The English word "myth" comes from the Greek word "mythos" which means word or story. Humans have used myths to describe or explain things that they couldn't have comprehended otherwise. Questions like: why do the seasons change?, where did the first human beings come from? or why does the sun travel across the sky?. Myths served as the basis for rituals by which the ways of humanity and those of nature could be psychologically reconciled. Myths are an important part of every society, including our own. Without at least a basic understanding of a cultures myths it's impossible to fully understand that culture because myths express a societies beliefs and justify it's institutions, customs and values.
In this paper I am going to present the Korean Myth of "Dan-Gun, First King of Korea" and see how this myth may have answered some of the questions that early Koreans may have had.
There was once a Heavenly Prince who asked his father, the Heavenly King, to give him the beautiful peninsula of Korea to govern. The King granted his wish and he went down to Korea with three Heavenly seals and 3000 followers. He landed in Korea under a now sacred sandalwood tree. Here he established a sacred city with three ministers to carry out his orders. The ministers were (in English) : Earl Wind, Chancellor Rain and Chancellor Cloud. These ministers were in charge of about three hundred and sixty officials who controlled things like grain, life, sickness and the determination of good and evil.
A bear and a tiger who shared a cave near the sacred sandalwood tree wanted very much to become human beings. Everyday they prayed so earnestly before the tree that the Heavenly Prince decided to give them a chance to become human. The Heavenly Prince gave the bear and the tiger a bundle of mugwort and twenty bulbs of garlic and told them that if they ate only these and stayed in the cave for one hundred days that they would become human.
So the bear and the tiger took the garlic and the mugwort and went into the cave. After a short time the tiger ran away because it could not stand the long days of sitting the cave and eating only garlic and mugwort, but the bear endured the boredom and the hunger, and after only twenty one days the bear was transformed into a beautiful woman.
The woman was overjoyed, visiting the sandalwood tree again and again she prayed that she may have a child. She became Queen before long and soon gave birth to Dan-Gun the Sandalwood King. Dan-Gun later reigned as the first human King of Korea.
When he became King he moved the capital to pyongyang and named the country Zoson (Choson), Land of Morning Calm. Later he moved the capital to Mt. Asadal(Mt. Guwol in Huang-He province) where there is now a shrine called Samsong (the Shrine of the Three Saints) dedicated to the Heavenly King, the Heavenly Prince and Don-Gun. It is said that when Dan-Gun abdicated his throne to the next king that he became a San-sin (Mountain God).
In the beginning of the myth the Heavenly Prince asks his father for the "beautiful" peninsula of Korea. To me this seems like something that would make Koreans proud to be here because being a Heavenly Prince he obviously could have picked any land in the world to govern and rather than pick any other place in the world, the prince chose Korea. This makes Korea a special place from the beginning of the myth. The three ministers he brought with him had the names of Rain, Cloud and Wind. To me this would give the people a way to account for some of the meteorological activity that occurs on a daily basis. The approximately three hundred and sixty officials that worked for them were in charge of grain, life, sickness and the determination of good and evil among other things. These seem to be the basic concerns in life, the things that you need to get a society started. Life, for the creatures that will inhabit the peninsula. Grain along with Chancellor Rain, to provide food for those creatures. Sickness is possibly regulated by the officials so that it would not get out of control and also to give the early people someone to blame or vent their frustrations against when a loved one became ill. The officials in charge of the determination of good and evil might possibly be credited with the moral standard that these people would live by.
Later in the myth the bear and the tiger prayed so hard and long to become human that eventually the Heavenly Prince gave them a chance to do so. This seems to me to reenforce the belief that if you are reverent and pray to your deity that your prayers may come true. I mean HEY!,... if it worked for a bear and a tiger.........After a short time in the cave the tiger ran away and thus was not allowed to become human. The bear on the other hand was transformed into a beautiful woman after only twenty one days. The simple lesson to this part of the myth is that perseverance, patience and sacrifice (only eating garlic and mugwort!!) are rewarded while impatience is not.
Also the fact that these two animals wanted to become human in the first place communicates to me that it is better to be human than an animal, for example a bear or a tiger.
When the bear turned into a woman she was soon asking that she may have a baby. I think that this motherly instinct shows just how ultimately human that she had become because she was now feeling the same need for a child that most all women feel. Her son, Dan-Gun, is ultimately crowned the first human King of Korea. This in a sense gives to Korea their "George Washington" of rulers.
To conclude this myth interpretation, it is said that when Dan-Gun passed on his throne to the next King he became what is known in Korea as a San-Sin or Mountain God which is interesting because many religious rites are still performed today to Mountain Gods.
This short myth answered many question for early and possibly some present day Koreans: The founding of Korea, the origins of wind, rain and clouds; The regulators of grain, life, sickness, good and evil; The benefits of prayer, perseverance, patience and sacrifice; The negative outcome of impatience; The origin of the first human King. Quite a bit of information for such a short myth!
David Adams Leeming, The world of myth, New York, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1990, p. 3
Ibid., p. 4
Richard Cavendish, Mythology an Illustrated Encyclopedia, New York, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1980, p. 11
Zong In-Sob, Folk Tales From Korea, Seoul, Hollym Corporation: Publishers, 1970, p. 3-4
Sheila Savill, Pears Encyclopaedia of Myths and Legends, The Orient, London, 1977, p. 191
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