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Culture Superstitions & Myths

What do Koreans believe about afterlife? Mythical creatures and ghostly beings.

What do Koreans believe about afterlife?

One of the most popular ways for the Korean people to get through the hot summer dog days is by watching a spooky TV series like Jeonseoleui Gohyang 전설의 고향 (Korean Ghost Stories / Hometown Legends, 1977~2009, KBS) which is a compilation of traditional Korean folk tales, myths, and legends that are passed down from generation to generation. Aside from being super scary, they are a fun learning material about the Korean people’s view on the afterlife. Sampling a few episodes (but for the faint of heart, I suggest watching the movie Shingwa Hamkkae 신과함께 (Along With The Gods, 2017), will layout the Korean concept regarding the afterlife.

RELATED : Why do Koreans eat simmering hot samgyetang 삼계탕 on the most sweltering days of Summer? 

JEOSEUNG SAJA THE MESSENGER FROM THE OTHER WORLD

What happens when you die? Here’s what Korean people think that happens after the last breath. First, immediately upon death, a messenger from the other world, Jeoseung Saja 저승사자 arrives to guide you to the other world (if seen while one’s still alive, it foreshadows their death is imminent). Usually, they are depicted as fully dressed in black (symbolic of death, but the style of attire changes depending on the time the story takes place), with gat , traditional Korean hat, and a face paler than a dead person. To add the numinous effects, their legs are buried in fog, masking their gait, as if they float around (in traditional paintings, however, they are painted as a prosecutor dressed in a colorful yet solemn style).

A still from Gimakhin Yusan 기막힌 유산 (Brilliant Heritage, KBS, 2020)

Korean Drama Kingdom Hat Chosun Dynasty Traditional Hats [Amazon]

Their job begins with the ID-checking to make sure that they are taking the right soul. Although they are otherworldly beings, they make mistakes like humans and often pick up the wrong person who’s not supposed to leave for the other world. Knowing their “humane” side, Korean people perform a ritual called gobok 고복, where the family of the deceased prepares 3 bowls of rice, vegetables, soups, 3 pairs of shoes, along with some money at the house entrance (an important part which illustrates that Korean people thought the messengers work in a team of 3). Through the ritual, people sought solace as they believed their offerings would soften up the messengers, ensuring that their loved one gets a hassle-free trip to the other world.

YEOMRA DAEWANG THE KING OF HELL

Yeomra Daewang in a Buddhist painting

What makes Jeoseung Saja more relatable is that they also have a boss to report to. Once everyone is on board, they take the soul of the deceased to Yeomra Daewang 염라대왕 (King Yeomra The Great), the King of Hell, an almighty ruler (there are 10 rulers in the netherworld, known as Shiwang 시왕 “10 kings”, but he’s most well known) in charge of judging the sins of the deceased and deciding where they should be sent to. Because his main job is preventing the bad souls from entering the heavens, he’s mostly depicted as having a wrathful look with a deafening howl of rage. While looking all cold-hearted on the outside, he has his soft side too. In some instances, he magnanimously grants another chance and revives the dead, upon hearing their pitiful stories.

Here’s a funny clip titled “Jeoseungsaja’s Mistake” – Basically, the Jeoseungsaja takes the wrong person to Yeomradaewang, and upon noticing the mix-up, Yeomradaewang sends the guy back to life on earth.

MYTHICAL CREATURES & GHOSTLY BEINGS OF KOREA

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A WOMAN SCORNED – CHEONYEO GWISHIN THE “VIRGIN GHOST”

In the extremely patriarchal times in early Korea, the life of a woman was quite difficult. Taught to be subordinate to the males while receiving limited or education, life consisted of nothing but sacrifice – serving their father, husband, and rearing children while checking off all the household chores list. As a result of their suppressed life, many Korean women in the past had lifelong resentment, grudge, or wonhan 원한 (RELATED : WHAT is 정 JEONG? WHAT is 한 HAN? Korean psychology and emotions explained!) , which further intensifies if one dies without getting married, and the pitiful soul can’t leave this world and becomes a Cheonyeo Gwishin 처녀귀신, or “virgin ghost.” Wearing traditional white mourning clothes called sobok 소복, with the long pitch-black hair hanging down over their face like a curtain (only married women could pull up their hair), they wander around the people, usually the males who caused them harm, and haunt them until their resentment is satisfied. The male equivalent is called Chonggak Gwishin 총각귀신 (“the bachelor ghost”).

MARRIAGE OF THE POOR SOULS

When one or both of the couple die before tying the knot, yeonghon gyeolhonshik 영혼결혼식, or “wedding ceremony for the soul(s) (of the deceased),” a shamanistic ritual aimed to appease the soul of the deceased so that they leave this world in peace and don’t become a cheonyeo or chonggak gwishin, is performed.

BE CAREFUL WHEN NEAR WATER – MULGWISHIN THE “WATER GHOST”

Even if you can swim better than Michael Phelps, there is a good reason to be doubly cautious when you are near water in Korea. Mulgwishin 물귀신 (“water ghosts”) are the spirits of someone who drowned, and in terms of the residential environment, the cold and lonely watery depths are surely the worst. For this reason, they pull you down to their place of eternal residence, and even the most experienced swimmer can’t escape from their grasp…

POOR SOUL LONGING HOME – GAEKGWI THE “WANDERER GHOST”

Gaekgwi 객귀, or “wanderer ghost,” is the haunted spirit of someone who had an untimely death while away from their hometown before reaching one’s allotted span of life, or cheonsu 천수. Harboring a grudge, they are unable to let themselves depart the world of the living and ascend to the heavens. Caught between the two worlds, they drift amongst humans around their death site, causing harm to random passersby.

MISCHIEVOUS MONSTERS – DOKKAEBI THE “KOREAN GOBLIN”

Koby-Koby 꼬비꼬비 (KBS, 1995)

Dokkaebi 도깨비, or “Korean goblins” (who aren’t anywhere near handsome as Gong Yoo, by the way) are supernatural creatures from Korean folklore that are often described as nature deities or spirits. While other ghosts or spirits are formed by the death of a human being, Dokkaebis are formed as a result of the spiritual possession of non-living objects such as an old wooden poker or an old broom, from which they transform into a human shape to play pranks and tricks on humans. Despite their mischievous nature, they also have a humane side and help out the humans who are in need. The magic club they carry, known as dokkaebi bangmangi 도깨비 방망이, can summon anything and transform it into any form they want. Traditionally, they are depicted as a scary creature having horns on their heads and oversized protruding fangs, but they can also appear in the form of a human being through shape-shifting. And the namesake Korean drama Dokkaegi 도깨비 (Goblin, 2016) does an excellent job of interpreting the traditional ideas with a modern twist, alongside romance being the main theme (it’s a K-Drama, after all).

Couldn’t find the dokkaebi magic club on Amazon but found some fun toy bats instead… If you’re interested.

Inflatable Baseball Bats – (Pack of 12) 20 Inch Toy Bat, Superhero Birthday Party Prizes for Kids [Amazon]

Dokkaegi 도깨비 (Goblin, 2016, tvN)

GUMIHO – THE “NINE-TAILED FOX” THAT WANTED TO BECOME A WOMAN

내 여자친구는 구미호 (My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, 2010, SBS)

If a fox lives a thousand years, it becomes Gumiho 구미호 (nine-tailed fox). They often appear in scary stories, but they are said to harbor a strong desire to become a human. Legend has it that it transforms into a beautiful woman and falls in love with a man and marries him because it’s believed that if it can live 100 days without having its true form revealed by the husband, it will become a real woman. However, at the end of the legend, gumiho gets its identity exposed with I only one day left, and unable to fulfill its wishes, it ends up leaving its husband. A TV drama titled Nae Yeoja Chinguneun Gumiho 내 여자친구는 구미호 (My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, 2010) is a bubbly romance story with the motif coming from the legend and is definitely worth watching. In other versions of the legend, they are depicted as evil creatures that lure men to death and eat their liver. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the first version.

Care to adopt one?

Lifelike Red Fox Plush Nine-Tailed Fox Soft Hugging Pillow, 10.24 x 22.05 Inch [Amazon]

STORY CONTINUES Korean Funeral – How Koreans say goodbye. Traditional vs. Modern approach.

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