(Photo Essay 5) ‘Gaeyang Halmi, the Sea Goddess of Korea’ by Helen Hwang

Part 5: Gaeyang Halmi, How Does She Relate with Mago?

The field research concerning Gaeyang Halmi was undertaken with the thought that Gaeyang Halmi is related to Mago in some way. Such assumption is on the grounds that the folktales of Gaeyang Halmi and Mago Halmi substantively share the same motifs. In fact, I had thought Gaeyang Halmi is another name of Mago Halmi. A scrutiny has proven that the picture of their correlation is far more complex than I first envisaged, exposing the hidden nexuses of Old Magoism. This last part aims at disentangling the grips. It is indispensable for me to invite my readers to the task of reconstructing ancient East Asian mytho-history.

Gwaneum (Guanyin) of Sea Water, Naksan-sa, S. Korea
Haesu Gwaneum Bosal (Bodhisattva Gwaneum of Sea Water), Naksan-sa, S. Korea

Gaeyang Halmi embodies a partial manifestation of Mago as the Sea Goddess. Nonetheless, such a statement lacks complex subtexts that this topic involves. The Gurang (Nine Maidens) mytheme of Gaeyang Halmi sheds light on the mytho-history of Old Magoism (read Magoism in pre- and proto-Chinese times characterized by shaman rulers). To be specific, Gaeyang Halmi in the gurang pantheon suggests a yet-to-be-known shaman ruler, “Ungnyeo” (Bear/Sovereign Woman), founder of the confederacy of the nine states, which I call Danguk (ca. 3898 BCE-2333 BCE). The gurang represented by Gaeyang Halmi is no small clue to the pervasive yet misunderstood civilization of Ungnyeo. “Ungnyeo” is eponymous of the female symbolism of nine, such as the nine-tailed fox in East Asia and the nine muses and the nine forms of Durga beyond East Asia mentioned in Part IV. In short, Gaeyang Halmi oscillating between “Mago” and “Ungnyeo” in Her identity testifies to the suppressed history of Old Magoism.

Methodically, I have two types of mythological texts to decipher the overtones of Gaeyang Halmi’s mytheme: folklore (oral narratives) and the written myth. Goddess mythemes, malleable yet immortal, constitute the grammar blocks of the gynocentric language that often appears “awkward” if not “ridiculous” to moderns. They need to be analyzed and interpreted. Feminist techniques are apt to sort out the sediments and decipher the diastrophic disturbances caused by patriarchal advances in the course of time.

Some parallels between Gaeyang Halmi and Mago Halmi folk stories are overt. Their stories are so similar that they appear to be an identical goddess:

A: The motif that Gaeyang Halmi walks on the sea, often described as wearing namak-sin (wooden shoes) or only beoseon (Korean traditional socks), is also commonly told in Mago stories especially from Jeju Island[i] and other coastal regions.

B: That Gaeyang Halmi walks around in the sea to measure its depth is also told in the stories of Mago from other coastal regions.

C: The mytheme that Gaeyang Halmi had eight daughters recurs in the stories of Mago, especially from the region of Mt. Jiri. Mago is said to have had eight daughters and sent them to eight provinces.

Given the above, it is evident that Gaeyang Halmi lore resembles that of Mago. Were the populace confused about these two goddesses? I hold that the confusion was not a mistake but a way to convey that Gaeyang Halmi is related to Magoism rather than Mago Herself. In folklore, “why” and “how”are the questions to be interpreted, not to be read.

Supreme Goddess of Seonang Shrine, Korea
Supreme Goddess of Seonang Shrine, Korea

Other parallels are subtle, connected beneath the surface. That Gaeyang Halmi had her eight daughters without male spouse, as Ms. Jeong confirmed (see Part III), is evocative of Mago’s matrilineal genealogy recounted in the Budoji (Epic of the Emblem City), the principal text of Magoism. According to Budoji’s cosmogonic myth, Mago, the Primordial Mother, procreates two daughters without spouse. Mago’s two daughters respectively procreate four children without spouse, eight in all.[ii] Not only is matrilineality underscored but also parthenogenesis is implicitly highlighted. In that light, Gaeyang Halmi’s eight daughters are reminiscent of Mago’s eight “grandchildren.” [iii] Furthermore, the discrepancy between “daughters” and “granddaughters” is blurred by the fact that Mago is referred to as SamSin (Triad Deity), the Triune Divine, together with Her two daughters. Thus, it appears that Mago’s pantheon has involved only two “generations” in folkloric language.

Let us return to the Gurang (Nine Maidens) mytheme and be reminded of the lush symbol of “nine” in East Asia. It is not limited to the nine-tailed fox, the nine dragons that Gwaneum (Guanyin or Kannon) rides, the nine suns, the nine-story pagodas, and the nine nipples of the Korean bell (for their images, see Part IV). In fact, the symbol of nine is imbued in East Asia to the degree that the place-names of “nine dragons,” whether a port, harbor, village, fall, hotel, or walled city, are still found in Korea, Japan, and China in multitude.

In addition, the term “Kyushu (九州, Nine Provinces, Guju in Korean),” Japan’s southwestern islands, is noteworthy; it is also known by its ancient name “the Nine States.” Indeed, that “Kyushu” was known as the Nine States in ancient times holds a key to the forgotten history of Old Magoism that I am about to expose.

The naming of Old Magoism unleashes the hitherto suppressed gynocentric cultures and histories of pre-Chinese East Asia. Subjected to erasure yet having survived as “anomalous” data in the Sinocentric historiography of East Asia, Old or Early Magoism is distinguished from Late Magoism for the role of women not only as shamans and priestesses but also rulers and governors.

Ursa Major, the Big Bear constellation
Ursa Major (the Big Bear) constellation

Discussion of Old Magoism is prolix beyond the scope of this essay. I have explicated how the nine-tailed fox symbolizes the mytho-history of Old Magoism elsewhere.[iv] Suffice it to say that the symbolism of nine points to a particular goddess and her confederacy in the mytho-history of Old Magoism. Her name is “Ungnyeo” (Bear/Sovereign Woman). She is no small hera in the epic of Magoism as well as Korean mythology; the two are not two separate entities. Having founded the confederacy of the nine states, which I call Danguk (State of Dan, ca. 3898 BCE–2333 BCE), “Ungnyeo” revived Magoism to its Golden Period.[v] That said, personification of “Ungnyeo” is misleading in that it is an epithet for the Magoist female rulers of Danguk. Animalization of her to a she-bear that has caught on her personified identity across cultures in the course of history makes this topic too intricate to discuss in a format like this one. Summarily, the term “Ungnyeo” stands for the shaman rulers of Danguk, headed by the first founder known as “Ungnyeo” by people in later generations.

The linguistic kinship between “Ungnyeo” and “Mago” needs a technique of decipherment. The logographic character “Ung” in Ungnyeo 熊女 is derived from a native Korean root, “Gom,” a homonym for bear and ruler. Variations of “Gom,” “Gam,” “Geum,” and “Geom” mean “head” or “ruler.” Some examples are “Sang-gam (Highest Ruler),” “Im-geum (Ruler),” and “Wang-geom (King Ruler)”. I maintain that “Gom,” “Geum,” and “Geom” are the derivatives of “Go” in Mago. Or, the other way around. That is, the name “Mago” may have been derived from its root “Gom.”[vi] Nonetheless, I have wondered that by what exact name She was called by ancient Koreans as “Gom” sounds like a modifier when it means “ruler.” Given that Ung is read “Kuma” in Japanese, it is possible that She was interpolated as Goma, a term that also refers to the capital of Baekje (18 BCE-660 CE), one of the ancient states of Korea.[vii] “Goma” and “Mago” are linguistically akin, mutually suggestive of one another. In any case, what appears unequivocal in the mythology is that the identity of “Ungnyeo” is subsumed by that of Mago as the former is the Magoist shaman ruler who was commemorated by ancient Koreans. “Gom,” the Bear Woman Ruler, brought Magoism to its zenith. Her light reached far and for a long time to ancient Koreans.

Despite the linguistic and mytho-historical correlation between Mago and Gom, however, patriarchal developments in Korean society have rendered them seemingly unrelated. Both of them are separately subjected to marginalization, distortion, and disparagement. It is ever revealing that in patriarchy, women and goddesses are isolated from each other, divested of the gynocentric context of correlations.

In my reconstruction of her mythology primarily based on the Budoji and Handan Gogi (Old Record of Han and Dan), another apocryphal text of Old Korea, Ungnyeo, also known as Han-Ung (Hwan-Ung), is attributed to founding the gynocentric civilization named Sinsi (Divine Exposition) carried out worldwide.[viii] She had ships constructed, palaces/shrines built, traveled to other parts of the world by sea, instated and enforced law (beginning of the legal system), taught people about spiritual matters (beginning of religion), created occupations, held intercultural conferences and trades periodically, studied kinship of peoples and languages of the world, invented the technologies of stone architectures and building stonewalls/castles, and, foremost, put into practice the Magoist mandate — to remind all peoples of the Origin of Mago. Indeed, Budoji’s account of Ungnyeo highlights the innovation of nautical culture and her own sea-travels to different parts of the world. She was famed for that the most, among others. In that sense, Gaeyang Halmi as the Sea Goddess and Ungnyeo as the Magoist ruler sea-voyager come across as kindred. One cannot but think of the icon of Gwaneum (Guanyin or Kannon) with nine dragons. Deductively, cross-cultural parallels of the Nine Muses, the Nine Matrikas, and the Nine Durgas add credence to the Ungnyeo myth-history. (See Part IV.) The Budoji is not apologetic in saying that the gynocentric civilization of “Ung-nyeo,” better known as Hwan-Ung to Koreans, aimed at bringing cross-cultural unity among peoples of the world as descendants of Mago, the Great Goddess in pre-Chinese times of East Asia.

Gwaneum on the Sea surrounded by Nine Dragons, modern art
Gwaneum on the Sea surrounded by Nine Dragons, modern art

In fact, the legacy of Ungnyeo’s civilization saturates East Asian cultures. One way that I am tracing in this essay is through the symbol of nine. Despite the negative if not dubious treatment in Sinocentric historiography, there is strong evidence that pre-Chinese Koreans were referred to as “the People of Nine States,” indicating them to be the descendants of Ungnyeo. In fact, that is none other than what the so-called Korean foundation myth of Dangun epitomizes: Koreans are ultimately the offspring of Ungnyeo.[ix] This should not be taken literally, however. It means that Koreans were the devotees of Ungnyeo deified by later generations. To be more precise, Koreans were the bearers of Ungnyeo’s mytho-history.

Ungnyeo statue (18m in height), Jilin Province, China 吉林省 汪淸縣 滿天星 仙女峰
Ungnyeo statue (18m in height), Jilin Province, China 吉林省 汪淸縣 滿天星 仙女峰 from Goguryeo Yeoksa Journal 

That ancient Koreans were known as the people of Ungnyeo is inscribed in the language. The actual terms historically used to refer to pre- and proto-Chinese Koreans include Gui (九夷, Nine Archers People), alias Dongi (東夷, Eastern Archers People), Guhwang (九皇, Nine Emperors People), Guhwan (九桓, the Nine Resplendence People), Guhan (九韓, the Nine Korean People), Gumaek (九貊, the Nine Maek People), and Guryeo (九黎, the Nine Ryeo People). It is not surprising to note that the syllables of “I,” “Hwang,” “Hwan,” “Han,” “Maek” and “Ryeo” are explicitly or implicitly associated with ancient Koreans. For example, they are used in such state names as Ye-maek (Maek), Gogu-ryeo and Go-ryeo (Ryeo), and Han-guk (Han) etc. throughout history. I hold that these terms are not merely referring to ancient Koreans, as Korean androcentric scholars argue, but suggesting Magoist ancient Koreans.[x] These terms bespeak the unflagging light of Ungnyeo’s sovereignty that had nine sub-states.[xi]

Patriarchal and ethnocentric/nationalist historiographers have negated their predecessor, gynocentric altruistic or egalitarian histories. Where there is no patriarchal self, history is rendered as non-existent or irrelevant. In that line of thinking, the self is defined as the center of the universe. It is no coincidence that the Chinese call themselves Zhongguo (中國), the center of the world. Nonetheless, its older name was Zhina (支那) meaning “the branch state,” which reflects its derivative nature.[xii] The term is still found today in such toponyms as “Eastern Sea of Zhina” referring to Southeast Sea of China and “Yindu Zhina” referring to Indo-China. In fact, the English word, China, comes from Zhina. That is, Sinocentrism is a historical make-up, inflated with expansionist and ethnocentric agendas, which need to be probed by East Asian specialists.

I hold that Sinocentric historiographers have endeavored to eliminate the linkage between the aforementioned terms and pre- and proto-Chinese Magoist Koreans. Among other evidence, the term “Gui 九夷” referring to the Nine Clans/Peoples of pre-Chinese Korea is a good example. Used by the ancient Chinese including Confucius (551 BCE–479 BCE), it has taken on the meaning of the “Nine Barbarian Peoples” who surrounded China. Despite its common translation as the nine barbarian peoples, there is counter-evidence that the Gui were highly esteemed by the elites of ancient China. It is widely known that Confucius himself favorably mentioned the Gui. The passage alleged to be uttered by Confucius, “Because the dao (way) is not practiced here [in his own state of ancient China, Lu State], I would like to go to Gui in which noble persons never cease (道不行 吾欲之君子不死之國九夷)” substantiates that Confucius thought highly of the Gui people. It describes that there were many noble persons alive in Gui throughout ages. In my view, this is a compliment for their gynocentric rules rather than just moral rules. Even in that passage, Gui refers to a polity rather than the nine individual clans.

The etymology of the syllable, “I夷,” in “Gu-I” debunks the Sinocentric agenda that the Gui people were the pre-Chinese Magoist polity identified and defended by ancient Koreans and that ancient China intended to historicide it. As a combination of “dae” (大 meaning “great” or “big”) and “gung” (弓 meaning “bow” or “archery”), it substantiates that the Gui were esteemed people known for their skill of archery.

In conclusion, Gaeyang Halmi of the Gurang pantheon is highly evocative of Ungnyeo or Gom, the Magoist shaman ruler, who founded the confederacy of nine states in circa the fourth millennium BCE. Within the scheme of Old Magoism, “Gurangs” refer to the nine daughter-rulers of the nine-states headed by the federal mother ruler Ungnyeo. The mytheme of Gaeyang Halmi is a time-proven remembrance of the Ungnyeo civilization by both the populace and Shamans. That is how the mythic pendulum of Gaeyang Halmi swings from Mago to Ungnyeo (Gom). In this context, however, it is a mistake to treat Mago or Ungnyeo as a single goddess figure only. While “Mago” often stands for human civilization as a whole, that is Magoism, “Ungnyeo” refers to the Magoist shaman rulers of Danguk, historically better known as Sinsi (Divine Exposition). The gurang mytheme of Gaeyang Halmi is a folk expression of the complex and suppressed mytho-history of Magoist shaman rulers whose civilization marked the golden age of Old Magoism.

Magu, Ming Dynasty China
Magu on the Sea, Ming Dynasty China


Conducting field research to collect the extant oral narratives of a goddess from the elders of the village is an act of subversion by its definition. It is a charged statement in itself that information at point relies o­­n something other than written records or pre-established studies. It is a small and innocent-appearing upheaval that ignites the old dormant flame to set the whole world on fire. That is the case of the topic of Gaeyang Halmi.

The task for the researcher is to find the story-tellers and have them tell what they know from being told by their predecessors, usually when young. Many factors need to be considered. First, there are only a handful of story-tellers surviving today. Lore transmitters, as the epochal witnesses, age and die rapidly in the wake of economic development and expansion of city-style living. Second, the researcher must be alert to the timing and mood of the story-tellers. Although the story-tellers hold the key to the narratives that they tell, they are usually not prepared for doing it. Story-telling takes place spontaneously and circumstantially. Unlike the researcher, however, story-tellers hardly risk anything. They tell the stories, as they are pleased or morally obliged to do so.

There are rules for the researcher to keep in mind when it comes to collecting goddess stories from the villagers. S/he must allow the story-tellers to tell, without interrupting with her or his pre-contemplated thought as much as possible. Technically, that is correct. However, the researcher must not be a passive listener because often story-tellers are not motivated enough to initiate and elaborate the stories. Stories they tell often comprise the debris of memories often seemingly not making sense or too terse to the researcher. The researcher, coming from outside the local community and limited to a certain timeframe, is distinguished from an inside observer in the sense that s/he needs to aid and enhance the process of story-telling by the elders.

Often the story-tellers will not mention particular points, however important they may be to the researcher, unless they are asked to do so. For example, they might state that the goddess is so tall without describing further. And the researcher may ask, “How tall is she? Could you tell me more about it?” They might state that She walks on the sea without elaborating. Then, the researcher may ask, “Is the sea also called the Coastal Sea of Seven Mountains?”

Such interactions actually took place between the lore narrators and our research team members. Our research team met and interviewed several story-tellers on the first day but no one addressed the Goddess of the Suseong Shrine as Gaeyang Halmi. The research team knew that She is widely called Gaeyang Halmi by people. On the second day, one of us began to ask our story-tellers if She is also called Gaeyang Halmi. Then, a couple of them confirmed so. Likewise, that the sea of the Suseong Shrine is also called the Coastal Sea of Seven Mountains was confirmed. Thus, that Gaeyang Halmi walks on the Coastal Sea of Seven Mountains to calm down the waves is affirmed by our story-tellers.

I thank Dr. Shin Dong-Hun and his research team from Konkuk University, Seoul, Korea, and our story-tellers from the bottom of my heart!

Research Team, photo by Hwang Sungup (Dr. Shin Dong-Hun, Dr. Helen Hwang [author], Ms. Lee Won-Young, Mr. Jeong Dong-Uk, Ms. Kim Jung-Eun, Dr. Park Hyeon-Suk, Mr. Cho Hong-Yun, Ms. Lee Boo-Hee from the left, and Mr. Hwang Sungup who took this photo)
Research Team, photo by Hwang Sungup (Dr. Shin Dong-Hun, Dr. Helen Hwang [author], Ms. Lee Won-Young, Mr. Jeong Dong-Uk, Ms. Kim Jung-Eun, Dr. Park Hyeon-Suk, Mr. Cho Hong-Yun, Ms. Lee Boo-Hee from the left, and Mr. Hwang Sungup who took this photo)

(Read from Part I)

[i] In Jeju Island, Mago is commonly called Seolmundae.

[ii] See Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, “The Female Principle in the Magoist Cosmogony” in Ochre Journal of Women’s Spirituality (Fall 2007), [http://www.ochrejournal.org/2007/scholarship/hwang1.html].

[iii] I have reassessed the gender of Mago’s eight “grandchildren” to be all female. Previously, I deemed them to be men and women, four each. Precisely, the folkloric parallel that Mago has eight daughters gives weight to the new interpretation.

[iv] In the case of the nine-tailed fox, its reference from the Classic of Mountains and Seas — one of the earliest books from China, dated to the 5th century BCE — substantiates the female rulership of pre-Chinese Korea. Also see Seeking Mago, the Great Goddess: A Mytho-Historic-Theological Reconstruction of Magoism, an Archaically Originated Gynocentric Tradition of East Asia, Ph.D. dissertation (Claremont Graduate University, Claremont: CA (2005), 198-203.

[v] As seen in the Table, Old Magoism refers to the periods of the Archaic/Golden and the Budo (Emblem City).

Periods Heras or Polities Major Events
Mythic -Mago SamSin (Triad Deity)-HwangGung-YuIn -The Paradise of Mago-The First Diaspora northward, northeastward, and farther migration
Archaic/Golden -Hanguk (HanIn) ca. 7199 BCE-ca. 3898 BCE-Danguk (HanUng) ca. 3898 BCE-ca. 2333 BCE -First Magocratic Confederacy-Second Magocratic Confederacy
Budo -Old Joseon (DanGun) ca. 2333 BCE-ca. 232 BCE -Third Magocratic Confederacy-The Second Diaspora

[vi] This implies that the cosmogonic mythology of Mago was a product of and by the people of Ungnyeo. It is plausible to deem that the people of Ungnyeo systematized Mago’s cosmogonic mytheme as they instated the history of Ungnyeo.

[vii] “k” and “g” are interchangeably transliterated in Korean. Place-names that include “Gom” or “Ung” recur in East Asia. From conversation with Rosemary Mattingley on December 5, 2012.

[viii] My interpretation of Ungnyeo and her polity is distinguished from other scholars in Korea. I have redefined the mythological identity of Ungnyeo to be identical with Hwan-Ung or Han-Ung. Other scholars see Ungnyeo as consort of the latter. I have named her policy of the nine-state confederacy Danguk whereas other scholars name it Baedalguk. The syllable “dan” refers to the altar of the birch tree under which she is said to have prayed for parthenogenetic conception. Nonetheless, I agree with them that she is the mother of Dangun, alleged founder of Joseon (ca. 2333 BCE–ca. 232 BCE), and her polity’s civilization was called Sinsi (Divine Exposition). See Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, “Issues in Studying Mago, the Great Goddess of East Asia: Primary Sources, Gynocentric History, and Nationalism,” in The Constant and Changing Faces of the Goddess: Goddess Traditions of Asia, eds. Deepak Shimkhada and Phyllis Herman. Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2008, 18-30. Also see Seeking Mago, the Great Goddess: A Mytho-Historic-Theological Reconstruction of Magoism, an Archaically Originated Gynocentric Tradition of East Asia, Ph.D. dissertation (Claremont Graduate University, Claremont: CA, 2005), 196-214.

[ix] Korean foundation myth says that Koreans are descendants of “Dangun,” of course. Such interpretation is based on the story that “Dangun” is the offspring of Ungnyeo. What underlines the myth is that Koreans are the people of Ungnyeo.

[x] The methodical difference between two approaches should be noted. My reconstruction of Magoism that has the focus on gender undoes the Korean nationalist assumption that Korean history began with patriarchs with the patronage of the male god. I have dealt with the issue of Korean nationalism in reconstructing pre-Chinese Korean history and culture. For details, see Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, “Issues in Studying Mago, the Great Goddess of East Asia: Primary Sources, Gynocentric History, and Nationalism,” in The Constant and Changing Faces of the Goddess: Goddess Traditions of Asia, eds. Deepak Shimkhada and Phyllis Herman (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2008), 10-32.

[xi] The mytho-history of Old Magoism redefines not only the identity of ancient Koreans but also its historical territories. They were widely spread on the mainland East Asian subcontinent at the time of Danguk. The rise of Chinese political forces pushed them eastward over time thus causing a ceaseless influx to the natives of the present Korean peninsula and present Japanese Islands.

[xii] China’s other names include Da Zhina-guo (大支那國, the Great Branch State). It appears that China has been referred to as Zhina-guo throughout history. See []. 

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