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 email@example.com