Korean Folklore

I am absolutely becoming obsessed with Korean Folklore. Their stories are great, the kids share them with me, my coworkers share them with me and then I try to retell them.

So, although this isn’t the best way to do it, I have found these stories and want to share. I know it is alot of reading, but you may like them too. (the bear and tiger story is my favorite 🙂

The Creation of the World

At the beginning the world did not exist. A deity named Yul-ryeo 율려 (律呂) and a goddess named Mago 마고(麻姑) appeared. Yul-ryeo then died. Mago in turn gave birth to two goddesses: Gung-hee 궁희(穹姬) and So-hee 소희 (巢姬). They in turn each gave birth to twoMen of Heaven 천인 (天人) and two Women of Heaven 천녀 (天女).

After the appearance of the Heavenly People, Yul-ryeo 율려 is revived and through her re-birth heaven, earth, and the oceans were created, along with Chi (soul) 기 (氣), fire 불 (火), water 물 (水), and earth 흙 (土). These four elements in turn mixed and became herbs and plants, birds and animals.

Mago 마고 (麻姑) decided to stay with Yul-ryeo, whose body had now become the world, and the Heavenly People ruled all living things from their heavenly fortress named Magoseong 마고성 (麻姑城) in honour of the goddess.

The Coming of Humankind

There were four Heavenly Men guarding each cardinal direction of the fortress, and they were Cheong-gung 청궁 (靑穹), Hwang-gung 황궁 (黃穹) who were children of Gunghwee, and Hukso 흑소(黑巢), Baekso 백소(白巢)who were children of Sohwee. They in turn married the four Heavenly Women, and gave birth to twelve children, who would become the ancestors of the humans.

These ancestors were pure and were have said to drink from Earth’s Milk 지유 (地乳), which came from a spring inside the castle. They could speak without making sounds, and act without seeing and never died. Thus they lived for ten thousand years undisturbed.

Then there came a time when the number of people became too large. There was not enough of Earth’s Milk (or “Jiyu”) to go around for everyone. Because of this, a man from the line of Baekso 백소 (白巢) by the name of Jiso 지소 (支巢) decided to cede his meal of Earth’s Milk five times to his neighbours (other versions say that he waited in line but the line was so long he never got his turn). Eventually his hunger grew intolerable, and deciding to kill himself he headed towards a cliff, where he saw a grape vine growing in the edges. Unable to suppress his hunger, he ate the grapes and immediately acquired the five tastes of sourness, bitterness, spiciness, sweetness, and saltiness. This is known as the Incident of the Five Tastes (오미의 변).

Jiso 지소 (支巢) returned to his people and told them of his discovery. Soon however, those who ate from these grapes began to grow teeth. From the teeth spewed a saliva that turned into venom. This was because they had eaten another living thing in order to stay alive.

Soon they were able to see, but were no longer able to hear the heavens. Their skin became coarse, their feet heavy, and they were no longer pure. They gave birth to many animal-resembling children and their lifespans began to shrink.

There eventually came a point when the people of Magosung 마고성 (麻姑城) began blaming Jiso (지소) for the transformation, and he along with his family and all those who had eaten the grapes were forced to leave Magosung 마고성 (麻姑城).

As the line of Jiso was leaving, however, Hwang-gung (황궁:黃穹, one of the four guardians and a direct ancestor of the Korean people) tried to encourage them by saying that if they could recover their pure nature, they would be free of their misery.

Upon hearing this, the people became convinced that the only way to become pure once more was to drink from Earth’s Milk again. They then stormed the castle and overwhelmed it, razing the fortress to its foundations in order to reveal the source of the spring that had given them Earth’s Milk. The spring, however, began to flow in all directions and thereafter the milk turned into inedible earth, leaving not only the original perpetrators but all the former inhabitants of the now destroyed castle to starve.

Soon thereafter there ensued a massive famine, and everyone was reduced to devouring not only grapes, but all sorts of plants and even animals in an attempt to satiate their hunger. Of them only Hwang-gung 황궁 (黃穹) came forth to Mago 마고 (麻姑) and begged her for forgiveness. He swore he would not rest until mankind could recover its pure nature. From her he obtained the Three Heavenly Heirlooms, and great knowledge. He then called together all the people of the earth, taught them agriculture, and gave each clan leader a Heavenly Heirloom and then sent them off in different directions to people the earth.

The Settling of the World

Cheong-gung 청궁 (靑穹) went to the East, where he established China.

Baekso 백소 (白巢) and his people moved to the West and became the people of Europe and the Middle East.

Heukso 흑소 (黑巢) moved to the South, into the region that is now India and Southeast Asia.

The Establishment of Korea

Hwang-gung 황궁 (黃穹) took three thousand followers and they alone went to the harsh North, to a place called Cheonsanju 천산주 (天山洲), meaning “land of the heavenly mountain” where the land was cold and dangerous. He had done this on purpose, because he wanted to be purified once more. Upon arrival, Hwang-gung 황궁 (黃穹) signed an oath swearing that he would recover his purity.

Hwang-gung 황궁 (黃穹) ruled for a thousand years, using the Heavenly Heirloom, which granted him power over fire and the sun. Hwang-gung eventually achieved his goal of self-purification. To his oldest son Yuin 유인 (有因) he gave the Heavenly Heirloom as a sign of his right to govern the kingdom, whereas to his two younger sons he gave the responsibility of governing over a province each. He then departed to the Heavenly Mountain 천산 (天山) where he became a stone that could speak Yul-ryeo’s message, constantly reminding men of their path to innocence.

Yuin 유인(有因) ruled for another thousand years. Using the Heavenly Heirloom, he taught his people how to tame fire and cook food. He later left for the Heavenly Mountain as well and gave the heirloom to his a son by the name of Han-in 한인 (桓因) [sometimes pronounced “Hwanin” 환인]. Han-in 한인 (桓因) was the last of the heavenly rulers, who used the power of the Heirloom to bring abundant sunlight and good weather. Under the three thousand years of peaceful reign since Hwang-gung 황궁 (黃穹), the people eventually lost their animal-like appearance and slowly began recovering their image.

Very little survives of the Pre-Buddhist mythologies, the vast majority of them having been oral literature and a substantial amount of them now forgotten from folklore.

It seems that out of an initial chaos the world was formed and a race of giants set up the stars in the heavens, and separated them from a deepness of water. When their job was finished they fell into an eternal slumber and their bodies became the islands and mountains etc

The Sun and the Moon

In the world before the sun and the moon, only the stars existed.

It was in these early days that there lived siblings: Haesik (해식) the older brother and Dalsun (달순) the younger sister. Their mother was a poor peasant woman who sold rice-cakes for a living.

The mother was returning from the village one day when she was encountered by a tiger perched on a hill demanding a rice-cake in exchange for sparing her life. She gave it to him and the tiger went away, only to appear before her at the next hill; this time demanding two rice cakes. She gave him the cakes, only to find him again on the third hill, this time asking for four rice cakes. When the mother finally ran out of rice cakes to feed him, the tiger threatened to devour her.

The mother pleaded, saying she was the sole mother of two children. Upon hearing this the tiger’s hunger grew even more vicious. He devoured the mother and then took on her clothing as a disguise. He then made his way to the house where he knew the children awaited.

At the house the children were worried that their mother was not returning. Haesik suggested they lock the door, when he heard a voice calling them from outside. Dalsun, the younger, thought it was her mother, but Haesik knew the voice was different and sensed that something was not right. The tiger urged them to open the door, but Haesik staunchly refused.

Not giving in, the tiger used some of the powder left from the rice cakes and applied it on the back of his hand, making them look white. When he inserted his fingers through a space in the door, Dalsun became convinced that it was their mother and immediately opened the door. The tiger chased them until the children climbed up to the safety of a tree.

When the tiger found an axe in the house and began chopping down on the tree, Dalsun made a prayer asking the heavens to send down a strong rope if they should be saved and a rotten rope if they were to be damned. A strong rope was sent down, and both siblings climbed up until they reached the heavens.

Seeing this, the tiger made a similar request, but the rope he got was rotten and he fell in a millet field. His blood stained the millet and this is why millet stalk is said to be red.

In heaven, Haesik became the sun (Haennim 햇님) and Dalsun became the moon (Dallim 달님), but later Dalsun complained that she was afraid of the dark. Thus Haesik decided to stand in for her so that Dalsun could become the sun.

Founding Myth of Ancient Joseon

In the heavens lived a god 천제 (天帝) by the name of Hwanin 환인 (桓因). Hwanin is an alias of Indra.[2] Hwanin is the name in Buddhismof Indra, this name is widely used in east Asia. Hwanin had a son by the name of Hwanung 환웅 (桓雄). Everyday, Hwanung would peer over the edge of heaven down into the earth and shed tears. When asked why by his father, Hwanung answered that he worried for the fate of the mortals and that he wished to rule them in order to bring peace and justice into their kind. Moved by his devotion, Hwanin allowed him to descend into the world and rule. He gave his son Three Heavenly Heirlooms 천부삼인 (天符三印), along with a group of three thousand servants, and ordered the Three Lords of wind 풍백 (風伯), rain 우사 (雨師), and clouds 운사 (雲師) to follow him.

Hwanung thus descended onto the world. He first arrived at the mountain-top of Mount Taebaek and there established a city he calledShinshi 신시 (神市), meaning City of the Gods. Hwanung took care of 360 human affairs, including agriculture, life, illness, justice, good and evil, etc. It was during this time that two beasts approached him, wishing to become human.

One of them, a tiger, is now thought to symbolize a tiger-totem clan that vied for power along with the bear, representing the gentler and more civilized bear-clan.

Hwanung gave both of them a handful of mugwort and twenty cloves or garlic, with which they had to stave off their hunger while remaining inside a dark cave without seeing the sunlight for 100 days. The tiger in his temper, ran away before the ordeal was through, but the bear remained patient and on the twenty-first day turned into a beautiful woman. The woman was given the name Ungnyeo 웅녀 (熊女).

Not long after her transformation, Ungnyeo began to crave a child, but since she has been a beast before she became a woman, no one was willing to wed her. In her sadness she sat beneath a holy tree and prayed for a child everyday. Hwanung, moved by her prayers, took human form for a brief moment and through him she gave birth to a son.

This son is Dangun, forefather of the Korean people.

Dangun established a kingdom he called Asadal 아사달 (阿斯達), meaning “place where the morning sun shines”. This name was later changed to Joseon 조선 (朝鮮) (Now called Ancient Joseon to distinguish it from the later Joseon kingdom). Legend has it that Dangun ruled undisturbed for one thousand five hundred years before his kingdom was invaded by the Ju Empire. He is said to have lived until he was 1,908 years of age—at which point he decided to leave the mortal lands and headed for the quiet of the mountains where he became a divine spirit of the mountain, or Sansillyeong (산신령).



  1. I've been trying to learn more about the three Lords of wind 풍백 (風伯), rain 우사 (雨師), and clouds 운사 (雲師) and the Three Heavenly Heirlooms. Even when I lived in Korea people told me they didn't know much.Not to mention the changing number of cloves of garlic the tiger and bear had to eat.Any help would be awesome.


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