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What Are the Major Elements of Korean Mythology?

By Sonal Panse
Updated May 17, 2024
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The literature of Korean mythology covers a diverse range of seolhwa or stories from across the Korean peninsula and its adjoining islands. The stories are mainly classified as shinhwa, or myth; cheonseol, or legend; and mindam, or folklore. Further classifications may be made according to whether the stories are about people, animals, plants, spirits and heavenly entities. The mythology may also be classified according to whether the narrative is serious, humorous, tragic or supernatural.

Korean mythology has many similarities with the mythologies from other East Asian cultures. A main focus of the mythology is on religion, particularly the shamanic tradition, which still holds a high place of reverence in Korean society. Many shamanic myths are about how the world came to be formed and about the genealogies of Korean deities. These stories were passed down orally over the centuries.

The tales from Korean mythology are also concerned with keonguk shinhwa; that is, explaining how the Korean nation came to be founded, and in justifying the social status accorded to the high classes as compared to the lower classes. This is according to the Confucian philosophy which deems that such a rigid social hierarchy be maintained. Most tales of this type come within the shinhwa category. The characters in the shinhwa stories more often than not have superhuman powers and interact with supernatural deities and spirits; shin means supernatural in Korean, and hwa means to talk.

In Korean, the word cheonseol is formed by combining cheol, or transmit and seol, or to speak. This means that these are tales that were passed down by oral tradition. The cheonseol tales are about ordinary people with strong characters and extraordinary abilities. The characters make their way up in the world by the sheer dint of their own efforts and may come in conflict with their social betters, but, since the social boundaries laid down by Confucianism are not to be crossed, there are usually few happy endings. No doubt these stories were meant as a warning to the upstarts from the lower classes.

Unlike the cheonseol tales, the mindam stories quite gleefully disregard Confucian social mores, and the poverty-stricken protagonists do move up in the world, though not always by straightforward means. Mindam tales are quite often rather humorous and witty. The various Korean mythological tales have been collected in many ancient volumes, a main one being the Samguk Yusa; in Korean, this mean the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms. Apart from its entertainment value, Korean mythology offers an interesting insight into the country's social mores and history.

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