Dangun-je

-- L. Anne Hilty, PhD
Dangun lives.

Or so the Shamanists and Confucianists and Buddhists and many of Korea's 300 lesser
religions believe, though the Christians have no use for early myths except their own, and
modern Seoulites simply consider the holiday an opportunity for extra sleep.

Six of us, a mix of Koreans and westerners and all with a particular related interest, went to
Taebaeksan the first weekend in October with my friend David Mason as guide (the author of
Spirit of the Mountains --see http://www.san-shin.org). One particularly intriguing participant
was Dr. John Dougill, professor of British Studies in Kyoto for the past 17 years and currently
on sabbatical, who is following a migratory path from Siberia through Korea to Japan on a
hunch that Shamanism and Shintoism are connected. He just published a book about Kyoto's
cultural history, and will publish his findings on Shintoism in the form of a novel, so we have
concluded that we are on parallel paths and will remain in contact.

Gaecheon-jeol is a traditional and now national Korean holiday officially known as National
Foundation Day. The day honors Dangun, the mythological father of Korea. In the founding
myth, a bear and a tiger pleaded with the god Hwanung to make them human [silly goal, I'm
inclined to think]; he gave each of them 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort and told
them that if they could remain out of the sun for 100 days existing only on these foods, he would
grant their wish. The tiger, being a carnivore, gave up, while the bear persisted and was turned
into a lovely woman. When she became lonely and again entreated Hwanung, this time for a
child, he took her as his wife and Dangun was the product of their coupling--half god and half
human with qualities of the bear as well. He established the first kingdom on the Korean
peninsula.  

Taebaeksan is an exceptionally sacred mountain to Koreans, and while the connection to the
founding father may be only symbolic it is nevertheless taken very seriously by the locals. The
ancient literature references “Taebaeksan” as his place of birth, but it is also thought to be
Baekdusan, the highest mountain ( -san means mountain) in all of the peninsula--unfortunately
for modern South Koreans, on the border of North Korea and China—or one of several others,
also in North Korea. Many shrines and local establishments in the Taebaeksan region include
photos and paintings of the lagoon at Baekdu's peak, to connect their hearts to same, a not-so-
subtle symbol of the longing for reunification.

We were guided by David first to the tomb of 'King' Danjong, a 12-year old grandson of the
legendary King Sejong who was in line to be king but was outcast by his uncle and eventually
made to drink poison. (Interesting sidebar: among the articles left in honor at his gravesite is a
bottle of soju, the traditional liquor. This appears, along with food and other items, at many of
the shrines.) Following this, we made sojourns to a wide variety of temples and shrines; true to
Korea's tradition of religious syncretism, Buddhist temples have Sanshin (Mountain Spirit)
shrines and shamanic elements, while Shamanist shrines often include statues of the Buddha
and pictures of Sanshin. Bodeoksa, for example, along with its lovely gate housing four
guardians corresponding to the cardinal directions and elements, houses an ancient pagoda, a
shrine to Sanshin, and several Shamanist elements in the details--and, a Buddhist kindergarten.

At one such Shamanist shrine, Wolamsa, an ancient woman was drying a variety of goods in
front of her home; a younger man told us that she and he were both 'monks,' according to our
interpreter (perhaps 'devotees' is a more accurate choice, and attendants to the shrine). There
was a smaller shrine to Sanshin, which is typical, and a larger Shamanist holy place with
Buddhist elements such as the classic bell, and a sacred well outside. Water in the mountains is
considered especially holy by all Koreans. We did some hiking at this mountain, where two of
us--I must confess that I was not among them--made it to the peak, or Wolambong.

On Monday morning, the actual holiday, we walked up to Dangol Valley in Taebaeksan (our
motel was nearby) and observed three rituals. First, at a lovely stone altar with a tree in its
center and others circling it, and a nearby stream, the Confucianists held their observance to
Dangun. We were as respectful as possible, as the hundred or so supplicants repeatedly
bowed. However, the local broadcasters got right in the middle of everything--which the
ritualists allow because they want the publicity.

Immediately following this ceremony, food and drink was shared by all, and we were invited to
join--even given places of honor with the local government officials in attendance, as foreigners
never attend Korean traditional rituals and they were quite touched by our genuine and
respectful interest. The Shamanists quietly arrived during this time and took their place at the
altar where they performed their own ritual to Dangun--two women dressed in the simple muslin
clothing of the Buddhist monks rather than their own brilliant shamanic costume, because the
local officials have recently expressed resistance. I watched them perform--not for an audience
(though a dozen or so women were present, sharing food) or broadcasting cameras, even with
their backs to us, and only for themselves--and for their gods. Most interesting was the 14-year
old girl in jeans with a pink pocketbook and cell phone who was assisting them; I had my friend
ask her if she was training to be a mudang, or shaman, but she, longing for modernity in this
semi-rural region, said she was simply helping her grandmother. She's in training, all right, I
noted, only she doesn't yet realize it.

While the shamans were worshipping, a few women came to talk to our little group; one of them
joked with our interpreter (who didn't readily interpret this for us) that they were worried that
David, who sports a large belly, would give birth during the ceremonies. Another began reading
our psyches--not a shaman, nor a fortune teller, but a typical Korean as most consider
themselves a bit psychic in one way or another. After discussing a few of the others, she turned
to me and, with her hand on my sternum, described me as intelligent and highly educated with a
strong will. "Even though she is a woman," she said through our interpreter, "she has the will of
a man--stronger than that of a man." I thought back to administrators and the like with whom I've
had to battle over the years, and chuckled. They would have agreed.  

Following this we moved to a staged area for the main ceremony, also Confucian. (The current
form of Confucianism goes well with nationalism--and sexism. At its origin was the Chinese
yinyang balance of Taoism, umyang in Korea, but all too soon the yang was emphasized to give
more power to the king--a bastardization of original Confucianism.) After the ceremony, we were
again invited to food and drink, this time lunch. A few hundred people were served, all
sponsored by the local government. David got into a bit of a heated discussion with the leader
of a lesser religion, daejonggyo; speaking through our interpreter, the priest gave quite a lecture
about his beliefs--and also told John that his country (Britain) had stolen cultural artifacts from
Korea and should return them. (He was referring to objects held in the National Gallery in
London.) There were children's  paduk competitions to come, a highly intelligent and strategic
game unique to Asia (called i-go in Japan, weiqi in China, mig mang in Tibet, co vay in Viet
Nam), as well as a singing contest beneath a sheltered stage, though we didn't stay.

For us, it was on to more shrines and temples. Mandeoksa is a very large Buddhist temple with
dragons on the ceiling and beneath the eaves, the latter of which sport deer antlers, a
particularly shamanic aspect; it also has a separate shrine to Sanshin. At Cheongwonsa, we
found a unique and very tall pagoda, bodhisattvas of compassion, a temple and bell along with
a Sanshin shrine, and a shrine to Yongwangshin, the Dragon King Spirit. There were also icons
representing a certain legend in which a woman finds herself turned half into a dragon and,
after seeking help in her distress, is told to go to the mouth of the Naktonggang (river) which
flows from Taebaeksan to the South Sea; when she arrives (a particularly shamanic journey, or
pilgrimage, is to follow a river back to its source), she feels at home and determines to stay,
ordering her three sons who brought her there to return home without looking back. The
youngest cannot resist, and is consequently turned to stone--a crying stone. She is enshrined
at Cheongwonsa, and his statue stands at the entrance.

Of particular note is the Buljeong Sandang, a grouping of shrines that are purely Shamanist
rather than mixed with Buddhism as they have had to do for political reasons over the past
several centuries, and the Baessi Sandang, which is a private and simpler series of shrines.
People had been visiting, praying and performing ritual, and lighting candles all weekend long
at both in honor of Dangun. Daejinjuam, alongside its Buddhist temple, hosted a statue of
Sanshin riding his tiger. At the Dangun Seongjeon, a private shrine specifically to Dangun, we
were invited to take part in their barbeque; they were cooking the pig that they had offered to
Dangun in worship just that morning, a wild boar they had caught on Taebaeksan. Talk about
sacred food.

And speaking of sacred food--our last stop before heading for home was a tiny mountain house
where we were served sanchae jeongshik, a mountain herb dinner for which the area is
famous. We had ten dishes of herbs and greens that the halmoni (elder woman) had collected
by hand, a soup of mixed herbs, mugwort soup, kimch’i and purple rice. They also gave us
deodeokju, liquor made from a root similar to ginseng which is then aged in soju for years; in
this case, the halmoni had harvested the root from the mountain, again by her own hand, and it
was astonishing. David bought an enormous vessel of it to bring home.

Dangun lives. Shamanism lives.


This essay is copyrighted and is not to be replicated without the author’s express permission.
The author is a cultural psychologist from New York, currently living in Seoul. She has written
SeoulSister: Letters from Korea, a collection of essays on Korean culture to be published in
early 2006, and is writing a novel based on Korean Shamanism. She can be reached at
literarygypsy@gmail.com
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