A Glance at the Korean History: The Dangun Mythology and Korea's First Kingdom, Gojoseon
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A Glance at the Korean History: The Dangun Mythology and Korea's First Kingdom, Gojoseon
  • Ewha Voice
  • 승인 2007.03.02 00:00
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    Gojoseon was Korea’s first kingdom and is believed to have been founded in 2333 B.C. The original country name was Joseon. Later in history, a separate Joseon was founded by Yi Songgye in 1392. To differentiate between the two, early Joseon is called ‘Go(literally means Old) joseon.’
Dangun was the legendary founder of Gojoseon. According to the mythical story, he was the son of Hwanung who was the son of God and the bear turned woman. It may sound like a made-up fiction. However, we cannot say positively that the myth is just a fairy tale. Rather the story would be a historical source which reflects the foundation process of Gojoseon. If we analyze the mythology, we can figure out how the first state of Korea was established and what was the nature of society at that time.
    Dangun myth is recorded in Samguk Yusa written by the monk Ilyon. The story is as follows: Hwanung, the son of the God came down to the human world with three heavenly seals; Wind, Rain and Clouds. One day, a tiger and a bear came to Hwangung and told him that they wanted to become human beings. Hwanung ordered them to eat mugwart and garlic only and to stay in a cave for 100 days without seeing sunlight. The tiger failed but the bear became a woman. Hwanung changed himself into a human form and married her. Between them, Dangun was born and established Gojoseon.
    Son of the heavenly God is a recurrent motif in these foundation mythologies. People would emphasize a mandate from heaven for the purpose of enhancing the dignity of their first founder and country. Gojoseon people worshiped heaven and believed they were the descendents of the heavenly God. In the mean time, Hwanung did not come alone but brought wind, rains and clouds to the human world. The three elements are essential for farming. From here we could see that Gojoseon was an agricultural culture. The first king of Gojoseon was not Hwanung but rather Dangun. It is said that Dangun did not refer to only one person. It was the title of a ruler. Dangun casually means Shaman king who has both religious and political powers. That is, Gojoseon was a theocracy, the unity of the state and the religion.
    Most of all, the highlight is the marriage of Hwanung and the bear turned woman. There is the heaven and earth, the bear that represents the animals, and among them are the humans. So the marriage was the fruit of all universe coming together. It shows that the founding of Korea was blessed by the cosmic between forces of the universe. Particularly noteworthy is the she-bear. How could the bear transform into a human being? Historians interpret it with totemism, the primitive belief. The bear and tiger mentioned in the myth would not be real animals but rather mean tribes which worshiped bear or tiger as a symbol of their tribe. The bear means the bear-totem tribe which regarded bear as the tribe’s symbol. In short, the heaven-worship people and the bear-totem tribe united in founding the ancient kingdom, Gojoseon while pushing the tiger-totem tribe out. That’s how Korean history first began.

 

 

By Sohn JungSook, lecturer on Korean History at Ewha Womans University


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