(Photo Essay 4) ‘Gaeyang Halmi, the Sea Goddess of Korea’ by Helen Hwang

Part IV: Revival of the Gurang (Nine Maidens) Gaeyang Halmi

There is more to reveal. As I write this part of the photo essay, I have encountered new information, previously made available online by individuals and organizations. It is reported that the “Suseong-dang” (水聖堂, Sea Saint Shrine) was once called the “Gurang-sa” (九娘祠, Nine Maidens Shine), of which I never heard before.[i] That  Suseong-dang is a fake name blew my mind!  Note the difference of gender between “the Nine Maidens Shrine” and “the Sea Saint Shrine”! The female-connoted term was stolen just like that! “Gurang-sa,” a female-referenced term as the character “rang” means a maiden, had to go due to its overt female representation.

“Suseong-dang” Information Board

It is not without grounds that I was taken aback to see its present logography, “the Sea Saint Shrine,” on the information board.[ii] I almost heard a voice warning me, “This is not the place that you think it is!” That voice attempted to force me to leave the place without further investigation. However, I intuitively took a mental note, “Something is not correct here.” And I was right!

Its name change sheds a consistent light on the meddling of patriarchal distortion/deception done to the tradition of Gaeyang Halmi. Readers are reminded of the lost painting of Gaeyang Halmi, which was replaced by that of the Sea God explicated in Part 2 of this photo essay (also Part 3). Like “the Sea God,” “the Suseong-dang” constitutes no reality. It is not only a conceptual deception but also a theft of the intangible cultural heritage, righteously committed by  faceless patriarchal men disappeared into the lapse of time. It is clear that systematic erasure of the Female/Goddess has been in operation. Female power embodied whether in the name of the shrine or in the iconography was stripped away. However, it is proven once again that the Female is immortal because it constitutes the root of patriarchy. People smuggled the forbidden knowledge of the Female to later generations through oral stories. Thus, we find the folklore of the Female subversive.

Gurang (Nine Maidens) Gaeyang Halmi, Gurang-sa, Buan, S. Korea

“Gurang-sa” is one of the few names of the goddess shrine that has survived to this day in Korea. It is rich in meaning with regard to the submerged tradition of Female Korea. Reinstating the term “Gurang (Nine Maidens)” lifts the conceptual taboo imposed on the idea of women/goddesses being in a group. It foremost dovetails the mythology and the iconography of Gaeyang Halmi and her eight daughters whom She dispatched to the eight islands of the West Coast, according to our story-tellers! What other name can fit the Gaeyang Halmi pantheon better than Gurang?

Nine-tailed Fox, Classic of Mountains and Seas

Within the context of Magoism, the Nine Maidens (gurang) echoes gumiho (the nine-tailed fox) symbolizing female intellectuality and sexuality. The latter is not indicative of the female in name. However, the cultural and historical expression of gumiho has been always female. Often, the nine-tailed fox is an incarnation of evil Mago Halmi in folk stories.[iii] Also noteworthy is the iconography of Xiwangmu (the Queen Mother of the West) dated in the first century CE.[iv] That gumiho is associated with Xiwangmu, the Cosmic Mother in Daoism, plainly bespeaks two points: First, it represents the female, and second, it substantiates the female to be supreme, suggesting Mago, the Great Goddess. The Female is proven immortal; gumiho, as a transnational symbol in ancient East Asia, continues to revive in such various forms as religious practices and modern dramas to this day.

Xiwangmu and nine tailed fox, China
Nine-tailed fox of Tamamo no Mae, Japan
Nine-tailed fox woman, modern TV drama, Korea

Another prominent symbol of nine is the nine dragons. The image of nine dragons appears richly in East Asian cultures and place-names especially with regard to Buddhism. It remains speculative in my mind whether the word “Gurang (Nine Maidens)” was twisted and replaced by that of “Guryong (Nine Dragons)” because they are so similar in sound. Some research is being done by scholars in Korea that Buddhism did not favor the nine dragons due to their association with women.[v] The contrary is the case. However, Buddhism was not able to obliterate the evidence of its female identity. That Gwaneum (Guanyin or Kannon), conventionally known as the goddess of compassion in Buddhism, is associated with the nine dragons has survived to this day, even as modern replicas of the old icons. She is often depicted as standing on or surrounded by the nine dragons.[vi] In such case, Gwaneum is evocative of the Gurang Gaeyang Halmi pantheon, the nine sea goddesses.[vii] The symbol of nine goes further to the nine-story pagodas, the nine nipples of a bell, and the nine suns in East Asian cultures and histories, to name a few.

Mt. Jiri Guryong fall in Guryong valley, S. Korea
Nine Dragons mural, Forbidden City, Beijing, Chna
Gwangeum (Guanyin, Kannon) standing on Nine Dragons
Nine-story Pagoda, Woljeong-sa, Mt. Odae, Korea
Nine Nipples in Bell, Neungga-sa, Goheung, South Jella, Korea
Archer Yi shoots down the nine suns, China

However, the symbol of nine is not limited to East Asia. It is also found in other cultures and traditions such as the Nine Muses of the Greek tradition and the Nine Matrikas (mothers) and the nine forms of Durga from the Hindu traditions.[viii] Durga known as Navadurga (the nine Goddess Durgas) is highly evocative of the Gurang Gaeyang Halmi. Also particularly intriguing is that the nine forms of Durga are celebrated during the festival of Navrati during which each form of Durga is remembered each night.

Nine Muses from Greek tradition
Nine Matrikas from Hindu tradition
Nava-Durga, nine forms of Durga
Nava-Durga, nine forms of Durga

By extension, I reinstate the suffix, sa (祠, shrine), used in combination with the female-connoted term, “gurang,” the Nine Maidens as a female-associated term. I used to think that sa, a homonym (寺, temple or 社, religious society), refers to Buddhist temples or male-centered/originated religious societies only. “Suseong-dang” replacing “Gurang-sa” precludes the linguistic linkage between “sa (shrine)” and “rang (maidens)” and thus creates a false perception that such thing as the shrine of goddess is non-existent. “Gurang-sa” substantiates that the term “sa” is compatible with the goddesses. Furthermore, given the patriarchal attempts to erase female power, “sa” may originally refer to the shrine of a goddess.[ix]

Let me backtrack a bit to the discussion of the shrine building itself. Mr. Jeong took the liberty of informing us that he witnessed that the ridge beam, when taken out from the previous building, had an inscription in it indicating its construction in 1850.[x] He added that the building was renovated three times afterward. Ms. Jeong also mentioned the old ridge beam in a nostalgic manner suggesting the seriousness of its removal. I could tell that she was grieving for the lost glory of the shrine. Swept by her mood of reminiscence, she said that there was a long hedge of camellia trees leading to the entrance of the shrine; the red and green shades in full bloom contrasting with the color of white sand dunes as imagined by both of us.

Present Gurang-sa, Buan, S. Korea

Based on their testimonies, I postulate that the current shrine building, rather small and humble without colors or ornaments adorning it, was downsized and stripped of decorations upon being rebuilt and renovated over time. When Gaeyang Halmi’s supreme divinity is demoted to the wife of the dragon king and when the shrine name reflecting Her powerful pantheon is replaced by a strange name, no one can warrant that the original shrine building remains the same. (To be continued in Part V.)

Click to Read Part III 

[i] The key word search Gaeyang Halmi and Gurang-sa (개양할미, 구랑사) in Korean will bring out a string of data that convey this.

[ii] Prior to seeing its logography on the information board, I used to think that it meant the Sea Castle Shrine; here, seong is a homonym, meaning a castle (城) and a saint (聖).

[iii] See Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, 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), 311-3.

[iv] See Hwang (2005), 198. Also see Max Dashu, “Xiwangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China” in [http://magoism.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/xi-wangmu-the-shamanic-great-goddess-of-china-part-1-by-max-dashu/].

[v] Information from Dr. Seungmi Cho.

[vi] Information from Dr. Ayele Kumari Maat.

[vii] The motif of a goddess riding a dragon in water is one of the most common themes of Korean and East Asian shaman deities.

[viii] The number of Matrikas and Muses varies from seven to nine, but was originally three. This also accords with the Mago pantheon. See Hwang (2005), 140-144.

[ix] In fact, the names of Korean indigenous shrines are rendered as something like this: “Samseong-gak (Three Saints Shrine),” “Samsin-gak (Three Deities Shrine),” “Sansin-gak (Mountain Deities Shrine), or Chilseong-gak (Seven Stars Shrine), all of which are rendered as male or neutral at best.

[x] According to my research, Magoism was wrought a rampant assault during this time. Mago folktales show that Mago was demonized, battered, sexualized, and murdered by some particular men of the nineteenth century.

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Fascinating new information!