Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Offerings to the Shrine of the Goddess Guksa Yeo-Seonangsin in Daegwallyeong (Photo by Chung Un Sung)

The Character of Goddesses in Korean Intangible Heritage

The presence of goddesses has been a consistent feature within Korean polytheistic shamanism and traditional popular religions. These goddesses are often associated with nature or aspects of family and life. Samsin is a grandmother goddess who gives life to babies. Known as Samsin Halmeoni (Samsin grandmother), she protects the mother and newborn during the birthing process and while growing up. Youngdeung Halmeoni (Youngdeung grandmother), the goddess of wind, is a capricious goddess who reflects the stereotypical character of a mother-in-law who torments her daughter-in-law. As Korea became a male-dominant society, Sanshin (mountain god) was modified to become a male god, although Sanshin was originally a female goddess.

Despite the gender shifts of some gods over time, references to Eomisan (mother mountain), and Halmisan (grandmother mountain) still exist today. The god of water is also a goddess called Yonggung Agissi (Lady of the Underwater Dragon Palace). According to Jeju Island’s legend of origin, the island was created by the goddess Seonmundae Halmang (Seonmundae grandmother). Throughout this history, goddesses were worshiped as the embodiment of life.

These dominant characteristics of goddesses are still reflected today in Korean intangible cultural heritage. However, there is a noticeable difference as the goddesses were transformed to male gods and became more personalized in the process. The mask dance associated with the Hahoe Byeolsingut (shamanist ritual), which became famous under the designation as an Important Cultural Property, was considered a gift to console the patron saint of the village, Miss. Kim, a woman who died at the age of 15. People in the village practice rituals and mask dances to comfort the soul of this woman who died at such a young age. Designated as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Gangneung Danoje

Festival also features a goddess known and worshipped as Guksa Yeo-Seonangsin (a national goddess in village folklore). In her lifetime, the origin of this goddess was the Lady Chung who was killed by a tiger. Every year, the people of Gangneung carry out the Dano gut ritual to offer consolation to the goddess for her tragic death.

The personalized goddesses featured in Korean intangible heritage are typified by extreme grief in their life stories. Most of the recorded history reflects the viewpoint of successful groups and individuals. But through Korean folk festivals or rituals, history finds balance by recalling people who have failed in their lives. That the majority of those being remembered through the rituals are goddesses is a special characteristic of Korean culture.