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Myth / Korean Mythology

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The death of the Sun and Moon Deities.

Korean mythology consists of national legends and folk-tales which come from all over the Korean Peninsula. The oldest records of them can be found in Samguk Yusa (written in the 13th century by Buddhist monk Iryeon) and Samguk Sagi (written in the 12th century by government official Kim Busik). These two history books are based on much older records that are currently lost.

Although these two books records stories of Korean mythology, their tone is quite different: Samguk-sagi is quite fact-oriented, and although it lists the founding myths of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla), the author — a Confucianist scholar — considers them as 'not to be believed'. Samguk Yusa, on the other hand, mostly deals with supernatural stories. This is the book where the founding myth of Gojoseon (the legendary first kingdom of the Korean people, now believed to be the real life Bronze-age kingdom that later Korean dynasties are stemmed from), and folktales, legends and myths of the later periods are recorded.

However, most of the folklore were passed down by means of Oral Tradition.

Like other Asian Myths, Korean Mythology involves elements from religious traditions like Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.

Founding Myth of Gojoseon

In the heavens lived a god by the name of Hwanung, third son of the Heavenly Emperor Hwanin. One day Hwanung expressed his worries for the humans of the earth, and his wish to rule them in order to 'widely benefit the Human World' ('Hongik-Ingan', now South Korea's national motto). Moved by his devotion, Hwanin allowed him to descend into the world and rule. He gave his son Three Heavenly Seals (Cheonbu-samin), along with the group of three thousand servants and the Three Lords of wind, rain, and cloud. Hwanung thus descended onto the world. He first arrived at the mountain-top of Mount Taebaek and there established a city named Shinshi ('City of the Gods'). Hwanung took care of 360 human affairs, including agriculture, life, illness, justice, good and evil, etc.

It was during this time that a Tiger and a Bear approached him, wishing to become humans. Hwanung gave both of them a handful of mugwort and twenty cloves of garlic, with which they had to stave off their hunger while remaining inside a dark cave without seeing the sunlight for 100 days. The tiger ran away before the ordeal was through, but the bear remained patient and on the twenty-first day turned into a beautiful woman. The woman was given the name Ungnyeo (Bear-woman).

Not long after her transformation, Ungnyeo began to crave a child, and thus Hwanung took human form for a short time, and through him she gave birth to a son. This son was Dangun, forefather of the Korean people. Dangun established a kingdom he called Asadal, meaning "place where the morning sun shines". This name was later changed to Joseon (now called Gojoseon, or Ancient Joseon to distinguish it from the later Joseon kingdom). Legend has it that when Dangun was 1,908 years of age, he abandoned the human world and became a Sanshinryeong('Mountain God').

Similar to the stories of Osiris and Manco Capac, in that they all deal with 'culture heroes' teaching humans on how to live.

Notable Deities

Called Shin (meaning 'spirit' or 'deity', an equivalent of the Kami), they are supernatural entities that influence people, and are served by the Mudang (female shamans) in rituals called Gut (pronounced 'goot').note  It should be noted that in Korean mythology, which god is charged with which area of responsibility slightly varies with each tale (for example, the Goddess of Birth is Samshin-Halmang or Danggeum-aegi, depending on version). And the level of power differs with each (e.g. gods of nature are considered more powerful than the guardians of the house).

  • Sang-je (Heavenly Emperor): The supreme ruler of the Heavens, also called Hanuelnim, Hwanin, Cheonwang, Cheonjiwang (all meaning 'Heavenly Ruler'). He is often compared with the Jade Emperor, since their roles are similar. He oversees humans and gods, and sometimes elects humans to become new gods.
  • Haemosu: Heavenly Emperor's first son and God of the Sun. He is depicted as a youth wearing crow-feathered headdress (crows, especially three-legged crows, symbolizes the sun in many asian myths), carrying the sword Yonggwanggeom ('Sword of Dragon's Light'), and riding Oryeonggeo, a chariot pulled by five dragons. He is the founder of Buyeo Kingdom, and later fathered Go-Jumong, who founded the Goguryeo Kingdom(which eventually conquered Buyeo).
  • Samshin-Halmang: Goddess of Life. She was once a human girl, but after winning the flower-blooming contest (flowers symbolize life in Korean mythology) between her and the Yongwang's daughter, she became the Goddess charged with pregnancy and delivering of babies. (The aforementioned yongwang's daughter became the goddess of the underworld, and takes care of the spirits of dead infants.) She protects babies and mothers from harm, and is the patron of midwives. It is said that after midwives die, they become spirits called 'Samshin' and help Samshin-halmang.
  • Sanshinryeong: Gods of the mountain, and since Korea has lots of mountains, there sure are lots of them. A typical Sanshinryeong is depicted as an old man with a white beard, accompanied by a tiger. As guardians of the mountain, they usually live deep inside the mountain, but sometimes appear in Sadangs (shrines) at the base of the mountain, listening to people's wishes and pleas for help (usually lumberjacks and hunters asking permission to cut down trees and hunt animals, since Sanshinryeongs protect nature). Although they are mostly male, there are female examples like Mago-halmi, Sanshinryeong of the Mount Jiri.
  • Chilsungshin: Seven gods of the Great Dipper. They bless people with good luck and longevity, and thus one of the most commonly worshipped gods of Koreans (their worship dates back to the Bronze age). They are usually depicted as seven brothers, wearing government uniform or monk's attire (since they are sometimes called Seven Buddhas). However, some descriptions list them as three brothers and four sisters, or seven sisters.
  • Gataekshin: Guardians of the house. They also bless people with good luck, and people offer them small food in return. According to stories, they were one family, killed in ways associated with various household materials and rooms(due to the concubine's jealousy and other factors), and became guardians of them (e.g. the concubine in question hanged herself in the restroom, so she became Cheukshin, guardian of the toilet). They also protect the house's inhabitants from ghosts, diseases and premature death, but will leave when the inhabitants become too wicked or doesn't respect them.
  • Gameunjang-aegi: Goddess of fate and luck. Born as the third daughter of a beggar couple, her family suddenly became amazingly rich due to their daughters strange nature of making everyone lucky around her. However, she was thrown out of the house when she said that it's all due to her that she live well and not due to her parents (kinda similar to the story of Cornelia). After marrying a humble and handsome youth(and making him one of the richiest man in the world), she found out that her parents have become blind beggars again, and used her powers to restore her parents(plus her two sisters, who were changed into a centipede and a mushroom for driving out their sister due to jealousy). After death, she became the Goddess of determining people's destiny.
  • Yeomra-Daewang ('King Yeomra the Great'): Supreme ruler and fifth of the ten Kings of the underworld (Shi-wang), who judge the sins of the deceased and decide what to do with them. He is the first person to have faced death (as in the story of Yama in Hindu Mythology. In fact, Yeom-ra is the Korean pronounciation of Yama). Like every other powerful god, he has many powers, including shapeshifting, reviving dead people, etc.
  • Yongwang (Dragon Lord): Dragons living in lakes, rivers and seas. They are rulers of the aquatic animals, and in charge of controlling the weather (and thus very important to farmers). They can take human forms and mate with humans. It is said that Wang Geon, the warlord who founded the Goryeo dynasty, was the grandson of the Western sea's Yongwang.
  • Mireuk and Bucheo: Maitreya and Buddha. Since Buddhism is widespread in Korea, they are also worshipped by Mudangs and common people.
  • Seokga: A rebellious trickster god. He and Mireuk were responsible for the creation of the world. Strangely, his name is also used to refer to Siddhartha Gautama in Korean. Seokga and Mireuk held three contests to prove their sovereignty over the world. Seokga planted a magnolia flower and proclaimed that if the flower grew towards Mireuk, the world would be his, vice versa. When the flower did grow towards Mireuk, Seokga snapped it and placed it on his lap. Seeing what he had done, Mireuk brought the first death to the world and left, leaving it in an imperfect state. This myth is similar to the tale involving Daebyulwang and Sobyulwang.

Notable Humans

  • Bari-degi (meaning 'abandoned child'. also called 'Bari'): Born as the seventh princess of a kingdom, she was abandoned as a baby because her parents had desperately wanted a son, and she let them down. Adopted by a kindly old couple, Bari learned the truth about herself when she was 15 years old. After meeting her real parents, she found that they had become fatally ill, due to Heaven punishing them for abandoning their own daughter. Instead of bellowing in anger over them, she decided to journey to the Seocheon (another name for 'Afterlife') and get a cure for her parents. After a long journey (hindered by all sorts of ghosts on the way) disguised as a boy, Princess Bari finally arrived at Seocheon, but the guardian of the water of life (the only cure of her parents illness) said that he would only let her in when she marries him. Bari accepts, and she brings him three sons. After some years the family returns to Bari's kingdom, but upon arriving, Bari finds that her parents have long died, and their bodies are heading for burial. Bari was devastated, but she quicky regains herself, and using the Revival Flowers and the water of life, revives her parents. After that, she lived a long and happy life with her family and parents, and after death, became the goddess of guiding the dead to the afterlife. She is considered to be the first Mudang, and the song that chronicles her story is very important among Mudangs.
  • Ganglim-Doryeong: A human warrior famed for his strength and bravery, he was charged by the king to bring King Yeomra into this world (to help solve a murder case). With his wife's help and advice, he travelled to the afterlife and managed to capture King Yeomra. King Yeomra was so impressed by his skill and wits that he made him top Jeoseung-saja ('Messenger from the other world'). He is now considered to be the leader of all Jeoseung-sajas, if his title 'Ganglim-Daewang' (King Ganglim) is any indication.
  • Daebyulwang and Sobyulwang: Cheonjiwang (Ruler of Heaven)'s two sons. They killed the evil Sumyeong-Jangja and shot down a sun and a moon, leaving only one son and one moon(thus freeing humans from intense heat of the day and perishing cold of the night). Since Daebyulwang was always better than he was, Sobyulwang grew jealous and cheated in a flower-blooming contest (like the one involving samshin-halmang), thus earning the right to rule the human world. Daebyulwang eventually forgave his brother and became ruler of the Netherworld (with Yeomra-daewang), punishing evildoers and rewarding good people.
  • Jacheongbi: A human girl appearing in a myth of Jeju island (South Korea's largest island). She fell in love with a godly youth named Mun-doryeong (who came down to earth from Heaven to 'study abroad'), but pretended she didn't like him at all. Instead she disguised herself as a boy and studied with him in a school for three years, Mun-doryeong none the wiser that his 'male' friend is actually the cute girl he met when he first arrived at the Earth. After she finally spilled the secret(by calling him an idiot), Mun-doryeong immediately confessed his feelings for her. But things took a bad turn when Mun-doryeong were forced back into Heaven, because the couple's families disapproved of their relationships. Jacheongbi didn't give up though, and she ventured into Heaven to meet Mun-doryeong again. After passing many ordeals(like crossing a red-hot iron bridge filled with spikes), she was accepted by the Mun family and became a goddess of the earth and farming.

For more info and Tropes of Gods (Shin), Heroes, Monsters, Ghosts and other supernatural beings, check out the Character Sheet.

Korean mythology and folklore contains examples of :

  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Many human characters (Baridegi, Ganglim, etc.) ended up becoming gods and other supernatural entities.
    • Since anyone with incredible feat can become Shins, some modern Mudangs worship famous real-life people. The List includes Yi Sun-sin, General Choi-Yong, Dangun, Buddha, Jesus and Douglas Macarthur(after the Korean War, Macarthur was considered as a hero by many Koreans). This is parodied in this Korean Webtoon Dosa-land('Taoist-land'), where the protagonist's mother is a Mudang worshipping 'Doug'.
      • The Mudang worshipping Macarthur once got into trouble for offering Cigarettes to his spirit when foreign cigars were banned for economic reasons.
  • Badass Bookworm : There are many stories involving Seonbis (term for scholars and students of the Joseon period), killing gigantic serpents, Gumihos (Nine-tailed foxes), and other monsters with a bow and an arrow.
    • These stories might have some grain of truth in them; since the Joseon Dynasty placed great importance in military arts, Seonbis did practice archery. And because the Korean bow (Gak Gung) is strong yet handy to carry, many Seonbis going on journeys took a bow and arrows with them.
    • Sadly, they were also common target of political purges. Actually, their social status could be considered as Blessed with Suck - despite their education they doesn't belong to the Yangban (scholar-officals) caste, and thus doesn't have any political power to protect themselves. That make it easy to turn them into The Scapegoat for any kind of troubles (though many lower-class folks considered them Inspirational Martyr anyway)
  • Cool Sword: Saingeom (Four Tigers Sword), also known as Sainchamsageom (Four Tigers Evil-Cutting sword). Being forged by a skilled (and pure) metalsmith in a Tiger day's tiger hour, of Tiger year's Tiger month, it has powerful positive (Yang) force that can destroy monsters and evil spirits.
    • To maximize its effect, it is inscribed with 28 constellations and a badass Magical Incantation:
      • "The Heaven calls down the Jeong (Spirit), and The Earth helps the Yeong (Soul). The sun and the moon are shaped, mountains and rivers are formed, and Lightnings strike like storm. Move North Heaven to destroy evil in the land, make for righeousness in the natural order."
      • They really exist, by the way. Because they're made of soft iron, Saingeoms weren't used in battle, but rather kept for ritualistic reasons (like protecting you from ghosts and diseases).
    • There's also Yonggwang-Geom ('Sword of Dragon's Light'), belonging to the sun god Haemosu.
    • General Kim Yu-shin, a legendary Silla general who united the Three Kingdoms, had a sword named Cheonryonggeom, 'Heavenly Dragon Sword' (The name itself doesn't appear in official records, but legend states so). When Kim Yushin was a youth, he prayed to the heaven to give him the power to unite the warring three kingdoms, and after three days, Heaven answered his prayer by sending two beams of light from two stars to shine on his sword(this is an official record, appearing in Samguk-sagi). According to legend, Kim tested his blessed sword by slicing a nearby rock in half(that rock is still remaining as a popular tourist attraction, by the way), and it could even fly out from its scabbard, landing into Kim Yushin's hand when he was furious.
  • The Four Gods: Since Korea was influenced by Taoism, they often pop up in murals and other arts.
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: One story has Samshin-halmang (Goddess of Pregnancy and Delivery) politely asking Daebyulsang (God of Smallpox, No.1 killer of infants of old times) to spare the lovely faces of babies. Daebyulsang instead got angry that 'a woman' dared to interfere with his business, and gave severe smallpox to infants, causing them to die or become pockmarked. In retaliation, Samshin-halmang refused to give delivery to Daebyulsang's pregnant wife for twenty-four months, causing her to nearly die from the pain. Daebyulsang had no choice but to dress in a Buddhist monk's attire, shave his hair and walk barefoot to the Samshin-halmang's residence (just as Samshin ordered), practically begging for forgiveness.
  • Honest Axe: In the Korean version, Mercury's role is played by a Sanshinryeong.
  • Interspecies Romance: Starting from the tale of Ungnyeo, Korean Mythology includes lots of romance between Human and animals (transformed into humans).
    • Samguk Yusa includes many tales of foxes, dragons and tigers taking human form. One Silla story involves a man named Kim Hyun falling in love with a cute girl (actually a female tiger) he met at the festival. However, her three brothers had killed too many humans that Heaven decided to punish them, but the girl said that she would instead become a scapegoat, and told Kim Hyun to kill her the next day, saying: "If I have to die, then let me be killed by the man who loves me" . Kim Hyun had no choice but to do it (in tears), and after getting the reward from the King for killing a Tiger, used it to build a Temple (named Howeonsa, meaning 'Temple of the Tigers wish') in memory of his love.
  • Magic Music: One of Silla's national treasures was Manpasikjeok (Flute that soothes ten thousand troubles), a magical bamboo flute that could 'calm the waters, drive away enemies, heal the sick, and prevent natural disasters'. Many people tried to steal it, and after losing and regaining it, King Hyoso ordered the flute to be hidden in a secret place. It was hidden so well that it was never found again, not even to this day.
  • Methuselah Syndrome: According to Samguk Yusa, Dangun puts Methuselah to shame by living for Nineteen Hundred And Eight Years (the age varies for each historical record, but still over one thosand years). Plus, he became a Sanshinryeong after leaving the human world, so he could stil be living, even now.
    • This probably means that the ruler's title 'Danggun-Wanggeom' (literally meaning 'Priest-King') got passed down from ruler to ruler, dynasty to dynasty.
  • Our Goblins Are Different: The dokkaebi were nature spirits that resembled goblins and tended towards mischief, often playing tricks on humans. They could be friendly and give rewards, but folktales cautioned that a human who spent too much time around a dokkaebi would start turning into one.
  • Petal Power: Seocheonkkotbaat (Seocheon Flower Field) has flowers that you wouldn't see in your local flower garden. Here's a few:
    • Flowers that can revive the dead: Revival Flowers are five flowers - black, white, red, yellow, blue - that can bring people back to life, even if their bodies are decayed to the skeleton. Each flower regenerates Bones, Flesh, Blood, Breathing and Spirit (sometimes one of the last two can be replaced by water of life or whacking the body with storax cane).
    • Flowers that causes people who see it to Laugh, Cry, and Fight each other - uncontrollably. The person holding the flower does not seem to be influenced by this.
    • Flower that kills anyone who looks at it.
    • And another flower called Destruction Flower can wipe out an entire army. Jacheongbi (a girl who later became Earth goddess) uses it to literally crush a rebellion in Heaven.
    • It is not surprising, therefore, that Seocheon Flower Field is situated in the border between this world and the other world (afterlife), and heavenly officials and maidens are charged with guarding and looking after it. Only certain humans (usually children of the aforementioned heavenly officials) can enter the field, and going there can take years.
  • Shrines and Temples: Like the Japanese, Koreans have Sadang (Shrine) and Jeol (Buddhist Temple). Because of syncretism, many Jeols also have sadangs (usually dedicated to Sanshinryeongs and Chilsungshin) as annex buildings.
    • While there are many big temples currently existing, there aren't many big shrines left, since Mongolian invasions, Japanese invasions and colonization, and the Korean War demolished the whole lot (there are still ruins of them, currently being excavated). While most remaining Sadangs are small or private, the biggest shrine still standing is Jongmyo Shrine (declared Unesco World Heritage), built in the 14th century to honor the Joseon Kings.
  • Vegetarian Carnivore: In the myth of Hwanung and Ungnyeo, a tiger and a bear wanted to be human and, in order to do so, they had to pass the demigod Hwanung's test of eating nothing but garlic and herbs for 40 days. The tiger could not and gave up, while the bear persevered, became a woman named Ungnyeo (literally meaning "bear woman"), married Hwanung, and gave birth to a son named Tangun, the founder of the first organized Korean state. There's actually some truth here: bears are omnivores that can digest vegetable matter while tigers are obligate carnivores. This doesn't mean they can't digest plants at all, just that they need nutrients that aren't found in a strictly vegan diet, the big one for felines being taurine. (Perhaps more to the point, garlic and related plants like onions are actually fairly toxic to cats; their livers can't deal with it.)
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Many gods, demigods and monsters (Yogwe) can change into humans and other shapes.
    • This was even used as means of dueling; but instead of turning the other into animals, they fought by turning themselves into an animal superior than the other. For example, when Habaek turned into a fish and a pheasant, Haemosu chased him by turning into an otter and a hawk.
      • King Yeomra tried to dodge Gamglim-doryeong by turning into a pillar of a palace. Gamglim found this out when the palace scullery maid scolded him for being an idiot.
  • Whale Egg: Many founding heroes of ancient kingdoms were born from an egg. There's at least five of them:
    • Go-Jumong (King Dongmyeong), founder of Goguryeo Kingdom, was born as a large egg that his mother (Lady Yuwha) laid. His stepfather (King Geumwha) took this as a bad omen and tried to get rid of it, but all attempts failed (when it was thrown into wilderness, fierce animals and birds kept it warm; and even the strongest warrior couldn't break its shell open). Finally Jumong was born, and he soon grew up to be a master Archer and charismatic hero(which is not surprising, given that his father is the Sun god Haemosu).
    • There's also Pakhyeokkeose, Seoktalhae and Kimalji, three founders of Silla Kingdom. Plus there's King Kim Suro (and his five brothers), founder of Gaya (a minor kingdom that was later absorbed into Silla).
    • Samguk-yusa tells the story of a Chicken-dragon(Gyeryong), giving birth to a human baby(with the beak of a chicken) through her armpit. She then flew away, and the old lady watching this adopted the baby and washed her in the nearby stream, causing the beak to fall off. Given the name Al-yeong(named after a well nearby), she grew up to be a kind and beautiful lady, and later married Pakhyokkeose(first king of Silla), thereby becoming Queen Al-yeong.