Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Paper snake made by a shaman in Jeju (Provided by Jeongsik Kang)

The Snake, a Guardian to Protect Villagers

The snake often evokes strong negative images because of its appearance.

However, this animal symbolizes positive cultural values, especially in Asia, where people consider snakes to be transmitters of good fortune. Asian snake beliefs can be traced back to ancient India from where the beliefs spread to China (where the snake evolved into a dragon) and later to Korea.

In Korea, snakes arouse positive imagery in people, who believe snakes are immortal. This belief comes from the snake’s winter hibernation and from its ability slip out of its skin when it sheds. Because of these characteristics, snakes are symbolic of a rebirth or seasonal revival following the long, dark winter chill.

Snake is also a deity of household wealth or a guardian who protects a village. These beliefs come from the snake’s rich productivity. In particular, because the snake’s head is shaped similarly to man’s genitalia, people believe that it is effective in reinforcing fertility. This belief played an important role in lifting the status of the snake to that of a village guardian that brings abundance.

Hwangdo boonggi poongeoje, ritual for a big catch of fish in Hwangdo (1985) © Jongdae Kim

While Jeju Island is known for the transmission of snake beliefs in Korea, other areas, such as Hwangdo Village in Taean County, Chungchungnam Province (in the southwest coastal area of the Korean peninsula), are also rich with snake beliefs. Geographically, these places are islands, and they are home to many snakes and snake-related beliefs that influence the lives of the people. For example, raising pigs is prohibited in Hwangdo, because the people’s beliefs are dedicated to the snake deity and pigsnake relations are incompatible with one another. Various theories explain how the snake became a village guardian in the island area. Perhaps the most interesting story is that snake is believed to have attributes of a water deity like a dragon.

According to Sinjeung Dongguk Yeoji Seungnam, newly verified survey of the Eastern Kingdom geography, the snake deity has long history in Jeju. According to records, the people of Jeju gathered at Chagwidang Shrine every spring and fall to perform rituals that involved meat and liquor. Also they never killed grey colored snakes because these snakes were known to have Chagwi spirit. However, these kinds of rituals related to snake belief have been fading out of practice, now mostly remaining only in shaman song. Normally, snakes in shaman songs appear as guardian deities of property, which is similar to the beliefs on the mainland. In Hwangdo, snake deities are also related to a good catch of fish.

There is a traditional folktale telling about how snake deity came to be a village guardian in Hawngdo. Long ago, the people of Hwangdo were mainly supported by fishing. However, a big snake in the sea, created monstrous tidal waves that made fishing very difficult for the people. One evening, an old man went bed, and the snake appeared in his dream. The snake introduced itself as a snake king, and gave the old man a painting of a snake deity. The snake king told the old man that the villagers should build a shrine and hang this painting in it. In addition, the snake king said that if villagers offered a ritual to the deity, there will be no more marine accidents. The next day, the old man told everyone about his dream, and people erected shrine in honor of the snake. Since then Hwangdo people have performed a sacred ritual to the snake deity.

To this day, on the second day of the first lunar month, people in Hwangdo perform Boonggi Poongeoje, the shamanic ritual described in the folktale.