The Legend of Tan'gun
The Wei Shu tells us that two thousand years ago, at the time of emperor
Yao, Tangun Wanggom chose Asadal as his capital and founded the state of
Chos'circon. The Old Record notes that in ancient times Hwanin's son,
Hwanung, wished to descend from heaven and live in the world of human
beings. Knowing his son's desire, Hwanin surveyed the three highest
mountains and found Mount T'aebaek the most suitable place for his son to
settle and help human beings. Therefore he gave Hwanung three heavenly seals
and dispatched him to rule over the people.
Hwanung descended with three thousand followers to a spot under a tree by
the Holy Altar atop Mount T'aebaek, and he called this place the City of
God. He was the Heavenly King Hwanung. Leading the Earl of Wind, the Master
of Rain, and the Master of Clouds, he took charge of some three hundred and
sixty areas of responsibility, including agriculture, allotted lifespan,
illness, punishment, and good and evil, and brought culture to his people.
At that time a bear and a tiger living in the same cave prayed to Holy
Hwanung to transform them into human beings. The king gave them a bundle of
sacred mug works and twenty cloves of garlic and said, "If you eat these and
shun the sunlight for one hundred days, you will assume human form." Both
animals ate the spices and avoided the sun. After twenty-one days the bear
became a woman, but the tiger, unable to observe the taboo, remained a
tiger. Unable to find a husband, the bear-woman prayed under the alter tree
for a child. Hwanung metamorphosed himself, lay with her, and begot a son
called Tangun Wanggom.
In the fiftieth year of the reign of Emperor Yao, Tangun made the
city of P'yongyang the capital and called his country Choson. He then moved
his capital to Asadal on Mount Paegak, a lso named Mount Kunghol, whence he
ruled for fifteen hundred years. When, in the year kimyo [1122 BC], King Wu
of Chou enfeoffed Chi Tzu to Choson, Tangun moved to Changdangyong, but
later he returned and hid in Asadal as a mountain god at the age of one
thousand nine hundred and eight.
The Lay of King Tongmyong
In the third year of Shen-ch'ueh of Han, in early summer, when the Great
Bear Stood in the Serpent, Haemosu came to Korea, a true Son of Heaven. He
came down through the air in a five-dragon chariot, with a retinue of
hundreds, robes streaming, riding on swans. The atmosphere echoed loudly
with chiming music, and banners floated on the tinted clouds. From ancient
times men ordained to rule have come down from Heaven, but in daylight he
came from the heart of the sky - a thing never before seen.
In the mornings he dwelt among men, in the evenings he returned to his
heavenly palace. The ancients have told us that between heaven and earth the
distance is two thousand billion and eighteen thousand seven hundred and
eighty ri. A scaling-ladder could not reach so far, flying pinions could not
bear the strain, yet morning and evening he went and returned at will. By
what power could he do it?
North of the capital was the Green River, where the River Earl's three
beautiful daughters rose from the drake-neck's green waves to play in the
Bear's Heart Pool. Their jade ornaments tinkled, their flowerlike beauty was
modest -- they might have been fairies of the Han River banks, or goddesses
of the Lo River islets. The King, out hunting, espied them, was fascinated
and lost his heart, not from lust for girls, but from eager desire for a
heir. The three sisters saw him coming and plunged into the
water to flee, so the King prepared a palace to hide in till
they came back.
He traced foundations with a riding whip: A bronze palace suddenly towered,
silk cushions were spread, bright and elegant, golden goblets waited with
fragrant wine. Soon the three maidens came in, and toasted each other until
they were drunk. Then the king emerged from hiding. The startled girls ran,
tripped, and tumbled on to the floor. The oldest was Willow Flower, and it
was she whom the king caught.
The Earl of the River raged in anger, and sent a speedy messenger to demand,
"What rogue are you who dares behave so presumptuously?" "Son of the
Heavenly Emperor," replied Haemosu, "I'm asking for your noble daughter's
hand." He beckoned to heaven: the dragon car came down, and straightaway he
moved unto the Ocean Palace where the River Earl admonished him: "Marriage
is a weighty matter, needing go-betweens and gifts. Why have you done these
things? If you are God's own heir, prove your powers of transmogrification!"
Through the rippling, flowing green waters the River Earl leapt,
transforming into a carp; the king turned at once into an otter that seized
the carp before it could flee.
The earl then sprouted wings, flying upward, transformed into a pheasant;
but the king was a golden eagle and struck like a great bird of prey; the
Earl sped away as a stag, the king pursued as wolf. The Earl then confessed
that the king was divine, poured wine, and they drank to the contract. When
the king was drunk, he was put in a leather bag, set beside the girl in his
chariot, and set off with her to rise to Heaven together. But the car had
not left the water before Haemosu woke from his stupor and, seizing the
girl's golden hairpin, pierced the leather and slid out through the hole,
alone to mount the car beyond the crimson clouds. All was quiet; he did not
The River Earl punished his daughter by stretching her lips three feet long,
and throwing her into the Ubal stream with only two maidservants. A
fisherman saw them in the eddies, creatures disporting themselves strangely,
and reported the fact to King Komwa. An iron net was set in the torrent, and
the woman was trapped on a rock, a monster of shocking appearance, whose
long lips made her mute. Three times they were trimmed before she could
speak. King Komwa recognized Haemosu's wife, and gave unto her a palace
where she might live. The sun shone in her breast and she bore Chumong in
the fourth year of Shen-ch'ueh.
His form was wonderful, his voice of mighty power. He was born from a
pottle-sized egg that frightened all who saw it. The king thought it
inauspicious, monstrous and inhuman, and put it into the horse corral, but
the horses took care not to trample it; it was thrown down steep hills, but
the wild beasts all protected it; its mother retrieved it and nurtured it,
till the boy hatched. His first words were: "The flies are nibbling my eyes,
I cannot lie and sleep in peace." His mother made him a bow and arrows, And
he never missed a shot.
Years passed, he grew up, getting cleverer every day, and the crown prince
of the Puyo began to grow jealous, saying, "This fellow Chumong is a
redoubtable warrrior. If we do not act soon, he will become trouble later."
So the king sent Chumong to tend horses, to test his intentions. Chumong
meditated, "For heaven's grandson to be a mere herdsman is an
unendurable shame." Searching his heart, he sought the right
way: "I had rather die than live like this. I would go
southward, found a nation, build a city -- but for my mother,
whom it is hard to leave." His mother heard his words and wept;
but wiped her glistening tears.
"Never mind about me. Rather I fear for your safety. A knight setting out on
a journey needs a trusty stallion." Together they went to the corral and
thrashed the horses with long whips. The terrified animals milled about, but
one horse, a beautiful bay, leapt over the two-fathom wall, and proved
itself best of the herd. They fixed a needle in his tongue that stung him so
he could not eat; in a day or two he wasted away and looked like a worn out
When the king came around to inspect, he gave this horse to Chumong, who
took it, removed the needle, and fed the horse well, day and night. Then he
made a compact with three friends, friends who were men of wisdom; they set
off south till they reached the Om, but could find no ferry to cross.
Chumong raised his whip to the sky, and uttered a long sad complaint:
"Grandson of Heaven, Grandson of the River, I have come here in flight from
danger. Look on my pitiful orphaned heart: Heaven and Earth, have you cast
Gripping his bow, he struck the water: Fish and turtles hurried, heads and
tails together, to form a great bridge, which the friends at once traversed.
Suddenly, pursuing troops appeared and mounted the bridge; but it melted
A pair of doves brought barley in their bills, messengers sent by his
mysterious mother. He chose a site for his capital amid mountains and
streams and thick-wooded hills. Seating himself on the royal mat as King
Tongmyong, he ordered the ranks of his subjects. Alas for Songyang, king of
Piryu, why was he so undiscerning? Was he a son of the immortal gods, who
could not recognize a scion of Heaven?
He asked Tongmyong to be his vassal, uttering rash demands, but could not
hit the painted deer's navel, and was amazed when Tongmyong split the jade
ring; he found his drum and bugle changed and dared not call them his; he
saw Tongmyong's ancient pillars, then returned home biting his tongue.
Tongmyong went hunting in the west, caught a tall snow-white deer, strung it
up by the hind feet at Haewon, and produced a great malediction: "Let Heaven
pour torrents on Piryu, and wash away his capital. I will not let you go
till you help me vent my wrath."
The deer cried with great sounds so piteous they reached the ears of Heaven.
And from the horrible music of the deer, a great rain fell for seven days,
floods came like Huai joined with Ssu; Songyang was frightened and anxious.
He had thick ropes stretched by the water, knights and peasants struggled to
clutch them, sweating and gaping in fear.
Then Tongmyong took his whip and drew a line at which the waters stopped.
Songyang submitted and thereafter there was no argument. A dark cloud
covered Falcon Pass, the crests of ridges were hidden, and thousands upon
thousands of carpenters were heard hammering there. The king said, "Music
from Heaven is for me preparing a great fortress up yonder." Suddenly the
mist dispersed and a palace stood out high and splendid, where Tongmyong
ruled for nineteen years, till he rose to heaven and forsook his throne.
Myths about the Goddess