Dokkaebi: The Goblins of Korean Myth

This column introduces our readers to Korean fables, myths, and oral literature. It explores the origins of folktales that have been passed down through generations and continue to affect our lives to this day.

 

A dokkaebi needs a human bride to end his immortal life, an amnesic grim reaper is forced by bizarre circumstances to become his housemate, and a girl “destined to die” claims to be the dokkaebi’s bride. This is the plotline of the hit television fantasy romance Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, based on the folklore of the dokkaebi, Korea’s version of the goblin.

 

Is the TV-version of the dokkaebi a faithful representation of the goblin of Korean folklore? Prof. Kim Jong-dae, known as Dr. Dokkaebi, says the dokkaebi really just want to hang out with people. Learn about the dokkaebi’s place in Korean culture and how it differs from the goblins of China and Japan.

 

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Dokkaebi are popular characters of Korean legend. “Character” here doesn’t mean “human.” They can seem god-like at times, other times like ghosts. At any rate, these so-called goblins share both positive and negative attributes.

 

Dokkaebi are known to have many abilities, the most precise record of which happens to be from a fifteenth-century work titled Seokbo Sangjeol. It speaks of invoking the dokkaebi, to wish upon them for good fortune or longevity. We can see here how dokkaebi were, like gods, an object of worship. Considering how the belief that dokkaebi can bring good fortune persists to this day is an indication of the primacy of this particular characteristic. The very word dokkaebi is a compound of tot and abi: abi denotes an adult male and tot means fire or seed. The combination of these two words therefore signifies a male god capable of creating great riches.

 

Today dokkaebi are primarily thought of as makebelieve characters, but this is because we have forgotten about where our traditional belief came from. Dokkaebi have long been worshipped, a notable example of these being the Pungeo-shin god who is prayed to by fishermen for a good catch. This dokkaebi was especially popular among the people living in the region near the Yellow Sea. The marshlands there would make noises as trapped air escaped with the tide, leading people to say they were dokkaebi footsteps. People who resided in that region had a tradition of climbing to a high vantage point on the last day of the lunar year to scan the ocean for dokkaebi bul, atmospheric lights of unknown origin, to later cast nets upon those spots. We could say this practice reflects the fishermen’s hope for a big haul.

 

In the Jeolla provinces, dokkaebi are considered harbingers of disease, and there are rituals for exorcising them. In the mountainous regions, they are believed to start forest fires, and so dokkaebi rituals are held accordingly.

 

Such stories of the dokkaebi draw a marked contrast with their counterparts in fiction. Of course, there are many stories of the dokkaebi bringing riches. But aside from this narrative, the abilities of dokkaebi tend to be expressed a bit differently in stories, li...