Behind The Myth

Korea’s Creation Myth: What Can We Learn? Part 2

Written By Stephen Redeker

Every society has its own myths. As explained in last month’s Behind the Myth, “Dangun, The First Korean King” serves as the most famous creation myth. Exploring this story can shed some light on a few modern-day practices and beliefs in Korea. Keep in mind that many parts of the story can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Why did the Heavenly Prince choose to settle in this area of the world? Koreans are very proud of their country’s beauty, so it would make sense that this Heavenly Prince decided to rule over that particular piece of land when he could have chosen anywhere to be in the world.

The ministers of Rain, Cloud and Wind, who aided the prince in setting up his kingdom, certainly can account for the weather conditions common to the area. They created a special department for hunting, the grain can symbolize the food staples like meat and rice needed for the early inhabitants to survive.

Life, death, sickness and health make up for the life expectancy of the people and their reasons for mortality. Customs and morality could be dictated by those who were in charge of overseeing the good and evil aspects of life.

As mentioned in last month’s column, the tiger and bear can teach us lessons. If people pray, they are reverent and can withstand personal suffering, as the gods will act favorably upon them. The tiger gave up and ran, so it did not get rewarded. Patience and persistence are good virtues.

The food chosen for the animals has some significance as well. Mugwort is still prevalent today as a herb that is used to flavor rice cakes and soup. Koreans also heavily rely on garlic as a side dish and as an ingredient in various cuisines. Both of these plants have strong medicinal properties, so it is no wonder how these particular plants were incorporated into Korea’s creation myth.

The responsibilities of a woman are shown with the bear’s destiny. But it was not enough for it to become a beautiful woman, as it wanted to be married and have children. The woman was sad and prayed for happiness until the wish was granted. Fortunately, Korea’s first (natural born) king was born on October 3. And with the recording of this birth, we in Korea now celebrate “Foundation Day”.

Such myths have their variations, depending on the source from which it was gleaned. There is also much more to this story that has not been explored here.

The question of whether or not Dangun actually existed was already covered in a previous “Behind the Myth,” and it was also noted that many Asian nations have similar creation stories. It is believed that Dangun’s reign began around 2,333 B.C., coinciding with the reign of ancient China’s Emperor Yao. After ruling for 1,500 years, Dangun died and became a “mountain god”, which is an immortal spirit called San-shin (further explained in last August’s edition of “Behind the Myth”).

Since these stories were imagined so long ago, they were first passed down through word of mouth. Details have changed over time and what is left are the memorable and favorable parts of the story. Although it cannot be proven with factual evidence, Korea’s creation myth is fascinating in its details and helps us to understand many cultural aspects of Korean life today.

(Image caption) Dangun seated underneath the sacred tree between the bear and tiger from his legendary story. Image courtesy of san-shin.org

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