Like most ancient nations, Korea has a foundation myth—that is, a myth that is meant to tell how the country came about, how its people were created, or how the current state of the country came to be. Most myths explain the unknown and are crafted by storytellers and historians as they look back on the ancestors who came before them. Though regarded as truth by the ancients, myths are, in modern times, important cultural and literary artifacts.
Korea’s foundation myth is known as “Dangun” (단군). As far as we know, the Dangun story originally appeared in the Samguk Yusa (삼국유사), which details the three kingdoms period of Korean history. The text was compiled in the late 13th century, and it is known to be mostly a collection of folklore and myths. Though it is not historically reliable, it does offer an interesting look at some early Korean literature and folklore.
Dangun’s story actually starts out with his father, Hwanung (환웅), who spent his time looking down upon the earth from heaven. He went to his father, Hwanin (환인), to ask permission to live among the humans of earth. Hwanin, as lord of the heavens, granted his son permission to descend to earth, and he bestowed three heavenly seals upon his son before his departure. The three seals were a bell, a mirror, and a sword, all of which represented advice from Hwanin to his son. Hwanung also took 3,000 followers with him when he descended to earth; among those were the spirits of rain, wind, and clouds. Upon his arrival to earth, Hwanung settled on Baekdu Mountain and established Sinsi (신시; “The City of God”). He adjusted to life on earth and established a government for the people, created a code of law, and gave the humans knowledge of fields such as medicine, agriculture, and arts. One day, he was approached by a tiger and a bear who pleaded with him to help them become humans. Hwanung agreed, but only if they could complete the challenge he set before them. Hwanung instructed the tiger and bear to live inside a dark cave together for 100 days, eating nothing but garlic and mugwort. If they could survive these 100 days with nothing else to sustain them, Hwanung would make them human.
The tiger and the bear entered the cave and tried to live off of the herbs and garlic. However, the tiger could not last and left the cave after about only 20 days. The bear remained inside the cave, consistently holding on to its wish to become human. According to some versions of the tale, after 21 days, Hwanung granted the bear’s wish. Other versions state that the bear persevered for the entire 100 days, after which it was transformed into a human female. Hwanung then named the female Ungnyeo (웅녀), which is derived from the Sino-Korean characters that mean “bear-woman.”
Upon becoming human, Ungnyeo wished for a child, but she had no husband. She prayed fervently to Hwanung, asking him to grant her a child, and eventually Hwanung married Ungnyeo himself. Together they brought forth Dangun, a son. Dangun eventually became the ruler of the land and is credited with the founding of Old Joseon (고조선), which dates back to 2333 B.C. and is considered the first kingdom of Korea.
Though the story is quite obviously a myth, it has still played an important role historically in Korean national identity. Like many myths, it has been the source of a sense of pride, but also a source for debate and manipulation. The myth has been reinterpreted several times throughout Korean history, often to suit a specific political need. In the 20th century, some Korean writers used the myth as a means of arguing for Korea’s uniqueness, a way for a country that was almost always taken advantage of by others to develop its own meaningful national identity. During and after the Japanese occupation of World War II, North and South Korea used the myth for their own agendas. As the Japanese had forced Koreans to assimilate to their own ways by replacing Korean names with Japanese names, erasing Korean history, and banning the Korean language, both Koreas desired their own versions of what every country has. Thus, there was a great need for anything and everything that was strictly Korean, such as the Dangun myth.
Despite those who would manipulate it and others who would brush the myth off as nothing more than folklore, there is some evidence that suggests there may have been broader historical events that resemble the myth. For example, some scholars believe that the tiger and the bear were symbolic of two tribes, one that worshipped the sky and one that worshipped bears, that clashed and eventually brought about the beginning of Old Joseon.
Whether or not there is any truth at all to the Dangun myth, its importance as a pillar of Korean culture and identity cannot be ignored.
If you know Korean, you can check out this cute children’s animation of the story here:
You can also watch a news clip about Foundation Day here: