In 108 BCE, the armies of Han China sacked the Gojoseon capital of Wanggeom and brought the dynasty to an end. This caused chaos in the region and refugees scattered all over the Korean peninsula. A large group of Gojoseon refugees seemed to have traveled all the way from Wanggeom, somewhere close to modern day Pyeongyang, to the south eastern regions of Gyeongsang province, today home of many such cities as Gyeongju, Busan and Daegu. They settled in six villages around the valleys of the province. Then, almost half a century after they saw their old home go down in flames, the chieftains had a vision of a new kingdom.
These villages decided that they had grown strong enough unify under a centralized power. This was quite common, a lot of villages found that making alliances with neighboring villages and establishing one king at the center was the best way to increase the power and prosperity of their village. Even if they were not king, the heads of a village would still have more power in court than just being the leader of a tiny population. So the leaders gathered and made plans for their new kingdom.
Once it actually came to choosing a king, however, they were stumped. So they prayed to Heaven for a sign. Heaven answered in the most flashy way possible: lightning struck, and a rainbow pointed the village leaders to a forest. When they followed the rainbow, they found a white horse bowing to an egg, and -this should come as no surprise to those who have read the story of Jumong- a boy popped out. Heaven, in perhaps the most extravagant political campaign in history, had thrown its support behind the new king.
The boy, Hyeokgeose, was given the family name ‘Pak’ (Park) which meant something like “gourd” to describe the look of the egg he had hatched from. This means he was not only the founder of the Silla dynasty, but also the ancestor to the Pak, the third most common family name in Korea. In fact, Silla’s court would feature names such as Kim, Yi(Lee), Seok, Jeong, and Choe (Choi), making it a who’s who of people whose descendants populate most of the peninsula today. Hyeokgeose grew up being worshiped by the village leaders and, at the age of 13, was made king. The name of his country was not yet “Silla”, the kingdom would go through a couple of more names before getting theat title. The original name of Silla was ‘Saro’ or ‘Sorabol’. Many linguists believe that this is the origin of the modern day word ‘Seoul,’ which simply means ‘capital’ in Korean.
Around the time Hyeokgeose was born, an old woman in one of the villages saw a dragon fly out of a well. Since dragons were omens of good luck, the woman followed the dragon till she found its corpse. A little girl came out of one of the dragon’s ribs. Surprisingly calm by the turn of events, the old woman adopted the child and named her after the well the dragon came out of: Alyeong. Later on, King Hyeokgeose heard of this woman and, perhaps hoping they can exchange interesting birth stories, married her.
King Hyeokgeose and Queen Alyeong were called the Two Holy Ones. They traveled the land together, performing miracles and improving the agricultural situation. They were said to be very successful in their travel, and the reign of Hyeokgeose was a golden age where people lived in safety and with plenty to eat. However, all this richness and prosperity caught the attention of one of the Han Commanderies, Lelang. Most of the four commanderies did not survive very long, some having collapsed shortly after establishment, but Lelang would continue to be a thorn on Korea’s side until the 4th century. And they were not going to let a kingdom get too big for its own good. Lelang’s leaders sent an army to raid Sorabol. What they saw surprised them. Grain was plentiful, everyone had more than enough to eat, and the people were so moral that nobody locked the doors at night. The Lelang soldiers looked at this scene in amazement, and exclaimed that “If our troops move in and raid this country, as thieves, how can we not be ashamed?” They left the kingdom alone. A likely story, but one that shows the prosperity of this new kingdom.
Hyeokgeose died at the beginning of the Christian era, around 4 CE, and his wife would follow him into the other world shortly after. Although traditionally the founding of Silla was dated at 57 BCE, making it the oldest of the three kingdoms, it is generally accepted today that Goguryeo was the oldest, Silla being a little before, or around the time of, the founding of Baekje. In any case, Silla would live on until 935 CE, almost a thousand years after its founding. This makes Silla one of the longest lasting kingdoms in the history of the world.
The boy born from an egg under a giant white horse at the end of the rainbow, and the woman that rose from the scars of a dragon- aside from making an amazing concept for a heavy metal album cover- represent the mystique of the early Silla. It was a society heavily immersed in myth, shamanism and much later Buddhism. The kings of Silla cultivated myth and religion to their own advantage, and thus the place evolved into a powerful centralized government with a social hierarchy based on divine right. This would prove to be a great asset in dominating the other two, much more powerful, kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo. It would also ultimately be the cause of Silla’s downfall.