[Inkstone] Of Gods and Other Supernatural Entities in Traditional Korea

  • onMarch 25, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byMaurizio Riotto

The Concept of

The Korean term that generally expresses the concept of divinity is sin ãê (pronounced “shin”), which is derived from Chinese. Commonly translated as “god,” this word actually has a very broad semantic sphere, also including concepts such as “soul,” “spirit,” and “supernaturality.” In fact, the character sin is associated and applied to terms such as gwisin (, spirit), sinseon (, immortal being), sinnyeong  (, spirit, divinity), sintong (, supernatural powers), sinmyeong (, divinity, often of the sky and earth), jeongsin (, mind, spirit, conscience), etc.

The concept of “divinity” has undergone many transformations in Korea, following the numerous cultural stratifications that have occurred in the peninsula throughout history. The original essence of the Korean religion is animism, shared with other peoples of Northeast Asia, where every manifestation of nature can be impregnated with “divinity.” Ancient Chinese texts such as Sanguozhi (, Records of the Three Kingdoms), and Jinshu (, Book of Jin), etc., confirm the primeval animistic nature of the Korean religion, emphasizing that they (the Koreans) “believe in spirits” ().

The ancient Korean deities do not have precise names, nor statues or other representations. Often, the idea of divinity is contained in the very name of its manifestation: thus, “Heaven” is at the same time also the “god of Heaven” and the “Sun” is at the same time also the “god of the sun.” Terms like Haneunim (Lord of Heaven) or Dangun () are certainly connected with the idea of sky/heaven. Even today, haneul in Korean means “sky,” whereas Dangun probably has the same origin as the Turkic-Mongolian word Tängri (“Heaven.” Old Turkic:). This term appears for the first time, as Chengli (), in the reports on Xiongnu () made by ancient Chinese historians (see for example, Han shu (, History of the Han), and this has led some to think that the Xiongnu were a people speaking a Turkic language. In reality, however, it could be exactly the opposite, namely that Tängri was originally a Xiongnu word that later passed into the Turkic languages and also into Korean. However, there is even a hypothesis according to which Tängri could be connected to the term Dingir in ancient Sumerian (a language of a still unknown origin but certainly of an agglutinative type), graphically rendered with the ideogram of “star” ().

As for the term haneunim, sinicized as Tianzhu/Cheonju (), it was also the one often used by the first Catholic missionaries to indicate the God of Christians both in China (just think of Matteo Ricci’s work entitled Tianzhu shiyi (, “The true meaning of the Lord of Heaven”), and in Korea, where Catholicism is still referred to as Cheonjugyo () or “Religion of the Lord of Heaven.” Protestants, on the other hand, changed the term to Hananim (“the unique Lord”), in order to avoid misunderstandings and association with the old pagan deity.


The World of Animism

Animism is therefore a world of spirits, each of which represents a manifestation of nature and belongs to that category of supernatural beings that the Mongols call gazriin ezen (spirits of nature); a concept present also in the Korean imagination. Animals too obviously have their own spirit or become receptacles for external spirits. In Korean folklore, fox-spirits or tiger-spirits are very common, but sometimes an animal can also host the soul of a shaman and be its vehicle. With such spirits the souls of the dead can come into conflict when they detach from the body. If we add to this the belief that deficiency in observing the prescribed rites could convince souls to remain in the earthly sphere to persecute the living, then it appears evident that the funerary system and the funerary rituals have received great attention from the Koreans since the earliest times. One of the most widespread beliefs is that a man has several souls, of which one remains in burial and the other (or the others) wanders the world in search of peace. Confucianism ended up appropriating this tradition, which is certainly older, by establishing as the seat of a soul the ancestral tablets venerated in the domestic temple, to which a sacrifice was periodically offered (and is still offered). Respect for the times is fundamental in the correct management of the soul of the deceased-even before the sacrificial homage in the days commanded (anniversary of death, first autumn full moon, lunar New Year, etc.). In fact, ceremonies and rituals aimed at ensuring the complete detachment of the soul from the body begin immediately after death.

The “priests” who administer animism (and therefore deal directly with the gods/spirits) are, especially in the Korean context, the female shamans (mudang). In this regard, there is an interesting hypothesis according to which the character mu (), now pronounced “wu” in Mandarin Chinese, was originally pronounced *Myag/Məg and therefore connected with the ancient Persian magu- (modern Persian: magh  ), the ancient Greek μάγος, the Latin magus and, hence, modern words such as magic and magician. Furthermore, we should not forget the female character, called Magu () in Chinese (Korean: Mago), who, as a goddess or a nymph, often appears in the folklore of the Far East. For the rest, in Korea there are also male shamans called baksu, but these show characteristics of a sexual ambiguity that is typical of Northeast Asian shamanism and not limited to the Korean peninsula.

 This leads us to think that a matriarchal or matrilineal society originally existed in protohistoric Korea and other areas of Northeastern Asia (including Japan). In China, it is the goddess Nüwa () who creates humanity, and it is that same Nüwa who in Shuowen jiezi ((, Explanation of simple and complex characters) will be presented as the sister and wife of Fuxi (). In Japanese mythology, Izanami-no Mikoto ( or ) is the goddess of creation and death, but she is also the wife of her own brother Izanagi ( or ). Izanami herself will then descend into the netherworld after giving birth to the god of fire, Kagutsuchi (, also called Homasubi ), in a sacred tale that could allude to the replacement of matriarchy with patriarchy. In Korean mythology, where cosmogonic and anthropogonic myths are almost completely absent, the nation is founded by the union between the son of the god of Heaven (Hwanung ) and a bear transformed into a woman (Ungnyeo ), in a narration (Samguk yusa, , Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) that already seems to indicate a syncretism between gods of the sky (usually male) and gods of the earth (usually female). A recurring motif in the birth of the founders of the various Korean kingdoms is the egg, a typical symbol of female fertility, and this casts doubt on a possible original mythology based on the superiority of female divinities, subsequently diminished by medieval and modern texts.


Cultural “Contaminations”

In the following centuries, the Korean imaginariness of the supernatural sphere will be enriched with religious elements coming mainly from China, but not necessarily Chinese. The development of trade between the Far East and India/Central Asia had in fact brought completely new ideas and concepts to China, many of which would also be established in Korea. The most striking of the new systems of thought was certainly Buddhism, which arrived to the Korean peninsula as early as the fourth century through missionaries from China and Central Asia. The impact on traditional Korean society is dramatic, and leads to decisive transformations in the traditional customs of protohistoric Koreans. Buddhism is a philosophy born in an Indo-European context, strongly masculinist and bearer of new concepts such as reincarnation. New funerary practices such as cremation are introduced and Korean society begins to move towards the tripartite model (warriors, priests, and food producers) of the Indo-Europeans. The Buddha is depicted in statues and paintings, a consequence of the turning point that occurred centuries earlier in the Indo-Greek kingdoms of Bactria, where, under the influence of Hellenic influence, images of the Enlightened One were created for the first time, according to the model of the Greek gods.

Following the arrival of Buddhism, the traditional Korean pantheon is upset: now the Buddha rules over the old gods of nature, many of whom now identify with Indian deities. Thus Indra/Śakra () becomes Cheseok/Cheseokcheon (), Brahmā ( ) becomes Peomcheon (), Yama () becomes Yeomna (), the god of death and the afterlife. The cultural “contamination” is very strong and so the Bodhisattva Mireuk (, Maitreya  ) can even become the protagonist of the shamanic song “Changsega” (, The song of the creation of the world), one of the very few examples of cosmogonic myths in Korea.

In this way, the Korean religious imaginariness becomes a true kaleidoscope, where elements imported from China or even from India and Western Asia are added to the animist substratum. Other fantastic figures are associated with the ancient gods, such as the nymphs (seonnyeo ), the dragon-king (Yongwang ), the Queen mother of the west (Seowangmo ), the goblins/elves dokkaebi, hybrid creatures like the samjogo (, three-legged crow), the kirin (, one-horned beast), and the haechi. Many such elements come from outside or they are in any case common to other civilizations: the Queen mother of the West and the Garden of the peach trees of immortality can only remind us of the Garden of the Hesperides from the classical world of Europe, where nymphs (echoing the Greek νύμφαι and the Indian apsarasaḥ  ) and dragons are widespread. Dokkaebi are the Korean version of those spiteful beings present in all parts of the world, such as goblins, gnomes, , elves, leprechauns, domovoj домовой, tsukumogami (), etc. The samjogo is also well present in China (where it is called sanzuwu , yangwu  or jinwu ) and in Japan (where it is called yatagarasu ), while the kirin is part of that mythology of the unicorn also found in the folklore of many civilizations. Finally, the haechi is a typical case of adaptation of a cultural model. Rendered in Chinese as xiezhi (; haetae with the Korean pronunciation), outwardly it looks like a lion, but is a polymorphic animal, whose origin is traced back to the magical one-horned goat, called zhi (), owned by Gao Yao (), minister of justice of Emperor Shun (). The animal in question was endowed with innate and wonderful wisdom, to the point of immediately knowing how to recognize right from wrong and the innocent from the guilty, who were inexorably punished. In Korea it was probably established at least since the beginning of the Joseon period (1392–1910), when it was called haechi. The latter term, coined on the basis of the pure Korean language, was created for nationalistic purposes as an abbreviation of the sentence Haenimi pagyeonhan byeoseurachi (public official sent by the sun). Visible in many historical places in Seoul, where it is found for apotropaic purposes and as a witness to justice, today the haechi has officially become the symbol of the capital of the Republic of Korea.


Gods and Spirits in Korean Classic Literature

Korean literature (especially popular literature) gives much space to ghosts and spirits, both good and evil. Fox-spirits, above all, are great protagonists, especially in negative terms. The dragon-king (usually a positive figure) is also very present and there are also Buddhist priests, not infrequently portrayed as hypocritical or debauched. It must be said, however, that the Korean fantastic narrative was born on the impulse of the Chinese one, in turn stimulated by the fairy tale literature of India which arrived together with Buddhism. In such a context, in many Korean works or literary episodes the favorite theme seems to be the (often problematic) relationship between the human and supernatural spheres, the world of the living and the dead. In China, these fantastic narrative genres, later called chuanqi (, unusual tales) and zhiguai  (, chronicles of the supernatural sphere), were established as early as the third or fourth century. In Korea there are already traces of them in works such as the Sui-jeon (, unusual stories, perhaps compiled between the tenth and twelfth centuries) and the Samguk yusa, from the end of the thirteenth century. However, we must assume that most of the Korean works of the ancient period were lost, and therefore the production of fantastic literature in ancient Korea may have been much larger. In the Joseon period, the fantastic genre reveals itself in a much more decisive and traceable way, and it represents a fundamental step towards that classic novel, or gojeon soseol (), which will fully assert itself from the seventeenth century. Literary prose like the Geumo sinhwa (, New stories of Mount Geumo) by Kim Siseup (, 1435–1493) or the Seol Gongchan-jeon (, Story of Seol Kongchan) by Chae Su (, 1449–1515), or even the Gijae Gii (, Fantastic Chronicles of Gijae, pseudonym of the author) by Sin Gwanghan (, 1484–1555), thus represent an important viaticum for later works such as the soseol or the large collections of yadam (, folk/popular tales).

 Thus, classical Korean literature eventually becomes a truly anthropological and religious encyclopedia, within which it is possible to recognize, alongside decidedly indigenous cultural elements,  motifs and characters that, despite having  very distant origins, later became irreplaceable,  characterizing elements of the entire traditional culture and collective imagination of Korea.


Maurizio Riotto
Philologist, KLN Editorial Advisor