Animals are more than just creatures of the forests, fields and mountains. They have a long an important symbolic connection to the land and the people of that land, and they have a prominent place in Korean folklore.
Even Korea’s most prominent creation myth gives animals a central role. According to legend, the lord of heaven, Hwanin, sent his son, Hwanung, to earth to teach humans laws, agriculture, and other skills. Hwanung was approached by a bear and a tiger who both wished to become humans. He told them that if they wanted to turn into humans, they would have to sequester themselves in a cave for 100 days, staying out of the sunlight and eating only garlic and mugwort. The tiger gave up and left, but the bear did as told and was turned into a human woman, who then married Hwanung and gave birth to his son, Dangun. Dangun later became king. The legend probably stems from the totem animals of different Korean tribes.
Tigers show up a lot in Korean folklore, sometimes as dangerous and terrifying figures but also as foolish or funny animals. In the story of how the sun and moon came to be, a tiger eats the mother of two children, then tries to trick the children into letting the tiger inside their house. The two children climb up a tree and then are rescued by a magical rope that descends from the heavens, where they turn into the sun and moon. The tiger tries to follow them, but the rope breaks and the tiger falls to its death.
Another story is about a very hungry tiger who eavesdrops on a woman and her baby. The young mother kept telling her baby to be quiet, saying that many dangerous animals were outside the house, but the baby kept crying. First the mother says “There’s a bear!” Next she says, “There’s a tiger!” Finally, she says “Fine! Here’s a persimmon!” The tiger, not knowing what a persimmon was, thought it was something even more dangerous than itself, and ran away frightened.
Foxes are also popular animals in Korean stories, especially magical foxes like the gumiho. The gumiho is a legendary fox with many tails (usually nine.) The gumiho can change its shape, and often turns into a beautiful woman to try and seduce men so it can eat its favorite snack – human livers!
Koreans have special sayings about magpies. Supposedly, if a magpie sits on the roof of your house in the morning and sings, you’ll be visited by a good friend. If the magpie comes in the afternoon, it won’t be a friend who visits, but they will eat a lot! The most dangerous is when magpies visit at night, which means a thief will come.
Rabbits are often seen as clever, trickster animals. One of Korea’s pansori songs is about a dragon king who lives under the sea. The dragon king fell ill, and was told that he needed to eat a rabbit liver if he wanted to live, so he sent out one of his turtle minions to go bring one back. The turtle found a rabbit, and tricked it into coming with him by promising he would live in a beautiful palace under the sea. When the rabbit figures out what the turtle really intends, he lies and says he left his liver back in the forest. The turtle turns around and takes the rabbit back to get the liver, and the rabbit runs away to safety.
Source : The Korea Blog