[Inkstone] The Afterlife in Korean Literature

  • onJuly 3, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • byShin Dong-hun

© National Museum of Korea


The Afterlife: A Special Place

The afterlife (jeoseung) is one of the key transcendental other worlds imagined in Korean literature. It appears more frequently than other worlds such as heaven, the world of immortals, the undersea dragon palace, or the underworld, and its forms and characteristics are described quite specifically. It could be said that the perception of the afterlife as a place where all humans are bound to go has made it an object of keen interest.

The afterlife appears in a broad spectrum of literary genres. It features in many classical poems, starting with hyangga songs such as Jemangmaega (Lament for a Deceased Sister) and Won wangsaengga (Prayer to Amitāyus). Written and orally transmitted tales frequently contain accounts of beings in the afterlife, or humans who travel there and back. Some works of classical fiction, too, include journeys to the afterlife as a prominent feature. Key examples include Namyeombu juji (Park’s Journey to the Afterlife), Seol Gongchan jeon (The Tale of Seol Gong-chan) and Dang Taejong jeon (The Tale of Taizong of Tang).

Myths are a Korean literary genre in which perceptions of the afterlife form a core element. In the world of shamanism, the afterlife as depicted in folk myths told through gut (shamanic ritual) songs is a strange and wondrous place. Though people think of the afterlife as wild and frightening, its portrayal in myths is highly diverse and defies such stereotypes.

Humans past or present, from East or West, are fascinated by what happens after death. The afterlife lies at the foundations of their imaginings of the next world. As perceived in Korean myths, it demonstrates the essence of cultural and philosophical imagination. The afterlife can be seen as a valuable spiritual and cultural asset of today’s Korean Wave.


Korea’s Mythical Weltanschauung and the Afterlife

In order to understand Koreans’ view of the afterlife, it is necessary to examine how they have traditionally perceived the fundamental order of the universe. Creation myths and other folk myths offer a good reflection of such perceptions.

Korean creation myths tell that before this world appeared, heaven and earth were melded together in a single body. This can be described as a state of chaos that was neither heaven nor earth. Heaven and earth were created as they broke apart, and the world of natural beings—the human world—appeared between them.

Notable here is the fact that humans dwell in more than one world. In addition to the world of the living (iseung), there is the afterlife (jeoseung), inhabited by the dead; these two worlds form a pair. When a person dies, he or she crosses into the afterlife.

From this perspective, our world can be understood as consisting broadly of four dimensions. Heaven and the underworld are the original realms of the gods, and still inhabited by many of them, while the world of the living and the afterlife are inhabited by humans. In pictorial form, the world can be represented as follows:



Heaven and the underworld are divine spaces, while the afterlife and world of the living are human spaces, creating a dual structure of divine and human worlds. It can be said that the divine world is bigger than the human world. Though heaven and the underworld are divided by the human world, they are not completely separate. They meet through the human world, and are linked in some faraway place.

The divine and human worlds fundamentally exist in a vertical relationship. The latter is situated below heaven and above the underworld. The relationship between the human world and the underworld is not a simple one. Though the latter appears to be below the former, it can be seen as a higher dimension in terms of its attributes.

Unlike the vertical structure of heaven and the underworld, the world of the living and the afterlife are seen as existing in a horizontal relationship. Though they are separate, they are also locked together at some point. The world of the living extends far on its horizontal axis, while the afterlife contains the polar opposite realms of paradise and hell, arranged vertically.


Where is the Afterlife?

In many religions and myths around the world, the afterlife is perceived as located under the ground. Greek and Roman myths offer a clear example of this. The notion of this subterranean location also relates to the fact that humans bury their dead in the ground.

In Korean shamanic myths, by contrast, the afterlife is located across from the world of the living. Those making their way there cross wide fields, pass over hills or cross water—all horizontal movements. The decisive boundary is generally some form of water. This is sometimes referred to as Yusugang (Yusu River) or Hwang-
cheon (Yellow Stream). It is sometimes crossed by a ferry boat, and sometimes by a single log bridge.

In Korean myth, the afterlife is said to lie to the west of the world of the living. Though this belief is doubtless related to the fact that the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean lies to the east of the Korean Peninsula, Koreans’ worldview is a more important factor. The world of the living, located in the east where the sun rises, is a place of morning and spring and creation, while the afterlife, located in the west where the sun sets, is a place of evening and autumn and extinction. In terms of attributes, the relationship between the world of the living and the afterlife corresponds to that of yang and yin.


Between the World of the Living and the Afterlife

Like many other world religions, Korean shamanism acknowledges the existence of the soul. The body is limited and rots away when its time comes, but the soul remains alive and continues on to the afterlife.

No human can avoid the passage to the afterlife. More time is spent in the afterlife than in the land of the living. While the latter is a place where good and bad fortunes are intertwined, the former features clear divisions between pleasure and pain. It can be a place of infinite happiness and pleasure, or one of immense and endless pain.

The world of the living and the afterlife are both close and far apart. Though the afterlife touches the world of the living, it is not easy to enter. Gods may go back and forth between these two realms, but humans cannot. With only a very few exceptions, living humans cannot enter the afterlife. Only those who have died, and whose souls have separated from their bodies, may go.

According to myths and legends, not all souls enter the afterlife. Some avoid it due to deep grievances or strong attachments, while others are unable to go because their names are not on the afterlife register, or because they have no money for the journey. Souls that cannot enter the afterlife become ghosts that wander the world of the living. Sometimes, they possess the bodies of others and cause trouble. This counts as a worst-case scenario: it is regarded as proper for souls to enter the afterlife after leaving their bodies, even if they end up in hell once there.

The relationship between the world of the living and the afterlife is one-way. Once the afterlife has been entered, there is no return. But the relationship has not always been completely irreversible. Koreans believed that souls of the deceased that had gone to the afterlife could be reborn as new lives in the human world. From a macroscopic perspective, the afterlife forms one part of the life cycle of the universe. Just as the sun that sets over the western sea rises again over the east, the afterlife is seen as both a final destination for life and a new beginning.


Paradise and Hell: Opposite Poles of the Afterlife

The afterlife is home to two completely different spaces, which are strictly separated according to clear notions of good and evil: paradise and hell. Souls entering the afterlife essentially go to one or the other.

Paradise and hell are diametrically opposed in terms of character. Paradise is a world of extreme pleasure, while hell is a place of unbearable pain. Paradise is bright, light, and beautiful, while hell is dark, heavy, and hideous.

Notable is the fact that, in Korean myth, paradise and hell are not seen as completely cut off from each other. Humans cannot choose one or the other at will, or cross from one to the other just as they please. But the passage that links the two spaces is not blocked. There is a way for souls trapped in hell to go to paradise. The myth Bari gongju (Princess Bari) tells how its eponymous protagonist prays fervently until the fortress of iron and the fortress of thorns collapse and the souls that are inside them travel to paradise. This story shows that upward movement to paradise is possible through devotion and prayer.

In Korea, punishment in hell is described as “ten thousand years of pain.” Here, ten thousand years does not signify eternity. Koreans took the view that those who had paid adequately for their sins in hell could go to paradise or be reborn into the human world. This conforms with the Buddhist view of samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth).


A painting from the Joseon period depicting the Ten Kings and the Ten Hells. On top are the kings, in the middle various objects, and at the bottom people facing trials in each hell. The panel on the left shows (from left to right): the first king, Qinguang, and the Hell of the Mountain of Knives; the third king, Songdi, and the Hell of Ice; the fifth king, Yanluo, and the Hell of Tongue Ripping; the seventh king, Taishan, and the Hell of Mortars and Pestles; and the ninth king, Dushi, and the Hell of Lacerating Winds. The panel on the right shows (from right to left): the second king, Chujiang, and the Hell of Oil Cauldrons; the fourth king, Wuguan, and the Hell of Trees of Knives; the sixth king, Biancheng, and the Hell of Vipers; the eighth king, Pingdeng, and the Hell of Sawing; and the tenth king, Zhuanlun, and the Hell of Darkness. Image © National Museum of Korea



The Ten Kings and Ten Types of Hell

In Korean myth, hell is the most vividly described realm of the afterlife in terms of form and characteristics. While paradise is depicted in somewhat abstract terms, as a place of beauty and peace, hell is divided into ten sub-sections, each containing graphically described horrors.

Each of the Ten Hells is ruled by its own deity; collectively, these are known as the Ten Kings. The best-known among them is King Yanluo. The Ten Hells and their kings are as follows:

1. Hell of the Mountain of Knives, ruled by King Qinguang, where sinners must walk over a mountain with knives sticking out of it.

2. Hell of Oil Cauldrons, ruled by King Chujiang, where sinners are boiled in cauldrons of oil.

3. Hell of Ice, ruled by King Songdi, where sinners are frozen in ice.

4. Hell of Trees of Knives, ruled by King Wuguan, where sinners are thrown into trees with protruding knife blades.

5. Hell of Tongue Ripping, ruled by King Yanluo, where sinners’ tongues are ripped out and plowed like fields.

6. Hell of Vipers, ruled by King Biancheng, where sinners are thrown into pits full of venomous snakes.

7. Hell of Mortars and Pestles, ruled by King Taishan, where sinners are pounded and ground up.

8. Hell of Sawing, ruled by King Pingdeng, where sinners are sawn in half.

9. Hell of Lacerating Winds, ruled by King Dushi, where sinners are tormented by bitingly cold winds.

10. Hell of Darkness, ruled by King Zhuanlun, where sinners are kept in total darkness.


The souls of those who sin before dying go through several of these hells, according to the nature of their sins, and endure terrible pain. The types of hell found in Korean myths are known to have come from Buddhism; Buddhist hell paintings offer vivid depictions of the ten infernal realms.

Today, the afterlife deities people think of first are King Yanluo, the other nine kings of hell, and death spirits. But the most important afterlife deity in Korean shamanic myth is, in fact, another figure: Princess Bari (Baridegi), who leads the dead to the afterlife. The princess, a goddess of mercy, escorts souls to the afterlife and cleanses them of their sins and grievances. The soul of any deceased person can reach paradise with the favor of Bari. She is similar in character to the bodhisattva
Kitigarbha, but plays a much more important role. Some texts claim that her seven sons became some of the Ten Kings of hell, an illustration of her status and power.


Mysterious Realms: The Flower Garden of the West and Woncheongang

Paradise and hell are not the only places in the afterlife of Korean myth. Two additional mysterious realms are the Flower Garden of the West and Woncheongang. The garden is home to flowers such as the Birth Flower, the Rebirth Flower, the Evil Flower and the Fire Flower, and is said to lie across the water in the afterlife. They say that Grandmother Samsin uses these flowers to conceive children in the world of the living. Children brought here by Grandmother Samsin water the flowers, rather than being judged by the Ten Kings, before later proceeding to paradise.

Woncheongang, to which Oneuri, god of time, travelled across the Cheongsu Sea, is another special place in the afterlife. There are said to be four doors there, each of which opens to a season: spring, summer, autumn or winter. This place can thus be regarded as the origin of the four seasons and of time. Put another way: it can also be seen as the origin of all nature. Woncheongang holds the answers to the questions asked by all beings in the world, too.

People today sometimes see the afterlife as a world of cruel endings and pain, and regard it with great fear. But the afterlife in Korean myth is not simple. It is a place where the wrongs of the world of the living are put right, but also one where damaged lives prepare to be born again. To those who have lived hard, poor, and honest lives in the world of the living, the afterlife is a world of opportunity. This worldview is a reflection of popular desires.


Cultural Content Related to the Afterlife

Many aspects of art and culture throughout the world touch upon journeys to the afterlife. In Korea, it was an important part of the background to the TV drama Jeonseol-ui gohyang (Evil Twin), which depicted the afterlife as a scary and dangerous place. Many works of contemporary fiction portraying journeys in the afterlife are based on the myth of Princess Bari. Key examples include Kang Unkyo’s serial poem “Baridegi-ui yeohaengnorae” (Bari’s Travel Song), Kim Sun-wu’s novel Bari Gongju (Princess Bari), Hwang Sok-yong’s novel Baridegi (Princess Bari), the song Eomneun norae (The Song That Isn’t) and the modern pansori work Baridegi Bari Gongju (Baridegi Princess Bari).

Joo Ho-min’s webtoon Sin-gwa hamkke (Along with the Gods) won great popularity for its new depiction of the afterlife and hell in Korean myth. The work recreated the Ten Hells and Ten Kings with a partly humorous, contemporary feel. It was also made into two films, accumulating total ticket sales of more than twenty-five million. The original webtoon was adapted and serialized in Japan, too. Meanwhile, several recent works have featured the Flower Garden of the West and Woncheongang. These are notable for the fact that they no longer portray the afterlife only as a place of fear.



Translated by Ben Jackson


Shin Dong-hun

Konkuk University