9. Dawn Across The Rooster Forest: Talhae Isageum

Goguryeo saw an increase in strength under the reign of King Daemusin and by the middle to late period of the first century CE, was already established in the peninsula as a power. Their influence resided in the north, where they were largely unchallenged by the other two, southern, kingdoms of Baekje and Silla. The latter two were also starting their expansion, and, since they bordered one another, it was inevitable that the two powers would clash.

The second king of Baekje after the death of Onjo was Daru. This king is presented as a ruler who cared for his subjects. When the country was facing famine, he banned the fermenting of grains and distributed the would’ve-been alcohol to the people instead. Back then as now, the lack of alcohol was quite a big deal. Aside from internal issues, Daru also had to contend with the other tribes and nomads surrounding the area. This was settled with a combination of wars and diplomacy. There were also troubles brewing from the struggling Mahan. The king needed help, and so he sent an envoy to the king of Silla, Talhae.

At that time Saro (for the sake of convenience the country will be referred to as Silla, though it did not adopt the title until centuries later) was undergoing some internal changes. Hyeokgeose’s eldest son became the second king of Silla in 4CE, the same time that Daemusin would’ve been born.

Around the time of his reign, there was a man making his way up in the court. He was born in a land said to be close to the Japanese islands, and was abandoned as a baby. This was sadly something very common in the ancient world, where there were no institutions like orphanages to take care of abandoned children. The Spartans, for example, took the offspring they considered weak and unhealthy and left them to die. Not all of these children died, though, as some babies were sometimes picked up by people of other city-states and raised as their own.

This is what happened to Talhae. Left to drift upon the sea, his box landed on the coast not far from Gyeonggju, where he was found by a fisherman and raised in the Korean peninsula. He was named Talhae and given the family name of Seok.

By the way, the baby was abandoned because he was born from an egg. I promise this shall be the last monarch to enter this world in such an omlettic manner.

Details are sketchy after that, but it seems like his adopted family raised ranks in court. And Seok Talhae ended up marrying King Namhae’s sister. Talhae was so well liked that when it came time to pick a successor, Namhae favored Talhae over the king’s own son.

At first Talhae refused, saying that the son of Namhae, Yuri (not to be confused with Yuri the second king of Goguryeo. Before you complain about all the similar names, think about how many Frederics and Charleses populate the history books of Europe) was the rightful heir. Talhae’s solution to the issue of succession was unique, if not downright bizarre. He said that the wisest should rule the land. Reasonable enough. But, he continued, it is said that wise people are those with the most teeth. So he brought a tteok, a Korean rice cake, and both he and Yuri bit into it. Yuri’s side of the rice cake showed more teeth marks and he was established as king. From then on the title of king in Silla was ‘Isageum’ which meant ‘many teeth,’ somehow signifying wisdom.

Korean.food-teok-01 A kind of Tteok. Source: Wikipedia

The issue wouldn’t go away so easily. After Yuri passed away, Talhae, now presumably an old man, was asked to take the throne again. He accepted this time.

When Daru sent his envoy to Talhae, the latter king for unknown reasons ignored the mission. Baekje was not too happy with this and in the year 64, the first battle between the three kingdoms began.

Since the kingdoms at that time were basically a series of walled cities. Raids and attacks followed a logic that is familiar to anyone who has played strategy games. Each country had a series of fortified castles and fortresses, and the attacking country would want to take over these fortresses in order to establish its dominance over the land. It was never so simple though, since the country could take back their lost castles if they win another battle. As a result, borders were constantly expanding and contracting.

And that is was happened in this case. The first war between the two kingdoms involved Baekje conquering a Sillan fortress. The two powers seemed to have been equally matched at the time, since Silla managed to defeat the Baekje troops at another battle, and reclaimed some of their fortresses back. The two countries went on in this way for at least 2 years during the reign of Talhae and Daru.

But Silla had another problem to contend with: Gaya. The new confederacy flexed its military might, thanks to its land rich in iron, by attacking Silla. With both Baekje and Gaya on its heels, Silla’s beginning was a not very auspicious. Unlike Goguryeo’s early triumphs, Silla’s very existence was on shaky grounds. It had many enemies around it and had to stand in constant vigilance. And although Baekje and Silla signed a peace treaty a little after Talhae and Daru’s death, the two countries were in each others’ sights.

As mentioned earlier, Silla was undergoing some transformation during this time. First of all, the line of succession was now divided. Instead of the Pak clan being the sole rulers of the kingdom, kingship could go either from the Pak or Seok family. Silla had a third family that would become the sole rulers. The founder of that family was born during Talhae’s time.

Deep in a forest west of Gyeongju, the king heard a rooster crowing. It kept going on for a long while, and it was suspicious enough for the king to send someone to investigate. They found that the source of the sound was a white rooster standing over a golden box. Inside the box was a boy. Perhaps the boy’s circumstances reminded Talhae of his own birth, and so the king showed sympathy for this abandoned child. Talhae took the boy to court and named him Alji. Because of the box he was discovered in, Alji was given the family name meaning gold, the Chinese character , pronounced ‘Kim.’ Kim Alji was thus the ancestral founder of the ever ubiquitous Kim family. And from Talhae’s reign until the time when Silla was finally given the name ‘Silla,’ Saro was known as Gyerim, the rooster forest.



One thought on “9. Dawn Across The Rooster Forest: Talhae Isageum

  1. Pingback: 12. The Perils of Ruling: Adalla Isageum | Figures of Korean History

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