Like many cultures, Korea’s folktales have been shared and retold over hundreds of years. Within them lies ancient stories of Korea’s creation, the beginning of humans and even heartwarming fables of love and determination – all these legends are knitted into the fabric of Korean culture.
Although these folktales have been forgotten by many modern Koreans, many ancient legends have been brought back to life by children’s storybooks and famous novels – which not only helps the younger generation to learn about the stories of their past, but also reminds the older generations that the folktales they grew up with haven’t been lost.
So, to honour these important fables, we’re sharing with you some of our favourite myths and legends from Korean culture – so sit back, make a cup of tea and enjoy these ageless stories~
Cheonjiwang Bonpuri (천지왕 본풀이)
The Legend of how the Earth became peaceful
This tale is mostly told throughout the area of Jeju Island, and is a very famous legend of Korea’s creation.
In this story Cheonjiwang (천지왕), or ‘The King of the Heavens and the Earth’, made his twin sons, Daebyeol (대별) and Sobyeol (소별), compete with one another to see who would rule the mortal world and who would rule the netherworld, or Jeoseung (저승).
First, they challenged each-other with riddles, which Daebyeol won, but Sobyeol begged his brother for another contest – to which he agreed. In this final challenge, the two brothers would grow flowers for a hundred days, and whoever had the most flowers would rule the mortal world. By the 99th day Daebyeol had grown the most flowers, whereas Sobyeol’s had all withered – so on that final night, Sobyeol stole his brothers’ flowers and swapped them with his own.
Thus, Daebyeol was sent to rule the netherworld. But soon after, Sobyeol realised how out of order the earth was – there were two moons and two suns, all the trees and animals could speak, making the world too loud, and Gwisin (귀신), or ghosts, tormented the lives of the humans resulting in chaos. Sobyeol therefore called his brother from the netherworld and asked him to aid him in bringing order to the mortal world.
Daebyeol began by shooting iron arrows at the two moons and suns, destroying one of each. The second sun exploded and became the stars of the Eastern Sky. Likewise, the second moon became the stars of the Western Sky – bringing peace to the heavens.
Next, Daebyeol sprinkled pine dust on all the trees and animals, removing their ability to speak – so the earth became quieter. Lastly, Daebyeol separated the gwisin from the humans, finally bringing order to the mortal realm. After all this, Daebyeol returned to the netherworld and left his brother Sobyeol to deal with the human race.
The Story of the Grandmother of the Mountains and Rivers
Although the story of creation begins with Cheonjiwang, Daebyeol and Sobyeol; the rest of the world’s creation was completed by a giant goddess called Magohalmi (마고할미) or Grandmother Mago.
Magohalmi used her hanbok to carry mud, and with it she created the mountains and islands – and through her, the hills and rivers were birthed into being as well. Magohalmi was so tall that she could walk across the oceans, and her legs were so strong that villagers could ride horses on them!
Even though she played a big part in the Korean fable of creation, the story of Magohalmi has been excluded from written records and was only preserved by word of mouth – much like the Greek legends found in Homer’s Iliad, which were recited for many hundreds of years before they were finally committed to paper.
Still, despite being left out from mythological research for many years, the tale of Magohalmi has become more recognised in recent times and her role in the myth of Korea’s creation is finally being acknowledged.
Namu Doryeong (나무도령)
The Legend of the Great Flood
Almost every culture has their own legend about a great flood. The ancient texts and myths such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hindu Shatapatha Brahmana and the Chinese Gun-Yu Myth (鲧禹治水) all tell a different version of the legend of the great flood. And in Korea this legend is known as Namu Doryeong (나무도령).
Fun Fact: 나무 means tree and 도령 is an old word, no longer used in modern Korean, meaning an unmarried young man or bachelor!
Namu Doryeong was the son of a beautiful celestial woman and an ancient tree god, and when he was a young child his mother returned to the heavens and left him on earth with his father. Soon after, it began to rain heavily for many days, and soon all the land was beneath the water, so the father-tree called out to his son and told him to climb onto his branches.
Namu Doryeong was safe from drowning, but he saw that other creatures were in danger. As Namu and his father floated along the raging waters, the young child saved a family of ants, a cloud of mosquitoes and eventually a human child that cried for help from the waves below. Namu Doryeong begged his father to let them save the boy, but his father-tree warned him ‘Do as you wish, I leave it up to you, but you will regret saving him‘.
Eventually they landed on an island that was made up of the peak of Mt. Baekdu, the highest mountain in Korea, and there they found an old woman and two young girls who had survived the rains.
The old woman said that if Namu Doryeong won a contest, then he and the young boy he saved could marry the two girls – with the assistance of the ants and mosquitoes he saved, Namu Doryeong won the contest and together the two couples formed the next race of humans.
The Legend of the Abandoned Princess
The fable of Barigongju (바리공주), or Princess Bari, follows the story of a little girl who was the seventh daughter of the King and Queen of Korea at the time. But the King needed a male heir, not another daughter, so despite her mother desperately trying to save her, the King tore the child from the Queen and threw her away.
Some versions say the King threw the baby into the ocean, where dragons rescued her and brought her to an elderly couple, while other versions say the baby was left in the forest and found by a peasant couple – either way, she found a new home with people who cared for her.
The baby grew into a beautiful young girl named Bari, a name which means abandoned, and with help from her new mother-figure she became a mudang (무당) – or a person who acted as a go-between for humans and the gods.
One day, a Sansin (산신), or Mountain God, told Bari that her birth-parents, the King and Queen, were sick and could only be cured by drinking the water, an elixir of life, from the Western Sky. Bari decides to go on this journey to help her real parents – and along the way she manages to complete several tasks set by different deities.
When she finally arrived at the Western Sky, Bari asked the old Guardian for some of the water, but since she had no money; he refused. Instead he said Bari should become his servant for nine years, and when she completed enough work, she could have some of the water.
But nine years had now passed and still the Guardian refused to give Bari any of his water. Then one day, the old Guardian, having fallen in love with Bari, said to her ‘Marry me and give me seven sons, then I will give you all the water you want‘.
So Princess Bari married the old Guardian of the Western Sky, and gave birth to seven sons – and although she was happy with her husband and children, she couldn’t abandon her parents after she vowed to cure them. Not wanting to be alone again, the Guardian went with Bari, and their seven sons, back to the mortal world – curing many sick and dying people along the way.
But upon arriving at the palace, Bari discovered that her birth-parents had already died. Unwilling to accept this fate, Princess Bari poured the elixir into the deceased King and Queen’s mouths and eyes – and soon they both woke up, alive and cured from their illness.
The Queen was overjoyed to see her lost daughter again, and when the King realised it was Bari who saved him he offered her half his kingdom, but she refused. The king then offered her half of his wealth, but again she refused. Instead of remaining with her parents, Princess Bari chose to return to the spirit world with her husband and sons – where she became a goddess that helped the souls of the dead travel peacefully to the Netherworld.
Fun Fact: Although many folk tales are unknown by Koreans nowadays, the legend of Barigongju was made famous after the author Hwang Seok-yeong wrote a novel entitled Princess Bari, which gave a modern perspective on the ancient legend.
Feature Image Source: ©South Korea, 03.07.2018, Alexandre Chambon, unsplash.com