Korean Mythology Gods and Goddesses

Korean mythology is deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of the Korean Peninsula and offers a rich tapestry of deities, spirits, and legendary creatures. Many of these tales are preserved in ancient texts, folklore, shamanistic practices, and ceremonies.

From Jacheongbi, the goddess of fertility who descended to earth from the heavens to marry a mortal, to Dangun, the legendary founder of Gojoseon, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at some notable gods and goddesses from Korean mythology:

Hwanung (환웅)

Often considered the “Prince of Heaven,” he descended to Earth to rule over it. According to the Dangun legend, he is the father of Dangun, the legendary founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom.

In Korean mythology, Hwanung (환웅) is a significant figure who plays a pivotal role in the nation’s origin legends. He is also referred to as the “Heavenly Prince” and is associated with the establishment of civilization and governance in ancient Korea.

Driven by a desire to live among the humans and bring them divine governance, Hwanung expressed his wish to descend from heaven and rule the mortal world. Recognizing his son’s determination, Hwanin allowed Hwanung to descend with 3,000 followers. Hwanung descended to a sacred sandalwood tree on Mount Taebaek, marking the beginning of his reign on Earth.

He is credited with establishing a divine city named Sinsi (신시, “City of God”) and took charge of 360 areas of human culture, including agriculture, medicine, law, and more. With his ministers of clouds, rain, and wind, he introduced laws, moral codes, and taught humans various arts and skills.

According to the myth, a bear and a tiger living near the divine city both wished to become human. Hwanung set them a challenge: they had to avoid sunlight and eat only garlic and mugwort for 100 days. The bear persevered and transformed into a woman, while the tiger failed and ran away. The bear-woman, named Ungnyeo (웅녀), wished for a child and prayed under the sandalwood tree. Hwanung transformed into a human and married Ungnyeo, giving birth to Dangun, the legendary founder of Gojoseon, considered the first Korean kingdom.

Did you know…?

Hwanung’s father, Hwanin (also known as the “Lord of Heaven”), is sometimes associated with the concept of the Jade Emperor in other East Asian traditions.

Bari (바리)

In the myth, Princess Bari is the seventh daughter of a king who wanted a son to continue his lineage. Disappointed by the birth of another daughter, he ordered Bari to be abandoned on the mountainside immediately after her birth. However, she was saved and raised by a heavenly deity.

When the king and queen became seriously ill, they were told that the only cure was the water of life, which could only be retrieved by a family member. None of their six daughters was willing to go, but Bari, having learned of her true lineage, stepped forward. She faced numerous trials and challenges on her journey to find the water of life.

After securing the water and reviving her parents, Bari was not allowed to stay with them due to her earlier abandonment. Instead, she traveled to the underworld, where she became a goddess of death and rebirth, guiding souls to the afterlife.

Dangun (단군)

The legendary founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom. He is said to be the son of Hwanung and a bear who transformed into a woman. Image: Portrait of Dangun (by Chae Yong-sin, 19-20th century)

Dangun’s father was Hwanung, the “Heavenly Prince” who descended from heaven to rule and civilize the earthly realm. His mother, Ungnyeo (웅녀), was originally a bear who became human after passing a test given by Hwanung. After transforming into a woman, she married Hwanung and gave birth to Dangun.

According to the myth, he founded Gojoseon around 2333 BC (according to legend). The name “Gojoseon” translates to “Old/Ancient Joseon,” distinguishing it from later states that also used the name “Joseon.” Dangun ruled over Gojoseon, ensuring a harmonious blend of heavenly principles, human governance, and nature.

After ruling for over a thousand years, Dangun chose to abdicate and retreat to the sacred Mount Taebaek, where he transformed into a mountain god.

The legend of Dangun is central to Korean identity. It symbolizes the nation’s divine origins and its unique cultural and historical trajectory. Dangun stands as a symbol of the Korean spirit, resilience, and the foundational principles upon which the nation was built.

READ MORE: Importance of Dangun in Korean Culture

Jacheongbi (자청비)

Jacheongbi is considered a goddess of the earth and agriculture. In certain myths, she is believed to have descended from the heavens to become a mortal.

This agricultural deity is invoked for her blessings during planting and harvest times. As an earth goddess, she represents fertility and abundance.

Apart from her agricultural attributes, Jacheongbi is also renowned for her captivating beauty. Numerous myths and legends surrounding her focus on the theme of desire. In some tales, gods and mortals alike are drawn to her beauty, leading to various adventures and conflicts.

Jacheongbi, in her dual role as an earth goddess and a figure of beauty, symbolizes the intrinsic connection between the earth’s fertility and the idea of beauty and attraction in Korean culture. Her myths often emphasize the cycle of birth, growth, harvest, and renewal.

Yuhwa (유화)

In Korean mythology, Yuhwa (유화, 瑤華) is a significant figure, especially in the legend of Dangun, the mythical founder of the Korean nation. Her story intertwines with that of the god Hwanung and their son, Dangun.

In the myths, she is often viewed as the daughter of Habaek, the god of the river. Legend has it that when Habaek’s younger brother, Hae Mosu (Haemosu), came to his kingdom, Yuhwa and Hae Mosu fell in love. However, due to some conflict, Yuhwa ended up escaping her family and wandering on her own.

As she roamed the realms, Yuhwa encountered Hwanung, the son of the heavenly god Hwanin. Hwanung saw Yuhwa bathing by a river, and struck by her beauty, he decided to approach her. However, Yuhwa initially rebuffed his advances.

A common version of the story says that Yuhwa was transformed into a bear as a result of her father’s wrath or because of some other mystical circumstance. She lived in a cave in her bear form.

Hwanung transformed her back into human form and took her as his wife. Yuhwa then gave birth to an egg from which Dangun emerged, fully grown. Dangun would later go on to establish the first Korean kingdom, Gojoseon.

Yuhwa’s transformation and her life story symbolize themes of transformation, purity, resilience, and divine intervention. As the mother of the legendary founder of Korea, her tale becomes foundational to the stories regarding the origin of the Korean people.

Dalnim (달님)

Dalnim (달님) translates to “Moon” in Korean and is often personified in various traditional stories and folktales. In Korean mythology and culture, the moon, like in many other cultures, is a significant symbol with various connotations.

One of the most renowned tales involving the moon is that of the rabbit who resides on the moon, which is somewhat analogous to the “man in the moon” in Western cultures. According to the tale, a rabbit sacrificed itself to provide food for the Old Man of the Moon, or the moon deity. Touched by its selflessness, the deity granted the rabbit immortality and let it live on the moon.

Beyond this, the moon and its phases play roles in various customs, holidays, and superstitions within Korean culture. The most significant of these might be Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day), during which Koreans celebrate the harvest and pay respects to their ancestors under the full autumn moon.

Haemosu (해모수)

Best known as the sun god in Korean mythology, Haemosu is often portrayed riding a chariot pulled by five dragons, which represents his control over the sun.

As per the legend, Haemosu became infatuated with Yuhwa, the daughter of the river god Habaek. The two fell in love, but due to certain conflicts and disagreements, particularly with Yuhwa’s father, their relationship became strained, leading Yuhwa to escape.

After Yuhwa fled, she was taken in by King Geumwa of the Eastern Buyeo kingdom. While in Geumwa’s palace, Yuhwa became pregnant after being exposed to sunlight, which was believed to be the essence of Haemosu. She gave birth to an egg from which Jumong emerged. Jumong, later known as King Dongmyeong, became the founder of the Goguryeo kingdom.

As a solar deity, he embodies themes of light, power, and celestial significance in Korean mythology. His relationship with Yuhwa and their son, Jumong, intertwines these themes with those of love, destiny, and the foundational myths of the Goguryeo people.

Mago (마고)

In the myths, Mago is often depicted as the primordial ancestral goddess who created the world and gave birth to humanity and other deities. Some myths describe Mago as creating the Korean peninsula itself.

She is also seen as a symbol of the matrilineal culture that existed in ancient East Asia. The reverence of Mago underscores the importance of women and the feminine in ancient Korean society and spirituality.

According to some myths, Mago created the world’s landscapes, especially its mountains, which are considered sacred places of power and worship in Korean culture.

The above explains why she is seen as the embodiment of the earth, and her stories often emphasize the harmony between humans and nature, urging respect and care for the environment.

Mago goddess in Korean mythology

Known as the “Great Goddess” in ancient Korean mythology, Mago is considered the progenitor of all Koreans. he mythology surrounding Mago is deeply rooted in Korean shamanism, ancient Korean culture, and its understanding of the universe and creation. Magoism refers to the worship or belief in the goddess Mago. Image: Magu, Goddess of Longevity, 18th century hanging scroll (National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Magoism is the term for the ancient cultural and religious matrix that venerates the Great Goddess Mago. This tradition and its related practices have significantly influenced Korean shamanism, spirituality, and folklore.

While the worship of Mago decreased with the arrival of Buddhism, Confucianism, and later Christianity in Korea, aspects of Magoism persisted, especially in Korean shamanistic practices.

Today, there’s a resurgence of interest in Mago and her significance, especially among feminists and those seeking to reconnect with Korea’s ancient spiritual traditions.

Hae-nim (해님)

In Korean culture and mythology, Hae-nim (해님) translates to “Sun.” Just like the moon (Dalnim) has significance in Korean tales, the sun, Hae-nim, has its own place.

There are some that say that there isn’t a specific deity or central figure in Korean mythology named Hae-nim as there might be in other cultures’ mythologies.

Regardless, the sun in the myths often symbolizes warmth, hope, and life. Various traditional tales might personify the sun or reference it in stories about the changing seasons, the balance of nature, or the cycle of day and night.

One of the most famous tales in relation to the sun is about the sun and the moon and how they came to be in the sky, involving a tiger and a bear praying to Hwanung, the son of the Lord of Heaven.

READ MORE: Who are the Dokkaebi in Korean Mythology?

Interesting facts

  • Besides these major deities, Korean mythology includes numerous local spirits, known as Kut or Sanshin, guardian spirits of mountains.
  • Shamanistic rituals, ceremonies, and festivals also provide insights into a variety of spirits related to animals, nature, and ancestors.
  • It’s also the case that each region in Korea has its own set of myths, legends, and deities, making it a vast and intricate system of beliefs.

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