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Early witnesses to Jeju’s legendsWestern visitors in the late 1800's became acquainted with local mythology
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승인 2011.02.05  14:35:34
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▲ White Buddha in Seoul, circa 1899-1900. Robert Neff Collection

Possibly two of the earliest Westerners to visit Jeju Island’s sacred places and to record their legends were the American missionaries Alexander A. Pieters and Eugene Bell. The two visited the island in early 1897 and were contemptuous of many of its features – especially religion.

Dismissively, Pieters wrote:
“Owing to the isolation of the island, the people are more ignorant and much less civilized than those of the mainland. As on the mainland, so on the islands, the people have little religion. A Confucian temple in each of the three cities, six or eight large idols cut from lava and placed outside of each gate, and a few shrines seem to satisfy all the spiritual needs of the hundred thousand people. There is not one Buddhist temple nor a priest on the whole island. It is said that about a hundred years ago a skeptical governor ordered all the temples to be destroyed and all the priests driven out. Since then they have never been allowed to return.”

The “skeptical governor” appears to have been Yi Hyong-sang (1653-1733), who, beginning in 1702, sought to eradicate all religions but Neo-Confucianism from the island. Under his command some 130 Buddhist temples were burned to the ground. [Please see “Island’s Buddhism accepts and adapts” July 31, 2010].

Over the next week or so, the two missionaries traveled extensively around the island. Naturally enough, Mt. Halla, also known as Mt. Auckland to Westerners, captured their attention. According to them, the mountain stood 2,000 meters tall (it is actually 1,950), was of volcanic origin, and was said to be covered with ice until June. This contrasted greatly with the warm climate along the island’s coast where, even in winter, cabbage could be grown in the open air and thick grass and blooming flowers could be spotted in the fields. The missionaries noted, somewhat disappointed, that the top third of the mountain was covered in deep snow “which would make all attempts to climb to the top useless.”

Obviously they had not read Charles Chaillé-Long’s account of his travel to the island in 1888. [Please see “In the footprints of Kublai Khan” Oct. 28, 2009] Chaillé-Long had been warned that no one could attempt to climb the mountain unless 100 days of sacrifices were performed in order to placate the spirits of the mountain. Considering the rebellious spirit of the islanders at the time – it wouldn’t have been the snow that kept them from climbing the mountain.

They did, however, visit other places.
“Not far from the top of Mt. Auckland there stands up in one place a number of rocks all alike and of the size of a man; when seen from a distance they resemble a company of people and this caused the Koreans to call them O-paik chang gun (five hundred heroes).”

Considering their interest in religion and legends, it seems strange that the missionaries neglected to tell the legend associated with these stones. According to the most popular legend, a giant woman named Seolmundae and her five hundred sons dwelt upon the island – specifically in this area. Seolmundae was said to have been so large that she when she lay down at night, she used Mt. Halla for a pillow, and her feet dangled into the sea. One day, while boiling rice for her sons, she fainted, fell into the pot, and was boiled alive. Later, her sons returned but could not find their mother. They did, however, discover the pot of simmering rice soup and promptly began to eat. Soon the sons discovered their mother’s bones in the bottom of the pot and, deeply stricken with grief, all perished and were transformed into 500 stones. This area is now part of Jeju Stone Park. [Please see “Jeju’s destiny is set in stone” Sept. 30, 2009].

The missionaries also noted a legend surrounding the island’s snakes. The snake has long been an object of veneration and fear. It may have been the oldest and most widely-worshipped deity on the island. The missionaries were told that a huge serpent once dwelt in the lava tubes and demanded human sacrifices before it was rendered impotent by the hand of man.

According to Pieters:
“Many years ago a very large snake lived there, and from time immemorial a yearly sacrifice of a beautiful virgin had to be offered ... About a hundred years ago a man had a very beautiful daughter, who was the pride and the pet of the family. Soon her turn came to be sacrificed ... So when the time for offering the sacrifice came this Theseus of Quelpart [the girl’s father] took a sharp ax with him and led his daughter to the sacrificial spot ... Soon the snake came out, but before he had time to touch the maiden, the man was on him and with one blow chopped off his head. After this he cut the snake all to pieces and put it into a large kimchi jar covering it tightly up. The people were thinking that they were going to live now in peace ... But when they emptied the jar every piece of the former snake turned into a whole individual snake and the place was filled with them. However the supernatural power of the snake was lost and no more virgin sacrifices were needed. Still, to be sure about it, sacrifices of a pig, rice, whisky etc., are offered yearly on the spot.”

Considering their interest in the religious beliefs of the islanders, it is strange that they did not seek out the location of Samseonghyeol – the sacred site in which the three founders of the island were said to have ascended from the bowels of the earth. Perhaps the islanders were unwilling to share that part of their culture with heathen Westerners.

Regardless, Pieters and Bell provided a window into an island now long gone, easily forgotten amidst the noise of international tourism and development.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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