The Foundation Myth: Dangun Story
Most countries have their own foundation myths; for instance India has the ‘Ramayana’. In Korea, we have the ‘Dangun Story’.
Here it goes:
A long time ago, there lived Hwanung, son of Hwanin (the God of Heaven), a man very interested in the lives of ordinary human beings. His father, well understanding Hwanung’s passion in mankind, lets him rule the human world. Hwanung went down to the summit of Taebaek mountain with 3 gods and a group of 3000. He called the summit area ‘Sinshi’, which translates as ‘divine mecca’. The 3 gods were ‘Poongbaek (God of wind)’, ‘Wusa (Master of rain)’, and ‘Wunsa (Master of clouds). They were responsible for agriculture, long-living, diseases, punishment, and the good and evil etc.
Coincidently, a bear and a tiger lived together under a cave, praying to Hwanung to let them become human. So Hwanung gave them special wormwoods and garlic, then added “If you eat these for 100 days and stay away from sunlight, you shall permanently transform into human body.” Both kept to his words for 37 days, however at last only the bear transformed into a woman. The bear, named ‘Woong-nyeu’, wanted to have a child, so she begged once again. Hwanung temporarily transformed into human, married Woong-nyeu, then together gave birth to a baby boy. That boy grows up to become ‘Dangun WangGum (Dangun means ‘spiritual leader’, WangGum means ‘a king who possesses a great weapon_knife) ‘. He establishes Gojoseon, an ancient Korean kingdom.
In brief, the Dangun story is about how the child of a god and bear establishes Gojoseon.
Through this myth, we can notice a couple of things.
- The transfiguration of the bear doesn’t refer to literal transfiguration. It suggests the tribe that worships bear won over the tribe that worships tiger, and that they contributed in the establishment of Gojoseon.
- Hwanung was accompanied by 3 Gods: Wind, Rain, and Clouds. This implies that the society prioritized agriculture. Climate is crucial in agriculture, so Gojoseon needed climate related professionals.
- Dangun story, isn’t only a myth, but is a story that reflects the ancient society and history.
Anti-totemism, one way of critical reading:
The Dangun story is a foundation myth. It’s not something that’s been written for pure entertainment, but it has a purpose: it gives a nation divinity and justifies its power. The story says a bear and a tiger lived together under a cave. This does not happen in reality, hence it suggests the bear-tribe and the tiger-tribe neighbored each other. The Dangun story sounds as if it’s a story about two tribes competing against each other for Hwanung. The rule of the competition is to restrain oneself for a longer period. As a result, the bear gets ‘selected’ and the tiger gets ‘neglected’. The bear becomes a woman, marries Hwanung, and gets a child. Therefore, it can be interpreted as the bear-tribe succeeding in uniting with Hwanung while the tiger-tribe fails. Then, what does the success of the bear-tribe imply? The bear-tribe, under the name ‘Woong-nyeu’, becomes part of the Gojoseon royal family. There are no records of Woong-nyeo being particularly worshiped or mentioned. She disappeared from the myth. However this doesn’t imply her story has been erased after the birth of Dangun. Her disappearance is simply the disappearance of recognition that she originated from a bear. People no longer recalls Woong-nyeo as a bear, but recalls her as the mother of Dangun and the wife of Hwanung. Therefore, the success of the bear-tribe means the absence of totemism. It’s an oxymoron.
In totemism, human and bear are neighbors that exchange gifts; human worships them, and only hunts the bears at a certain season to pray to the gods. Such balanced, equal relationship is the nature of totemism, and myths express that value. However, in the Dangun story, it’s different. The bear takes a test given by man (Hwanung); there is a hierarchy relationship. The one who actually gave birth to Dangun is Woong-nyeu, but Dangun only worships Hwanung. These base on a domination and subordination relationship. This also suggests a caste inequality and gender inequality existent in the ancient Korean society.
Myths are not created and retold for simple entertainment. Instead, myths are usually created to reflect a society and belief. The Dangun Story, which is a Korean national foundation myth, does the same.
Furthermore, every story can be interpreted differently. What is your understanding of the Dangun Story?