Korean Creational Myths



According to the Dangun creation myth, Hwanung yearned to live on the earth among the valleys and the mountains. Hwanin permitted Hwanung and 3000 followers to depart and they descended from heaven to a sandalwood tree on Baekdu Mountain, then called Taebaek Mountain. There Hwanung founded Sinsi "City of God" and gave himself the title Heaven King. In a cave near the sandalwood tree lived a bear and a tiger who came to the tree every day to pray to Hwanung. One day Hwangung gave the bear and the tiger twenty bulbs of garlic and some divine mugwort. Hwanung promised if they ate only his garlic and mugwort and stayed in the cave out of the sunlight for one hundred days he would make them human.

The tiger and the bear agreed and went back to the cave, but tiger was too hungry and impatient to wait, leaving the cave before the 100 days were done. But the bear remained, and on the 101st day was transformed into a beautiful woman, who gratefully honored Hwanung with offerings. With time the woman grew lonely, and prayed to Hwanung that she might have a child. So Hwanung made her his wife and gave her a son called Dangun, a name which has two meanings: "Altar Prince" and sandalwood. Dangun eventually came to P'yongyang and founded Gojoseon.




Creation myths: Philosophy originates from mythology

The separation of heaven and earth, the creation of the sun, the moon and stars, the origin of fire and water, the origin of clothing and cooking, the genesis of humans, and the fight over this world and the underworld are systematically organized and well presented in this story, which conveys the true essence of mythological philosophy. It also reveals a spatial conception in that the story begins with the separation of heaven and earth and ends with the separation of the world of humans. In other words, the creation gods who compete over this world and the underworld eventually split the world of humans.




Flood myths: Imitation and variations of the creation myths

There are two typical flood myths in Korea. In the brother-sister intermarriage myth, mankind continued its existence through the marriage between a brother and sister who survived a big flood. In the Namu Toryong (A Son of the Tree God) myth, Namu Toryong played a similar role in the continuation of our history after a big flood. The Creation god divides what used to be united, and thus creates something that used to be non-existent. However, flood myths are about creation through combination, not about creation through division. Creation is about both division and combination, and this is the major principle in nature which surrounds us.




The Legend of HyokKose


In ancient times Chinhan had six villages, each belonging to a separate clan whose ancestor was said to have descended from heaven.

On the first day of the third month of the first year, Imja, of Ti-chieh of the former Han [69 BC], the ancestors of the six villages, together with their children, gathered by the shore of the Al River. They said, "because we have no sovereign on high to rule the people, the people are libertine and do only what they wish. We should seek out a virtuous man to be our king, found a nation, and lay out a capital."

When they ascended to a height and gazed southward, they observed an eerie lightning-like effluvium by the Na Well under Mount Yang, while nearby a white horse kneeled and bowed. When they reached the spot, they found a great red egg; the horse neighed and flew up to heaven when it saw men approaching.

When the people fractured the egg to open, they discovered within it a resplendent infant boy with a radiant visage. Overwhelmed by their discovery, they bathed the infant in the East Spring, after which he shimmered a warm golden light. Bird and beast danced of rapture, heaven and earth tembled, and the sun and the moon became radiant. They called the child King Yokkose, or Luminous, and christened him Kosorhan, or King.

The people congratulated one another and spoke, "now that the Son of Heaven has come down to be among us, we must seek a virtuous queen to be his mate. "That day a hen dragon appeared near the Aryong Well in Saryang district and produced from under her left rib an infant girl. Her visage was exceedingly enchanting, but her lips were like the beak of a chick. Only when the girl was given a bath in the North River Wolsong did the beak fall off. The river was then called Palch'circon. The people erected a palace at the western foot of Mount South and reared the two wondrous infants together. Since the boy had been born from an egg in the shape of a gourd, pak in Korean, they gave him the surname Pak; the girl was named after the well where she had been borne.

When the two reached the age of thirteen in the first year, Kapcha, of Wu-feng [57 BC], the boy became King and the girl became Queen. They called the country Sorabol, Sobol, Sara, or Saro. And because of the circumstances surrounding the queen's birth, the country was also called Kyerim, or Forest of the Cock, to commemorate the appearance of the hen dragon. According to another story, the country was so called because a cock crowed in the woods when Kim Alchi was found during the reign of King T'arhae.Later, Silla became the official name of the country.

After a sixty-one year reign, Hyokkose ascended to Heaven, and after seven days his remains fell to earth. His queen is said to have followed him. The people wished to bury them in the same tomb, but a large serpent appeared and stopped them. So the remains of each were divided into five parts and buried. Called Five Tombs or Snake Tomb, it is the present North Tomb at Tam-m Monastery. The heir apparent succeeded Hyokkose as Namhae.




The Legend of King Onjo of Paekche

The father of King Onjo, founder of Paekche, was Chumong. He fled from North Puyª to escape troubles and went to Cholbon Puyª, whose king had no son but had three daughters. Knowing that Chumong was extraordinary, the king presented his second daughter to him in marriage. Shortly thereafter, the king died and was succeeded by Chumong. Chumong had two sons, Piryu and Onjo.

When Yuri, a son of Chumong, born in North Puyª, came to Cholbon Puyª and became heir to the throne, Piryu and Onjo were afraid of being rejected by their half brother and travelled south with ten counselors, including Ogan and Maryª. Many followed them. Upon reaching Hansan, they climbed Pua Peak (Mount Samgak) to find a place to settle.

When Piryu wished to settle by the sea, the counselors advised him: "The land south of the Han borders the Han River to the north, takes to a high mountain to the east, views a fertile marsh to the south, and is separated by a great sea to the west. Its natural fastness is unparalleled, a place fit for your capital." But Piryu did not listen. He divided the people and went to Mich'uhol to settle. Onjo set up his capital at Hanam Wiryesªng, made ten counselors his assistants, and named his country Sipche. This was in the third year of Hung-chia of Emperor Cheng of the Former Han [18 BC].

Because the land of Mich'uhol was wet and its water salty, Piryu could not live in comfort; when he returned and saw Wirye firmly established and its people happy, he died of shame and remorse. His followers pledged allegiance to Wirye and joyfully came to submit, hence the country was named Paekche. Like Koguryª, the ruling family of Paekche stems from Puyª, which they adopted as their clan name.




The Legend of Pak Hyokkose, the Founder of Silla

In olden times Chinhan had six villages, each belonging to a separate clan whose ancestor was said to have descended from heaven.

On the first day of the third month of the first year, imja, of Ti-chieh of the Former Han [69 BC], the ancestors of the six villages, together with their children, gathered by the shore of the Al River. They said, "Because we have no ruler above to govern the people, the people are dissolute and do only what they wish. We should seek out a virtuous man to be our king, found a country, and lay out a capital."

When they climbed to a height and looked southward, they saw an eerie lightninglike emanation by the Na Well under Mount Yang, while nearby a white horse kneeled and bowed. When they reached the spot, they found a red egg; the horse neighed and flew up to heaven when it saw men approaching. When the people cracked the egg open, they discovered within a beautiful infant boy with a radiant visage. Amazed by their discovery, they bathed the infant in the East Spring, and then he emitted light. Birds and beasts danced for joy, heaven and earth shook, and the sun and the moon became bright. The named the child King Hyokkose, or Bright, and titled him koserhan, or king.

The people congratulated one another and said, "Now that the Son of Heaven has come down to be among us, we must seek a virtuous queen to be his mate." That day a hen dragon appeared near the Aryong Well in Saryang district and produced from under her left rib an infant girl. Her features were unusually lovely, but her lips were like the beak of a chick. Only when the girl was given a bath in the North River Wolsong in did the beak fall off. The river was then called Palch'&circon. The people erected a palace at the western foot of Mount South and reared the two wondrous infants together. Since the boy had been born fron an egg in the shape of a gourd, pak in Korean, they gave him the surname Pak; the girl was named after the well where she was born.

When the two reached the age of thirteen in the first year, kapcha, of Wu-feng [57 BC], the boy became king and the girl became queen. They named the country Sorabol, Sobol, Sara, or Saro. And because of the circumstances surrounding the queen's birth, the country was also called Kyerim, or Forest of the Cock, to commemorate the appearance of the hen dragon According to another story, the country was so called because a cock crowed in the woods when Kim Alchi was found during the reign of King T'arhae. Later, Silla became the official name of the country.

After a sixty-one year reign, Hyokkose ascended to heaven, and after seven days his remains fell to earth. His queen is said to have followed him. The people wished to bury them in the same tomb, but a large snake appeared and stopped them. So the remains of each were divided into five parts and buried. Called Five Tombs or Snake Tomb, it is the present North Tomb at Tamªm Monastery. The heir apparent succeeded Hyokkose as Namhae.




The Legend of King T'arhae of Silla

During the reign of King Namhae, a boat came to anchor off the shores of Karak. King Suro of that country, together with his people, beat drums and shouted to welcome it, but the boat sailed away and reached Ajin Cove, east of the Forest of the Cock. Just then an old woman appeared on the shore of the inlet.

She was the mother of the fisherman of King Hyokkose. Espying the boat from afar, she said, "There is no rock in the middle of the sea. Why does a flock of magpies circle there and cry?" She took a skiff and went to investigate. Magpies hovered over the boat, which bore a casket twenty feet long and thirteen feet wide. She pulled the boat and moored it at the foot of a grove of trees. She did not know whether it would be auspicious or not and made a vow to heaven for good luck. Then she opened the casket. She found a handsome boy, seven treasures, and male and female slaves.

After being provided for seven days, the boy said, "I am from the land of Yongsªng, where there were twenty- eight dragon kings, all born from human wombs. They ascended the throne one after another at the age of five or six, taught the people, and regulated life. We have clans of eight ranks, but all ascended to the throne without elections. My father, King Hamdalp'a, married the daughter of the king of the land of Chªngnyª, but she long remained barren and prayed for a son.

After seven years, she gave birth to a huge egg. The great king gathered and consulted his ministers, who said, "We have never heard of a woman giving birth to an egg; surely it is a bad omen." The king had a casket made, put me into it, together with seven treasures and slaves, and loaded it on a boat. He had it launched, and prayed that it would land on a destined place, found a kingdom, and establish a family. A red dragon came to guard the boat until it arrived here."

Then the boy, his staff trailing after him, climbed Mount T'oham with two slaves, built a cairn where he stayed for seven days, and looked around for a suitable place within the city walls to settle. He saw a hill shaped like a three days' crescent moon, an ideal place for a long stay. When he went down and approached the place, it was Lord Ho's residence. The boy devised a ruse: he had whetstone and charcoal buried around the house. The next day, he went to the door and declared that it was the house of his ancestors.

Lord Ho denied this, and, after a quarrel without reaching a decision, they brought the case before the authorities. When the officials asked the boy to prove his case, he replied, "We are a family of blacksmiths, but we were away at a nearby village. During our absence some other person occupied our house. I beg you to dig the ground and make a search." They found the whetstone and charcoal, so the house became his. Acknowledging the shrewdness of the boy, King Namhae gave him his eldest daughter in marriage.

Upon the death of King Yuri in the six month of the second year of Chung-yuan of Emperor Kuang-wu [AD 57], T'arhae ascended the throne. Because he had taken another's property under the pretext that it was his ancestors', his surname became Sok (old); or because magpies caused the casket to be opened, the bird radical was dropped from the graph "magpie," leaving the one for Sok. His name T'arhae ("remove and undo") alludes to the fact that he came out of an egg from a casket.

After a rule of twenty-three years, he died in the fourth year of Chien-ch'u [AD 79], kimyo, and was buried on the hill of Soch'on. Later a god said, "Remove my bones." His skeleton was three feet two inches in circumference, his body was nine feet seven inches tall, his teeth were closely set like one tooth, his bones were joined closely-- indeed he was a peerless giant. His remains were broken, remade into a statue, and enshrined in the palace. Then a god spoke again, "Bury my bones on Eastern Peak." So he was enshrined there.





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