It is important to remember that “The Three Kingdoms” era was named well after the kingdoms grew, prospered, and fell. At the time of their founding by Jumong, Onjo and Hyeokgeose, there was no indication that the kingdoms would become as powerful as they have. There were many other confederacies and and kingdoms around at the time that were more powerful. It was only around the 3rd or 4th century, after conquering and absorbing most other political bodies around them, that the Three Kingdoms emerged as the clear dominant powers of the region.
The Three Kingdoms were established by the end of the BCE era, but by the mid first century, around 42 CE, another would be kingdom emerged as a possible contender. It was a confederacy of six city-states, each with its own ruler, that occupied the southern regions between Baekje and Silla. Although it was absorbed into Silla before it could become a kingdom in its own right, this confederacy has left some important legacies for the peninsula and the rest of history. This was the Gaya Confederacy, divided into Daegaya, Seongsan Gaya, Ara Gaya, Goryeong Gaya,Sogay and Geumgwan Gaya. Geumgwan was the head of the confederacy, and had it’s own semi-mythological founder king.
Gaya in relation to Baekje and Silla. Source: Wikipedia
Nine chieftains of different villages gathered to perform their annual purification rituals, when a strange sound rumbled from the mountains. This went on for a while, many people assembled to see what was going on. Then a disembodied voice called out “Is anybody here?” The chieftains called out that they were there. “Where am I?” the voice asked. “Turtle Mountain Peak!” they replied, presumably very confused. The voice told them that he was sent on a mission from heaven, and told them to dig at the peak of the mountain, singing and dancing and reciting the verse ‘Turtle, turtle, push out your head. If you do not, we will cook and eat you.” Which sounds very much like a shamanistic ritual, as these rituals usually heavily involve singing and dancing. The turtle verse is one of the oldest verses of Korea that remain intact.
The village leaders sang and danced and recited the verse as they dug into the mountain. If you’ve read the past myths the other founders, you probably know what they found at the bottom of the hole.
That’s right: an egg. Not one egg, but six. The eggs hatched and six boys emerged. They grew into adults in twelve days and became leaders of the six states of the Gaya confederacy. One of the boys, the leader of the confederacy, was Kim Suro, perhaps the first ‘Kim’ on record.
Chieftains of an older era getting a message from heaven, eggs, the number six; all of this is very similar to the founding myth of Silla about a hundred years before. The symbolism common to all these myths gives us a glimpse into the religion and beliefs of the people of ancient Korea. More than that, images like the mythical egg, heaven’s descent, and the union of man and nature are all very universal archetypes. There is also another archetype in Park Hyeokgeose’s story that will appear in King Suro’s story: the sacred marriage.
King Suro, after having ruled for a while, was met by the chiefs one day. They praised all the good work he has done, but said there was one thing missing. Wasn’t it time that the King settle down and a bride? King Suro replied, “I came down here at the command of Heaven. That I marry and have a Queen also depends on the will of Heaven; there is no need to worry.”
He ordered one of the chiefs to go to an island and another chief to stay at a nearby island. They did as they were told, not exactly knowing why. One day they saw a red sail far away in the sea. A ship was approaching, and the chiefs raced to greet the passanger, believing this is why the king had ordered them to stay on these islands. There they saw the person on board of the ship was a woman. Asked to follow them back to the palace, the woman quite sensibly said that she would not follow strangers.
So the King would have to greet the woman by himself. He left his palace and set up a regal tent close to where her ship had landed. One day, when she was resting from her long journey, she saw the tent. The King was out to greet her, and the same woman who refused to follow the chiefs now somehow willingly entered the tent with King Suro.
The ministers left the two alone, and King Suro and the woman enjoyed the night together. She told him her name was Heo Hwang-ok, and she came from the faraway land of Ayuta, which many historians think is actually Ayodha, a kingdom in India (anyone familiar with Indian mythology knows the importance of Ayodha, the birthplace of the famous hero and god, Rama.) Hwang-ok leaned in and whispered her secret to the King: Her parents had had a dream where the Emperor of Heaven told them that a man named Suro was founding a kingdom, and that they should send their daughter to marry him. So Hwang-ok departed on her journey. And as soon as she saw the regal tent and the king, she knew that she had found her king, and that’s why she followed him.
The only other records we have of Gaya are in relation to the other Three Kingdoms. The confederacy allied itself with different kingdoms at different times, and unfortunately it was usually the wrong kingdom. First the confederacy was devastated by Goguryeo in the 4th century, punishment for allying itself against Goguryeo with the other two kingdoms. But the final death blow was in the 6th century, when, after failed Gaya-Baekje assault against Silla, the rest of Gaya was absorbed into the victorious kingdom. This was perhaps the best thing that could’ve ever happened to Silla, as we shall see a man from Gaya was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Three Kingdoms period.
Before that, the Gaya confederacy enjoyed some economic power. The reason for that is the region of the confederacy was rich in iron. The people had skill in smelting and making of iron, and traded heavily with Baekje and Japan. An important legacy of Gaya is also the inspiration for a much beloved traditional Korean instrument, the Gayageum.
There is much interest in the 21st century in understanding more about the history of Gaya. There was a similar movement in the 20th century; one, however, which had much more sinister motives.
There was a belief that Gaya was actually a Japanese outpost named Miamana. There were two sources for this story: one was a strange inscription on the Stele in the honor of King Gwanggaeto (more later) which said that the Japanese occupied the southern regions of Korea. Japan’s own Nihonshiki, an ancient record of historical and mythological events, talked about an Empress named Jingu sailing to the Korean peninsula and conquering the shores of Gaya.
Japan and Gaya enjoyed a very good relationship, but it was one of political alliance, not a relationship of conqueror and conquered. The records of the Stele with the part about Japan is very dubious, some even say it was a forgery. And the name of Jingu has been removed from the list of historical Emperors and Empresses. That did not stop people in the early 1900s, where there was a movement that claimed that the story of Mimana proved that part pf the peninsula was once Japanese territory. This blatant piece of propaganda was used as justification for the takeover of Korea. An ancient kingdom which had disappeared more than a thousand years before became a pawn in the rigged game of Imperialism.
All these troubles would come much later, for now, the Samguk Yusa will give King Suro and Queen Hwang-ok their happy ending. The King and Queen got married, they set up their new government and “Thereupon [he] ruled his country like his own household and loved his people like his own children. His instructions were not strict yet carried weight, and his rule was not harsh but fitting. Therefore, the pairing of the king and queen was like the pairing of Heaven and Earth, the sun and moon, and yin and yang.” (Sources of Korean Tradition Vol 1 p. 17)