▲ Melting snow signals winter’s retreat as spring sprouts at Camelia Hill. Photo courtesy Camellia Hill
The dawning of the Year of the Snake (Feb. 10) brings Jeju’s relationship with “Serpentes” to the fore. Held in a mixture of fear, awe and respect the world over, the snake is woven into the fabric of Jeju’s shamanistic culture and indigenous belief systems.
According to statistics from the National Geographic Information Institute, 208 places in Korea have names related to the snake or associated with snake stories.
Six of these are located on Jeju Island, including four villages: Baembari-dong and Sasu-dong in Andeok, Sai-dong in Yaerae, and Hwangsapyeong in Jeju City. In addition there is Seop Islet, off Jeju’s southern coast, and Gimnyeong Snake Cave. These places either have snake stories associated with them or are shaped like a serpent; for example, Seop Islet has a story in which a snake wanted to become a dragon.
On Jeju Island, where no large beasts existed, snakes became objects of awe, as seen in the well-known myth of Gimnyeong Snake Cave, 705 meters long and in the shape of a slithering snake.
During the Joseon Dynasty, Seorin, a 19-year-old magistrate, started his new post on the island. At that time there was a big snake in the cave which harassed villagers, demanding the sacrifice of a young female annually on threat of bringing calamity to the village. Villagers lived in fear, and Seorin duly commanded his army to defeat the serpent.
The Gimnyeong myth, of a malevolent snake god requiring virgin sacrifice, was distorted during the Joseon era in order to suppress Jeju's traditions of snake worship and shamanism, in favor of Confucianism.
Snakes, on this “island of 18,000 Gods,” are closely related to Jeju culture, and featured as household and village deities.
▲ A Jeju bier reflects the local snake tradition. Photo by Kim, Yu Jeong
The snake goddess of the household is referred to as “Chilseong Halmang.” Chilseong, a goddess who brings longevity, fortune and wealth in Jeju shamanism, manifests as “An-chilseong,” the snake spirit who lives in the “gopang” (indoor granary), and “Bat-chilseong,” who resides behind the house in “chilseong-nul,” a small shrine within which a selection of Jeju's five representative grains are placed annually.
In Jeju shamanic myth, or "bonpuri," according to Jeju shaman Suh Sun Sil, serpents are spirit-creatures which die and are reborn ten times, bringing a mixture of both good and bad fortune. Therefore, she believes that when someone becomes sick under its curse - by killing a snake directly or seeing one killed - the curse can be cured through “Chilseong Saenam Gut,” a shamanic ritual to give the snake new life.
In this ritual, “Chilseong Shinsang” is offered on the altar. Chilseong Shinsang is an offering in which a figure of the snake goddess is placed on some rice alongside an egg.
In the belief found on Jeju and elsewhere, a snake in the house is a good omen for wealth, a popular phenomenon in farming cultures. As Hindus in India worship cows, this also reflects how ecological strategies are materialized through culture.
Snakes are also worshipped as village shrine (dang) goddesses, especially in the eastern region of the island: “Tosan Dang,” the home shrine of many “yeodraet dang” located throughout Jeju, is an example.
It is believed the spirit of the snake goddess was passed from mother to daughter; therefore, even today to some degree, prejudice against females can be found in Tosan village. However, caring for the snake spirit ensured the snake would guard one’s food supply, and therefore one’s prosperity.
Moon Moo Byeong, a local folklorist who has researched Jeju shamanism for more than 40 years, claims serpents in Jeju shamanic myths are not fearful beings but unique animal goddesses which bring well-being and prosperity to the people.
Snakes shed their skins periodically, when the time is right. In this “Year of the Snake,” let’s envision a prosperous year for 2013 by breaking from convention and pursuing change.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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