Korean mythology

by Charles La Shure

To understand more about the character and scope of Korean mythology and folklore, it is necessary to have at least a brief background in the history and geography of the country.

The Korean peninsula juts out from the mainland in Northeast Asia between China and Japan. This key location has made Korea the target of aggression by neighboring nations throughout history. To the east, Japan viewed Korea as a first and vital step to a conquest of the Asian mainland. To the west, China viewed Korea as a rightful part of its territory as the supreme power of Asia. For thousands of years, Korea managed to fend off advances and maintain cultural and political independence. It was not until 1910, when Korea became a colony of Japan, that a foreign power ruled over the Korean peninsula. For thousands of years Korea was beset on all sides, yet still managed to maintain its own unique cultural identity.

Its unique position also made it a natural conduit of culture in Asia. Much of Chinese culture was borrowed or adapted, later to be passed on to Japan. Trade was important as well, bringing news and culture as well as goods from distant lands. According to the legends, travelers came from as far away as India. Although Korea considered China to be a "big brother" nation — Korea was, for most of its history, under Chinese suzerainty — a fierce national pride preserved a unique Korean culture. King Sejong's invention of Hangul, the Korean alphabet, in the fifteenth century is an example of the independent spirit of the Korean people. Up to that point, all literature had been transmitted using Chinese characters. With the invention of Hangul, Korea now had a unique written language to match its unique spoken language — Korean, along with Japanese, is more closely related to Turkish than it is to Chinese.

The peninsula itself is very mountainous, divided by eight major mountain ranges. The larger of these ranges have historically hindered communication and interaction between the various regions of Korea. The result of this is that each province in modern-day Korea has its own distinct dialect. With regards to Korean mythology, the effect has been equally diversifying. Unlike the Greeks or Romans, who had a pantheon of gods that interacted with each other, the gods and spirits of Korea are more independent, and sometimes mutually exclusive. This is also due to the fact that what is now Korea was once five different nations. For a closer look, let us now turn to the history of the Korean peninsula.

Early History
The earliest political entities on the Korean peninsula were walled city-states that arose during the Bronze Age, not unlike the city-states of Greece. The most powerful of these states was called Chosŏn (now called Old Chosŏn to avoid confusion with the later Chosŏn kingdom). According to myth, Chosŏn was founded in 2333 BCE. near P'yŏngyang by Tangun. Sometime around the beginning of the second century BCE, Chosŏn fell due to pressure from Yen China. A refugee named Wiman founded a new kingdom, which he named Wiman Chosŏn. Not only did he keep the Chosŏn name, he also adopted Chosŏn customs and culture, in a sense reviving the fallen kingdom. Wiman Chosŏn exerted a fair amount of power in Asia, but fell in 108 BCE to China.

Late in the next century, the first of what would later be called the Three Kingdoms emerged. According to legend, Chumong founded Koguryŏ in 37 BCE near the Yalu River. The second kingdom, Paekche, developed some time around the third century CE in the southwestern corner of the Korean peninsula. The last of the Three Kingdoms, Shilla, developed in the fourth century in the southeastern portion of the peninsula. The small nation of Gaya did exist in the south of the peninsula between Paekche and Silla, but it was conquered by Silla in the mid-sixth century. An entirely separate nation developed on the island of ghosts of Paekche and Koguryŏ were resurrected in Later Paekche and Koryŏ (from which the modern name "Korea" is derived), and Koryŏ proved victorious. The Koryŏ kingdom lasted until 1392, when a coup d'etat began the kingdom of Chosŏn. Chosŏn kings reigned for over five hundred years, until the light of their kingdom was snuffed out by the Japanese as they began their Pacific War by colonizing Korea in 1910.

What is Mythology in the Korean Context?
Most people know what mythology is, but would have a very difficult time providing a precise definition if asked for one. My good friend Noah, always handy for a definition or two, once said that a myth is "a story of great but unknown age which originally embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified; an ancient legend of a god, a hero, the origin of a race, etc.; a wonder story of prehistoric origin; a popular fable which is, or has been, received as historical."

As good a definition as any, but somewhat broad and confusing. It denies that myth can be present ("great but unknown age," "ancient," "historical"), which is something Joseph Campbell would no doubt have disagreed with. Is age the primary condition of a myth? One would think so sometimes. It often appears that the older a story is, the more likely it is to be called a myth. The word "myth" has also come to mean "untrue story," thus raising the suspicion that perhaps veracity (or lack of it) is the measuring stick of myth.

The definition also uses the world "legend" in its definition — does that mean that all legends fall within the realm of myth? This is the true problem in defining myth: defining it in relation to the other genres, like legend, folktale, fable, fairy tale, etc. One would indeed be hard-pressed to find mutually exclusive definitions for these five genres, let alone all the others.

Now we turn to the field of Korean mythology, and we are faced with two problems. For one, scholars here have also struggled to classify and define the broad body of literature known as "tales" (seolhwa). The most common division is a three-fold one: myth (shinhwa), legend (cheonseol), and folktale (mindam). This is the division most often used, but there are others just as valid. Another three-fold division divides tales into animal tales, ordinary people tales, and anecdotes. A two-fold division would distinguish between "serious" and "fantastic" tales, while another would set myths against the group of legends and folktales. There is even a five-fold division, which arranges tales in a vertical hierarchy: supernatural tales, hero tales, ordinary people tales, humorous tales (or "idiot tales"), and plant and animal tales.

The second of our problems complicates matters even further, and this is the problem of language. The terms shinhwa, cheonseol, and mindam do not correspond exactly to myth, legend, and folktale in English. All three of the Korean terms are Sino-Korean-based on Chinese characters. To get a basic feel for the meaning of these terms, let's look first at the characters.

shinshinspirit, god, divine, supernatural
hwahwawords, to talk
cheoncheontransmit, hand down
seolseolto say, to speak
minminpeople, mankind, folk
damdamto talk, to converse

The keen observer will note that the characters hwa, seol, and dam all have a similar root (the left-hand character), which means "to speak." These three characters can be translated as either "story" or "tale." Shin refers to spirits, ghosts, monsters, and demigods as well as the gods that reside in heaven. Thus the term shinhwa would seem to refer to all supernatural tales. This, however, is not the case, as we will see shortly. The term cheonseol may be interpreted as either "a story that is handed down" or as "a story of something passed down." Both apply to the Korean cheonseol. Mindam, of course, is a tale of the common people.

Each of these genres has specific characteristics that distinguish it from the others. Before getting into these characteristics, though, it will be helpful to discuss two classification systems, both put forth by Dr. Cho Dong-Il, a professor of Korean Literature at Seoul National University. The first system is laid out in his "Classification System of Korean Tale Types.1 Here he defines the genres according to the changes in the protagonist's fortunes, a "+" representing a positive state and a "-" representing a negative state. The myth is a "+ +" type, the legend is a "+ -" type, and the folktale is a "- +" type. This is, of course, a simplification of a very large and complex system that covers all of the Korean tale types.

Protagonist (P)Deity or semi deityOutstanding humanOrdinary or foolish human
ThemeP founds nation or performs other heroic deed with aid of heavenly benefactor/parentP challenges existing authority or powerP overcomes adverse circumstances, often in a humorous fashion
OutcomeP is victoriousP is defeatedP is victorious
+ / - Type+ ++ -- +
Self-World Conflictsupernatural self overcomes worldself is overcome by worldordinary self overcomes world

A quick look at the table immediately reveals that shinhwa and cheonseol are indeed quite different, and that mindam would appear to have more in common with shinhwa than with cheonseol. The typical motivation behind each genre is also revealed upon closer examination. Unlike other mythologies, which include creation, myths, origin myths, and various other types, the Korean shinhwa focuses almost exclusively on national-foundation myths (keonguk shinhwa). As such, the shinhwa served to legitimize the existence of a government or nation, and they were vigorously handed down to succeeding generations.

To understand the cheonseol, we must know a little about Confucianism, perhaps the most important philosophy in Asia. It will suffice to say for our purposes that Confucianism promotes a rigid vertical social hierarchy, and was adopted by the ruling classes as a means of preserving their power. The cheonseol often depicted humans who, through exceptional but earthly power, rose above their stations to challenge the existing authority. Seen from a Confucian point of view, it is natural that these heroes should fail and that legends should invariably be tragic. Cheonseol are often quite similar to what a Western audience would call an origin myth, a myth explaining how something came to be. The clue to this is to be found within the word cheonseol itself; as explained before, it can mean both "a story that is handed down" or "a story of something passed down." Thus, a cheonseol almost always leaves something behind as proof, be it a rock, a flower, or an animal.

As mentioned above, the mindam does share more in common with the shinhwa than with the cheonseol, but it is still quite different from both. Unlike the semi-deified hero of the shinhwa, the hero of the mindam is an ordinary person, or sometimes even a bumbling idiot. He or she overcomes low station and hard times, succeeding by trickery or luck. This, of course, goes directly against the Confucianist philosophy that everyone has their place, and here lies the difference between the mindam and both the shinhwa and cheonseol. Shinhwa and cheonseol both served the interests of the ruling aristocracy, one serving political interests and the other serving social interests. Mindam, on the other hand, were a way for the common people to escape the harsh reality that surrounded them, and served the noble purpose of making people laugh. They were truly "tales of the people."

One should be able to see by now how very different shinhwa, cheonseol, and mindam are from myths, legends, and folktales, and I hope the reader will both understand and forgive me for consistently using the Korean terms. We began this section by asking "What is mythology in the Korean context?" and the answer is that it is something quite different from mythology in the Western context. Part of this, as we have seen, is due to Confucianism, and yet another part is due to other aspects of Korean thinking, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions (like shamanism). There are many cheonseol that would be considered myths in the Western context simply because they deal with spirits, or shin, but we must differentiate between two types of shin when discussing Korean tales. This is where those other systems of thought come in.

The shin in shinhwa are a breed apart. They are the gods who live in the heavens and more or less rule over the earth. The other shin (also called chapshin, chap meaning "various" or "miscellaneous") live on the earth and interact quite regularly with humans; these chapshin are a product of Korean folk religions. Ghosts, fairies, guardian spirits, and even what would be considered monsters in the West are all described by the term chapshin. Interestingly, ghosts and monsters in Korea do not hold the same place of horror and dread as they do in the west; there are, in fact, no truly evil chapshin. A ghost may of course take revenge on someone who has done them wrong, but the Western vampires, ghouls, zombies and the like — fearsome monsters evil to the core — have no counterparts in Korea. Chapshin often act as judges or guardians, punishing the evil and rewarding or protecting the good.

This harmony with the supernatural comes from the Buddhist influence with its circular worldview. Life and death are not separate states of being, they are merely part of the same process. Although this circular worldview is not so strictly adhered to in Korea as it is in Southeast Asia, the co-existence and harmony of life and death is a natural part of the worldview. We can say that the "natural" is emphasized in the "supernatural" in Korea.

There are other characters that appear in Korean tales who could easily appear in Western mythology. These are the Taoists, "the Followers of the Way," known as tosa and shinseon. Tosa ("practitioner of the Way") are humans noted for superhuman skills obtained through study of the Way. Some have, for example, the ability to run long distances in a short period of time, reminiscent of the Jewish prophet Elijah (See 1 Kings 18:44-46). Shinseon ("divine hermits"), on the other hand, live to extremely old age through ascetic mountain living and practicing of the Way.

What then, shall we do? Where do we draw the line? Is mythology in the Korean context limited to shinhwa, namely the small group of keonguk shinhwa? Or shall we define mythology in a much broader fashion, thus including many cheonseol and mindam as well? I think the reader would agree that an inclusive approach would be far more interesting and fruitful than an exclusive approach. As long as each tale is recognized for what it is and understood within its proper social context, there should be no problem in including tales that might not belong to the shinhwa type.

The thought and philosophy of a people is revealed in their myths. In our modern, rational world, "myth" has almost become synonymous with "untruth." In ancient Greece, though, mythos was accepted as truth without question, whereas logos was a truth that could be argued and proven. This is because the Greeks recognized that our myths tell the truth about who we really are, and that is a truth that can ultimately not be argued. These days we laugh at myth, or relegate it to children's books, because we are afraid of it — afraid of what it says about us. We like to think that we are so much smarter and more sophisticated than the ancients, but the truth is we are still the same people.

Webster echoes a common sentiment by denying that myth is present, but the reason that myths are still around is because they still speak to us as human beings. It is fine to know the modern history of Korea, but most people stop there and go no further into the mind of the Korean people. Hopefully a knowledge of Korean mythology will lead to a deeper understanding of Korea and her people, bringing the West a little closer to the East.