Tangun: A Korean Creation Myth
In Korea, there are few creation myths
that start from the beginning, the very beginning. In a few oral traditions,
a primal chaos exists until, unexpectedly, a crack appears, separating earth
from sky. But these myths, those that survive, are not the colorful intricate
histories of the Theogeny or the Enuma Elish. Korea’s most treasured myth
is that of its own creation from an existing earth and the humans already living
upon it. This is the myth of Tangun.
The story goes that a Heavenly Prince, Hwangun looked down at earth and desired to possess it and rule over mankind. His father, the Ruler of Heaven, Hwanin knew that his son would bring happiness to human beings and, looking at the earth, chose Mount Taebak as a suitable place for his son to go to earth. Hwangun arrives beneath a sandalwood tree where he creates a holy city. He brings with him three heavenly seals, somewhat mysterious in nature, and 3000 loyal subjects from heaven, which are possibly spirits. In addition, Hwangun brought three ministers, the Earl of Wind, the Master of Rain, and the Master of Clouds. Different accounts of the myth tell that Hwangun either taught or took charge of 360 areas of responsibility, like agriculture and medicine. The story moves now to a bear and a tiger, both desiring to become human beings. Set the task of shunning sunlight and eating only the food given to them by Hwangun (some mugwort and twenty cloves of garlic), the bear succeeds in earning Hwangun’s approval while the tiger fails to fast, fleeing into the forest. The bear becomes a beautiful woman, Ungyo (bear woman) and becomes the wife of Hwangun. Their son is Tangun, the King of Sandalwood. Tangun becomes the first king of Korea, calling his country choson and ruling for 1500 years. After this time he retreats to Taebak-san to become a mountain god.
Though the myth of Tangun begins with an already existing earth, it still bears some resemblance to the later portions of other creation myths. Like Marduk in the Enuma Elish, Hwangun descends to earth to create a paragon of cities, the City of God. Like the Enuma Elish and the Theogeny the parentage of the heroic king Tangun is very important as with Marduk in Zeus. In other ways, the myth is very different, having a scholarly air in contrast to the violence and melodrama of the other myths. Unlike the Enuma Elish and the Theogeny, the myth of Tangun portrays divine forces as a civilizing influence, bringing law and culture to humanity. The heavenly prince neither kills nor overthrows anyone to gain his power over Korea. Instead he brings down loyal subjects and ministers to establish a working, exacting government and teaches humanity 360 different useful ways of working. Korea is not created violently, but with a comforting
feeling of calm efficiency.
Peter H. Lee, ed. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization. Volume I: From Early Times to the Sixteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Bonnefoy, Yves. “Korea”. Mythologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Grayson, James Huntley. Korea – A Religious History. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.