|The Myth of Gojoseon's
(Korea's Ancestral San-shin)
-- as recorded in first section of the Samguk-Yusa --
Hwan-in 환인 桓因, the King of Heaven or Jeseok (note #1), was asked by one of his younger sons Hwan-ung
to send him down to earth to govern his own land.(#2) Hwanin surveyed the mountains of the earth and chose
Mount Taebaek-san 태백산 太白山 (#3) [Grand White Mountain] as the best site, Opened Heaven (gaecheon)
and sent down his son To Benefit Humanity (hongik-ingan).
Hwanung descended with three heavenly seals or treasures and 3000 followers, to a sacred sandalwood tree on
the peak of Taebaek-san. Here he established a sacred city (Shinshi 신시 神市 spirit-city). He marshaled the
noble spirits of Wind, Rain and Clouds as his Ministers. A government was established with 360 departments to
rule with laws and moral codes about agriculture, grain-storage, hunting, fishing, medicine, education, the arts,
family-life, determination of good and evil, and etc.(4)
A bear and a tiger both came to Holy Hwanung and prayed (begged) to become human beings. The Heavenly
Prince decided to give them a chance, and gave them a bundle of mugwort and twenty bulbs of garlic (5) and he
told them that if they ate only these sacred food and stayed in the cave (out of the sunlight) for one hundred days (6)
-- then they would become human.
The tiger shortly gave up in impatient hunger and left the cave. The bear remained and after 21 more days was
transformed into a woman.
The bear-woman Ungnyeo 웅녀; 熊女 was very grateful and made offerings to Hwanung at the stone altar by
the sacred tree on the peak. She had no husband, however, and prayed for a son. Hwanung was moved by her
prayers to transform himself as a human man, and mated with her.
Nine months later she gave birth to a son, who was named Dan-gun Wanggeom 단군 왕검 檀君王儉 (7).
Dan-gun founded the first Korean kingdom, with its capital nearby what is now Pyeongyang and then moved to
Asadal (probably at Mt. Guwol-san in Hwanghae Province), and named it Joseon (8) in the 50th year of the reign
of the Emperor Yao (China’s mythical sage-emperor). Dan-gun reigned over Joseon (Gojoseon) for 1,500 years.(9)
At the end of his reign, in the year 1122 BCE, Founding-King Wu (10) of the Zhou Dynasty enfeoffed Jizi (11)
to Joseon. King Dangun moved his capital again, but then returned to Asadal and abdicated his throne, hiding
himself in the mountains, becoming an immortal Sanshin (12) [a Mountain-spirit] (13) at the age of 1,908.(14)
|This has become the main Story of Korean National Origin
and basis of the Gaecheon-jeol [Opening Heaven Day] National Holiday
(now Officially October 3rd, Lunar Calendar: 3rd Day of the Tenth Moon)
It tells the founding of legendary Gojoseon [Ancient Joseon Kingdom], probably
in southern Manchuria, by Dan-gun, now regarded as the “Founder of Korea”
This is the very first story in the Samguk-Yusa [Supplementary Tales of the Three Kingdoms],
"Korea's Old Testament", compiled and written by Monk Iryeon 일연 in the late 1200s
This is a typical portrait of King Dan-gun from a temple in South Korea (left) and a similar image
used on the program-cover for a 2008 Dangun-je Ceremony at Inwang-san in Seoul (right). He sits
in a Chinese-style wooden chair with 'rustic' legs, wears a white robe and unadorned crown, and
has black hair and beard although he lived for over 900 years (indicating his 'immortal' status, or
perhaps it is supposed to be a portrait at the time of his enthronement.
He usually has a halo around his head, indicating divine status -- in the left icon it's a silver disk
that looks like the Moon is behind him, while in the program's icon it's just a glowing of holy light.
In these images there is no background -- he is seen as now existing in a "Heavenly" realm.
He wears a mantle of willow leaves on his shoulders, and another of paulownia leaves around his
waist (both Willow and Paulownia are "sacred" trees, their excellent wood used to make religious-ritual
implements, musical instruments and fine furniture such as chests) -- these are symbols of "a man of
nature", a ruler in primitive time. Throughout this website there are several examples of this motif
echoed in San-shin paintings or statues. Two bust-portraits installed at reconstructed Guwol-san
shrines by NK authorities do not include any leaves on his shoulders, however.
Some of these iconograghic elements are borrowed from Chinese portraits of Fuxi, the mythical founder
of Bronze-Age Sinitic civilization (and designer of the I Ching Trigrams), a very important deity for Daoists.
King Dan-gun is intended as a Korean counterpart of this Fuxi; some Korean spiritual-nationalists claim
that Fuxi IS actually Dan-gun, and the Chinese appropriated him (although this is ridiculous).
|Iconography of Founding-King Dan-gun
|Many more images of Dan-gun can be found all around my site, especially on my Taebaek-san Section.
(1) Jeseok-bul is a quasi-Buddha deity representing Indra, the Hindu "king of the gods" (leader/manager of
the devas and "Lord of Heaven") -- a common deity in Korean Shamanism, and always appearing at the center
of Chil-seong Seven-Stars icons -- significantly for what comes later, he is also the Hindu deity of Storms,
Rainfall and War. Author Iryeon is trying to identify this peripheral-Buddhist figure with the ancient Korean-
Shamanic "Lord of Heaven" Hwan-in, whose name rarely appears elsewhere in any historic literature.
(2) what's interesting here is that it's NOT his eldest, primary son, the Crown Prince, but specifically named by
a term denoting a younger son, or a son by a secondary wife, anyway a "junior prince". Perhaps he was bright
and talented for leadership, but had no hope of kingship or other first-level office, and so he desired his own
far-away territory in which to try to make a new kingdom -- and his father thought it wise to send him, avoiding
conflict with his elder brothers.
(3) The exact mountain that this title "Taebaek-san" refers to remains unknown. Iryeon wrote in his notes that
it is probably what is now called Myohyang-san, and this remains the strongest candidate -- Taebaek is known
by scholars to have been an alternate name for it, and a site named “Dan-gun Cave” is indicated on it on 20th-
& 21st-Century maps. Guwol-san in the North and the actual Taebaek-san of the South are legitimate but weaker
contenders -- the latter is not taken very seriously by scholars but is by groups of local nationalists, and is
probably only heavily-used for worship of Dan-gun and his forefathers because of the identical name and the
tragedy of national division which has made North Korea inaccessible. Most contemporary Koreans and a few
of their ancestors believe it to be be Baekdu-san, one of Korea's holiest mountains, for geomantic, locational,
political and topographical reasons, more on popular-nationalist-consciousness grounds than on evidence. It is
usually depicted as the site in 20th-& 21st-Century artworks and re-tellings of this myth, and it may indeed
have been the intended site of the myth when it was told in Manchurian lands more than 2000 years ago.
However, it was under the control of the Jurchens (sacred to them, and later their descendants the Manchu),
and seemed remote from the Goryeo Kingdom with no special significance at the time Iryeon wrote; he wanted
a closer ‘sacred origin’ mountain, and Myohyang-san was already by then highly-sacred to Korean Buddhism;
he only mentioned Baekdu-san once in all of his Samguk-yusa, and that was unrelated to Dan-gun. Baekdu-san
was so remote that it seems to have played very little role in Korean history or religious traditions, even after
the Joseon Dynasty gained control over it, until the cultural-nationalism wave of the 1920’s. The fact that the
highest mountain in the ancient-traditional area of China is named Taibai-shan [太白山, Grand-White Mountain],
the same name as this mythical "Taebaek-san", seems highly significant in our interpretations of this tale and
its cultural significance.
(4) Seems to indicate a pre-literate Bronze-age government, with one topic of policy-decision designated for
each day of a solar year, with about 5 days left over, probably as holidays.
(5) Both are medicinal herbs native to NE Asia. Perhaps they were pickled in salt as a winterlong vegetable,
warding off diseases and making the dried meats & fish easier to chew -- was this the first Kimchi...?
(6) About the length of a Winter in Korea and southern Manchuria; seems to reference a bear's hibernation.
(7) This term Dan-gun probably first meant "Altar King" (gun being a later term used for a minor, illegitimate,
failed or primitive king), the monarch who came from the altar for venerating Heaven, which would be an
appropriate Korean-Shamanic title. However, it seems that this character dan (壇, altar) was switched to the
similar character with same pronunciation dan (檀, sandalwood, a fragrant tree from which incense is made,
native to India but not to NE Asia), making "Sandalwood-King", which is more Buddhist in meaning, probably
a change made during the Goryeo Dynasty. No way to know whether this was intentional or just a mistake
that endured. The suffix-title Wang-geom is a combination of Chinese "King" with an ancient term for a
(8) The term here "Joseon" [previously spelled Choson] may have meant "Human-Land" at that time, according
to one linguistic-archaeologist, which makes sense for Bronze-Age tribes conquering Stone-Age people whom
they would consider less-than-human. In 1390 a new dynasty established in Korea chose (with approval from
the Ming Emperor) it's name "Joseon" with the same pronunciation in Korean but different Chinese characters
that mean "Morning Calm", a reference to the teaching of Mencius. We now call this legendary (or mythical?)
prehistoric kingdom "Gojoseon" - that go is a prefix meaning old, ancient or former, so "Gojoseon" = "Ancient
Joseon". There is no archaeological evidence that any such "Joseon Kingdom" ever existed, despite increasing
claims by both Korean governments shown in their publications and national-museum exhibits. Additionally, we
can be sure that in 2333 BCE there were no "Kings" or "kingdoms" at all in East Asia -- that political concept
had not yet been invented even in the Yellow River watershed, there were only tribes and, at best, the
formation of tribal federations. A sadly typical and absurd (but by now common) claim that this mythical
"first kingdom" was a reality is here.
(9) Some of the 20th-Century religious-nationalists have claimed that the standard written myth that Dan-gun
Wanggeom lived to 1908 years old and ruled for over 1500 years is incorrect, corrupted -- they say that he
and his "Gojoseon" Kingdom were REAL, not mythical, and he was a real person (tho semi-divine / super-human)
(North Korea supports this view, see "Tomb") -- that "Dan-gun" was a monarch-title and there were 33 of them
in a dynasty, that this ruler's personal name was "Wanggeom" and the next 32 Dan-guns had other names
(which they list and assign reign-dates for, from 2333 BCE onwards). The problem is, there is absolutely
zero valid evidence for this scenario, and the standard myth (above) written in the 12th Cen CE says otherwise.
This revisionism can just an attempt by these 20th-Century Korean religious-nationalists to claim that an old myth
is actual "history".
(10) also known as "King Wen", especially to westerners as the original author of the I Ching / Classic of
Changes. To Chinese he is Zhōu Cháo Wuwang 周朝武王. China's fabled Zhou Dynasty is called Ju-nara
by Koreans. 1122 BCE is the accepted historical year of its founding, and thus the first "real" date of this myth,
bordering on legend.
(11) Jizi (箕子 ji1 zi3, Gija 기자 in Korean, “Viscount of Ji”, was a semi-legendary Chinese sage who is said
to have ruled Korea in the 12th century BCE. His family name was Zi (子) and given name was Xuyu (胥餘).
Since the title of Viscount of Ji was bestowed on him, he is usually called Jizi. He may have been a prince or
wise noble of the corrupt Shang Dynasty, who helped Zhou King Wu overthrow it -- perhaps Wu then sent him
to conquer Korea as both reward and exile? (normally, all members of a former-royal-family would be killed).
At any rate, he can be seen as the advent of, perhaps the first carrier of, Chinese Iron-Age culture to the Korean
areas -- begining the transformation of the original Bronze-Age shamanic tribal culture. He is said to have taught
his proto-Korean subjects rites, agriculture, sericulture and weaving (probably also brought primitive literacy).
(12) The mountain that he is believed to have become the spirit of is Guwol-san in what is now Hwanghae-namdo
Province of North Korea, based on Iryeon's notes and other traditions. A weaker contender for this is Myohyang-san.
(13) Famed British Korean-Studies Professor James Grayson maintains that mythical founding-king Dan-gun
became the "general or collective Sanshin, of all Korean mountains, at some particular mountain". However,
I cannot agree with this view, having found no supporting evidence for it in all my research. It seems to me
that Dan-gun became a Sanshin, at one particular mountain, just like all the translations say (including Grayson’s
own). There are many cases in Korean myths & folktales of human heroes becoming "a Sanshin" of a particular
mountain, I see no reason why this case should be radically different nor any evidence that Iryeon intended it
to be radically different -- if so, he would have said it. Also, if Dan-gun had become “the Universal Sanshin”
then I would expect that his iconography and deity-status would have merged with that of Sanshin, and this has
not happened, only a few cases of conflation.
(14) If 2333 BCE is taken as Dan-gun's birth and then he is said to have spiritualized at 1908 years old, then
he became a Sanshin in 425 BCE -- the traditional-religious date for this is the Third Full Moon or March 15th
on the modern Solar Calendar -- and this does not match-up with 1122 BCE. Are we to assume that the transition
fron Gija's arrival to Dan-gun's spiritualization, with moving the capitals, took 697 years? If 2333 BCE is taken
as the date of Gojoseon's foundation (with Dan-gun already an immortal adult, at 408 years old, as some sources
claim), then if he ruled for 1500 years that puts his end at 833 BCE, at least substantially closer to the beginning
of the Zhou Dynasty. If 2333 BCE is taken as the date that "Heaven Opened" and Hwan-eung descended, as
many writers understand it, then these numbers make even less sense. This simply remains unclear and
contradictory -- as myths often are.
a modern religious painting shows the Founding-King in similar motifs (but no halo at all)
sitting under the sacred tree next to Baekdu-san's Cheonji Lake, with mugunghwa flowers,
pheasants, a tiger and a black bear -- presumably a different bear than the one (Ung-nyeo)
that transformed into a woman and became his mother! Or else the artist seriously confused
the myth's timeline... Anyway, it is very rare to show him sitting in a real natural setting --
this moves closer to the motifs of San-shin paintings.
|Map of "Gojoseon Kingdom" printed
in the Korea Times newspaper in 2011
"Dangun’s father was a god who wanted to live
among humans. His mother was a bear, who
wanted to become human. Attracted by this
shared interest, they mated and had little Dangun.
He was already 408 years old when he became king.
He died at the age of 1,908, which earned him the
spot in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest
serving monarch in history."
Read columnist Micheal Breen's sharp satire
of the growing reification on this myth here.
|October 3rd, 2012
This is quite new, and I don't really understand what's going on here...
|Dan-gun in the style of a Chinese Emperor, from the Jeungsahn-do cult
|statue and portrait in the Inwang-san Dan-gun Shrine above Sajik Park
|Dangun Altar in the -Okgu Hyanggyo Neo-Confucian School of Gunsan City, visited in 2013
|The oldest Dan-gun painting in South Korea,
owned by and displayed in Seoul's
|detail of an old portrait in North Korea