Wednesday, August 9, 2017

#87. How the Korean dragons are born (Shamanism 7)

I've always been fascinated by dragons. While most mythical animals of the Orient and the Occident remained largely disjoint from each other, the idea of "dragons" seem to be common in both cultures. My personal far-fetched hypothesis is that perhaps the idea of dragons orally descended through stories from pre-historic times, when men and dinosaurs co-existed. From a linguistic point of view, if this were true, it would be pretty satisfying, because the Korean word for dinosaur (공룡) literally means "scary (공, as in 공포 "fear") dragon (용/룡, meaning dragon)."

In any case, there are some physical differences between the Korean dragons and the Western dragons. The Korean dragon (called "용") is described as having the face of a camel, the horns of a stag, the eyes of a ghost, the body of a snake, the scales of a fish, the hair of a lion, and the talons of a hawk.

When you put the above description together, you get roughly this picture.
The Korean dragon has amazing powers that are unparalleled by the other mythical beings. It is able to fly (despite not having any visible wings), it can control the weather, and it can breathe fire as well as cause frightening storms in the sea. This means that if humans dare to displease the 용, it can make your life very difficult. In particular, it could cause drought (Korea was an agricultural society, so this can lead to mass starvation), and only when the humans apologize in earnest will it bring rain.

Because of its strong magical abilities, the 용 were revered in Korea. The traces of this can be seen from the language. The face of a Korean king was not called "얼굴" -- as a sign of extreme respect, they were called "용안," meaning "the face of a dragon." The royal garb was called "용포" (the robe of a dragon) and so on.

Despite all this, however, the dragons seem to have a pretty sketchy origin in the Korean mythology.

The Koreans believe that only the snakes that have lived a thousand years have a chance of becoming a dragon. These large snakes, called "이무기," usually lived near a secluded pond, would spend their days meditating and hoping to become a dragon. They would develop scales after 500 years, and become a dragon after another 500 years, if it has lived a commendable life for the past 1000 years. When it does become a dragon, it would develop the rest of the features of a dragon (the horns, the talons, etc.) and rise to the sky.

The pure Korean word for a tornado, therefore, is "용오름," which literally translates as "the rise of a dragon." While tornadoes are very rare in Korea, it has been observed in the waters, and given that the 이무기 live near the water, this must have activated some imagination.

To ancient Koreans, this looked like a newly-born dragon.

However, if the snakes fail to be a dragon after 1000 years of wait, this is when things become problematic for the Koreans, as they are really bitter (I mean, wouldn't you be?) To make things worse, apparently 1000 years of meditation will still give them some magical and physical powers, most of which gets used for harming the innocent villagers!

Many legends (although there is not a single one that is particularly iconic) speak of sacrificing a virgin to pacify such snakes (often this is an annual event, which must have been a terrible burden for the villages). Then a hero (often in the form of a Buddhist monk or a known Korean historic figure) shows up and defeats the snake using various means (some legends talk about a full-on battle, some speak of a self-sacrifice where the hero gets eaten by the 이무기 after having slathered on poison all over their body).

Of course, since the dragons could control weather (very important for the farmers!) the dragons figure into the ancient shamanism a fair bit. Many Korean shamans would conduct a religious ceremony (called 굿) aimed at pleasing the dragon and bringing the rain. Unlike the other creatures introduced so far in the shamanism series, this is one deity worth worshiping!


Post a Comment