Korean legends are a fascinating world to immerse yourself in–of course as an avowed student of Myths and Mythology, I could perfectly happily spend my entire life in the fantastic world of eastern stories. Of a particular interest to me are the origin stories of creation and cultures, a passion which led me to research the Korean story of creation and the Korean culture’s origins.
Mythology and stories about the beginning of the world can be divided into two categories ~ 1) Creation Myths which tell of the origin of the world and 2) Foundation Myths, a subset of the Creation genre, which more specifically relate the origin of a people, nation, or culture.
As one of the great ancient peoples, it is only natural that much of Korean myths come through to us in the oral tradition. Still, Koreans do not have much in the way of “Creation of the Earth” myths ~ most of their stories and legends presume that the world was already in existence when the tales begin.
There are a few minor oral tales that claim the world began (as so many origin stories hold) in a time of utter chaos and an absence of any type of creation or order. The stories go on to say that suddenly a crack appeared in the heavens, dividing the earth from the skies. But those are very minor, basic tales lacking any deep specifics or embellishments.
Rather, Korean myths tend to fall into the realm of Foundation Myths ~ sharing the origins of Korea and the Korean peoples. There are several variations, of which the most popular is the Myth of Tangun, which speaks of Hwangun, a beautiful character of strength and eternal goodness.
Once upon a time, many centuries ago, the great Heavenly God Hwanin had a noble son whose name was Hwangun. Hwangun had looked upon earth and fell in love, wishing greatly for the chance to come to earth and rule over it so that it might prosper. After learning of his son’s desire and examining the situation on earth, Hwanin decided that his son’s leadership would benefit the earth and so decreed that Hwangun should go to earth and take charge.
Before he left, Hwanin gave his son three Treasures from Heaven that would signify his authority and right to rule. Taking these with him, Hwangun finally embarked on his great mission. Taking 3000 spirits with him Hwangun first alighted on a mountain in Myohyangsan, a place in the modern-day North Korea.
Along with his great assistants, the spirits of the wind, rain, and cloud, Hwangun began implementing his leadership and guided the earth into a time of prosperity and splendor.
After some time had passed, Hwangun began to be pestered by a tiger and bear who came visiting him and begging for human forms. Taking pity on them, Hwangun set before them a test~ they were to fast for 100 days and then they would receive their human bodies. Now, the bear was very diligent and passed the test, finally transforming into a female and enjoying her new form. The tiger was not so steadfast and failed to transform. But the bear was greatly saddened, for she realized that there was no one on earth for her to mate with and thus no children would come to her. So daily, she went to the alter and pleaded with the Heavens to provide her with a child.
Once again feeling pity for the tragic bear-woman, Hwangun transformed himself into a human form and married the woman. Together they had a son, who they named Tangun. Tangun was the man who, in the time of Emperor Yao (one of the Five Emperors of China in the 2300s-2200s BC), established the first human Korean city in Pyongyang and the first Korean dynasty~ the Choson dynasty.
There are of course several variations of this initial story, but this is the tale in its original and most basic form. Even, to me, the most beautiful form.
What do you think? Does this sound familiar to your culture’s foundation myth? Any themes or similarities that cross cultural bounds? Let me know in the comments!
If you are interested, this story is some-what re-told (with major alterations) in the Korean drama “The Legend“~ it’s a great watch, both for the beautiful storyline and insight into Korean cultures/ideology.