Dokkaebi: The Goblins of Korean Myth
- onApril 5, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byKim Jong-dae
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.
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, like those that talk of “wrestling with dokkaebi” or being “bewitched by dokkaebi.”
Some say that the dokkaebi’s love of drinking and women show how they are projections of the desires of men during the Joseon age. Traditional wrestling, or ssireum, was a particularly popular sport, useful for showing off strength and manly virility. The dokkaebi in stories would also grab onto passing men and wrestle them, and it is interesting how they always lose in such matches.
In ancient records the dokkaebi were usually written with the gwi (鬼) character. In Seongho Saseol (Accounts of Seongho), Seongho Yi Ik transliterated dokkaebi using the Chinese character for “one-legged ghost,” which may have been the origin of the belief that the dokkaebi had only one leg. This is perhaps where the story that they’re easy to beat in a wrestling match comes from. But the One-Legged Ghost lives in the mountains of China, and is therefore difficult to be seen as a cognate of the dokkaebi.
This is a point also made in comparison with Japan’s oni. Japan has a rich and diverse tradition of demons (yōkai), providing the cultural basis for products such as Pokémon or Digimon. A similar culture never quite established itself in Korea where the savage tiger already ruled the night.
And perhaps because of this, Koreans instead came up with the idea of being possessed by dokkaebi, not ghosts. We also attributed the role of disease-spreading ghosts to the dokkaebi and held cleansing rituals accordingly. The dokkaebi rites of Jindo or Sunchang in the Jeolla provinces are good examples, as is the Yeonggam Nori of Jeju Island where women’s illnesses, thought to be caused by dokkaebi, are exorcised. Such instances show how dokkaebi have come to take on new meanings different from their original significance.
During the Japanese colonial era, dokkaebi became subsumed by oni. This is how the Japanese story Kobutori Jisan turned into Hokburiyeonggam (The Old Man with a Lump on His Neck) in colonial-era Korean textbooks, a case of the oni being transferred wholesale into the dokkaebi tradition.
This story in colonial-era textbooks would have served to show that Korea and Japan have a single cultural root, an attempt at justifying colonial rule.
The time has come for the dokkaebi to return to their true form. People are wont to carelessly refer to Korean dokkaebi or Japanese dokkaebi, but they are clearly mistaken. Dokkaebi exist in Korea, not in Japan. Dokkaebi, in other words, are exclusively Korean monsters.
An important distinction to make between dokkaebi and Chinese and Japanese monsters is that dokkaebi wish to live among people. They persist in having themselves known to mortals and to seek ties with them. They are not human-like tricksters but innocent and even forgetful. They love drinking, eating meat, and enjoy playing games. They may very well be the manifestation of our deepest desire for our own selves.
by Kim Jong-dae