(Photo Essay 1) 'Gaeyang Halmi, the Sea Goddess of Korea' by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang

Part I: Living Tradition Bearers and Her Shrine, Suseong-dang

Suseong-dang Shrine, Buan, North Jeolla, Korea

I had the privilege to join a field trip to collect the folk stories of Gaeyang Halmi, the Sea Goddess, in Buan-gun (Buan County), North Jeolla Province, South Korea July 10-12, 2012.

The team comprised a group of graduate students studying Korean Literature at the Kunguk University (Kim Jungeun, Cho Hongyoun, Lee Won-Young, Hwang Sungup, and Lee Boohee) headed by Dr. Shin Dong-Hun, Dr. Park Hyeon-Suk, and myself.[i]

With Ms. Jeong Si-Geum, our final narrator, second in the first row from right, photo by Hwang Sungup
Trailing to Suseong-dang, photo by Hwang Sungup
Villager giving us an introduction, photo by Helen Hwang
Dr. Shin Dong-Hun talking to a narrator, photo by Helen Hwang

We visited several villages in Gyeokpo-ri, Byeonsan-myeon. We met our folktale bearers literally almost anywhere: roads, fields, homes, business places, and senior citizen centers.

Buan in East Asian Surroundings
Suseong-dang, Buan, S. Korea
Gyeokpo Port, Buan, photo by Helen Hwang
Wild Reed on the road, Gyeokpo-ri, Buan, photo by Helen Hwang

At first we were met by several elders who adamantly refused to tell us the folk stories of Gaeyang Halmi. I later learned that they held the view that only historical events and factual data were to be the reliable source. They simply dismissed our questions by saying, “We [meaning I] are simply not interested in those stories. We don’t know such matters.” For a generation like his, legends and myths were of superstition made only for the lowly and mudang (shamans) not worth serious attention.

Only after the hustle and bustle of questioning to several folks whom we randomly encountered, we were finally given some names who would tell us the stories. We met them one by one. And they told us that they heard the stories from the elders when they were young.

Our oral story tellers included: Son Hae-Guk (75, male), Ha Bok-Sun (74, female), Yun Yang-Nyeo (79, female), No Jeong-Sun (81, female), Gim Byeong-Rye (81, female), Hyeon Saeng-Gyun (58, male), Heo Yong-Dae (50, male), Sin Dong-Eop (72, male), Jeong Dong-Uk (75, male), and Jeong Si-Geum (76, female).[ii] The last two were siblings. They are our living traditions, torches, and shimmering lights to the survival of Magoism in Korea.

Living Tradition Bearers, photos by Hwang Sungup and Helen Hwang

We began our search by visiting Gaeyang Halmi’s shrine, Suseong-dang (Sea Sage Shrine), located on a cliff off the seashore of the Yellow Sea. Right across the Sea, China’s Shandong Peninsula faces it.

Suseong-dang, view from the Yellow Sea
Suseong Shrine, Information Board, photo by Helen Hwang
Stone Pile Pagoda, Suseong-dang, photo by Helen Hwang
Stone Pile Pagoda, part, photo by Helen Hwang
Traditional Toy Purse on a tree, Suseong-dang, photo by Helen Hwang

Traditional Shoes and Sage Statues, Suseong-dang, photo by Helen Hwang [It appears that they are to appease the child spirits.]
We were told that there was a wide open field filled with camellia trees surrounding the shrine. Now they bloom only in the memories of a few. Also, this is the site where a great many ancient relics were excavated,  dating to early centuries CE.

Villagers call her Gaeyang Halmi, Suseong-dang Halmi, or simply Dang (Shrine) Halmi. “Halmi” or “Halmeoni” in this case refers to the Goddess, whereas it often means one’s grandmother or a crone.[iii] It is unknown what her name “Gaeyang” means. It may be a derivative of “Haeyang” (the Sea or Ocean).

It is believed that she came out from the sea through a dragon cave [or a fox cave]. She walks around on the sea to calm down the surging waves and protects fishermen, sea voyagers, and ships. Ms. Jeong Si-Geum mentioned that the dragon cave is now pretty much filled, making the channel invisible.

Sea of Chilsan (Seven Mountains) connected to the Yellow Sea
Dragon Cave or Fox Cave through which Gaeyang Halmi came forth from the Sea, photo by Helen Hwang

Dragon Cave or Fox Cave, part, photo by Helen Hwang [It is said there are about 24 hyeol (energy centers) within the vicinity.]
Gaeywang Halmi walks on the Sea of Chilsan (Seven Mountains) to calm down the waves. One person said that she wears wooden shoes when walking on the sea. Her footsteps are engraved on a rock. Another said that her beoseon (Korean traditional socks) did not get wet when walking on the sea.

She is a giantess. Some said that she is as tall as nine cheok (one cheok is roughly equivalent to one foot). Nonetheless, her height is immeasurable. Others said that the sea water in Gomso (Sea of Goddess), known to be deepest within the vicinity, made her underpants wet or only touched her ankle. [The phrase, “It is deep like a Gomso dumbeong,” referring to a deep sea, originates from this story.]

She was alone at first in her pantheon. [This may refer to her solo painting in the Shrine. It may be possible that there was her solo painting only at first but later there were other paintings including her eight daughters. See Part II for more more details.] Later on, she was known to have eight daughters who were pretty and moral. Gaeyang Halmi sent out seven daughters to seven different islands nearby or faraway and lived with the youngest daughter in this place.

Gaeyang Halmi and Her Eight Daughters, modern restoration, photo by Hwang Sungup
Suseong-dang, a participant in mudang‘s ritual, photo by Helen Hwang
Ritual Offering to Gaeyang Halmi, Suseong-dang, photo by Helen Hwang

(To be continued in Part II and Part III)

[i] As for Korean names, I placed the last name before the given name according to the Korean convention. Romanization of Korean names is inconsistently made here because I want to respect the particular ways of spelling one’s name. I had asked each of the field trip team members how to romanize his or her name. However, I took the liberty of hyphenating two characters in the given name (Korean given names usually comprise two characters), when s/he uses them as two words, not to confuse non-Korean readers.
[ii] I followed the Revised Romanization of Korean for the names of our narrators.
[iii] Halmi or Halmeoni means one’s “grandmother” or a “crone” for most Koreans. I alongside some scholars have pointed out that they mean both the “goddess” and a “crone” including one’s grandmother.