▲ Korean Devil Posts: According to some historians, these totem-like poles were often used in ancient Korea to mark the entrances of villages in the hope that bad spirits would be frightened away. Photo courtesy Robert Neff collection
Korea is a land haunted not only by its history but, according to some, ghosts as well. Isabella Bird Bishop, a famous English traveler in the late 19th century, described Korea as a land of ghosts and demons.
“In Korean belief, earth, air, and sea are peopled by demons,” she wrote. “They haunt every umbrageous tree, shady ravine, spring, and mountain crest. On green hill slopes, in peaceful agricultural valleys, in grassy dells, on wooded uplands, by lake and stream, by road and river, in north, south, east, and west they abound, making malignant sport out of human destinies. They are on every roof, ceiling, oven and beam. They fill the chimney, shed, the living room, the kitchen- they are on every shelf and jar. In thousands they waylay the traveler as he leaves his home, beside him, behind him, dancing in front of him, whirring over his head, crying out upon him from air, earth, and water.” She may have been exaggerating, but ghostly accounts are scattered throughout the pages of recent history.
William Elliot Griffis, one of the earliest Western experts on Korean history and society, claimed Korea was “governed out of the graveyard.” According to him, there were often fights between families and clans over choice gravesite locations, and the continued need to maintain ancestors’ graves. According to Bishop, a Korean’s well-being depended on “a continual series of acts of propitiation, and every omission was dealt with merciless severity, keeping him under this yoke of bondage from birth to death.”
Belief in ghosts was not unique to the superstitious common people – it was also found in Korean nobility. When a Korean king died, his unwashed clothing was taken by a eunuch to the roof of the building where the king’s body lay and, facing north, the eunuch shouted three times for the king’s spirit to return. The clothes were then thrown to the ground and gathered by other servants who quickly covered the king’s body with them in hopes that his spirit would return. It isn’t clear if any king’s spirit returned to reclaim his body, but there is one story of a murdered queen’s spirit reappearing and seeking revenge.
In October 1895, Queen Myung Sung-hwang (perhaps better known as Queen Min Bi) was brutally murdered and her body burned in the palace by Japanese assassins and Korean collaborators. Her name was then besmirched and her title demoted. Prior to Nov. 21, 1897, when the she was properly honored with a state funeral, and the posthumous title of empress, her spirit was restless and apparently vengeful.
In March 1896, a Japanese reporter telegraphed an account of a fatal sighting of Queen Min’s apparition to his editor. According to the reporter two palace couriers had died after seeing the Queen’s apparition in the room that once housed her coffin. The editor was less than impressed and noted “what a singular thing it is that a ghost story- the product of an uncivilized age– should be communicated by an instrument of civilization.”
Queen Min had her own experiences with ghosts. In 1882, an insurrection took place in Seoul known as the Imho Revolt. A large number of people, many of them of nobility, died in their homes or in the streets of Seoul. Queen Min claimed that she could no longer sleep in the Mulberry Palace “for the mournful wailing of the voices of her murdered friends, which she heard continually crying, ‘Why was I killed, why was I killed?’”
Many of the homes and compounds of the murdered nobles were thought to be haunted and these were given, or sold very cheaply, to the early Westerners in Seoul. The present American ambassador’s residence was one of these buildings. The biographer of Rose Foote, the first American ambassador’s wife, described the building as having “a most fascinating history” and added that it “was invested with the flavor of romance. There were proud, surviving interests in the gruesome tales of its valiant decapitated Mins, who even now in unquestionable shape, periodically stalked about the premises.”
With the passage of time the belief in ghosts has waned but it hasn’t disappeared. In Seoul, stories still circulate of a haunted building on the American military base, and a businessman likes to regale his guests with his own experiences of happenings in his house- which he claims is haunted.
Strong belief in the supernatural even pertains to Jeju-in early 1882, three Western sailors visiting the island were reportedly killed after being mistaken for ghosts.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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