San-shin or Mountain Spirit
It’s possible, and commonly known as likely, that the Korean San-shin (mountain spirit) was the first form of primal worship that the Koreans practiced. Because the Korean peninsula is such a mountainous landscape, then mountains were always going to be daily visual aspects for the early Korean societies. Passage through the mountains was always going to be risky and dangerous due to tigers, bears, leopards, wolves, and bandits. The woods and the mountains were mysterious places, Godly like in their powers. However, the Koreans also recognized that mountains were generators of weather patterns and water, and therefore provided them with the basic fundaments of life. Water was what kept their crops and lands fertile, therefore providing them with food. With such a high emphasis on mountains the Korean people took abode under the sacred peaks of its mountain scape and worshipped their respective mountains with spiritual reverence in a shamanic manner. Small worship areas were erected in villages, mountain ledges and summits, of which the local shaman or villagers would offer their blessings for bountiful harvests, fecundity, safe passage through the mountains, and favorable climatic conditions for clean streams of gushing mountain water. It is not known what shape the San-shin took in a form of worship, but it was more than likely in the character of distinctive rocky features or craggy animated trees with human like shape form.
In the 4th century AD, Buddhism did not necessarily make an easy arrival on the Korean peninsula, and it was often confronted with resentment from the local villagers and farmers, as monks of that period sought permission from the locals to establish temples in areas of sacred aura where San-shin like shrines had already been erected. With that came an agreement between the locals and Buddhist monks that with the erection of Buddhist temples, the San-shin deity would also be recognized with the placement of a shrine within the temple grounds. These shrines still exist today in Korean Buddhist temples today and are known as a San-shin gak normally positioned above and behind the main prayer hall on its own ledge. In it you will see a painting of a robed old man with long white beard man, flanked by one of more tigers and loyal child servants in a serene mountain forest.
It is assumed that the San-shin took this artistic form during the Joseon Dynasty period of the 14th century where the influence of silk cloaked Confucius leaders was the norm. Today the worship and respect for the San-shin is still strongly favored by shamans, monks, Taoists, farmers, house wives and modern day salary workers in Korea. Despite Christianity’s strong sometimes over-aggressive presence in Korea, the San-shin’s strong connection with human origin, immortality, mountain and ecology, forms a rare and distinct identity of the people of Korea, adding a special kind of magical culture to the feeling of Korean Mountain energy and landscape.