Village Tutelary Festival
Dongje (Kor. 동제, Chin. 洞祭) is a ceremony held for the village’s guardian god during which villagers pray for the peace, safety and prosperity of the community. The tradition of such village rituals is particularly strong in the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula.
Dongje is also known as dangje (Kor. 당제, Chin. 堂祭), dangsanje (Kor. 당산제, Chin. 堂山祭), danggosa (Kor. 당고사, Chin. 堂告祀) or dangmaje (Kor. 당마제); these terms are used in the western coastal towns and across Jeolla and Gyeongsang Provinces. Dongje is generally observed after midnight of Jeongwol Daeboreum (Kor. 정월대보름, Great Full Moon Festival), although in some areas it is held in the beginning of the first lunar month or on the full moon day in the tenth lunar month. The custom is closely linked to the symbolism of abundance and fecundity associated with the moon. The first full moon of the year in traditional society was attributed the highest level of vital energy. Dongje may be postponed, when a community is hit by unfortunate events such as the death of one of its members.
There are four main types of dongje: memorial service, community celebration, shamanic ritual and a combination of these two or three types. The combined or hybrid type is the most popular variation of the custom. Another widespread type, the memorial service, is similar to a Confucian rite. In the community celebration-style dongje, common in the western coastal regions, farmers’ bands play a leading role. The shamanistic-style dongje is presided over by a shaman and is characteristic of the southern coastal regions and islands.
Hybrid-style dongje can be held at a village altar (a table for sacrifices, usually temporarily placed in front of a totemic tree) or in a shrine. Rituals in the shrines are most widely observed in coastal areas and the islands. In some villages, part of the ritual takes place in front of an outdoor totemic structure such as a jangseung (Kor. 장승, village guardian post), ipseok (Kor. 입석, Chin. 立石, menhir) or sotdae (Kor. 솟대, sacred pole). In these cases, the village tutelary deity is believed to reside in more than one abode or totemic structures are thought to represent different parts of his body.
The officiants of a dongje are selected at a meeting of village dignitaries or all members of the community, convened shortly after Lunar New Year’s Day. The participants of the meeting also discuss the budget for the ritual and other related issues. They may decide on the date of the ritual as well, if the village’s dongje is held on different dates each year. Some communities also select musicians. All staff involved in the preparations and observations of the rite are considered officiants, which include a hwaju (Kor. 화주, Chin. 化主) who prepares sacrificial offerings, a heongwan (Kor. 헌관, Chin. 獻官) who presents the goblet of wine to the altar, a chukkwan (Kor. 축관, Chin. 祝官) who reads aloud a sacred message, and a jipsa (Kor. 집사, Chin. 執事) who is in charge of running errands and responsible for general secretarial duties. The main requirement for most of the officiants is not being “unclean, ” but this criterion is most strictly enforced when selecting the hwaju. To qualify as a hwaju, the candidate must have no recent history of certain disqualifying events in his immediate and extended families. Disqualifying events include a recent death of a family member, pregnancy of a member of the household, consumption of dog meat during the first lunar month, the candidate’s wife having her menstruation around the time of the ritual, or the existence of young children or old maids in the family. In addition, the candidate has to meet the criteria of vigor and dignity.
Those who are selected as officiants perform procedures of purification by hanging geumjul (Kor. 금줄, Chin. 禁-, lit. taboo rope) outside their house gates and abstaining from actions that are considered taboo until the day of the ritual. In some cases, the entire community follows those procedures. The period of purification in the past lasted between four and fifteen days, but currently it is becoming shorter and the related requirements have eased significantly. Geumjul are hung not only outside the officiants’ homes, but also at the entrance point of the village, outside the village shrine, and at dangsan (Kor. 당산, Chin. 堂山, the mountain where the village’s guardian deity is believed to reside). At times, a layer of geumto (Kor. 금토, Chin. 禁土, purification soil) is put at these places. Both geumjul and geumto function as a signal to thwart the approach of those who are considered impure, such as mourners, menstruating women, pregnant women, and people suffering from illness. Pregnant women who are due during this period often travel to a neighboring village to deliver the baby. In the case of the hwaju, the officiant must abide by the rule of washing his hands and feet after urinating and bathing in cold water after defecating. For this reason some people selected as hwaju prefer fasting unti