|What Makes a Korean Mountain "Sacred"?
(or more or less sacred than others, or not sacred?)
Criteria for Determining the Sacredness of Korean Mountains
The factors that I have discovered in the course of my research that lead to Korean mountains being considered
sacred can be divided into two categories, factors that are more physical and others that are more cultural.
These are interrelated and cumulative; to be considered “highly sacred” a mountain must be seen to have at least
several of them, having only one will not be considered sufficient. Every mountain in question has its own unique
and characteristic set of and balance of these factors, which combine to establish and maintain it's reputation.
The overall list is:
• unusually-high peak(s) or great size / outstanding prominence
• significant geographical position
• unusual, strange or outstanding topographical features
• serving as the origin of a major river
• being a member of the Baekdu-daegan Range or one of its major Branches
• serving or having served as the geographical “guardian” mountain of a city or region,
perhaps with a military fortress on it
• the mountain’s name has a profound / auspicious religious meaning
• people are recorded to have, and/or said to have spiritual experiences or visions,
or attain enlightenment and wisdom, on that mountain
• social heroes having been born, trained or educated there, gaining special powers
• old folk or religious myths or legends being sited there, including myths of that mountain’s
‘spirit’ appearing, manifesting or causing some phenomena
• the mountain has served as the spiritual “guardian” mountain of a city, thought to have
powers to generate or ensure abundant fecundity, or simply to protect against disaster
• presence of one or more important Buddhist temples
• presence of one or more major Shamanic shrines
• presence of significant historical / archaeological remains
• previous governments established shrines there for worship of its spirit
• previous governments including it in a numeric-based system of sacred mountains or peaks
Contemporary Koreans themselves rarely speak in reference to any such criteria when mentioning that a certain
mountain is sacred; that it meets one or more of these criteria is usually only implied, and usually assumed to be
generally known by everyone, not requiring detailed explanation. Myeongsan is the most common term used to
designate a sacred mountains – the Hanja [Chinese used by Koreans] character myeong employed here was
apparently originally the one meaning “bright” with Shamanic-Daoist religious overtones, but is now its synonym
meaning “famous”. Other Korean terms used in this way, although less commonly, are yeongsan [spirit(ual)
mountain], shinseong-hansan [spirit-holy big-mountain] and shinryeongsan [mountain with a (strong) spirit].
It would be possible to create a system of numerical values to rate the extent to which particular mountains meet
these criteria, and then a method of totaling up the numbers to signify ratings of relative sacredness; let's call it a
Index of Sacredness of Korean Mountains, or the Yeongsan Index. This would be a tool to evaluate which
Korean mountains are more or last sacred than others, and to give some referenceable and defensible authority
to listings such as "the Three Holy Peaks of Korea" or "the Top-10 Sacred Mountains of South Korea" or etc.
These kinds of listings could be very useful in tourism promotion (both domestic and international), research on
Korea's cultural and tourism geography, and general understanding of the nation's cultural history. Presently,
such listings that can be found in books, articles and on the Internet appear to be entirely subjective and arbitrary;
those of the former Korean kingdoms have differing and contradictory components.
I haven't worked a system like this out yet, but I plan to; throughout this website I have already applied this way of
thinking to the various mountains I cover, in an informal way.
I don't know to what extent these criteria might apply for evaluating the sacredness of mountains nations other than Korea.
Certainly, most of them are partially derived from and were shared with traditional Chinese culture and the ancient shamanic
cultures of Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria. They probably have a strong similarity with such criteria in Japanese traditional
and contemporary cultures, as these have been heavily influenced by Korea throughout history. Their similarity and differences
with concepts of sacred mountains in the wide world outside of Northeast Asia might best be discovered throughout the pages
of Edwin Bernbaum's classic 1990 tome Sacred Mountains of the World.
Introductory Note: What the term “sacred” or its many synonyms has meant and still means to the various
cultures and religions of the world throughout human history is an entire academic field of its own. In my research
and publications I use the concept of a “sacred” site, area or mountain in its general and commonly understood
sense of a place that is believed to be intimately connected with the supernatural or divinity, regarded as having a
special exalted character and possibly supernatural powers, and thus consecrated and revered with respect and
veneration, often expressed with ritual ceremonies (whether public or private).