[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]
The Myths of Jeju
Understanding a Culture Through its Stories
|▲ From left, Jeju Gut, Bangsatap, haenyeo. Photos courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province and the Jeju Tourism Organization|
“To understand a place and its people, you must learn about its mythology.”
These are the words of Kim Soonie, Jeju mythologist and local representative of the Cultural Heritage Administration. Renowned scholar of psychology Carl G. Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell both wrote extensively on this concept.
The mythology of a people tells us not only about their past but also about their collective worldview and the underpinnings of modern-day society. Jeju, an island of “18,000 gods” and a longstanding shamanic tradition inherited from eastern Siberia, is an area rife with myths.
Do the people of 21st century Jeju truly believe that a giant goddess – rather than a volcano – created this island and outlying islets?
Do they believe that the patriarchs of Jeju’s three original tribes – Bu, Ko, and Yang – actually emerged from the ground like snakes?
Devotees of the local shamanic religion may well be true believers. Others may dismiss these myths and legends as mere superstition. Many advocate the preservation of myth as an aspect of Jeju’s cultural heritage.
A transpersonal understanding advocates for all of these – in viewing the myths as metaphor for understanding a culture’s deepest features. In this way, Jeju’s myths relate to those of other cultures across the globe – and throughout time, as an exploration of what it means to be human.
The worldview of Jeju is evidenced in its myths, according to mythology scholar Koh Heakyoung, author of the award-winning “In the Beginning was Seolmundae” (2010).
“The gut [shamanic ritual], which unfolds an entire cosmic drama from the beginning of the world to the present, gives palpable experience to the web of life in which Jeju’s people spiritually and psychologically locate themselves,” Koh has written.
“Symbolic and mythic [ways of] living and seeing the world are deeply embedded in the Jeju people’s daily lives,” she furthered. “The inhabitants in Jeju see the image in nature from which the story spontaneously unfolds.”
Among the numerous myths and legends of this island, three themes emerge as primary: a zoomorphic snake deity, a female inseminator called Yeongdeung, and the cosmogonic goddess known as Seolmundae.
In addition to the myth of Grandmother Seolmundae, the giant creator of this island, Jeju has two related origin myths.
One tells of the origin of the universe, in which a “King of Heaven” (sometimes referred to as an emperor) created a somewhat chaotic world with two suns and two moons; subsequent myths focus on sons of this deity whose task it was to create order out of chaos.
Another recounts the origin of Jeju’s people, a story of three demi-gods who emerged from the ground and three princesses who arrived on Jeju’s shores from a mythical kingdom across the sea.
Having a female deity at the center of its creation myth, according to Koh, is highly unusual among the world’s mythologies and a primary ingredient of the “strong Jeju women” concept.
Jeju myths are largely an oral tradition preserved by its shamans and transmitted in songs known as “ponpuri sinhwa” which are performed in ritual. According to scholar Chin Song-gi, former director of the Jeju Folklore Museum, there are three types of deities: those who descended from the heavens, ascended from the underworld, or transited laterally from ancestral lands — predominantly, China.
Many of these deities were once in mortal form, as it is not uncommon for exceptional members of Jeju society to be posthumously deified in the shamanic tradition.
A close relationship between humans and the natural world is found in all indigenous peoples, a concept repeatedly demonstrated by Jeju mythology. Jeju’s world view, according to Koh, has five features as evidenced by its mythological traditions: egalitarianism, root metaphor, “communitas,” simultaneous unity and diversity, and a close relationship with deity.
The egalitarianism of Jeju has supported the idea of “strong women” and equal, though clearly defined, social roles. This has most often manifested in communal labor practices.
Root metaphor is indicated in a kinship between deities and humans, a relationship which is intimate and only slightly or non-hierarchical.
“Communitas,” defined as an “essential and generic human bond” by scholar Victor Turner, is clearly evidenced in a longstanding sense of community bonding, a web of familial and intra-village relationships, and a complex system of villages throughout the island. Further, described repeatedly in myth and exhibited throughout Jeju society is a paradoxical embracing of unity while allowing for diversity.
“Jeju is a post-industrial society influenced by both oral and written cultures, by cyclical and lineal time paradigms, and by mythical and abstract thinking,” Koh said.
Joseph Campbell proposed a “four-fold function” of mythology: a metaphysical addressing of such concepts as deity and the supernatural, cosmological description of the origin and evolution of the natural world, sociological guidance in the development of social order, and the psychological explanation of individual lifespan development.
Korea is well known for its religious syncretism, or harmonious integration of belief systems, and Jeju is no exception. In addition, Jeju inhabitants, having suffered enormous hardship and emotional trauma in the past, are noted for their resilience.
Koh links these elements: “It seems that the enormous resilience of Jeju people’s mind is nourished by the vastness of the world of myth which enables them to absorb other ideologies and religions and is the source of syncretism….”
Whether the mythology of Jeju is believed literally or metaphorically today, or dismissed altogether, it clearly continues to shape present-day society, again best expressed by Koh.
“Jeju Island is a mythic land in which the inhabitants are saturated with the sacred.”
This article is the first in a series on Jeju’s myths. Next in the series: Grandmother Seolmundae: Jeju’s Giant Creator Goddess.