IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | East Asia




Tigers, Bears & Ancestors

A New Look at Korean Myths Old and New

In 1994, North Korean media reported the discovery of the tomb of Tan'gun, purported to be the first ruler of the Korean people. A lavish new shrine and a museum to house his remains were built near the original tomb, and the news of the 'archaeological find' was spread across the world. By presenting itself as custodians of the tomb and the remains of the first ruler, the North Korean regime clearly wanted to boost its claim to be the rightful heirs to the oldest Korean polity and thus the sole legitimate authority on the peninsula.


Archaeologists outside North Korea voiced serious doubts about the authenticity of Tan'gun's remains. For their part, historians point out that Tan'gun is a mythical figure born, according to ancient records, from the union of the son of Heaven and a bear magically transformed into a human being. Notably and quite surprisingly, this ancient myth still appears to be relevant for modern political leaders, even in the North. Given the enduring appeal of the myth of Tan'gun, whom some hold to be the ancestor of all Koreans, one would expect it to have been the object of a whole body of scholarly research. In truth, James Grayson's Myths and Legends from Korea marks the first attempt by a scholar outside Korea to translate and analyse all the extant versions of the myth. For this reason alone, his book is worth buying.
As the title of the work indicates, however, its scope extends beyond merely the stories related to the core myth concerning Tan'gun. From a very early stage, different polities, which co-existed on the peninsula before the seventh century, developed separate foundation myths. The second chapter gives translations for all known foundation myths and, moreover, compares them with several related myths from northeast Asia. While the stories explaining the divine or supernatural origins of states or dynasties constitute, in my view, the most important contribution of this work, the author strove to give a comprehensive overview of all types of myths, legends, and folktales, be they first written in ancient times or orally transmitted until recent times and recorded by modern folklore scholars. Ancient myths and legends, culled mainly from the Samguk yusa (History and Remnants of the Three Kingdoms), make up the third chapter, while the fourth chapter consists of orally transmitted material. In the introductory first chapter, Grayson argues that, despite the various modes of transmission and different themes, all the stories can be regarded as having the basic nature of folktales. He compares these folktales to drama and, therefore, proposes to analyse them according to a 'dramatical structural analysis' to uncover the core meaning: 'What is important ... is not the identity of the particular actor, but the type of action -- marriage of an animal to a human, its meaning, and its function.' (p. 5)
There are several problems with this approach. First of all, there is the problem of selection and scope: there is simply too much ground to be covered, and I wonder if it would not have been better to split the work into two separate volumes, one for the ancient material and one for the modern material. Although the author wanted to give 'a representative selection of tale types of all periods' (p. 1), it simply tapers off, from being exhaustive (the foundation myths) to barely scratching the surface (modern folktales). Also, his decision to group the tales (apart from the foundation myths) according to five types -- aetiological, heroic, edifying, magical and adventurous, and amusing tales ­ may be a helpful way of structuring the material, but it may also distort the nature of the stories. The third chapter, for example, contains many Buddhist legends but often cuts stories into pieces in order to fit them into categories. Although this provides new perspectives that would remain hidden in a cursory reading, it sometimes distorts the nature of the stories. For instance, a story Grayson classifies as an aetiological tale and which he calls the foundation legend of Tonghwa temple (Tale 47) is, in fact, part of the biography of a Buddhist diviner. The story focuses on the transmission of a Buddhist form of divination, originally intended to determine one's karmic fate by drawing a numbered wooden card. In the story, a suitable place for storing the wooden cards is found near Tonghwa temple, but it is not explicitly said whether the temple already existed at that time or not. Generally, the Buddhist dimension of such stories is sometimes poorly addressed. This shows in the loose or inappropriate use of terms like 'esoteric': not every monk practising magic necessarily belongs to the esoteric school (e.g. p. 180). Also, among the 'Heroic Tales' we find nothing on the most popular heroes in Korean history, such as Kim Yusin, the Silla general credited with unifying the Three Kingdoms, or the monk Wonhyo, of whom there are any legends.
These questions of methodology aside, a more serious problem concerns the quality of the translations. If this volume is to serve as a basis for comparative studies, the translations should be impeccable, which is not always the case. In Grayson's rendering of the principle version of the Tan'gun myth, found in the Samguk yusa, the supreme deity Hwanin 'descended' to earth to investigate whether his son Hwanung should live there or not (p. 31). However, the original text clearly states that Hwanin merely 'looked down' rather than descended. Also, while the text clearly states that Hwanung took 3,000 'followers' with him, for some reason the author simply translates the original term to as 'spirits'.

Despite these and some other infelicitous or moot translations, this volume is a welcome addition to the field of Korean studies, and is definitely the first port of call for anyone who wants to know about or study Korean myths and legends. The structural analysis of well-known Korean myths forces one to reconsider the historical consciousness of the Korean people and shows the constant re-working of ancient material to suit political purposes. But the real joy of this work lies in browsing through the stories and finding, or rediscovering, the imaginativeness, peculiarity, and universality of Korea's mythical narratives. *


­ Grayson, James H. Myths and Legends from Korea. An Annotated Compendium of Ancient and Modern Materials. Richmond: Curzon (2001),
454 pp. + xvi, ISBN 0-7007-1241-0

Dr Sem Vermeersch earned his PhD from SOAS, University of London. His main area of research is the history of Korean Buddhism, mainly the Koryo dynasty.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | East Asia