Tangun Wanggeom

by Charles La Shure

The legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom, Old Chosŏn, in 2333 BCE near modern P'yŏngyang. His full name was Tangun Wanggeom, which is actually more of a title than a name: tangun means "high priest" and wanggeom means "king," symbolizing the spiritual and political power invested in the ruler. His father was Hwanung, son of Hwanin, emperor of heaven, and his mother was a bear who had been transformed into a woman. It has been speculated that the bear-woman transformation story indicates that the woman was from a bear totem clan. On a more symbolic level, though, the bear's passing of the test shows how highly early Koreans valued perseverance. It was not the strength and impetuosity of the tiger that helped the Korean people resist attacks from both China and Japan, but the determination and perseverance of the bear.

Tangun is still worshiped today in modern Korea by followers of Cheondogyo, "Teaching of the Heavenly Way," and Koreans often refer to themselves as "descendants of Tangun."

Cheondogyo, also spelled Chondogyo, (천도교 / 天道敎) is a twentieth-century religious movement, based on the Donghak movement of the nineteenth century. It contains elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Christianity. The premise of this religion is that there is God and that He resides in each person, and not in heaven.