▲ What look like two stone piers are actually bangsatap, erected offshore to drive away malevolent spirits. Photo courtesy, Jeju Provincial Govt.
Hidden among the farming paddocks and twisting village roads, often disguised by creeping plants or obscured by modern buildings, are the Bangsatap. It is easy not to notice them when traveling on Jeju, as they seem to hide in plain sight, their high stone walls blending in with the rocky surroundings. These conical stone towers are, however, far from ordinary.
The oldest towers on Jeju were built around 300 years ago and can still be seen today at Iho and many other villages. The Bangsatap, which means “protective tower,” were first built by villagers as protection from malevolent spirits that were thought to exist within the Jeju landscape. Villagers used stone to build the towers as they believed stone possesses positive energies and will bring good fortune. Fortunately, there was no shortage of building material on Jeju.
Standing around 10-12 feet high, with a base diameter of around 7 feet, the five towers at Iho have stood against wind and rain for generations, unaffected by the changes that have gone on around them. The Iho Bangsatap are positioned so as to intercept any “evil” spirits coming from Dodu-bong Oreum situated to the east. The people of the village believed that Dodu-bong looked like a monster and so they were afraid of it. They positioned the towers to serve as guardians, blocking the oreum’s “negative” energy from their homes.
Each tower is topped with a branch or oddly shaped rock, thought by some to represent a crow or an eagle. Historically the crow symbolizes misfortune but here it is used to represent the need for caution, suggesting that if the villagers were aware of possible threats they would be better able to guard against them. The symbol of the eagle has a positive meaning and is thought to bring good fortune to the village.
While 17 Bangsatap on Jeju have been given official folk material status by the Jeju government, there are many more to be found all over the island. They can be seen at Iho, near the junction before the main turning into the beach and along Jeju’s coastal road. Near Hamdeok, visible from the shoreline, there are Bangsatap built on rock beds out in the water. These are thought to have offered protection against ocean spirits for fishermen and Jeju’s Haenyeo women divers.
▲ Protective stone walls and a traditional bangsatap, in rural Jeju, stand against rain and wind year round. Courtesy, Jeju Provincial Govt
Modern Bangsatap can also be seen in the city. Topdong’s Seaside Concert Hall is built in the shape of a tower, reflecting and honoring Jeju’s tradition of Bangsatap. A tower was also built in Sin-san Park in 1998 to symbolize the hope that Korea might one day become a unified nation. Some believe that it also offers protection from the spirits of those massacred in the “Sa-sam” atrocities inflicted upon Jeju by the South Korean government between 1948 and 1954.
Wherever the Bangsatap are found, it is worth remembering the history and tradition that shapes their meaning in modern times as they illustrate just how important it is for Jeju people that their folk traditions are not lost by the passing of time.
If you find yourself wandering the old paths through a village on Jeju or cycling the coastal road, keep a look out for the Bangsatap, and if you find a tower, pause for a moment. Remember that the tower you are looking at is probably hundreds of years old. Find the branch or stone at the tower’s summit and try and picture it as a black crow or a bright eagle and then take a look at your map.
It is likely that the tower you are looking at was positioned specifically to block a sinister spirit from a nearby location. Find the village you are in and then estimate the location of the tower; from this you should then be able to line up the source of the “bad” spirit. If the weather is good and you have an afternoon to yourself, perhaps take a walk, follow the line and see what you find.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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