South Korea is a country with too much history to talk about. Mythology is part of it, thus mythological creatures, legends, and traditional myths tell stories in which it is possible to know the origin and the worldview of this country. Most of the Korean oral tradition is related to shamanism and folklore; moreover, these stories can be terrifying or have a happy ending, but these usually talk about the exploits of these awesome mythological creatures.
One of the best-known mythological beings in South Korea is the Dokkaebi (도깨비), also known as “goblins”. The history of these mythological creatures is recorded in the Silla era since these appeared in the tale namely Lady Dohwa and Bachelor Bihyeong in the book Samguk Yusa (book with the legends of the three Korean kingdoms). These creatures are also present in some anthologies of folktales during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). The Dokkaebi are formed from inanimate objects stained with human blood, although they are sometimes seen as fearsome creatures, on other occasions they are considered harmless but mischievous beings.
One of the most famous stories about the Dokkaebi is the story of the lonely old man who, after being unexpectedly visited by one of these beings, he realizes that it is a helpless creature since it used to bring him food when this creature visited him, therefore, as time goes by the old man create a great friendship with the Dokkaebi. However, one day after catching water in a river, the old man discovers that he is transforming into one of them, frightened he begins to question the reason for that situation. The solution to save himself was to keep this creature away and not receive anything it brought him, but the wily old man takes advantage of the situation. The day where the Dokkaebi visits the old man’s house, he asks it “what is your biggest fear?” to which the Dokkaebi replies “I’m afraid of blood”, and then the old man says “I’m afraid of money”. The following day, the old man fills his house with blood from a cow and when the being arrives, the Dokkaebi says angrily “I will return with your greatest fear”. This is how the old man becomes rich, however, he died soon after due to his age.
On the other hand, the famous K-drama “Goblin” is also inspired by the stories of a Dokkaebi, played by Gong Yoo (공지철). This series tells the story of a man who after his death becomes a Dokkaebi, condemned to see his loved ones die, as he is an immortal being of approximately 939 years of age. To end with his cruel curse, the main character constantly searches for love.
Similarly, the Gumiho (구미호) is a famous being of Korean mythology. It is a fox-like creature with nine tails. The legends of this mythology creature also exist in countries such as China and Japan. However, each country has a different version of what a Gumiho is since it can be seen as an evil being or as a good one. In Korean stories, the Gumiho is a fox that has lived for thousands of years and it has become an evil creature which feeds on human hearts and livers. Generally, the Gumiho is a cunning being that transforms into a human, usually a woman to seduce men and absorb their energy. One thing that the stories about Gumihos have in common is that in most cases, whether the nature of a Gumiho is discovered by humans, it will die. Likewise, some stories say that if a Gumiho does not kill or eat a human for a thousand days, it will become a human forever.
It is worth mentioning that the stories of the nine-tailed fox may vary due to the fact these are legends handed down from generation to generation, therefore, as time goes by, these have been adapted to the new contexts. Currently, there are K-dramas inspired by the stories of the Gumiho, such as “Tale of the Nine-Tailed” starring Lee Dong-wook (이동욱). In this story, the Gumiho has the appearance of a man who punishes the monsters that torment the human world. Moreover, the protagonist becomes involved in a love story. On the other hand, “My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox” is a story played by Lee Seung-gi (이승기) and Shin Min-a (신민아), in which the nine-tailed fox accidentally released by a university student. Contrary to the previous one, in this story, the Gumiho is represented as a woman, whose desire is to become human.
Another South Korean mythological being is the Haechi (해치), a creature capable of controlling fire and preventing it. This one looks like a lion, however, it is a dog covered with scales with sharp fangs, a horn on its head, wings on its back, and a rattle on its neck. Haechi’s origin dates back to the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) since the sculptures of this mythological being were part of the architecture of this era. Furthermore, these were designed to protect Hanyang (now known as Seoul) from natural disasters, insomuch as the Haechi represents justice and integrity. Nowadays, some sculptures of this mythological being can still be seen in the palaces of Seoul since these are at the entrance of the same, as guardian symbols. Over the years, the Haechi is still remembered today as the guardian of Seoul, therefore, the Korean Government decided to place replicas of modern Haechis throughout the city, thus attracting the attention of citizens and tourists.
To conclude, Korean mythology has a set of legends and myths that are part of the Korean tradition and allows us to understand the background of the origin of a country with an infinite amount of culture and history to offer, through mythological characters that do not go unnoticed, that’s why Korean mythology should not be overlooked. Furthermore, nowadays some of these stories have been adapted to new entertainment formats as in the case of K-dramas which through their modern stories, inspired by these legends, allow the public to become acquainted with and interested in Korean mythology whose mythological beings are representative of this country.
Written by: Britany Sosa
Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero
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