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Goddesses and Jeju womenThe myths behind the legend
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승인 2011.03.11  18:53:45
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▲ Some say Jeju women have been strong and independent merely out of necessity and hardship. The diving women offer a prime example.

And then there was Seolmundae.

The legend of the “strong Jeju woman” is prevalent in Jeju society. She is said to be diligent, independent, economically savvy, fiercely protective of her family, and in possession of a remarkable fortitude.

None argue the legend’s validity, but its origin is another matter.

Some say Jeju women have been strong and independent merely out of necessity and hardship. The diving women offer a prime example, the women of agriculture and the city merchants equally so. Others propose that strength is woven into their DNA. Still others suggest that the reality has been exaggerated to mythic proportions.

All agree that today’s young women, raised in relative affluence and comfort in a modern technology-driven society, have dramatically different values than their forebears.

Descriptors such as “matriarchy” and “amazonian women” are frequently heard and can be found as well in the earlier literature of foreign scholars. In truth, the society is egalitarian in nature and historically matrifocal, with gender roles based on Neo-Confucianism.

Gender equality is far from the norm in today's Jeju however, as wages for women are considerably lower than those of men, domestic violence rates are high, and women hold very few corporate or government positions of power.

The idea of the strong Jeju woman is multi-layered.

At the foundation is Seolmundae, the mythical creator of Jeju. On this “Island of 18,000 gods,” in fact many of the deities in the pantheon are female.

The creation myth of Jeju offers a giantess, a grandmother goddess who was actively worshiped as the spirit of Mt. Halla until 1950, when public shamanic rituals were suspended due to the outbreak of the Korean war. As such traditions were gradually revived, the Sanshinjae, or annual rite to the spirit of Mt. Halla, no longer directly identified this creator goddess.

She is the volcano which birthed this island, spewing forth an additional 368 parasitic cones (oreum) which make up her children and the siblings of the Jeju People.

“To understand Jeju People,” exhorted several elderly interviewees, “you must understand that the oreum are female; they are our sisters.”

While legends typically refer to these cones as the sons of Seolmundae, they are clearly perceived as female by a certain measure of Jeju’s populace.

This archetype, of an all-powerful yet nurturing Mother, resides deeply in the psyche of Jeju.

In addition, goddesses have inhabited the island and shared the lives of the people since the beginning of time.

Samsin Halmang governs human life, in particular pregnancy and childbirth, while Jeoseung Halmang is the goddess of death. Gopang Halmang, goddess of prosperity, rules the granary, and Youngdeung Halmang presides over the sea. Baekjo Halmang is the mother goddess to all of Jeju's shamanic gods.

Jacheongbi is goddess of both love and earth, while Gameunjang Agi is goddess of wisdom, who determines human fate. Jowang Halmang, as hearth goddess, presides over family health.

Snake worship is also an ancient and ongoing tradition on Jeju. While in some minor ways a phallic symbol, the snake deity is more often perceived as female. Worshiped throughout Jeju's villages in the past and still to some degree today especially in the eastern region, the spirit of the snake is passed from mother to daughter.

Whether still worshiped or revered for the sake of tradition, these and numerous other female deities exist for Jeju's people.

It is from this mythology that the image of the strong Jeju woman originally emerged. According to the theories of psychiatrist Carl Jung and of subsequent mythologist Joseph Campbell, archetypes such as these are lodged deeply within the psyche of a people.

“The grandmothers are everything to Jeju,” opined Lee Jeong Heon, MBC chief producer and author of the recently published “Jeju Masters Stump,” a book about Jeju’s traditional handcrafts and professions.

Two books on this topic, “The Myths and Legends of Jeju Island” and “The Goddesses of Jeju Island,” were published in 2002 by local poet and folklorist Kim Soon Yi.

Mythologist Koh Heakyoung described the Seolmundae creation myth in detail in her 2010 book, “In the Beginning was the Goddess.”

“Discovering great goddesses from the beginning of the world and reviving them in today's world is my dream as well as the path to a new era,” according to Koh, an era “when reason and emotion, humans and nature, and men and women can co-exist in true harmony.”

(Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist living on Jeju.)

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