People have inhabited the Korean peninsula for a very long time. The archaeological evidence shows paleolithic tools from around half a million years ago. There has been a lot of pottery uncovered at later dates, showing different styles and patterns indicating that there were different people living in the area. The most famous of the pattern is the “comb” pottery for its distinct shape. Almost nothing is known of these people, but a lot of Korean shamanistic practices is said to come from this time. Time went on, and with the coming of the Bronze age, technology increased, as did the beginnings of hierarchy evidenced by the tombs known as dolmens. Interest in archaeology is strong these days, with new discoveries every day particularly in areas of Gyeonggi.
The earliest social groups were clans, which later became tribes as populations expanded. These tribes started forming towns and villages, which were separated from one another by walls. These ‘walled city-states’ are the first known political organization in Korea. Eventually through absorption or alliances, these walled cities started linking with one another, giving rise to confederacies. Sometimes confederacies became big and centralized enough to have kings ruling over them, turning into kingdoms. These political entities became large, as in the fourth century BCE, we find one of these kingdoms covering the northern parts of the Korean peninsula and parts of the Liáodong Peninsula (a tiny peninsula right next to Korea). This state was Joseon, renamed by later historians as Gojoseon (“Go” meaning “old”) to distinguish it from the later Joseon dynasty of the 14th-20th century. This Gojoseon is considered by traditional historical narratives to be the first Korean kingdom, with a starting date of 2333BC. The founder, Tangun, is part of the founding myth of Korea.
The story starts off with no other than the Lord of Heaven himself, called Hwanin in this tale. Hwanin had a son named Hwaneung, who wanted to live in the human world. So Hwaneung and 3000 of his followers, including deities like the gods of rain and harvest, descended to Mount Baekdu and founded Sinsi, the legendary City of the Gods. At that time, a tiger and a bear prayed to become human. So in true mythological fashion, Hwaneung gave the two animals a task: they were to spend 100 days in a cave away from the sun, eating cloves of garlic and mugwort every day. This proved to be too difficult for the tiger, who ran out of the cave before the time was over. The bear diligently kept on and at the end of her trials was transformed into a woman. Ungnyeo, the woman’s new name, went to a sandalwood tree to pray and make sacrifices to the god who gave her this form. Hwaneung descended from Mount Baekdu and together they had a child. This child became Dangun Wanggeom, and he went on to found the city of Joseon. After ruling for a thousand and five hundred years, the retired and became a mountain ascetic, withdrawing from the world.
Many historians have an interpretation for this story. They say the city of the gods represents the more modern bronze age people, while the tiger and bear were the older clans. In fact the bear is a popular symbol in many ancient shamanistic tribes, and the tiger has folkloric significance in Korea to this day. The marriage of Hwaneung and Ungnyeo puts a kinder spin on the new people assimilating the old. As for Dangun’s rather impressive 1500 year rule? It’s been suggested that ‘Dangun’ was a title given to the king of the country, who was revered as a god. When one Dangun died, another carried the divine mantle, ensuing a continuing divine rule. When Dangun withdrew into the mountains, that signaled a change in the political system.
Aside from the literal and historical reading of the myth, there is a symbolic importance to the figure of Dangun. It must be remembered that when we’re using the word “Korea” (or China or Japan or Manchuria for that matter) when talking about the past, it’s an anachronism used for the sake of convenience. Gojoseon was home to many different tribes and confederacies, there were people like the Yaemek and Han, and after the fall of Gojoseon we hear a myriad of names like Buyeo, Okje and Samhan. The peninsula was united into a political entity similar to modern day Korea at around the 10th century CE. That’s around the time we start seeing records of Dangun, and the myth has grown in importance since.When Goryeo was facing outside threats, a shamanistic religion with Dangun as its central god popped up. And again in the 20th century, with the shadow of colonialism looming, a religion known as Daejonggyo also placed Dangun as their god. The religion isn’t very popular these days, but the date it set for the founding of Korea, October 3rd, has now become a holiday known as Gaecheon “The Opening of Heaven.” There are still religious ceremonies held on that day.
Dangun is a foundation myth that gives the people of Korea a national identity, a feeling of unity, and that is what gives the symbol importance today. A place that especially relies on symbolism for its legitimacy is North Korea. So it should be no surprise that North Korea makes copious references to Mount Baekdu in its extravagant cult of personality, even claiming that the mountain was Kim Jong Il’s birthplace (it wasn’t.) Interestingly, North Korea calls itself not Korea (or “Han” like South Korea), but Joseon.
Foundation myths play an important part in the national identity of people. The ancient Mesopotamians had Gilgamesh, the various city states of Greece had their own demigods and heroes as founders. George Washington, though obviously a more historical person, takes on mythological significance in most of the United States. For Korea, Dangun and his mythological origin take this role. But some myths have more significance than others. And some myths just seem to disappear from history- mythological and actual- altogether. One such myth will be the subject of our next chapter.