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People of the lava - Part two
Wednesday, May 26, 2010, 15:22:04 J.M.G. Le Clezio editor@jejuweekly.com
▲ Jeju is haunted by ghosts and spirits that inhabit every inch of the island and permeate deep with the culture of the Jeju people. Photo by Brian Miller

The following is part two of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s article that first appeared in the March 2009 edition of France’s GEO magazine. It will conclude in the next issue.

Jeju is the island of ghosts and spirits. Everywhere we go, we see their marks, on the sides of the roads, at the entrance of the villages, on the rocks, in the middle of the fields, in the tangled roots of the enormous painamu trees, those centuries-old relatives of what are called kajumaru in Southern Japan which, there, serve to house the kembus, wicked creatures who amuse themselves by tugging on the hair of little girls.

In Jeju, we are in a different Korea. It is different from the mainland: the houses, the traditions, even the lan-guage is more rough, more melodic, mongrel as they say. The legends in particular are different. While mainland Koreans are born from a bear and a tiger, Jeju people are of more poetic origins. A long time ago, seven women emerged from the sea and married seven men who lived alone among the bare stones. Of these unions were born the people of Jeju Island and with them all that is gentle and carnal: the art of cooking, the art of weaving and basket-making, painting, singing and, un- doubtedly, poetry — to this day Jeju has the highest rate of writers per square kilometer.

The sea of Jeju, like that of the south of Japan, is populated with mermaids who are ruled by Yongwang, the dragon king. The rivers and grottos are home to the seonnyeon, fairies who can sometimes be spotted early in the morning clothed in their foggy capes. Legend has it that seven servants of the Heavenly Emperor descend at night to bathe in Cheonjeyeon Falls, at whose base we can find the famous bridge which represents them called Seonimgyo, the Fairy Bridge.

▲ Dolhareubang, or stone grandfathers, can be found standing guard at the mouth of most Jeju villages. Photo by Kim Gyong Ho

Of all the mythological figures haunting Jeju, the most familiar, the most debonair is, without a doubt, the dolhareubang, the stone grandfather, standing guard at crossroads or at the entrance to the villages, sometimes facing the sea. Sculpted from lava rocks, they stand in the ssireum pose, the ancient form of wrestling, one hand resting upon the other, ready for the next match. On each head sits a tall hat, just as Hendrik Hamel described in his journals. Their large bearded faces wear smiles but their large protruding eyes affix on whoever dares to approach. They make us laugh, they’re amusing, but we can’t help but think of the stone armies of the past, the people of Jeju who, though small in number, aligned to resist the invaders that came in from Mongolia or from Japan.

More surprising still are the dry black stone towers at the entrance to the villages. On their summit, limestone eagles with wings spread open — the same that we find on the other side of the world among the Purepechas Indians of central Mexico, a symbol of their ancestral god. That spirit is everywhere, I tell you! One of the most fascinating museums in Jeju (of which there are at least 20, from the beautiful Africa Museum, a life-sized replica of the Mosque of Djenne, to the Teddy Bear Museum, the Eros Museum and even one about film) is the modest but moving Folklore Museum. Owned and operated by a wise but mischievous old man, Prof. Jin Seong Gi, it is an old colonial house displaying in its rooms and gardens the most extraordinary collection of dang statues, those spirits who form the foundation of Korean shamanism.

▲ Jusangjeolli Cliffs offer a rare glimpse of a geological phenomenon that has occured at few points. Photo by Seo Jae Cheol (Love of Nature Gallery, Seogwipo

Set-up in semi-circles in the middle of a field of wild grass, volcanic stones steles seem to crop up from the world of night. Some are so ancient that their features have been worn away by the wind and rain. More masks than faces, their features difficult to make out, two eyes separated by the bridge of a nose. Triangular faces, the silhouette of a body, cropping up from the earth, eaten away by moss and lichen, cushioned by spider webs glistening in the sunlight. Their names, such as Ch’eonjunim, hearken back to the founders of the island, the demigods, their ancestors. People of the lava. We cannot help but think of Paul Gauguin’s “Oviri” on the other end of this same ocean, on the tomb of the Marquis. Or of the giant reclining Buddha statues in southern Korea, also crafted from stone, their eyes turned to the heavens. Or even still of the stone mask with giant alien-like almond eyes bearing five mysterious notches, like a first writing system sent from above.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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