Korean mythology (in Korean: 한국 신화 (韓國神話)) are the stories passed down by word of mouth over thousands of years on the Korean Peninsula and only written down in historical times. These stories serve as creation myths about the world and origin myths about nature or the social world. Korean myths are often localized and concern specific villages or clans.
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The earliest Korean myths predate Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist beliefs and are instead rooted in the traditional Korean folk religion and shamanism. Rituals that glorify shamanistic gods are central to the retelling of Korean shamanistic myths.
Many ancient Korean shamanistic myths were lost following the rise of Confucianism, which stressed pragmatism and rationalism. Only a fraction of Korean myths believed to have existed in ancient times were ultimately documented by Confucian and Buddhist scholars, many of whom modified the stories to fit within their own belief systems.
Influence of Korean shamanism
Korean shamanism played a major role in the creation of ancient Korean myths. Shamanistic myths are referred to as musoksinhwa (Hangul: 무속신화; Hanja: 巫俗神話) and are recited as a part of rituals meant to protect humans and nature. A keungut (Hangul: 큰굿), meaning "grand ritual" is the archetypal Korean shamanistic ritual, and each of its twelve parts includes a bonpuri (Hangul: 본풀이; Hanja: 本--), meaning a myth about a god.
Ancient Koreans followed an animistic concept and believed that every object had a soul and, as such, shamanistic rituals included worshiping the spirits and demons that inhabit objects such as mountains and rivers. A shaman is believed to be able to communicate with the spirit world. In Korean mythology, early leaders of Korea are said to have shamanistic qualities or to be descended from shamans. Dangun, the mythological founder of Korea was said to possess shamanistic traits and is sometimes portrayed as a mountain god, otherwise known as a sanshin.
Creation myths explain how the world began and where people came from. They typically include a first man or first woman who is responsible for creating the world.
Changsega (Hangul: 창세가, Hanja: 創世歌) is a shamanistic creation myth from Hamhung, Hamgyong Province in present-day North Korea. The story explains how the sky and the earth were separated by a giant god named Mireuk, who placed a copper column in each corner of the earth to hold up the sky. He created men from five golden insects, and women from five silver insects. Humankind was peaceful under Mireuk's rule, until another giant named Seokga appeared, and the two competed to rule the human world. Seokga won, but his victory was unjust and is considered, in this myth, the source of evil and sin in humankind.
Cheonjiwang Bonpuri (Hangul: 천지왕본풀이, Hanja: 天地王本--) is a shamanistic creation myth from Jeju Island in present-day South Korea. It tells the story of Cheonjiwang (the Celestial King), who comes down from the heavens to battle a rude man Sumyeongjangja, but fails in his mission. While on earth, Cheonjiwang marries Bakiwang, who gives birth to two sons, Daebyeolwang (the Big Star King) and Sobyeolwang (the Small Star King). Eventually, Cheonjiwang has his sons compete to become ruler of the human world. Sobyeolwang wins and punishes Sumyeongjangja by turning him into an insect.
Magohalmi (Hangul: 마고할미, Hanja: 麻姑--) is a creation myth from the Kwanbuk region of North Hamgyeong Province in present-day North Korea about a giant goddess named Grandmother Mago. Mago creates all the geological formations on earth using mud, rocks, and her own urine and excrement. Unlike creation myths about male deities, this myth was only passed down orally and was not included in formal records or rituals.
Sirumal (Hangul: 시루말) is a shamanistic creation myth from Osan, Gyeonggi Province in present-day South Korea. The story is performed in front of a ritual earthenware steamer called a siru. In the story, Dangchilseong spends the night with Lady Maehwa, who gives birth to two sons, Seonmun and Human, after Dangchilseong leaves. The boys are teased at school for being fatherless, but learn about their father and ascend into the sky to meet him. He then gives Seomun the kingdom of Daehanguk, and Human the kingdom of Sohanguk.
Geonguksinhwa (Hangul: 건국신화; Hanja: 建國神話) are myths that explain the founding of a nation. Korea's ancient founding myths often include a story about the union of a sky father and earth mother. Korea's medieval founding myths instead established that Korean rulers had divine lineage but were not deities themselves.
Dangun Wanggeom (Hangul: 단군왕검; Hanja: 檀君王儉) is the founder of Gojoseon, the first kingdom of Korea. It is believed he founded Gojoseon in 2333 BC. Dangun's story was recorded in two documents from the 13th century A.D., the Samgungnyusa and the Jewang Ungi.
Dangun's grandfather, Hwan-in, was the "Lord of Heaven," while his father, Hwan-ung, descended to earth and founded a society on the Korean peninsula. In some versions of the myth, his society is located on Mount Taebaeksan, and in other versions it is located on Mount Paektu. When a bear and a tiger came to Hwan-ung asking to be made human, he gave them each a bundle of sacred food to eat and told them to stay in a cave for 100 days, after which time they would become human. While the tiger gave up, the bear followed Hwang-ung's directions and was turned into a human woman named Ungnyeo. Ungnyeo mated with Hwang-ung and gave birth to Dangun. Dangun ruled Gojoseon for 1,500 years before becoming a mountain god (sansin).
Namu Doryeong (Hangul: 나무도령, Hanja: --道令) is a myth about the son of a guardian tree spirit. The son, Namu Doryeong, survived a flood by floating on the tree. He first saved a colony of ants from the flood, then a swarm of mosquitoes, until he had saved all the animals of the world. Namu Doryeong finally saved a young human boy, despite the tree's advice against it.
After the flood, Namu Doryeong met an older woman and her two daughters on Mt. Baekdu, where they had been safe from the flood. The woman told Namu Doryeong if he won a contest, he could have her daughter's hand in marriage. Namu Doryeong won the contest with the aid of a swarm of ants, who turned out to be the very ants that Namu Doryeong had saved during the flood. Namu Doryeong and the human boy married the −two daughters, and they formed the next race of humans.
Chasa Bonpuri (Hangul: 차사본풀이, Hanja: 差使本--) is an underworld myth from Jeju Island. The hero Gangrim Doryeong is ordered to capture Yeomra, King of the Underworld, by his king (Kimchiwonnim) in order to discover the reason for the mysterious deaths of the three sons of Gwayanggaxi. With help from Munsin, the door god, and Jowangsin, the kitchen god, Gangrim Doryeong captures Yeomra. After testing Gangrim Doryeong's wisdom, Yeomra tells Kimchiwonnim that the mysterious deaths are because the three sons are actually the three princes of Beomul, who were murdered by Gwayanggaxi. They chose to be reborn as Gwayanggaxi's sons to take revenge on their killers. Gangrim Doryeong became the death god, who reaps dead souls and brings them to the underworld.
Barigongju or Baridegi (Hangul: 바리공주, Hanja: 鉢里公主) is a shamanistic myth about the Abandoned Princess. In the story, the princess' parents abandon her because they are unable to have a son, and she is their seventh daughter. Years later, the princess' parents became ill, and she travels to the underworld to find the elixir of life. With it, she revives her parents and becomes a goddess who guides the souls of the dead from earth to heaven.
Birth and childhood disease myths
Samsin Halmoni (Hangul: 삼신 할머니, Hanja: 三神---) is a shamanistic myth about the triple goddess of birth. After being seduced by a monk, her brothers threatened to kill her for bringing dishonor to their family. She hid in a cave, where she gave birth and was later freed by her mother, a shaman from heaven.
Sonnimgut is a myth about the 53 smallpox gods, called the Sonnimne, who lived in China. However, the Sonnimne wanted to live in Korea, so the beautiful goddess Gaxi Sonnim, lead three of the Sonnimne there. However, they could not cross the Yalu River. One day, a ferryman said that the three gods could cross the Yalu on his boat if Gaxi Sonnim made love to him. Gaxi Sonnim severed the ferryman's head with a dagger and then gave smallpox to the ferryman's seven sons, killing the eldest six. The seventh son survived, though he was disabled. Then, they crossed the Yalu on the ferryman's boat.
When the gods reached Seoul, they attempted to sleep in the house of the rich Kim Jangja, but were refused. Instead, they slept in the shack of the kind crone, Nogo Halmi. After blessing Nogo Halmi's granddaughter with longevity and good luck, the trio headed towards Kim Jangja's mansion.
Kim Jangja hid his son Cheolhyeon in a high mountain, and burned peppers on every street because pepper was said to drive away the Sonnimne. The Sonnimne attacked Cheolhyeon, first luring him out of the mountain then whipping him. The Sonnimne pierced silver needles in Cheolhyeon's joints, and finally, Kim Jangja promised to have a sacrifice made for the Sonnimne. However, the promise was false, and the angered Sonnimne killed Cheolhyon, and took him as the fifty-fourth Sonnimne.
When the Sonnimne were returning to China, they found that Nogo Halmi lived in Kim Jangja's mansion with her granddaughter and son-in-law, while Kim Jangja lived as a sick beggar in Nogo Halmi's shack. When Cheolhyeon cried out at this situation, the Sonnimne gave Kim Jangja some money and cured his sickness. Cheolhyeon then joined the Sonnimne.
Segyeong Bonpuri (Hangul: 세경본풀이, Hanja: 世經本--) is a myth about Jacheongbi, the goddess of earth and love. "Ja-cheong" translates into "wants for oneself". This refers to Jacheongbi's independence, self-reliance, and strong will to do whatever is necessary to achieve a goal. In the myth Jacheongbi disguises herself as a young man in order to receive a higher education. She eventually falls in love with one of her peers named Mun who is the son of the Emperor of Heaven. While still in disguise, the two share a room for three years of their study. After the term is over, Jacheongbi decided to confess her feelings to the young god. He accepts her feelings and they secretly marry, however he is meant to return to the Garden of Heaven to marry another.
In order to test which bride would be best for his son, the father issues them both a challenge: to walk on knives in a fire. Jacheongbi, with her strong will and determination, completes the task out of her unwavering love for Mun. The other bride strongly refuses and instead starves herself to death making her known as the "Hungry Ghost". It became a wedding tradition to give offerings beneath the altar in her memory.
Regardless of this, the father orders his son to spend half of his time with him in the Garden of Heaven. Jacheongbi accepts this knowing that her husband will return to her. Unfortunately, Jacheongbi is proven wrong when her husband over time forgets about her and never returns. Having become tired of waiting for him, Jacheongbi sets out to find Mun with her servant Jeongsunam. Having fallen for her, the servant attempts to rape Jacheongbi. Despite being seen as fimble and delicate, Jacheongbi is very strong and wise and managed to kill the servant.
Afterwards, Jacheongbi feels the need to right her actions and wants to bring her servant back to life. She disguises herself as a man again and goes to the Garden of Heaven, which has flowers for every person on Earth and cures for every disease. While in disguise, Jacheongbi charms the gardener into telling her which flower can be used to bring Jeongsunam back to life and also cure him of his lust for women. While in the garden, Jacheongbi comes upon the gods that happen to be up in dispute. Using her wisdom and sharp wit, she manages to find a solution to the arguments between the gods and brings peace. Out of gratitude, the Emperor of Heaven gives Jacheongbi her husband and 5 grains to take with her back to earth.
The grains are barley, rice, bean, millet, and foxtail millet. Jacheongbi then asks if he could give her a grain that would grow even in the harshest of conditions. Appreciating her compassion for the people, the Emperor approves of her humble request and gifts her with buckwheat. This tale is why Jacheongbi is depicted as the goddess of earth and love. Ultimately, Jacheongbi becomes Jungsegyeong, the Earthly Farming Goddess; Mun becomes Sangsegyeong, the Celestial Farming God; and the servant Jeongsunam becomes Hasegyeog, the Cattle God.
Gasin are deities who protect buildings, rooms, and objects.
Munjeon Bonpuri (Hangul: 문전본풀이, Hanja: 門前本--) is a myth about the origin of Cheuksin, the toilet goddess. In the story Noiljadae (or her daughter, in some versions), kills Yeosan Buin and attempts to kill her seven children. However, Noiljadae commits suicide when her plan is foiled by the seventh son, Nokdisaengin, and Yeosan Buin is brought back to life with Hwansaengkkot flowers. Yeosan Buin becomes Jowangsin, the goddess of the kitchen, hearth, and fire.
Seongju Puli is a myth about the evil magician Sojinhang attempts to claim Teojushin, the earth goddess. However, Sojinhang is defeated, and he turns into a Jangseung, or totem pole. His daughters turn into deities called Seonangsin.
Seongjo Puri is a myth about Ansimguk of Seongjo, who abandons his wife, Gyehwa Buin. As a result, he is abandoned on a deserted island, where he lives for three years as a furry beast.
Gunung Bonpuri, the giant Wang Janggun kills the Dragon King of the West Sea with an arrow at the request of the Dragon King of the East Sea. The Dragon King of the East Sea gives his daughter's hand in marriage, and the giant Wang Janggun and his three sons become the Gunungshin, or war gods.
- Sansin - Mountain gods
- Munsin - Door god
- Eopsin - Goddess of storage and wealth
- Yeomna - God of death
- Sosamshin - Goddess of the birth of cattle
- Seonangsin - Goddess of villages, boundaries, and wars
- Dosumunjang - Creator God
- Cheonjiwang - Sky King of the Gods
- Bagiwang - Queen of the Earth
- Daebyeol - King of the Afterworld
- Sobyeol - King of the Human World
- Hwadeok Jingun - Fire God
- Byeorak Jang-gun - God of Thunder and lightning
- Gangrim - Leader of the Chasas
- Jibuwang - Afterworld God who give orders to chasa.
- Danggeum - Samsin
- Samseung Halmang - Samsin of Jejudo
- Jeoseung Halmang - Goddess who brings death to babies
- Sambuljeseok - Three fate gods, sons of Danggem
- Byeolsang - Pox Gods including Sonnimnes and Eojeontto
- Baridegi - see above
- Hallakgungi - see Igong Bonpuri
- Gameunjang - Goddess of 'Jeonsang' term that could be referred to 'Fate' or 'Former Life'
- Segyeongsin - see above
- Oneuli - Goddess of Time
- Honsuseongin - Gods who protect children from diseases
- Chilseongshin - God of Septentrions
- Gungsang - Sun God
- Myeongwol - Moon Goddess
- Yeonggam - Dokkaebi Gods
- Jijang - Goddess of misfortune
- Bonhyangdang - Village Guardians, Gwenegitto, Baramun, and Baekjo Agi are named Bonhyangdangs
- Samani - God of Lifespan
- Gunung - war gods
- Yeongdeung - Goddess of Wind
- Bugeun - God of sexual relationships
- Gamheung - Father of all Gods
- Geollipsin - Begger Gods
Other mythical beings
- Korean dragon
- Chollima - winged horse
- Kumiho - nine-tailed fox
- Dokkaebi - Mischievous sprits that appear at night.
- Imugi - lesser dragons
- Haetae - lion with scales and a horn on its head
- Bulgasari - iron-eating monster
- Samjoko - three legged bird that represents the sun
- Bulgae - dog beasts from the kingdom of darkness that always chase the sun and moon
- Inmyeonjo - a mythical creature with a body of a bird and a head of a human
- Samjokgu - three legged dog that leads people and distinguish kumihos
- Samdugumi - Monstrous fox spirit of Jeju Island that has three heads and nine tails.
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