As always here at Balladeer’s Blog I like to examine topics that I feel don’t get enough attention. The gods and goddesses of Korea are the topic of this latest article on an underappreciated pantheon of deities. Readers interested in myths from around the world may want to also check out my pages on Navajo, Vietnamese and Bunyoro myths. In addition I have done articles on Shinto mythology – https://glitternight.com/shinto-myth/
Plus a two-part look at Hawaiian mythology – Part One – https://glitternight.com/2011/02/20/the-top-eleven-deities-in-hawaiian-mythology/
11. IGONG – Also called Hallakkungi, this god tended the Flower Garden Of Life And Death. This garden contained flowers that were really the souls of each person on Earth and Igong oversaw the length and quality of each life. After ending those lives by plucking their corresponding flowers from the garden Igong also decided on the soul’s merits for rebirth. This god was worshipped only on Jeju Island, the huge island off the southern coast of Korea. Jeju is also spelled Cheju because our alphabet has no true equivalent of that consonant sound from the Korean language.
10. TANGUN – The founder- god of the ancient Choson kingdom supposedly in 2333 B.C. Tangun was the son of Hwanung, the god of the laws who descended from the heavens to teach humanity how to live and adapt to the world when it was young. Tangun established an ancient city near Pyeongyang, which the demented Kim Jong IL of North Korea claimed to have unearthed in recent years but for some reason (HA!) refused to allow outside authorities in to confirm the claim. Tangun ruled as a combination king and high priest and is still worshipped today by many modern Koreans who follow Cheondogyo, “the religion of the heavenly way.” We are told Tangun ruled for 1,500 years, then became the guardian god of Mount Taebaek.
9. YUHWA – The goddess of willow trees, this daughter of the river- god Habaek was desired by the sun god Haemosu. The sun god trapped her by causing a copper palace to grow from some lines he drew on the ground. Yuhwa and her sisters, intrigued by the sudden appearance of the magnificent structure, ventured in and were lavishly entertained by Haemosu and his attendants. At a sign from the sun god the attendants made to bolt the doors so they could trap the three goddesses within. Yuhwa’s sisters were swift enough to escape, but Yuhwa was captured by Haemosu and taken off to be his wife. Eventually she fled Haemosu and, while hiding with King Keumwa of Puyeo she gave birth to Haemosu’s son Jumong.
8. KIMSURO – The god sent down from the heavens to rule the Kaya region of Korea in approximately 43 C.E. Nine elders ruled the Kaya region – one from each of the main city- states, but the lack of a central authority prompted them to pray to the heavenly king of the gods Hwanin for a strong ruler to unite them. Hwanin’s voice rang out from the heavens, drawing a crowd of hundreds to Kuji Mountain, where he instructed them to sing the Kujiga. After the song was sung, Hwanin lowered a golden chest from the sky, a chest containing six large golden eggs. From these eggs hatched the god Kimsuro and five of his subordinate aristocrats, all of whom grew to be nine feet tall in a matter of days. Kimsuro united the nine city-states into the kingdom of Kaya, defeated the god Talhae (future founder of Shilla) in a metamorphosis duel and refused to get married until the gods sent a wife, Hwangok ,to him from India.
7. HABAEK – The god of the Yalu River, which borders what is now North Korea and China. As such he had special significance as the watchman over the northern frontier. Habaek’s daughter Yuhwa was snatched away by the sun god Haemosu and made his bride. Habaek complained to Hwanin, the Heavenly King of the gods, who ordered Haemosu to meet with his irate father-in- law. Haemosu defeated the river god in a metamorphosis duel, besting him in the forms of animals of the sea, land and air, but then benevolently acquiesced to Habaek’s demand for a formal wedding ceremony. Following that ceremony the still- reluctant bride fled Haemosu, ultimately hiding with King Keumwa of Puyeo.
6. KOENEGITTO – The war god of Jeju Island, home of a shrine that bears his name. Koenegitto had a bronze gong which, when struck once, could conjure up an army of a million soldiers out of the air. When struck twice the army would disappear. Koenegitto was the son of the shrine god Sochonguk through the mortal woman Paek Chunim. When Koenegitto turned three he was so uncontrollable that Sochonguk locked him in a chest and tossed the chest into the sea.
Koenigitto escaped the chest, married the youngest daughter of the dragon god of the sea but was asked to leave the sea kingdom when his enormous appetite was emptying the dragon god’s larder. He and his wife went to Chonja on the Korean mainland, where Koenegitto became a hero by driving away an invading army (led by multi- headed generals) from the north. The bronze- armored demigod then returned triumphantly to Jeju Island for revenge on his parents for tossing him into the sea. He scared them both to death, then transformed his father into a mountain ridge and his mother into a shrine.
5. HAEMOSU – The Korean sun god, usually depicted wearing a headdress of crow feathers from the gigantic crow he killed when it stole the sun and he had to retrieve it (crows have connections with the sun in Chinese myths, too and in Vietnamese mythology some versions claim that the sun goddess’ palanquin is adorned with crow images instead of rooster images). For his chief weapon Haemosu wielded a solar sword that shone as brightly as the sun.
Each dawn as the sun, his home, made its way across the sky he would leave it to take its course while he flew down to the Earth on his chariot. That chariot, Oryonggeo, was drawn by five flying dragons and traveled faster than the wind. The sun god’s retinue, meanwhile, accompanied him riding giant white swans that floated on multi- colored, music-producing clouds. Haemosu and his court would land at Puyeo, the ancient capital of what would eventually become the combined Three Kingdoms of Korea. There the sun god would attend to the affairs of mortals all day, returning to his solar home at sunset. Haemosu desired the goddess Yuhwa, who bore his son Jumong.
4. KOEULLA, PUEULLA AND YANGEULLA – These three progenitor gods of the Three Clans of Jeju Island are always mentioned in unison. They are the sons of Halmang, the goddess of Jeju Island, and emerged from her womb, the ground, at a hole named Mohung near Mount Chu. This spot, called the Hollow of the Three Clans, is a landmark in modern day Jeju City. The three brothers roamed the island hunting game, eating the meat and making clothes from the skins.
One day three brides arrived for them, sent with respects from the ruler of Pyeongyang on the Korean mainland. The brides brought with them calves, colts and the Five Grains – barley, rice, soybean, millet and foxtail millet. In Korean mythology these five grains symbolize all of agriculture. Each of the three gods took a bride for himself and established settlements, with their countless offspring forming the mythical Three Clans from which all the people of Jeju Island supposedly descended. Each clan claims their progenitor was the first-born of the three gods.
3. HWANUNG – The god of the laws and father of the demigod Tangun, one of the important founder- heroes of northern Korean lore. Hwanung told his father, Hwanin, that he desired to live among the people who worshipped them. Hwanin designated Mount Taebaek near modern Pyeongyang for his son to establish himself. Hwanung descended there with Aryongjong, the goddess of rainfall and Yondung, the wind goddess. He gathered three thousand initial followers around him and established the Divine City, from where his rule spread.
Hwanung instituted three hundred sixty laws governing not just the affairs of humanity, like government, agriculture, morality, punishments and society but also governing natural laws on the young world. These laws pertained to lifespans, illnesses, science, etc, similar to certain concepts in Sumerian myth. When both a female bear and a female tiger prayed to Hwanung to be made human, only the bear passed Hwanung’s test and became his bride, the mother of Tangun and through him many descending generations of Koreans. The mythical significance is that it was the patience of the bear, not the ferocity of the tiger, that became part of the Korean character and enabled them to survive repeated invasions by Japan and China.
2. HALMANG – The goddess of Jeju Island, often depicted embodying the island the way Earth goddesses are often depicted embodying the entire planet. She could also assume giantess form and roam the island at will and much of her mythic cycle deals with her activities in that mobile form. Her diahhrea after having eaten millet porridge resulted in 360 of the hills and mountains of Jeju Island. Halmang also arranged all the valleys and rivers of the island to her liking, too. Her urine caused the channel between Jeju Island and mainland Korea, or the channel between Jeju Island and nearby Udo Island, depending on the version.
When the people of Jeju Island wanted the goddess to cease walking around naked in her giantess form she told them that if they could make clothing large enough to fit her she would build them a bridge to the mainland. The people exhausted all of the material on the island but still the clothes they made were not large enough to cover Halmang, so she stopped her own efforts, leaving the bridge half-finished. (This is similar to many Philippine myths about giant gods or goddesses partially completing bridges between islands)
Another myth involves her out-doing her husband, the god Halubang, at fishing by lying in the ocean and swallowing all the fish into her vagina. (This is similar to one of the Vietnamese myths about Giat Hai outdoing Khong Lo) With that husband, the god that the large, ancient stone phalluses on Jeju Island are dedicated to, Halmang spawned Koeulla, Puella and Yangeulla, the progenitor gods of The Three Clans of Jeju Island.
1. JUMONG – The god who founded the ancient kingdom of Koguryeo, from which the name Korea was ultimately derived. While Jumong’s mother, the goddess Yuhwa, was hiding with King Keumwa she gave birth to an egg which contained the offspring of the sun god Haemosu. Fearful over the strange birth, King Keumwa exposed the egg to the horses of his stable, but none of them would trample it. He left it in the forest, but none of the animals would harm it. He tried to prevent Yuhwa from warming the egg, but Haemosu made a shaft of sunlight keep the egg warm, even on cloudy days.
Keumwa gave in and let Yuhwa care for the egg, from which Jumong eventually burst forth, like many other gods in Korean mythology. (See Talhae and Pakhyeokkeose, also born of eggs; Kimsuro, born of a golden egg found in a golden chest; and Kimalji, born from a golden chest alone, just to be different) Jumong could speak after just one month and grew to adulthood very quickly. He had supernatural skill as an archer and was said to be able to shoot even tiny objects like fleas from a great distance. He always outdid King Keumwa’s sons, who grew to resent him, which conflict ultimately led to Jumong heading south to establish his own kingdom, with his mother’s blessing (in some versions she also gives him the Five Grains to take with him).
Keumwa’s troops pursued him to the Kaesa River, where there was no ferry. Not wishing to have to strike down the army of the man who had been kind to his mother, Jumong instead shot an arrow into the river and in the name of his godly heritage as the son of Haemosu and Yuhwa, commanded all the fish and turtles in the water to form a bridge for him to cross. They obeyed and after he successfully crossed, the animals gave way, letting the pursuing soldiers fall into the river.
Next Jumong overthrew King Songyang by obtaining a sacred drum and bugle, defeating him at an archery contest and by calling on the rain goddess Aryongjong to cause a flood that washed away Songyang’s capital city (which certainly seems more effective than drums, bugles and beating the guy at archery).
The common people of the city were saved from the flood by Jumong, riding a horse-sized duck. He then used his godly power to cause a new city to form out of mist on the spot in just seven days, and this became the capital of his new kingdom called Koguryeo. His own son Yuri went on to become a great king, too. Jumong is sometimes spelled Chumong for the same reason Jeju Island is sometimes spelled Cheju Island.
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