The Korean Mythology transmitted orally come mainly from the shamanic tradition. Since ancient times, this tradition has always been very present in Korea.
The Korean Mythology is not the reflection of the Chinese mythology even if some deities are part of it.
The structure of the stories, their characters and their themes are remnants of an older period.
Korean myths fall into two main categories:
One is about the founding of the people and the state. They are so old that modern storytellers no longer tell them, so they are only known through Chinese and Korean archives.
The others explain the origins of the world and are still part of the shamans’ chanting repertoire. Because contrary to what one might think in a modern society there are still followers of Daejongism and Cheondogyo which is a syncretism of Korean shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and some elements from Christianity.
The founding myths about the birth of the nation, the state and the ruling families have been retranscribed since at least the century, both in China and in Korea. The earliest record of a Korean myth is found in the Chinese collection entitled Lunheng. The most comprehensive and oldest anthology of myths and legends is the Samguk yusa or Myths and Legends of the Three Kingdoms which was compiled by Iryon, a 13th century Buddhist monk and most likely the first Korean folklorist. The Samguk yusa is the most complete document describing the origin of the Korean people, state and clans.
Another source is the Shillok or Annals of the Yi Dynasty from the line of kings of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910). However, none of these works deals with genesis, which is present only in the muga, the chants of the shamans. The creation myths were not transcribed until the beginning of the 20th century, when mythologists, and in particular Son Chint’ae (1900-1950), began to collect them.
The deities are called Shin, which can be translated as “spirit” and whose Japanese equivalent is Kami; they are supernatural entities that influence the life and behavior of people.
Each deity whose name may vary from one story to another (for example, the birth goddess is Samshin-Halmang or Danggeum-aegi, depending on the version) is entrusted with a very specific task. And the level of power differs with each (for example, the nature gods are considered more powerful than the house guardians). These deities are served by the Mudang (shamans) during ritual dances called gut or kut or offering rites, kosa.
Korean Myths and Legends
For Westerners, sometimes (?) more Cartesian in some areas, how to conceive that the birth of a nation, is the fruit of the union between the son of a god, and a bear metamorphosed into a woman?
Divine and creative power of nature, shamanism, the unfolding of history, there is a founding myth that is important in Korean history. This myth is undoubtedly important, since the Koreans have claimed their attachment to it, in the course of their history, for example, in the face of powers like China and Japan.
This myth is none other than that of “Dangun Wanggeom – 단군왕검” or “Dangun 단군”, who is said to be no less than the “grandson of heaven”.
How did this Korean Mythology originate? What about today?
Moreover, Korean or not, many of us were sensitive to the sight of the photographs of the presidential couples of the time, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, accompanied by their wives; which couples were photographed at Mount Baekdu on September 20, 2018.
Now Baekdu is considered the cradle of the Korean people, since it is said to be the place where Hwanung, son of the God of Heaven, settled and the birthplace of his son Dangun.
October 3, the day of Dangun’s presumed birth, is a public holiday in South Korea.
This means that Dangun is an important figure in Korean mythology.
Let’s discover him without further delay!
Korean Mythology throughout history
Geography, and China’s mention of Korea’s existence
First of all, it is interesting to make some geographical clarifications.
The Korean peninsula is located opposite two nations that are much larger in area, Japan, and China. The Korean peninsula and its islands extend for 1000 km from north to south, between 33° and 43° north latitude.
Its greatest width is 360 km, and it is located 206 km from the nearest Japanese coast, and 190 km from another peninsula, the Chinese peninsula of “Shandong” (in the eastern part of China).
China and North Korea share 1400 kilometers of borders formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers. There are more than 2 million Chinese-Koreans in Chinese territory, 97% of them in Manchuria.
Faced with these two powers, one can imagine the “small” (in size) Korean peninsula, which for a long time had to reckon with the weight of China, the “Middle Kingdom”, before experiencing Japanese domination.
Colonization or domination, China mentions the existence of Korea under the name of “Chaoxian”, more exactly the “country of the fresh morning”.
This is a translation of the name of the kingdom of Chosŏn
It was during the xixth century, that European missionaries coming to Korea, translated the name of Chosŏn into “the land of calm morning”. This is the name that is most often used today, somewhat by mistake after all.
Korean Nomadic Tribes
Historians note the existence of a people who travelled on horseback, and who used bronze weapons around the 4th century BC.
This people would have been located between the “Lia” river in Manchuria, and the “Taedong” river which is him in the plain of “Pyongyang-평양” (in North Korea).
The Korean people gradually began to settle down, under the influence of neighboring China.
Written sources mentioning the creation of Korea:
Many stories, were transmitted orally, especially since these people were nomadic and close to nature.
What written works can be referred to? :
It is necessary to specify that, by “historiography” of Korea, one indicates the methods followed, and the assumptions which were formulated in the study, and the writing of the history of Korea.
The oldest Korean document would be a stele, the stele of “Kwanggaet’o” erected in 414 A.D. in honor of the king of Korea. It was erected in 414 AD in honor of King Kwanggaet’o of Koguryo – 고구려.
The kingdom of Koguryo – 고구려 is on the territory of present-day North Korea, with part of Manchuria, and the other on the present-day Russian Far East.
During the so-called “Three Kingdoms of Korea” period, Koguryo 고구려 was one of the three; the other two kingdoms were Baekje – 백제 and Silla -신라.
The stele is said to be located in the Chinese city of Ji’an (Jilin), near the Yalou River which marks the border with North Korea, and was then the capital of the kingdom.
It is also called “Jilin” in China, because part of Mount Baekdu, the birthplace of Dangun, is located there.
Then other works were published in Korea.
Between 1145-1146 is published the “Samguk Sagi 삼국사기”, whose meaning is: “Historical Memoirs of the Three Kingdoms”, and between 1274 and 1308 is published the “Samguk Yusa”.
The “Samguk Yusa- 삼국유사” in Korean Mythology
At the end of the 13th century is written the “Samguk Yusa” by “Il Yeon – 일연”.
Il Yeon (1206 – 1289) was a Buddhist writer and monk. It is reported that he traveled all over the country, and collected throughout his life, the tales and legends of Korea.
It is at the age of 75 years in 1281, that he publishes the “Samguk Yusa 삼국유사”, collection of “memorable gestures of the three kingdoms”, which refers to the myth of Dangun.
Transmission through Shamanism in Korean Mythology
To understand Shamanism in Korea, also called “Sinism -신교”, it is necessary to understand that it is a reference to the world of spirits, the world of ancestors and the world of nature, which are very important ancient forms of belief in the peninsula.
The spirits or shin 신are considered to be gods, to whom people worship.
It is believed to be the oldest belief system in Korea.
Many shamanic legends are said to originate from Jeju Island, while Dangun’s legend is said to come from northern Korea.
Whether practiced by men or women, to signify a shaman the generic word of “Mu – 무” is used in Korea.
Men are named “Baksu -박수”, while women shamans are the “mudang 무당”.
The “Samguk Sagi” and the “Samguk Yusa” just mentioned, refer to the “mudangs”.
Oral transmission, stele, collections of tales and legends, links with nature and spirits, it is time to discover how Dangun takes birth on earth to found Korea.
2/ Dangun 단군 – A Korean Mythology Legend
And here is a nation at the forefront of technology never ceases to surprise us, since its foundation by Dangun is said to be of divine origin.
To understand this divine origin, we must go back to his grandfather who was called Hanunim or “Hwanin – 환인”, the god of the skies.
The god of the heavens had a son named “Hwanung-환웅”, who wanted to descend to earth.
Hwanung arrived at Mount Baekdu with his ministers of clouds, wind and rain.
Hwanung will found the state of “Shinshi – 신시”, the City of God, on the slopes of a hill near a sandalwood tree, hence his nickname according to the legend, “Prince of Sandalwood”.
A tiger and a bear, emblematic animals of Korean Mythology
Legend has it that a tiger and a bear wanted to become humans. They asked and prayed to Hwanung.
The son of the God of heaven asked them to stay out of the light in a cave for 100 days, only with garlic cloves and mugwort (which is a kind of herbaceous plant).
It is also reported in the legends, that the tiger and the bear each represented a tribe of Korea.
The tiger failed to honor Hwanung’s request and left after 20 days.
The bear found the strength to stay, and was transformed into a woman after the 21st day.
Upon her transformation, she was called “Ungnyo – 웅녀”
Although fulfilled, there was still something essential missing in the life of this “woman/race”. Thus, she began to pray for a son, under a divine tree “신단수”; according to legend, most likely under a birch tree.
Hwanung moved and sensitive to the prayers of this “woman/race” decided to take her as his wife.
He fulfilled his most cherished desire by this union. She gave birth to their son named “Dangun Wanggeom – 단군왕검”.
According to the legend also, he was born on the third day of the 10th month (in 2333 BC).
Dangun is the son of this woman/race, “Ungnyo and Hwanung, son of the God of heaven. He is therefore the grandson of the sky.
He founded the kingdom of “Gojoseon/Ko-Chosŏn – 고조” over which he ruled for 1500 years. Then he retired to the mountains, living there until he was 1908 years old.
It is important to note that the tiger – “호랑이” is an iconic animal of Korea, also despite its extermination.
Let’s just note that the lunar new year “Seollal-설날” which started this year in Korea on February 1, 2022, opened the year of the Tiger.
3/ A determining Korean Mythology in the history of Korea
Several events remind us of the importance of the myth of Dangun.
A marker in the face of adversity:
The history of Korea bears witness to numerous invasions over the centuries.
From 1905 until 1945, it had to face the Japanese occupation.
It is reported that Koreans, in the face of adversity and oppressive regimes, continued to fight to keep their beliefs alive.
They claimed to be the descendants of Dangun with divine origin.
A sign of rapprochement in a symbolic place:
September 20, 2018, was an important moment in the history of the Korean Nation, and in history altogether.
The whole world saw the presidential couples of the time, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, accompanied by their wives
We were sensitive to the strong sign of unification, a message that was perceptible through their smiles.
But we were also sensitive to it, because the photographs were taken at Mount Baekdu – 백두산, formerly known as Taebaek-san 태백산,
Baekdu is a volcano on the border located between North Korea and China, where it is called Mount “Changbai”. The mountain is the highest in the whole of Korea, peaking at 2,744 meters above sea level
It is the birthplace of the legend of Dangun.
A national holiday: “Gaecheonjeol -개천절”
Dangun’s birth, circumstances and origins are symbolic and spiritual, and October 3 is a national holiday in South Korea.
From 1919, Korea refers to the third day of the tenth month of the Korean lunar calendar.
Then in 1949, the date was changed to October 3 of the solar Gregorian calendar by the government at that time.
It is a holiday called “Gaecheonjeol -개천절”.
It can be translated as the “Opening of Heaven Festival”. It will be held this year on Monday, October 3, 2022.
A ceremony is held on an altar at the top of Mount Manisan in Ganhwa-do Island. Ganghwa-do is the fifth largest island in Korea, on the west coast and consists of eleven inhabited islands and seventeen deserted islands. In Ganghwa-do there are many sites, and historical monuments
After climbing many steps, we discover the “Chamseong” altar on the top of Manisan Mountain, with a magnificent view of the west sea, and the inland.
It is said that the altar was erected by Dangun to celebrate the worship of his ancestors, and the sky.
In North Korea, a solemn ceremony is held around the mausoleum of Dangun in Kangdong.
Kangdong, is one of the two suburban counties of Pyongyang, the capital.
And then, in order to get a better understanding of this legend, I asked some Korean friends.
Among them, Mr. Jason JongKyu Lee with whom I wrote a previous article, answered my questions, and I thank him very much.
F-A-Q About Korean Mythology
“Dangun is a myth that originated in Mount Baekdu which is the highest mountain in Korea. It is currently located partly in North Korea.
“Yes, we believe that Dangun is like a “grandfather of our Nation” who founded the KojoSeon Empire, which is the oldest region of the Korean Nation.
“We continued to believe in the legend of Dangun, even though we knew it was a myth, even during the period of Japanese colonization, when the Japanese tried to destroy the myth.
Speaking of destruction, why did they also exterminate so many tigers?
“Probably because they wanted to sell their skin and also because tigers are spiritual animals.
“Mount Baekdu is located partly in the north of Korea, a territory we cannot visit, but another part is located in China in the province of Jinlin; a province we can visit.
“Yes the myth of Dangun is written in the Samguk Yusa 삼국유사, a book dating from the 13 th century (1281) during the Koreo period. Normally a copy should be available in museums according to our knowledge.”
“Yes, the “Sanshin- 산신” is a kind of totemism. The mountain spirit, is very popular in the mountain regions in Korea, and the elderly people believe in it a lot.”
Conclusion on korean mythology
So in Korea “everyone” knows this legend. It is taught and celebrated to this day.
When we walk “fast/quick” “pali/pali” for example in Seoul, with our cell phones that receive immediate reception via 5G, and when we circulate among the high-tech constructions, should we not stop walking for a moment, rest our mind and raise our eyes to the sky?
It is then that we can remember, and appreciate the heavenly part of this great nation that is Korea.