Alter to Pyoseon's "Seomyeongju Halmang." Photo by Anne Hilty
A giant goddess created Jeju -- in fact, she is the island.
The embodiment of the central volcano from which this island erupted, the stories of Seolmundae Halmang abound. Myths regarding this primary figure are also fragmented, as the scattered beads of a broken necklace. Indeed, after a point it is said that each village wanted to have its own 'Seolmundae' myth which somehow connected this benevolent creator goddess to their own place and people.
As an example, Seomyeongju Halmang, a figure in many ways similar to Seolmundae, is a creator goddess in the Pyoseon region. Equally confusing, some of the Seolmundae myths were apparently developed only within the past 50 years but are now accepted as original -- perpetuated by festivals and tourism materials.
One might propose that this is how myth develops -- organically, without limitation of time. Yet mythologists generally agree that in order for a story to be a myth it must not only concern supernatural beings and events, and be perceived communally as sacred, but it must also evolve as the commonly accepted wisdom of a people who still believe in its literal validity. Otherwise -- it is mere storytelling.
We can well imagine the emergence of Jeju's creation myth. A central volcano erupts repeatedly and the island emerges, providing a clear birth image complete with a surrounding watery womb. Numerous smaller cones bubble up from the lava which flowed east and west, and to a lesser degree, to the north and south -- giving rise to the idea of a mother with nearly 400 children.
She is envisioned as a giant goddess, and myths have emerged regarding her retreat to a watery core, her eternal sleep, her death, all of which suggest an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient deity that retreated following creation, a 'deus otiosus' who does not interfere in the people's daily life.
Shrine to Pyoseon's "Seomyeongju Halmang." Photo by Anne Hilty
"Grandmother Seolmundae watches over us all" is a common Jeju sentiment. It is also universally acknowledged that one can "see Mount Halla from anywhere on Jeju,” a metaphor for her omnipresence, and that the view or 'face' of Halla differs greatly depending on one's vantage point – or, that Seolmundae is subject to interpretation.
She is the creator of Jeju, and the body on which the island's inhabitants rest. In the world's mythology, it is highly unusual to find a creation myth which has a single goddess as progenitor; most such have either a single male deity, or more commonly, a male-female pair, typically depicting a female earth and male sky or universe.
“Sansin,” or mountain spirit, is a common motif throughout Korea's mainland where it is typically depicted as an old man, and predates the region's millenia-old shamanistic tradition inherited from central Siberia, according to David Mason (“Spirit of the Mountain,” 1999). The 'Halla-sansin-je', or ceremony to the spirit of Mount Halla, was reportedly performed annually in the name of Seolmundae from an unknown time until around 1950, at which time it was disrupted by Korea's devastating civil war; when it resumed several years later, it no longer bore her name, according to Koh Heakyoung (doctoral thesis, 2001).
It is also believed, however, that during the Joseon and even the prior Goryeo eras, money and resources were increasingly not provided by the regency for those ceremonies to female deities, and that during the time of the Joseon dynasty in particular, the sansin of Mount Halla was officially changed from Seolmundae to Gwangyang, a male deity.
Some of the myths regarding this archetypal Great Mother figure include her creation of the 368 “oreum,” local dialect for those secondary volcanic cones that dot this island, by means of the soil she was carrying in her skirt which fell through holes in the fabric. Another version refers to the oreum having been created from her defecation, and while this is not an uncommon mythological theme in other cultures, it is considered by several Jeju folklorists to be a more recent distortion.
Indeed, many of the myths about Seolmundae are thought to have been deliberately altered during the Joseon era, and even as recently as the late 20th century, in order to disempower her as a comical, insignificant figure rather than the creator goddess of Jeju.
[This article is Part 1 of a 2-part series. For Part 2, see here.]
– Kim Soonie, Jeju native, is a mythologist and Jeju representative of the nation's Cultural Heritage Administration. Anne Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home. Interpretation / translation was provided by Han Youngsook, Jeju native and instructor at Jeju National University.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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