom , or fortune-telling by communicating with the spiritual beings. It’s fundamentally different from saju because it solely relies on the messages obtained allegedly from the otherworldly beings, as well as various divination methods such as analyzing the pattern of rice grains sprinkled on the table, and interpreting the meaning of a randomly drawn stick, whereas saju tries to have a systematic and deductive approach of interpreting one’s fate using the objective information such as birth date, time, and year. Like saju, mudang’s fortune-telling services are very popular and some people vouch for its accuracy – but use the service at your own risk because there are many civil cases of a (fake) mudang talking a victim into paying a huge service fee on the pretext of tribute to appease the local deities or ancestral spirits. It’s a situation often appearing in Korean dramas where a naive character gives away all his/her hard-earned money to a (fake) mudang. So in a nutshell, a mudang is a multi-purpose Korean character who serves the purposes of an oracle, counselor, medium, and shaman.

Korean shaman (MUDANG) tells you about your future!


Tossing a few coins onto the carpet floor mat of a newly purchased car (known as “coining”) and carrying around a rabbit’s foot are some of the examples of various rituals and lucky charms people rely on for good luck and divine protection around the globe. Korean people also perform a all kinds of situations – from taking your brand new car on the road for the first time, and opening a new business, to beginning a new production season for a TV show, and even when launching a cutting-edge satellite into the sky! (cite) And at the center of the table, you will find a smiling pig head because it’s the symbol of fertility, prosperity (the Chinese character 豚 (pig) is pronounced don 돈, in Korean, which is the Korean word for “money), and good luck – nothing says “lucky” like a pig head in Korean culture.

RELATED : Why do Korean people rush to buy a lotto ticket after having a pig dream?

The pig head, severed and boiled, is a sacrificial offering for the local deities and ancestor spirits. It’s accompanied by many other typical shamanist features such as incense, food, alcohol, visitors of the ritual stuff wads of cash into the mouth, ears, and even the nose of the pig head, as a token of offering and contribution. The money collected goes to the host of the ceremony. These days, the gosa tradition still lives on, but many people feel uncomfortable using a real pig head for the event due to its grotesque look and concerns about animal cruelty. Instead, people substitute it with a silicone replica or a cake made in the shape of a pig head.

Spooky Korean superstitions and beliefs – WRITING SOMEONE’S NAME IN RED IS A BIG NO-NO!

Korean superstitions and beliefs

Of all the colors available, there is one color that you should always avoid when writing someone’s name in Korea – Red. This is especially true among the older generation and there are many theories surrounding this. First, the theory is that red is symbolic of death, as it is the same color as blood. The second theory is rooted in Korean history. When Grand Prince Suyang 수양대군, the second son of King Sejong the Great of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) was plotting a coup, he used red ink to make a hit list of enemies on the opposing side. The third theory claims that during the Korean War, red ink was used to strike out the name of the dead civilians and soldiers killed in action. Whatever the case is, it’d be wise to choose a different color when writing someone’s name!


Korean superstitions and beliefs

This is also a big no-no in Korean culture because it resembles a Korean funeral ceremony and jesa 제사, a memorial ceremony held on the anniversary of the ancestor’s death.

RELATED : Why do Korean people offer food to the photos of the ancestors? JESA 제사 – Remembering and honoring the ancestors.

Why do only Koreans use metal chopsticks?

During the ceremony, incense burners are usually filled with rice to act as the holder, and spoons are stuck directly into the bowl of rice (some families choose to place them next to the bowl, instead). To avoid inadvertently offering the person sitting next to you a memorial service (Um… I’m not dead yet!), keep your chopsticks somewhere else, usually on top of the bowl or on the table. Often, a small ceramic rest is provided on the table.

Spooky Korean superstitions and beliefs – WHY DO KOREANS RUB THEIR CHOPSTICKS BEFORE EATING?

You might have wondered when you dined with your Korean friend. Why do they rub their chopsticks before eating? Is it some kind of ritual? Are they trying to start a fire? The quick answer is to get rid of the possible splinters, and for that reason, such practice only applies to wooden chopsticks, mostly the cheap break-apart type that has those itty bitty splinters sticking out. Because Koreans were the only people in the world who have been using metal chopsticks, it can be said with confidence that it’s a habit acquired recently. Rubbing chopsticks isn’t something that’s frowned upon, but you might want to be careful when you are invited to dinner because doing so could send a wrong signal that you think the chopsticks are of subpar quality, offending the host (Don’t go to a Korean restaurant without reading this: Korean dining etiquette and and questions answered).

Get some Korean metal chopsticks and not worry about splinters again!

YAPULLYA Polished Korean Stainless Steel Spoons and Chopsticks Set [Amazon]

Spooky Korean superstitions and beliefs – DON’T WHISTLE AT NIGHT

No matter how happy you are, whistling at night is something Korean parents would stop you from doing because it’s believed to attract the snakes (but if you like reptiles, try it by all means)! The logic behind the idea is that in the past snake hunters used whistling, which is similar to the hissing sound of the snakes, to lure and control them. And it’s the adults who spread the rumor to elicit behavior (be quiet at night!), such as the case with Santa Claus. With most of the Korean families now living in concrete apartments and probably never getting a chance to see a snake throughout their life, the idea is pretty obsolete.


There are 2 surefire ways of getting a good smack from mom at the dinner table in Korea: Shaking legs and placing your spoon upside down, or belly up, because they are believed to bring bad luck. Like many other superstitions, it’s difficult to track down who holds the copyright to these tales, but we can make an educated guess. In the highly Confucian society of Korea, decorum and orderliness are of high importance, and anything that falls outside the realm is frowned upon and discouraged. Shaking legs, considered rude especially in front of older people, checks every single box. Similarly, placing a spoon belly up raises the flag because Korean people have been considering eating as one of the most important elements of life, and scooping a hefty amount of rice is symbolic of health and wealth! Thus, to the Korean eyes accustomed to seeing spoons put neatly with the inside bowl facing up means “scooping up” good luck, and going the opposite direction means “scooping away” good luck.

Spooky Korean superstitions and beliefs – WHY IS THERE NO 4TH FLOOR?

Korean superstitions and beliefs
A hospital elevator in Sin-Jeong-Dong, Ulsan. 4th Floor Button is missing.
랩소디인뮤직, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Korean word for number 4 sa , is pronounced the same as the Chinese word “death” . For this reason, number 4 is often replaced with the English alphabet “F” in elevators (and often skipped/omitted in places like hospital rooms. This superstitious practice of avoiding instances of number 4 (similar to number 13 in the Western culture) is called tetraphobia (ancient Greek word tetrás meaning “four,” and “phobia” = “fear of number four”) is commonly found in East Asian nations that use Chinese characters as part of their written language. The national railroad of Korea, Korail, left out the train number 4444 when assigning train numbers from 4401 upwards. Some Koreans would jump out of their skin if they receive a phone call from a number ending in 4444, at 4:44 AM.

Spooky Korean superstitions and beliefs – NEVER CLIP YOUR NAILS AT NIGHT

And if you thought the snakes were creepy, this is even worse. If you cut your nails at night, rats will come into your home and eat the clippings off the floor and transform into a human and take your form. Strange as it may sound, it’s assumed to have originated during the time before electricity and nail cutters were invented. So naturally, cutting nails at night in the dim light was dangerous, and the cleaning up part was also difficult. Now we know that every superstition has a story behind it, and most of the time it’s our parents and grandparents who come up with the ideas and share them with their children’s best interest at heart, just like the story of Santa Clause! And it’s just fun knowing the hidden stories because they are a snapshot of what the society looked like at the time.

The content you are enjoying is complimentary from Korean Culture Dictionary. If you want to learn more about Korea, from kimchi to K-pop and K-drama clichés, it’s available on Amazon Worldwide!

Recommended Resources on Amazon

Fastest Way to Speak Korean
  • Let’s Speak Korean – Learn Over 1,400+ Expressions Quickly and Easily With Pronunciation & Grammar Guide Marks – Just Listen, Repeat, and Learn!
Self-study Korean Books for Beginners
  • Korean for Everyone – Complete Self-Study Program : Beginner Level: Pronunciation, Writing, Korean Alphabet, Spelling, Vocabulary, Practice Quiz With Audio Files
Learn the Most Essential Korean Slang Words and Expressions
  • K-Pop Dictionary – 500 Essential Korean Slang Words and Phrases Every K-Pop Fan Must Know
Learn About Korean Culture
Sign Up For Our NewsletterAll things Korean delivered right to your inbox.

Korean Culture 101, Korean Lessons, K-Food Recipes and many more. Stay in the know our occasional newsletter!