Thursday, October 6, 2011

The day the heavens opened – Korea’s founding myth

October 3rd is National Foundation Day, the “Opening of the Heavens” Day (개천절) in Korea, celebrating its 4343th year this year. It marks the date when Hwanung (환웅), the son of Hwanin (환인), the Emperor of the Heavens, descended upon the Korean Peninsula at Mount Taebaek (태백산) in 2457 B.C.

Hwanin sends his son Hwanung to earth with three gods.
Hwanung, who had been infatuated by the beauty of the mountains and valleys, came down to earth with 3,000 followers and three sacred items given to him by his father: a bronze dagger, bronze mirror, and bronze bell. Three gods accompanied him: Pungbaek (풍백, ruler of the winds), Unsa (운사, ruler of the clouds), and Usa (우사, ruler of the rain). They held a ritual under a sacred tree and commenced to better the world in matters of food, life, illness, punishment, good and bad, and 360 other aspects of human life with the creed to “extensively better and ameliorate the human world.” (홍익인간, 弘益人間. This principle later became Korea’s creed for education.)

Mugwort and garlic, the foods of perseverance
One day, a tiger and a bear approached Hwanung and told him of their desire to become human. Hwanung told them to go inside a cave and pray, eating only a bundle of sacred mugwort and 20 cloves of garlic. After 100 days in the cave without seeing the sun, they will be granted their wish of becoming human. However, this task was too much for the tiger and it ran out without completing the 100 days. The bear, on the other hand, fulfilled the 100 days and turned into a woman.

Hwanung greets Ungnyeoh, the bear-woman.
Hwanung took the woman Ungnyeoh (웅녀, “bear woman”) as his wife and they had a son, Dangun Wanggeom (단군 왕검). Dangun found the kingdom of Joseon (called “Old Joseon” 고조선 to differentiate it from the Joseon Dynasty) with Pyeongyang (평양) as the capital. Moving the capital to Asadal later on, he ruled over the land for 1,500 years and became a mountain spirit at the age of 1908.

Shrines dedicated to Dangun in Sajikdan and Mount Taebaek
Thus is the myth recorded in Samgukyusa (삼국유사), documents written in the 13th century in the Goryeo Dynasty. There are other records with different variations of the story, but the Samgukyusa version is the most widely accepted. Although scholars’ opinions vary on the interpretation of this founding myth, most agree that it is likely an expansion of a founding myth for a tribe that worshipped the bear and sun, and its merge with another tribe.

Hwanin, Hwanung, and Dangun are honored at the shrine of Samseongsa.
In the 19th century, a religion worshipping Dangun the founding father emerged which later developed into Daejonggyo (대종교). Dangun is also revered by the religion of Cheondogyo (천도교) as well. A shrine dedicated to the 3 major figures of this founding myth – Hwanin, Hwanung, and Dangun – called Samseongsa (삼성사) can be found in the mountains of Guwol (구월산), which is presumed to be the site of ancient Asadal.

Ungnyeoh painted by the fantasy artist Kim Sanho
The myth has become the subject of many literary and artistic attempts, and also the inspiration behind online role-playing games as well.

On October 3rd, religious and non-religious celebrations take place alike nationwide with the main ceremony being held in the morning at the Sejong Cultural Center. Ceremonial rites also take place at the Dangun shrine in Sajikdan.

Other events around the country are:

•The Ganghwa Opening of the Heavens Grand Festival (강화개천대축제)
•The Samgak Mountain Festival (삼각산축제)
•Korean Spirit Festival (국학원 으라차차 코리아)
•Jinju Opening of the Heavens Art Festival (진주 개천예술제)


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