Every culture has it myths and legends. From the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece, to the Knight of the Round Table in Camelot, tales of fantastic beasts and brave heroes are threaded into the very history of a place. Much of these tie into religious traditions and verses, or exist as tales passed along by rumour and mystery.
Fortunately, today these myths are still well known. We see new takes on them in media and modern culture, embedded into our everyday life. This is certainly the case in Korea, where mythical creatures appear more regularly than one might think. Use this guide to spot the difference and be on your guard!
Often seen as a mascot of Korea, these legendary creatures can be seen all over Seoul in the form of great sculptures. Taking the form of a lion with a horn on its head, it’s body adorned with scales, it wears a bell around its neck. It’s a distinctive form that makes it easy to identify. In the past, the creatures have been associated with justice and law, said to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong. They are also believed to be guardians – which gives a clue as to why so many are seen in places of historical importance such as Gwanghwamun – that could fend off fire and natural disasters. This was particularly prevalent in the Joseon period, and many of the statues built around this time still stand today, relics of wishes for protection.
Familiar to anyone who likes Pokemon or Naruto, a Gumiho is a Korean take on the legend of the nine-tailed fox. Whilst originating from China, meaning that most variants share similarities, the Korean Gumiho has it’s own history. These spirits are said to be that of a fox who has lived for thousands of years, often through the means of consuming energy. They are shapeshifters, usually taking the form of beautiful women. In other countries, the fox spirits are mostly morally ambiguous. However, in Korea they are often seen as malevolent creatures. The most distinctive feature that separates the Gumiho from its two counterparts in Japan and China is the existence of a ‘yeowu guseul’ which is said to consist of knowledge. According to Korean mythology, the yeowu guseul, or the fox bead when translated literally, provides power to the Gumiho, and can provide knowledge or intelligence to a person if they steal and swallow one. This is also how the Gumiho absorbs human energy. The method of absorbing energy with the “yeowu guseul” resembles a “deep kiss”. This is sometimes why the Gumiho can be seen as a seductress. Some versions of the tale see the creature eating the hearts of men in order to become human.
The great and lonely god. Or rather, that is what the ever popular drama would have you believe. In reality, the myth of the dokkaebi, or goblin, is a lot less grandiose. They are considered nature deities, sometimes helpful, sometimes playing tricks upon humans who happen to encounter them. They have many special abilities and magical items with which they can bring great fortune. There is the dokkaebi hat named the ‘dokkaebi gamtu,’ which grants the wearer invisibility, and the dokkaebi magic club called the ‘dokkaebi bangmangi’, which can summon things.
Dokkaebi are different from ghosts, or gwishin, in that they are not formed by the death of a human being, but by the possession of an inanimate object such as old discarded household tools like brooms, or objects stained with human blood. Or perhaps a sword, anyone? Their appearance has differed greatly over time and various retellings of the myth, but they have always been shown as fearsome and awe-inspiring. You can see the most common depiction of dokkaebi on roof tiles around old houses in Korea. There are also many different types of these creatures, given names as a way of identifying them.
The Korean lesser dragons. Whilst dragon imagery and folklore can be found all over East Asia to varying degrees and styles, imugi are primarily found in Korean tales. They resembled large green serpents and seeing one granted a person good luck. It’s said that they must live a thousand years before they can ascend to being a fully fledged dragon, or else must catch a Yeouiju falling from the sky. Some stories claim that they are creatures cursed to never become dragons, instead stuck in their lesser state. They can be found in temples across South Korea, recognisable for their lack of horns.