30 December 2010

Zeus ain't got nothing on Hananim

So I was in the middle of writing a blog on prehistory in Korea when I stumbled upon some Korean mythological figures and got a little sidetracked.  So this first post on Korean history is going to cover Korean religion prior to the introduction of Buddhism.

Let's start with a list of important mythological figures:

Hananim ( 하나님 ) : The name translates as "one god" and he actually shares quite a few similarities with the God from the Old Testament of the Bible.  He is the creator and ruler of the universe.  He also rewards the good and punishes the wicked.

Hanalnim ( 하날님 ) : God of the sky

Hwanin ( 환인 ) : Emperor of Heaven.  The name means "Lord of Heaven".

Sidenote:  I have read sources that list these three as the same god.  I have also seen sources that list only Hananim and Hanalnim as the same god, and there are some that list all three separately.  So I am going to refer to them all seperately, but know that in some cases they are all considered the same.

Hwanung ( 환웅 ) : The son of Hwanin.  He controls the clouds, rain and wind.  He descended to earth and founded the City of the Gods.  From this city he gave humans laws and taught them arts, medicine, and agriculture.

Sidenote:  As you can see, if Hananim, Hanalnim, and Hwanin are all viewed as the same god then this story becomes very similar to Christianity.  

Haennim ( 핸님 ) or Haesik ( 해식 ) : Haesik was a boy who climbed to heaven and became the sun (Haennim)

Dalnim ( 달님 ) or Dalsun ( 달순 ) : Dalsun was a girl who climbed to heaven and became the moon (Dalnim)

Sidenote:  Haesik and Dalsun are siblings

Sanshin ( 산신 ) : God of the mountains.  Also known as Sanshilyong.

Yongwang ( 용왕 ) : Dragon god of the seas

Chiha Yo Changgun ( 지하 요 창건 ) : General of the Underworld

Chonha Dae Changgun ( 존하 대 창건 ) : Village Guardian

Sidenote: The previous two deities are sometimes referred to as the same god.

Jows Syng Saja ( 싱 사자 ): Angels of Death

OwgHoangSangJoe ( 왹황상죄 ) : Jade Yellow Emperor

Kyonu and Jingyo ( 견우, 직녀 ) : Their tears cause the summer rainy season

Mago ( 마고 ) : Goddess who, along with Yul-ryeo, began the world and eventually became Jeju Island

* I'm not positive on the Hangul for all of these, so if anyone reads this who has more knowledge of Korea than myself please let me know about any corrections

Korean mythology is pretty diverse, which is why different gods are sometimes referred to as the same god.  The mythology differed depending on the area of the peninsula and as far as I know there aren't texts such as the Iliad and the Odyssey to solidify a core belief system, but there are some stories that unite all parts of Korean mythology.

Creation Myth
At the beginning of time Yul-ryeo and Mago appeared.  Yul-ryeo died and her body became the earth, while Mago gave birth to two daughters, whose children were the Heavenly People.  Yul-ryeo was then revived, which resulted in the formation of heaven, earth and the oceans.  The four elements, which are soul, fire, water, and earth, were also created at this time. 
The Heavenly People eventually gave birth to children, who were the ancestors of humans.  The children lived inside of a castle and drank Earth's milk, which came from a spring inside the castle.  These ancestors were pure and lived in peace for 10,000 years.  However, the number of people eventually grew too large for the spring to satisfy, so one day a man named Jiso ate grapes and acquired the sense of taste.  Jiso then returned to his people and encouraged them to also eat the grapes.  However, the consumption of another living thing caused these people to become impure and Jiso's lineage eventually began giving birth to children who resembled animals.  
All people who had consumed the grapes were forced to leave the castle, but Hwang-gung, one of the Heavenly People, told them that if they could recover their purity they could be free of this curse.  Upon hearing this the people stormed the castle in an attempt to once again drink from the spring, but in doing so they destroyed the castle and caused the spring to overflow.  The milk from the spring eventually turned to earth and all people from the castle began to eat anything they could find to avoid starvation.  Hwang-gung went to Mago and asked for her forgiveness.  She responded by giving him the three Heavenly Heirlooms and knowledge.  Hwang-gung then taught people agriculture, gave each clan leader a Heavenly Heirloom and sent them out on earth in three directions to populate the earth.  
Hwang-gung then took 3,000 people to a place called Cheonsanju, or land of the heavenly mountain.  He established a kingdom and ruled for 1,000 years.  He then passed control of the kingdom to his oldest son, Yuin, who also ruled for 1,000 years.  Power then passed to Hwanin for another1,000 years.  This was a peaceful 3,000 year rule in which people learned to cook and also lost their animal-like appearance.

The Sun and the Moon
In a time when only the stars existed there lived a poor woman who sold rice cakes for a living and had two children named Haesik and Dalsun.  One day she encountered a tiger on a hill and he demanded that he give her one rice cake or he would kill her.  She complied, but the tiger then met her on the next hill and demanded two rice cakes.  The tiger kept demanding more and more until the woman had no rice cakes left.  The woman pleaded for her life and told the tiger she had two children.  Upon hearing this, the tiger killed the woman and took her clothes to wear as a disguise when he arrived at her house.  
When the tiger arrived at the house Haesik did not believe that it was their mother.  But the tiger was able to convince Dalsun to open the door and he proceeded to chase the children up a tree.  The tiger found an axe and began to chop down the tree, while Dalsun prayed that a rope would descend from heaven to save them.  The rope appeared and the children climbed to heaven.  The tiger then also prayed for a rope, but he received a rotten rope that broke while he was climbing.  The tiger fell into a millet field and his blood is responsible for making the millet stalks red.  Haesik then became the sun and Dalsun became the moon, but they later switched because Dalsun was afraid of the dark.

Kyonu and Jingyo
Kyonu was a farmer and Jingyo was a weaver.  The couple fell in love and married, but then proceeded to neglect their farming and weaving duties, which caused the people to become hungry and cold.  The King of the Stars banished them to opposite ends of the kingdom and the Milky Way river divided the couple.  They are however allowed to meet every year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month when magpies and crows form a bridge over the river.  When they are forced to part after this meeting, their tears cause the flooding which is associated with the rainy season in Korea.

There is also a myth that discusses the founding of the Ancient Joseon Kingdom, but I will go into that during my post on prehistory.

Well I got to the more interesting stuff first, but it should be noted that totemistic beliefs were present in Korea prior to the introduction of these mythologies.  During the Neolithic Age, and probably during the Paleolithic Age, clans were known to each worship a certain object in the natural world.  

So by no means is this a comprehensive look into Korean mythology, but I hope it provides some general background information on the beliefs in ancient Korean society.


  1. Those are pretty crazily similar to Christianity. Especially the creation myth and the book of genesis.

  2. Dear Mr Hill,
    we would like to use your picture of the monument at Chungnyeolsa for a documentary we are currently producing. Could you please contact me via siebler(at)storyhousepro.com for a possible licensing? Thank you very much!