Saturday, December 16, 2017

Mythology Talk: Gods of Korea

Question: When/if you guys write up a Korean pantheon for HJ, who are your frontrunners for it?

This is one of those pantheons that would require a lot more direct research than we've had time for yet. We've got a few good books on the subject, but not enough to feel fully rounded out about things like overall divine landscape and Devotional themes. I won't lie; the Korean deities probably aren't up soon as new additions to the work of HJ, but in a beautiful future I'd love them to be, so here are some of their awesome deities who could be featured!


Chach'ŏngbi is the goddess of agriculture and fertility, helping ensure that crops grow and people have enough to eat, but she also has an incredible number of myths about her exploits before she took up this important role. A goddess with low social standing, she had to go undercover to convince her higher-standing deity husband to marry her, infiltrating his country while in disguise as a man, winning combats and suppressing riots, and eventually moving the entire family down to earth in order to reside where she could do the most good with the five new varieties of grain she granted to humanity.

There are tons of stories of Chach'ŏngbi being generally badass, but one of the perennial favorite myths about her is about how, during the time period when she was impersonating a man, she was nearly discovered because several of the guards were having a contest to see how far they could piss. Since she lacked a penis, she ran behind a tree and quickly invented a system of flexible reeds that she slipped into her pants, and then used it to not only successfully prevent anyone from noticing her different equipment, but also to piss twice as far as the frontrunner and demolish everyone at the competition. (She is also in charge of reeds, as an agriculture goddess, in case anyone was wondering.)


Sometimes a single goddess and sometimes the head of a group of similar goddesses who assist her, Ch'ilsŏng ("serpent") was a woman who was exiled from her family and community after it was discovered that she had an illicit relationship with a monk, and as a result she retreated to a remote island, transformed herself into a serpent, and gave birth to seven more serpent daughters, all of whom are now guardians of fortune and prosperity. She is usually depicted as a serpent goddess guarding a jar of grain, which represents worldly riches, and her daughters sometimes get broken down into specific smaller fortune goddesses who help her out (for example, one who is in charge of protecting outdoor riches, another in charge of savings, another in charge of gifts received from others, and so on).

Kaksi Sonnim

The Sonnim are a class of gods, in charge of good luck and happiness; there are a lot of them, with some of them distinct personalities with their own myths - like Kaksi here, who is specifically considered the goddess of smallpox. All of the Sonnim are prone to granting good luck to people who revere them and inflicting disease on people who aren't, but Kaksi in particular is actually famous for giving out smallpox as a reward: smallpox that is easily recovered from and then grants immunity for the future, so that families might pray to her for a quick and easily recovered-from bout of the disease to be sure their children wouldn't die of a severe case later on. Most of the other Sonnim just inflict smallpox on people who are misbehaving, but Kaksi here understands the finer points of the human immune system.

Kungsan & Myongwol

Korean mythology has several deities associated with the celestial lights, and Kungsan (a scholarly dude) and Myongwol (a beautiful lady) appear as personifications of the sun and moon, respectively. They appear frequently as deities to be impersonated in shamanistic ritual, and depending on the story they are sometimes brother and sister or sometimes a married pair, and were deified to become the moon and sun after their sacrificial deaths.


The Kunung are another class of gods, one made up of great war heroes who became deified upon their deaths so that they could continue to protect and serve their people, and their leader is also named Kunung and is the most powerful of the divine soldiers of the pantheon. The lesser Kunung are usually protectors of a specific area (probably related to where they lived or fought in life), but also appear as a unified force when Korea needs them most, such as when outside armies threaten the country and they must be called upon to attempt to defend their homeland from the spiritual threat of invasion. Their leader, the eponymous Kunung, combated the terrible Dragon King (probably a personification of tsunami storms from the eastern sea), and defeated him to permanently prevent the ocean from trying to swallow the land, although he continues to patrol even now just to make sure.


The great creator god of the universe, Mirŭk invented humanity (he made them out of bugs, actually, in at least one myth, so there's a nice ego bring-down for all of us) and set in place its natural laws, making up the overall landscape of earth, sea, heaven, seasons, and so on in a reasonable and orderly manner. This was mostly blown up by his counterpart Sŏkga, who is the leading cause of chaos and nonsense in the world after its original creation, but Mirŭk still hangs out up there, being sort of vaguely uncomfortable about how everything turned out. (In fact, depending on the version, he won several contests against Sŏkga before giving up in a snit when Sŏkga finally cheated at the last one, and basically giving the world over to him just to not have to deal with him anymore.)

In later Korean myth, Mirŭk becomes referred to as Maitreya, from the Buddhist boddhisattva; ironic, since Maitreya is the future Buddha who hasn't yet arrived on earth in most Buddhist belief and the two figures don't have much in common, but it makes sense that such a major and influential figure would be incorporated into the local pantheon in name at least.


Goddess of joy and pleasure, Onŭli is associated with life (human, animal, and plant), protection, happiness, and freedom from danger and worry, although she is not commonly called upon in shamanic rites and is therefore harder to convince to come grant her benefits to a specific person. She's considered to have had to suffer a long and difficult journey when she was young in order to escape adversity and come into her powers, and as a result she tends to attempt to spread her joy across the world where it's most needed on her own time, rather than being directed by anyone calling for help via prayer from below.


Paridegi (or Princess Pari) functions as a psychopompos, a deity who leads the dead to the underworld properly to prevent them from becoming lost between realms. She was once a mortal, a shaman famed for her healing and disease-curing powers, and was so powerful that she was able to project herself into the spirit world to assist the souls of the dead and dying; as a result, when she finally died herself, the gods of death were worried that she would be too powerful and usurp them, so they refused to allow her to become a god of death, and she took on the responsibility of delivering the dead to their underworld instead. (As a result, she's a much more positive and well-loved figure than many of the more intimidating death gods, and is called upon to help living shamans who want to bring the dead peace or heal those who are in danger of dying of illness.)

Sobyolwang & Taebyolwang

A pair of brother celestial gods in charge of regulating the heavenly bodies, Sobyolwang and Taebyolwang (literally "sun king" and "moon king", also referred to as Sŏnmuni and Humuni) are in charge of removing the excess suns and moons from the sky that threatened the orderly running of the world, as well as monitoring and controlling the remaining one of each we have now. Destroying and moderating the sun includes preventing drought and famine and controlling the advance of deserts, and destroying and moderating the moon includes preventing flooding and crop devastation. They also sometimes appear as rulers over humanity, with Sobyolwang as king over the living and Taebyolwang as king over the dead (often as the result of a bet on a game of chance, with the loser being stuck with charge of the dead), although other gods also take on those roles depending on the area and tradition.


Sŏkga is the opposite number of Mirŭk, above; while he could not create the world with the skill Mirŭk displayed, he could take control of it now that it existed and start messing with it for his own preference and gain. This is the reason that the orderliness of creation was disrupted and things like evil and chaos entered the world, specifically because Sŏkga played against Mirŭk in a game of chance in order to win the world and cheated to make sure that he won - Korean myth has a strong emphasis on stories of evil or chaotic figures cheating at games in order to mess literally everything up, and Sŏkga is the first and largest figure to do so. He's often reduced down to "god of evil", but might also be referred to less angrily as a god of mischief, cheatery, and selfishness, one who isn't actively trying to wreck things, but just causing problems as an accident of his behavior.

Like Mirŭk/Maitreya, Sŏkga gained names and attributes from the introduction of Buddhism, becoming popularly referred to as Sakyamuni - the name of the current Buddha, the one that Maitreya will supposedly succeed in the future. The relationship between the two gods doesn't really match up to that between the two Buddhas, again probably because the ancient Korean religion just went right ahead doing what it was doing and only layered a little Buddhism on top!


Samsŭnghalmang is the goddess of birth, in charge of making sure that babies are born healthy and alive and that their parents survive the delivery, and taught humanity helpful techniques for cutting the umbilical cord and cleaning wounds to try to make sure that they can manage it on their own when she's busy. Interestingly enough, her most major myth involves the fact that she took over the job from her grandmother, the previous goddess of birth, and that it wasn't a peaceful exchange of power; the younger Samsŭnghalmang began assisting with births only to be confronted by her predecessor for moving onto her turf, and the quarrel escalated until the older goddess physically struck the younger one, at which point they both had to go before Mirŭk for judgment and were forced to divide their responsibilities equally.


The king of the dead, Yŏmradaewang (King Yŏmra) is the ruler over the underworld and undisputed authority when it comes to those who dwell there (although he is not the only death god, and is in fact in charge of a team of nine other lesser kings who help keep the place in running order). Most of his myths have to do with making sure things are going the way they're Supposed To - for example, hearing petitions from heroes who want to let him know that someone's death has happened at the wrong time instead of when it was fated to occur, or tracking down people who have somehow evaded their proper deaths, which he considers something of a personal affront.

As his name suggests, he is probably fairly strongly influenced by the Hindu death god Yama, and has a lot of features in common, such as functioning as a judge for those who have died and aggressively administrating and keeping track of living people to make sure they wind up where they need to go.


  1. I admit I saw the name Yomradaewang and groaned slightly, even before I read the confirmation that he's another Yama influenced figure.... how the Naraka is it that the most globally influential deity in Hinduism is Yama of all people :)

    My reaction to this is my reaction to seeing any interesting set of Gods (which, let's be honest, is every set of Gods) which is 'I wish I could play them already' :) (also what their Devotional would be)

    1. Ha, I mean, every god is an interesting god that we wish was part of our stories, it's a very understandable response. :)

      I don't have a minute right now to speculate on their Devotional, but the whole "cheating at contests that affect the universe" thing comes up a lot, so I could tentatively say something like that might be involved!

  2. Is it wrong that now I want the Gods of Vietnam? :-D

    1. I'm not going to say WRONG, but it will have to go in the queue....