Behind the Myth

Exploring Korean traditions, mythology, superstitions and folklore.

Here Come the Dokkaebi!

Written and photo contributed By Stephen Redeker

We have covered mythological creatures and ghosts before in previous Behind the Myth articles. Now is the time to tell the tale of a particular mischievous monster known as dokkaebi (도깨비). These little beasts strike fear in the hearts of young Korean children, worried that they will be visited by the dokkaebi if they misbehave.

Dokkaebi have been depicted in various ways over time. They can resemble the Western-style of a goblin or a troll: human-like but very ugly and menacing, carrying a club and challenging passersby for the right to enter or to pass by their space. They may have horns on their heads, big eyes and large, curved and protruding fangs like a vampire. Their magic hats can grant them invisibility, and they carry the aforementioned club to strike fear in their opponents. This magical club can also transform objects into anything the dokkaebi desires.

Different from ghosts and spirits, the dokkaebi do not come from the dead. Rather, they arise from nature, as inanimate objects may magically transform into dokkaebi to terrorize unlucky (or perhaps deserving) victims. Thus Koreans know to avoid graveyards, dark forests and abandoned buildings unless they welcome the chance to bump into dokkaebi.

Some would consider dokkaebi to be harmless little demons. Their nature is to play jokes and pull pranks on people. They especially love partaking in ssireum (씨름), which is traditional Korean wrestling. It is said that the dokkaebi like to reward those who do good deeds and punish those who cause harm to others. They can be seen as Robin Hood type characters. Using their magical items, they steal from the rich and greedy, while giving to the poor and worthy.

There are several types of dokkaebi with various appearances and agendas. Cham dokkaebi are very mischievous, while gae dokkaebi are evil. Gim seobang dokkaebi are considered to be dumb farmers, nat dokkaebi are the only ones to appear in daylight and go dokkaebi are skilled warriors with weapons. Also, Gaksi and chonggak dokkaebi are attractive looking to humans, oenun dokkaebi have only one eye and oedari dokkaebi have only one leg and are the most fond of wrestling.

Although the dokkaebi are strictly Korean folklore characters, their appearances have indeed been influenced by similar monsters from Chinese and Japanese mythology. The modern similarities between the Korean dokkaebi and Japanese “oni” may originate from the colonial period in Korea (1910-1945).

Today, these little fiends can be seen in movies, children’s cartoons, story books and games. Dokkaebi art can also be seen in various museums in Korea. The fans of the Korean national soccer team call themselves the “Red Devils” and use an image of a dokkaebi face as their mascot. It is nice to see that such a symbol for mischief can be used in a way to unite people and invoke a sense of national pride.

Keep your eyes peeled and you might see a dokkaebi along your path. Do not be scared though, for if you are a good person, you have nothing to worry about.

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