Commemorating the Dead: Korea's "Jesa" Tradition
Korea's tradition of Ancestor Worship
What is Jesa
Literally meaning “sacrifice”, jesa (祭祀 in its original Chinese form), is a ceremony that is commonly practiced in Korea where the living commemorate the dead. Oftentimes associated with spirit-veneration, jesa’s origins are found in Korean Shamanism, the polytheistic and animistic ethnic religion of Korea; familiarly known as the “worship of gods and ancestors”. By long-standing tradition, the oldest male heir of a household will hold the jesa ritual to honor the deceased family member—be it the late grandfather, grandmother, mother, or father.
History of Jesa
South Korea is a country where some of the world’s most widely followed religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism—rather peacefully coexist with shamanism. Jesa thus, is a practice that has managed to transcend many forms of organized religion in Korea. This is because ritual services for ancestors have a long and rich history on the peninsula, having been an important part of Korea’s traditional agrarian societylife where spirits were thought to grant a year of good harvest to deserving descendants.
Over time, such practices fused with Confucian teachings of hyo or filial piety, transforming into a sense of one’s duty to one’s parents through the tangible means of paying reverence to them even to the afterlife.
What Does Jesa Look Like?
Depending on the occasion, jesa takes on different forms of ancestral worship. Charye jesa are ceremonies held on major holidays such as Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), and Seollal (lunar new year). Gijesa ceremonies are held once a year on the anniversary of the death of the person being honored. Sije ceremonies are held at the turn of each season (spring, summer, autumn, winter), and Myoje are ceremonies for the deceased that are held at the grave.
The Jesa Table
Koreans set aside a special set of lacquerware and/or brassware for jesa purposes. Each food item lovingly prepared for ancestors is displayed in their perfect position; the fifth row (closest to the person holding the ritual; near the incense burner), is for fruits and desserts, the second for light banchan (side dishes) including dried fish and seasoned vegetable dishes, the third row for soups, the fourth for heavy banchan or protein, and the final row (farthest from those holding the ceremony and closest to the dead) is the main dish, which, in Korea, means rice or rice cake soup. Note how the eating utensils are also placed closest to the ancestors.
How to Perform a Jesa Ritual
- Gangsin – Calling the Ancestors: The host of the jesa ceremony is called the jeju (typically the eldest male heir). The jeju will kneel before the altar to light a stick of incense. This is to invite the ancestors to the jesa table. The wife of the jeju or next of kin will hand a cup of liquor to the jeju, who will then draw a circle over the incense three times and then pour the liquor into a bowl of sand in 3 pours (as opposed to dumping the liquor in all at once). The jeju then rises and bows all the way down to the floor to pay respect to the ancestors.
- Chamsin – Greeting the Ancestors: Everyone else in attendance will also bow towards the altar.
- Jinchan – Serving the Ancestors: Rice and soup (the main dishes) are served to the ancestors.
- Choheon – Pour the Ancestors a Drink: The jeju will kneel before the altar, hold a cup with two hands while the wife or next of kin pours liquor into it. The jeju draws a circle over the incense with the cup three times and then places it next to the bowl of rice and soup. This step is repeated according to the number of ancestors being commemorated. The cups of liquor are then emptied before the following steps.
- Aheon – A Second Drink is Offered: Choheon is repeated.
- Jongheon – A Third Drink is Offered: Choheon is repeated
- Yusik – Offering Food to the Ancestors: A spoon is placed in the rice bowl straight up with the concave side of the spoon facing east, or the spoon is placed in the bowl of soup with the handle end pointing toward the west. Chopsticks are placed on different dishes on the table, depending on which dish the ancestor would have enjoyed the most whilst alive.
- Hapmun – Having Ancestors Partake in Peace and Quiet: After food and liquor are served, everyone would then leave the room. These days, many families just allow for a moment of silence for this step.
- Gyemun – The Doors are Opened: Descendants wait in silence until the jeju coughs three times to let the ancestors know they will be entering the room again. (Some families, again, will replace this step with another moment of silence).
- Heonda – Removing the Rice and Soup: A bowl of water is brought to the table and the jeju puts three spoonfuls of the soup or rice into the water, representing that the ancestors have eaten their fill.
- Sasin – Farewell Greeting: Everyone will bow and paper with the names of the ancestors written will be burned as those in attendance sit down to feast together on the food as well.
- Eldest Male Heir: Traditionally only male heirs (in order of age) are permitted to lead jesa ceremonies—hence the pressure for women to bear a son for continuation of the ancestral line. These days, ancestor rituals are oftentimes carried out by the eldest female heir if there is no male heir in the family.
- Chopstick Taboo: An action you will probably only ever see at a jesa is vertically inserting a pair of chopsticks into the center of the bowl of rice. It is considered taboo to stick one’s chopsticks in such manner in settings outside of jesa as it sends a strong message of offering food to the deceased only.
- Bradley, Hallie (2015-02-23). "How to Perform a Korean Jesa Ceremony". The Soul of Seoul. Retrieved 06/24/2019. Check date values in:
- "Shamanism". Naver Encyclopedia. Naver. Retrieved 06/24/2019. Check date values in:
- Lee, Chang Hyeon; Kim, Young; Kim, Yang Suk; Yun, Young (2018). "Ancestral Ritual Food of Korean Jongka: Historical Changes of the Table Setting". Journal of Ethnic Foods. Elsevier. 5 (2): 121–132. doi:10.1016/j.jef.2018.06.001.
- Choi, Gilsung. "Filial Piety". Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Culture. National Folk Museum of Korea.
- Bradley, Hallie (2015-02-23). "How to Perform a Korean Jesa Ceremony". The Soul of Seoul.
- "How to Hold Jesa". Ask a Korean. 2010-09-19.
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