Interlude 5: Red Devils and Chiwoo

Go to a football game when Korea’s team is playing, and expect to see part of the stadium light up with a blaze of red jerseys. These red-clad supporters will bang their drums and other percussion instruments, rhythmically chant the country’s name “Daehan Minguk,” all while rolling down a giant flag of Korea down the aisles. The supporters club will all be wearing similar shirts with messages and songs of victory. You’ve just witnessed the Korean football supporter team, the Red Devils.


The name red devils originated in 1983.  It was the FIFA World Youth Championship in Mexico. The Korean team exceeded everyone’s expectations and were dubbed the red furies by the international media, based on their fiery red jerseys. This term reached Korea under the translation of 붉은악마, the red devils. People liked the name.

The actual birth of the Red Devils support team and their mascot took a large part of the 90s. In 1995 the official club itself opened, but it wasn’t until 1997 that they decided to adopt the older word ‘Red Devil.’  But any good club needs a logo and mascot, and after a long campaign to decide a character, the official image was chosen and, in 1999, during a Brazil-Korea match, fans unfurled the flag and introduced the world to the Heavnly King Chiwoo.


The origins of Chiwoo go way back, before history and flies straight above prehistory into mythical times, the period of the 3 Sovereigns and Five Emperors. The name designates something of an Edenic Golden Age in Chinese mythology, when divine rulers and emperors ruled the world and introduced humans to various civilization building arts and tools. Most famous of these was the Yellow Emperor, a name that might be familiar with anyone who has read anything about ancient Chinese history, philosophy or even medicine.  This Emperor is considered the founder of Chinese civilization at around the year 2600 BCE.

But you don’t get to become founder of a long lasting civilization without making a few enemies along the way. As the Yellow Emperor was building his future Empire another group of tribes had similar dreams of grandeur. Conflict was inevitable, and these two groups fought a battle that is known in mythology as the Battle of Zhuolu. The contenders: The Yellow Emperor and his people, and the troops of the of  Chiwoo, the bull-headed horned tyrant who led the tribes outside of the Yellow Emperor’s sovereignty.

The records talk of an epic battle, where Chiwoo summoned fogs and winds to stop his enemies in their tricks. The Yellow Emperor also had his repertoire of magic, including his daughter the goddess of drought, who managed to go through his tricks. Eventually, the meteorologically charged battle ended with the Yellow Emperor’s victory.

Gone but not forgotten, Chiwoo managed to join the pantheon of divine beings. Sima Qian, one of the earliest historians in Chinese history, records that the first (non-mythical) Emperor of China, the Qin Emperor Qin Shi Huang, worshipped Chiwoo as the god of war. Liu Bang, founder of Qin’s successor dynasty, also performed sacrifices to Chiwoo before his decisive battle that led to the creation of his Han Empire. Chiwoo has held a significant position in the history of a lot of Eastern Asia for most of history.

But why would the supports of the Korea team use this god of war as their logo? It all hinges on the identity of Chiwoo’s tribe.  Many different groups regard Chiwoo as their own mythical king, the Hmong being an examples. Because the myths state that Chiwoo ruled over many different tribes,  there is a lot of speculation on who could claim mythical ancestry to the king. One of these tribes might have been the Dongyi, the mysterious people who would have been living close to the Korean peninsula at around the 26th century BCE.

The Red Devils obviously took this interpretation and ran with it. The official website informs us that Chiwoo became king in 2707 BCE, and ruled for 109 years as the 14th Heavenly King of Baedal, the successor state of the sacred city of Hwanguk, founded by the great Hwanung…

Wait. Hwanguk? Baedal? Hwanung? That’s right, this interpretation of Chiwoo comes from none other than our dear old friend, then Hwandan Gogi. The book has at least created some history now, even if it’s not that good at actually reporting it.

The iconography of the Heavenly King resembles the most prominent of Korea’s supernatural creatures, the Dokkaebi. These creatures, not unlike the fairy folk that dwell on the British isles, are the spirits of objects and plants come to life, and come in various shapes and sizes. They are usually mischievous, and only sometimes malicious, and you can be sure to see a dokkaebi in most folktales of Korea.  Gwangju  boasts ancient artifacts which show faces of dokkaebi, which presumably means they have been inhabiting Korea since at least the Silla period.


Roof tiles from ancient Silla. Source

Ironically, dokkaebi are supposed to despise the color red.

So with the World Cup 2014 well under way, we shall have to wait and see how much of the heavenly king’s bellicose spirit the team will manage to summon.


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. 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.


7. A Match Made In Heaven: Kim Suro and Heo Hwang-Ok

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.

Map_of_Gaya_-_en 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.

Kayagumplayer2  Source: Wikipedia

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)

4. The Divine Archer: King Jumong


Source: Wikipedia

Buyeo was divided into two parts: Eastern and Northern Buyeo. Most information about these kingdoms is left to speculation, but one of these kings, Geumwa, enters Korean history as a result of a hunting trip.

Hunting was a favorite pastime of the old kings. And Geumwa’s hunting expedition looked like any other, until he ran into a mysterious woman by a stream in one of the mountains. Intrigued as to what she was doing in such a place, Geumwa approached her. The woman said her name was Yuhwa. She told her story of how she was with her sisters enjoying an outing in the mountain when a mysterious man came and approached them. The man, Hae Mo-Su, seduced Yuhwa and she left her family to live with him until he disappeared one day. Her father, named Haebaek, was scandalized by her behavior and they banished her away from her home, and that was where King Geumwa found her.

King Geumwa was intriguied by this woman and her story. He brought her back to his palace, where she was confined to a dark room. One day, stuck in her dark chambers, a ray of light penetrated the room. Yuhwa basked in this tiny sunlight, her body filled with the comforting glow provided by the tiny messenger from the heavenly orb, the golden rays filling the room with warmth. It was a moment of sweet tenderness in the middle of darkness and solitude. And then she laid an egg.

As you can see, we are back to mythological time in this story.

King Geumwa did not approve of people in his palace laying eggs. He tried to get rid of the egg by throwing it to the pigs and dogs, but they refused to touch it. He threw the egg in the middle of the road, but the horses and cattle walked around it. He cast it in faraway places, but the birds protected it. Finally he tried to do the dirty work himself, but the egg did not crack. Defeated, King Geumwa returned the egg to Yunwa, and eventually a boy hatched from it.

The boy was said to be exceedingly handsome and strong, being more than a match for the men of the palace when he was only 7 years old. Most noteworthy was his skill in archery, and he was given the name Jumong, which we’re told meant “skilled archer” in the Buyeo language.

Apparently Geumwa had forgiven the boy’s audacity to have been born from an egg, since Jumong quickly became the King’s favorite. This was much to the displeasure of the King’s actual sons, who saw that this boy could threaten their position in the palace.

Meanwhile, Jumong kept on shining in court. He is said to not only be a skilled archer, but had a talent in all matters related to fighting and warfare. A story told at that time was that he had a keen eye for horses. There were two horses in particular that he had his eyes on, seeing that one was very swift and the other very slow. Jumong fed the slow horse to make him look strong, and starved the quick horse. King Geumwa naturally chose the healthier looking horse and Jumong was “stuck” with the weaker seeming horse.

This was good foresight, for one day before an outing, Yuhwa warned her son that the princes were plotting on killing him. Tearfully, she urged him to escape and never return to Buyeo. And sure enough, as soon as they were away from the palace, Jumong felt the princes’ killer intents on him. With the princes hot in his pursuit, Jumong managed to evade them until a river blocked his way. That’s when he cried out, “I am the son of heaven and Haebaek’s grandson. My enemies are upon my heel, am I to be abandoned here?”

In response, the river bubbled, and turles and all kinds of creatures gathered to make a bridge. Jumong crossed, and the princes were left behind.

Jumong continued south. Since this was after the fall of Gojoseon, the landscape was full of small clans and slightly bigger households. No doubt using his divine archery skills, the next time we find Jumong, he has managed to unite some of these clans. The founding date of his kingdom is usually recorded as 37 BCE, a few decades after the fall of Gojoseon. He named his kingdom ‘Goguryeo’ and the records say that the kingdom’s ambition was to restore the lost dignity of the land. The Sunguk Yusa (the more mythically oriented historical record, from which most of this story comes) tries to cement this connection to Gojoseon by claiming that Jumong’s mother Yuhwa also had an affair with Dangun. Retirement and a couple of thousand years did not stop this ancient king from still being active.

The land of Goguryeo was mountainous, which made it difficult for agriculture. This constant threat of starvation meant that there was little luxury, and created a hardened and sturdy people, skilled in hunting and raiding. As a result, the country became a military might to be reckoned with. In its roughly 600 years of existence, Goguryeo will challenge its neighbors, bring down the last of the Han Commanderies, and even be responsible for the fall of a dynasty. A lot of people think of these days as times of heroism, and Jumong has been subject of long, sprawling, epic TV dramas.

Hunting was an important symbol of Goguryeo. Little wonder then that King Jumong is mostly remembered by a name that emphasized his hunting skills. As founder of his dynasty, King Jumong was worshiped as a god. His mythological connection to the sun and heaven made him prominent in the shaman’s panehteon, and worship of this ‘great ancestor’ was an important festival of Goguryeo. But the worship of Jumong wasn’t limited to the country he founded, Baekje also had a festival in honor of Jumong. That’s because Jumong indirectly had a hand in creating this second of the three kingdoms, as we shall see next time.