The use of Korean mythical creatures in modern entertainment has become more popular in recent years, with films and K-Dramas putting their own unique spin on some of Korea’s most infamous creatures of legend.
But despite how much we love these magical dramas, traditional Korean mythology offers a lot more for those who wish to learn about these creatures. So we’ve done the research for you and are excited to share some of the history behind these mystical characters that have woven their way through the fabric of Korea’s history!
Dokkaebi, or Goblins, are a large part of Korean folklore and can be dated back as far as the Silla-era. But since the early nineteen hundreds, Dokkaebi have evolved from mysterious and human-like creatures to ugly, troll-like monsters – but their powers have always remained the same, most commonly they would possess the spirit of inanimate objects, such as brooms, while taking on their true form at night.
Dokkaebi are mostly harmless, spending their days tricking evil people and rewarding those who they considered to be good. The Dokkaebi would often carry around a wooden club called a Dokkaebi bangmangi (도깨비 방망이), which could be used to summon objects and were known to reside in forests, graveyards and abandoned roads or houses.
Dokkaebi can come in all sorts of forms. Some include; Cham Dokkaebi (참도깨비) the mischievous goblins, Gae dokkaebi (개도깨비) the evil goblins, Oedari dokkaebi (외다리도깨비) the one-legged goblins and Gaksi dokkaebi (각시도깨비) who were bachelor goblins that were known to attract humans – very similar to Gong Yoo’s dokkaebi character in the hit drama Goblin!
Gwisin, or Korean Ghosts, were thought to be the lingering spirits of those who had died without resolving some ‘unfinished business’ – imprisoned in the mortal realm until they completed a task. Some of these tasks included; revenge, guilt or just wanting to stay longer with loved ones.
Like Dokkaebi, Gwisin were said to be found in abandoned places like houses, roads or even schools. In films and comics, Gwisin are typically shown as pale, eerie beings in long white dresses – this is because, traditionally, white hanbok are worn to funerals, which is why Gwisin are commonly depicted wearing one.
Gwisin were often said to have had long black hair that covered their faces, or, depending on their personality and cause of death, these ghosts could even appear faceless. Male Gwisin were quite rare, so most Korean ghosts were women and they could choose to appear as a terrifying monster or as their true self. Gwisin also had the power to move objects, which made them rather dangerous creatures.
Jeosung Saja 저승사자
Another extremely popular Korean legend that is being used in recent dramas is that of the Jeosung Saja; also known as Netherworld Emissaries. These mythical creatures are similar to the widely known Grim Reapers, and were charged with the duty of guiding both good and evil souls to the afterlife.
Even though they were said to be harsh and cruel characters, Jeosung Saja were quite harmless and were merely scouts for the Great King Yŏmna (염라대왕), who ruled the Netherworld and passed judgement for all who were sent to him.
Traditionally, Jeosung Saja wore dark robes and a black Gat (갓), a hat worn by many noblemen in the Joseon Era, and were rumoured to carry around a book that had the death date for every living soul – which means Lee Dong Wook’s portrayal of a Jeosung Saja, in the drama Goblin, was actually pretty accurate!
Similar to the Japanese kitsune and Chinese huli jing, Korean Gumiho are creatures that take the form of a nine tailed fox – according to legends, foxes who live for a thousand years can become a gumiho.
These dangerous fox spirits had the power to shape-shift into anything they wanted, but usually preferred to take the form of a young woman, and were rumoured to be evil creatures that fed on the livers of humans. Despite their blood-thirsty habits, some legends spoke of certain gumiho that wished to be human, meaning they had to refrain from killing humans for a thousand days – then, and only then, would they be able to become a human.
Gumiho are another popular character choice for dramas, especially ones involving a Gumiho wanting to become human – or the more cliched story of a fox spirit falling in love with a human.
Fun Fact: The first Korean drama to have a Gumiho character was the thriller The Fox With Nine Tails, released in 1994.
Influenced by the Chinese dragon, Yong are the Korean versions of the legendary Dragon. Unlike European dragons, who were associated with greediness and fire, Korean dragons were said to be peaceful and wise creatures. There were three different types of dragon; Yong, the most powerful; Yo, who lived within the oceans, and Kyo, who were found in the mountains.
Also being similar to other dragons found in East Asian mythology, the Korean dragon was described as having a much longer beard and was said to have the ability to create things, making them a higher mythical creature compared to Gumiho or Dokkaebi – who were considered lesser beings.
Also known as a three-legged crow, the image of Samjoko was used during the Goguryeo (고구려) era in 37 BC. Legends said that the Samjoko lived in the sun, whilst a mythical tortoise lived in the moon.
Samjoko were worshipped as sun gods, and were viewed as symbols of great power – some even considered Samjoko to be more mighty than the dragons.
Although Samjoko haven’t been used in Korean media as much as other mythical creatures, the epic 2006 K-Drama Jumong (삼한지-주몽 편), or The Book of the Three Hans, tipped its hat to the traditional three-legged crow when it featured a Samjoko on the flag of the main character Prince Jumong.
Bul-Gae 불 개
Literally translating to fire dog, Bul-Gae were creatures of darkness that came from what was known as The Dark World, or Gamangnara, and were under the control of that realm’s king.
Legends say that one day the king of Gamangnara sent out two powerful Bul-Gae to capture the sun and moon, yet both were either too hot or too cold for the fire dogs to handle – so they let them go. But the king kept persisted and continued to send them to steal the sun and moon, and each time, they failed – and so each time the Bul-Gae bit them, a solar or lunar eclipse would occur.
Fun Fact: Korean Bul-Gae are often compared to the Nordic myth of the wolf Sköll and the legend of the Hindu serpent Rahu.
Feature Image Source: ©Photo Curtesy of Hwang Andam Pictures, 31.10.2018, naver.blog