Welcome to episode 4 of Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales. On the itinerary this time are the dragons of Korea. A land we hear mentioned on the news a lot. But what do we really know about its mythological traditions? Grab your map and get ready. And next week, we’ll have a complementary blog post for you as well, featuring even more awesome dragons.
Jaz: Hellooooo Mythsters! How are you doing, Anike?
Anike: I can’t complain, the usual. And your lovely self, Jaz?
Jaz: I’m great. I hope you are all safe and well, mythsters. It’s scary out there, but if we all stick together, we can make it through.
Anike: Indeed. Humans are quite the resilient testament to that, much like dragons. So what’s on the itinerary for today, Jaz?
Jaz: Hang on to your hat. We’re off to the Koreas.
Jaz: As usual, we would like to apologise in advance for any and all trauma induced by our mangled pronunciation. If anyone out there knows how it’s done, and is willing to plug the holes in our linguistic skills, please do let us know. We’d love to learn. Another thing worth remembering is the amount of contradictions we encountered in our source material. We will do our best to untangle the threads, but we can’t possibly cover everything we came across.
Yong, Dragons of Korea
Anike: And we’ll dive right into that tangle. Like most Asian regions, it’s highly likely that Korea’s dragons, also known as yong, originated in China. However, after the dragons completed their migration, Korean storytellers and artists claimed them and made them their own. Compared to their Chinese counterparts, in Korea, dragon mythology places more of an emphasis on spiritual powers of dragons.
Jaz: Actually, dragons are featured in many of the most important Korean myths, even if they are relegated to a supporting role on the sidelines where often they embody the virtues of the protagonists in the stories. One myth that really jumped out at me was that of the Dragon King, who lived in a palace beneath the sea. Sound familiar?
Anike: Oh shit, that sounds a lot like Ryūjin, who we discussed in our last episode.
Jaz: Exactly. And the similarities don’t end there. In Korea, dragons are mostly considered benevolent beings. They bring rain, and as such they’re important for the agriculture in the region. Many dragons were thought to live in rivers, lakes, oceans, or even deep mountain ponds.
Anike: And, we’ve got at least one mention of another possible shapeshifter. A guy called Munmu who was the thirtieth king of the Korean kingdom of Silla. On his deathbed, he asked for his body to be cremated and the ashes to be scattered in the sea, where the whales live. He would then become a dragon and keep foreign invaders at bay. His son, Sinmun, honored the request and threw in a temple for good measure. He had the Gomun Temple built and dedicated it to his father. He then had a waterway built so the sea dragon could come and go as he pleased. Then he went and ordered a pavilion, Eegun, so that later generations of kings would have a place to come to and pay their respects.
Jaz: Later, he visited his son in a dream and said, “Blowing on a bamboo flute will calm the heavens and the earth.” King Sinmun woke up, rode out to the sea, and was given a bamboo flute called Monposikjuk. Blowing the flute supposedly invoked King Munmu and a famous general. Together, they would fight off enemy troops, cure illnesses, and make it rain when drought held the land in its grip.
Anike: Well, that’s just a nice dragon. Unlike our Japanese human-turned-dragon, this one is benevolent. A guardian to his people instead a scorned woman out for revenge. And here’s where we sail into unexplored waters. Ancient texts mention speaking dragons, showing complex emotions and empathy, like King Munmu.
Jaz: On the other hand, we’re also encountering our first sacrificed virgins.
Becoming a Dragon
Anike: Check one for dragon stereotypes! You see, according to Korean beliefs, becoming a dragon was hard work.
Jaz: Blood, sweat, tears, and patience. Lots and lots of patience.
Anike: And then some. They would begin life as a large serpent, usually settling down near a secluded pond. Then they meditate. Not for years, but for centuries.
Jaz: Only those serpents who have lived for at least a millennium, would have a chance at dragonhood. They develop scales after five hundred years, and become a full-fledged dragon after another five hundred, if and only if they lived their life in a commendable way.
Anike: That’s a long meditation. But at least it’s a stress-free life, right?
Jaz: I’ll say. When the serpent eventually becomes a dragon, it then develops the rest of the traditional features, like horns, and talons, and it rises to the sky. And I mean that literally. Like most Asian dragons, they don’t have wings. Instead, their magical nature allows them to fly. Supposedly, one Korean word for tornado is yong-oleum, which would translate as rise of the dragon.
Anike: So, I do have some thoughts about that. Tornados are very rare in Korea, which does fit with the thousand years of meditation before the serpent can ascend. It is a bit of a challenge and it wouldn’t happen every other day. And according to Google Translate, yong-oleum translates as water spout, and not tornado. Now, it’s still not completely illogical. Since these serpents live in or near the water, any tornado they ascend on would be likely to take on water. So perhaps they used that word to signify that.
Jaz: Nice. So we have another case of mythology merging seamlessly with natural phenomena. OK, but let’s get to the virgin devourings. So, we have these serpents who are benevolent in nature. Some sources also claim they had a playful disposition. And they spend a millennium meditating and trying to grow scales.
Anike: We found some references to a final requirement as well. To take the final step of becoming a dragon, the serpents would have to catch a Yeouiju (yoo-ee-ju), a dragon orb fallen from heaven. It would grant omnipotence to the wielder. However, not all sources mention this orb or jewel.
Jaz: But what if they fail to ascend? If it were me, I’d be a bit snappish if I just spent a thousand years in intense concentration and meditation and ended up without any dragon-mojo.
Anike: You and me both, Mythster. These creatures who are stuck in the larval state between serpent and dragon, are referred to by some sources as Imugi. For the record, sources differ again. Some refer to the serpent as imugi from the start, others don’t use the term until the serpent fails to ascend, at which point they get cursed. For the sake of clarity, we’re going with the first definition.
Jaz: OK, so we’re stuck with an imugi with a giant, resentful chip on their shoulder because they wasted a millennium in meditation. But their hard work didn’t quite leave them empty-handed either. They still would have gained some physical as well as magical power.
Anike: Bad news for the local human population, since the imugi would take out their frustration on them.
Jaz: There’s any number of legends about events just like that, where a bitter imugi terrorises innocent villagers. In an attempt to appease the imugi, they offer up a virgin sacrifice. Often the sacrifice would become an annual event. Apparently, virgins are like potato chips. Once you devour one, it gets really hard to quit.
Anike: But not to worry. A hero usually shows up–either a Buddhist monk or a Korean historical figure–to defeat the snake. Sometimes in a good old-fashioned battle, sometimes through a huge gesture of self-sacrifice, like letting themselves get eaten after covering their body with poison.
Jaz: Of course, since dragons control the weather, and the cursed imugi still get some of that power, it makes sense that so much of their mythological focus is on keeping them happy and dealing with draconic temper tantrums.
Anike: But imugi weren’t the only proto-dragon creatures to become dragons after time. It’s said that some fish, like the carp, could ascend along with their snak e counterparts. Fish-dragons. Can it get any more awesome than that? Though there’s little to go on regarding them, it doesn’t seem they throw tantrums like the imugi.
Jaz: Speaking of draconic tantrums and virgin sacrifice, some dragon tales are of earth spirits, usually dragons, that protected gems. And mountains whose names tie into dragon mythology as well, with names like Yellow Dragon and Hidden Dragon.
Anike: This made mining difficult, for fear of upsetting the dragon’s… well, horde of treasure. And this might just be older than the European stereotypical dragon and its horde. Korea has not just one, but two, of these traits many think of European dragons holding.
Jaz: But still, dragons played an important part in Korean society, not just for the sake of their power over the weather–and the resulting importance to agriculture. Koreans, like the other cultures we’ve visited so far, didn’t confine their dragons to the realm of myth and legend. As we already saw in how they interpreted tornados, they lived with their dragons, and found them everywhere.
Anike: Indeed. Natural landmarks were anthropomorphised, usually in the form of dragons. Lakes and streams were the habitats of lesser dragons and imugi, either of the benevolent variety–immersed in their centuries-long meditation–or the cranky type, whose meditation didn’t bring them what they hoped for.
Jaz: Now, while we’re sitting here theorising about where Korea’s dragon mythology came from, this answer is quite simple if you ask the Koreans: All dragons come from Korea. Some migrated to China, some to Japan.
Anike: Of course, it’s a bit trickier than that. Other than Chinese influences, a lot of what we see is essentially naga mythology, carried over from India with the advent of buddhism. With dragons already at the center of their spiritual life, the stories about large flying serpents would have been irresistible. A lot of the Buddhist dragon stories are–like we saw in Japan–nagas with a Korean veneer over the top.
Jaz: In fact, the dragon kings we find in multiple traditions are actually assimilated versions of naga mythology. And the same goes for the mystical or magical jewels often depicted. Like the yeouiju. That comes from an Indian legend about a jewel–the Cirimani.
Anike: But it went deeper than adding a new twist to existing stories. The very essence of Korean dragons evolved. They went from rainmakers to guardians. They became the protectors of Buddhism, and, eventually, Korea itself.
Jaz: The dragon grew to symbolise power, especially among the royal family. During the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from about the 11th century to the 17th, the rulers would wear dragon robes. Which colour depends on their rank. Crown prince and his heir donned blue dragon robes. The king on the other hand, wore scarlet. His robe was traditionally embroidered with a large round dragon symbol with five claws. The crown prince’s dragon emblem would have four claws, and his eldest son would have a dragon with three claws.
Anike: And later on, when Buddhism saw a decline, the Korean people held on to their fascination with dragons even if the cultural context was somewhat forgotten. In modern Korea, you can still find dragons everywhere, from billboards and commercials to temples.
Jaz: Now, there’s one thing we forgot to mention.
Jaz: Yeah. Remember the Gye Lyong?
Anike: Oooooh right! Korea’s version of the cockatrice.
Jaz: Yep. This cousin of the dragon is very distinct from the dragons we’ve been discussing so far. It translates as chicken-dragon.
Anike: Rather than serpents, these dragons are, as you’d suspect, more birdlike. There are accounts that gye lyong had a crest and, when frightened, they’d flee or stampede, or try to intimidate their opponent with squawks and puffed-out feathers. Reminds me of some dinosaurs recently discovered.
Jaz: Apparently, in ancient Korea, warriors would use them as mounts, but they also pulled chariots for the royal family.
Anike: One legend around them details the founding of the kingdom of Silla–where we already found one shapeshifter story as well. Silla’s princess supposedly hatched from the egg of a gye lyong.
Jaz: Oh, and she shifted from dragon to human, opposite to the later king who wanted to turn himself into a dragon.
Anike: But we’ve also got the Basan, related to the gye lyong in a way, hailing from Japanese mythology. These forest-dwellers were a lot smaller than the gye lyong — about the size of a turkey — and they had bright red combs and bright feathers.
Jaz: This is super fascinating, but there’s not much to be found on Korean cockatrices. We will be doing a deeper dig on the cockatrice worldwide in a blog post available to our patrons, but for now, this is all we’ve got time for, I’m afraid.
Anike: I know. *sighs* So what’s on the itinerary for episode five?
Jaz: We are going to discover the most amazing dragons iiiiiin–drum roll please–South East Asia!
- The Meaning of Dragons in Korean Folklore
- How Korean Dragons Are Born
- Korean Dragons
- Dragons and Dragon Lore
- Ancient and Modern Dragons
- Behind the Myth: Korean Dragons
- The Cockatrice
- Korean Beliefs
- Serpent Cave of Gimnyeong
- Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Literature
Music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License