(Photo Essay 3) ‘Gaeyang Halmi, the Sea Goddess of Korea’ by Helen Hwang

Part III: Archaeology Bespeaks What Ideological Hetero-sexuality Can’t Do

Our story-tellers informed us that Gaeyang Halmi is venerated and celebrated on January 14th annually on the lunar calendar. There are two separate rituals performed on that day. Villagers, both men and women, offer their ritual ceremony in the morning in Confucian style. The officiant must preserve the purification ritual, confining oneself to home to avoid ominous affairs for a week prior to the ceremony. After the ceremony of the villagers, Mudang groups come from outside the town and offer their Shaman rituals. A cleavage between two groups is still freshly detected in their narratives. While villagers conform to the Confucian style rituals with a despising but curious eye for the female-centered Shaman rituals, Mudangs are much more powerful in their capacities to command people, spirits, and materials. The Shamanic ritual celebration is fairly well-known domestically as well as overseas to the Chinese and the Japanese, according to our lore transmitters. People from China and Japan come to join the Mudang rituals, a vestige of the intercultural celebration that may have originated in ancient times, a point to be elaborated later.

Ritual by the Mudang

What caught my attention was the fact that the ritual celebration is known as the Ritual of Yongwang (the Dragon King) not the Ritual of Gaeyang Halmi. Our two narrators, Mr. Jeong Dong-Uk and Ms. Jeong Si-Geum, brother and sister, testified contradictorily vis-à-vis the Dragon King. Mr. Jeong mentioned that Gaeyang Halmi is the wife of Dragon King,[i] whereas Ms. Jeong spoke of Gaeyang Halmi as a solo deity without spouse. Ms. Jeong sternly said, “She was alone [without spouse]. She had eight daughters.” “It is said that there used to be a house wherein Gaeyang Halmi and her eight daughters lived together. I saw the cooking pots and household things in the ruin,” added Ms. Jeong. [Interestingly, the motif that she saw the cooking pots and other kitchen items in the ruin reminded me of other Mago folk stories from other regions. People seem to take such artifacts as pots and household things discovered in the ruin as an indication that the myth of Mago Halmi who is told to have lived in the place is plausible.] The topos of “the dragon king” was likely added later on to comply with Confucian ideology. In fact, none of our narrators mentioned the dragon king as the main deity of the Suseong Shrine. The fact that it is called the ritual of the dragon king suggests another layer of erosion/castration/dethronement done to the supreme divinity of Gaeyang Halmi.

Ritual by villagers

Apparently, there is a problem for the patriarchal mind that a goddess can procreate progeny without a male spouse. When a woman or goddess is alone without a male partner, she becomes a threat to patriarchal hegemony. She is treated as anomalous. As a result, women and goddesses are forcefully subjugated to hetero-sexual ideology. Speaking from the perspective of Magoism, however, Gaeyang Halmi may have been deemed supreme in ancient times due to her no-male attachment in creating her own household, an epiphany of Mago, the Great Goddess.

Saja Bawi (Rock of Death Messenger) in Saja Island

However, men are not excluded from the religious system of Gaeyang Halmi. We met more male story-tellers who testified to the old belief of Gaeyang Halmi than their female counterparts, which suggests that Gaeyang Halmi tradition once had a grip over everyone in the villages. Mr. Jeong told us that disaster befell people when they did not offer rituals to Gaeyang Halmi during a few years of the Korean War. Accidents happened and people died from them during those years.

The coastal sea in Buan where the Gaeyang Halmi Shrine is located is infamous for its roughness. Mr. Jeong elaborated that Saja Island off the coast does not mean “Lion Island” but “Death Messenger Island.” “Saja” is a homonym meaning both a “lion” and a “death messenger.” It should be called Death Messenger Island because of the choppy hazardous waves generated there. People prayed to Gaeyang Halmi for protection for ships to pass safely by Death Messenger Island. For the day of stormy weather to come, according to Mr. Sin, another story-teller, Gaeyang Halmi appeared in a dream to warn people against going to the sea. In other words, Gaeyang Halmi was there to watch over the safety of ships, maritime travelers, and sea workers.

Jungmak-dong, Buan, Archaeological Site and Artifacts
Jungmak-dong Artifacts in Jeongju Museum
Jungmak-dong Artifacts in Jeongju Museum
Jungmak-dong artifacts
Jungmak-dong artifacts
Jungmak-dong artifact, Great Gaya (42-562)
Jungmak-dong artifacts
Jungmak-dong artifact
Jungmak-dong, iron artifacts

Having said that, Buan County in which the Gaeyang Halmi Shrine is located was no small town from ancient times. Buan is noted for its ancient artifacts officially excavated in the shrine site in 1991. As many as one thousand items, the majority of which date from the late third and early seventh centuries CE, are not only from Korean states such as Baekje (18 BCE-660 CE), Great Gaya (42-562), United Silla (57  BCE-953), Goryeo (918-1392), and Joseon (1392-1910) but also from its ancient neighboring states such as China’s Southern Government and Wa (Japan). In short, archaeology substantiates that this place was the maritime hub of East Asia from the ancient past. The pride and love for Gaeyang Halmi by our story-tellers are grounded in the depth of history!

Maritime Routes in Buan, Byeonsan Peninsula, and its surroundings

Given the archaeological evidence that the Byeonsan Peninsula was the hub of East Asian maritime cultures in the past, it offers an alternative view to ancient Korean and East Asian history: The female symbolic or gynocentric culture played a key role in shaping ancient history of Korea. (To be continued in Part IV.)

(Read Part I or Part II)


[i] Mr. Sin Dong-Yeop also said, “There is a legend that Gaeyang Halmi was a spouse of the Dragon King.”