In the late 19th century it wasn’t uncommon for Westerners to encounter women — grandmothers and mothers — wandering the streets with small sick children on their backs. The women spoke softly, in honorific Korean, to their small ward in an attempt to quiet their cries of discomfort and misery, and not to excite the wrath of the demon that plagued them. The demon was smallpox —the unwanted guest.
Smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases in Joseon Korea (1392-1910). One Western missionary wrote that “Koreans place this disease in the foremost rank of all the evils to which flesh is heir. It is more to be feared than cholera or any other complaint, for it is always present in the community and its results are very fatal.” It was especially deadly to children.
According to Horace Allen, one of the first Western doctors to live in Korea, up to 50 percent of Korean children died from smallpox before they turned five years old. So prevalent was the disease that many Korean parents fatalistically refrained from naming their children until they had contracted and survived the disease. It was almost as if smallpox was a rite of passage.
But not all Koreans were willing to acquiescence to the unwanted guest’s visit. Some placed thorns over the main gate or the eaves of their houses in the belief that the thorns would discourage smallpox and other malignant spirits from causing disease and misfortune to fall upon the household but, as one contemporary book notes, “no matter how the people tied thorns to their roofs, the ghost of smallpox swept from house to house, snatching away the lives of many.”
Once smallpox arrived, it was important to not aggravate it for fear that its wrath would exact an even greater toll of lives.
While smallpox was in the home, the residents were to refrain from bringing purchases home, wearing new clothes, sweeping the house, wall-papering, doing laundry or even combing their hair for fear that the smallpox spirit would be offended and retaliate by causing congestion in the nose. No sewing was to be done for fear that the needle passing through the cloth would “cause intolerable itching for the patient.”
Even food was regulated. The household plagued by the disease was to eat only white rice with no beans in it. To do otherwise would cause the victim’s face, if he recovered, to turn black. It was also important not to offer sacrifices in the home to the other guardian spirits for fear their arrival would deprive the smallpox spirit of the attention it demanded.
The killing and butchering of animals near the patient’s home was forbidden because it was feared that the animal’s flowing blood, would incite the spirit to cause increase itching in its victim leading to severe scratching and the flow of blood. Even the flow of water could incite the demon. During the winter it was important to leave channels blocked with ice alone — to unplug them would cause the spirit to render its hapless host’s face horribly pocked.
The actions of the neighbors could also provoke the spirit. Cutting wood or hammering nails would result in the victim’s face being horribly scarred and, if the neighbors should roast beans, the smell or smoke would cause the victim to suffer blindness.
Thirteen days after the unwanted guest’s arrival, a “mudang” or shamaness would come to the home and urge the guest to leave quietly and with as little fuss as possible. Food, money and a small wooden horse were provided as incentives. Even after the departure of the “guest” the family refrained from hammering nails and papering their walls for three months — afraid of inciting a return visit.