(Bell Essay 1) Ancient Korean Bells and Magoism by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang

Part I

The bell as both a percussion instrument and an idiophone is one of the most pacific, sublime, and ingenious human inventions. It appears cross-culturally from the remote past. Its artistic and ritualistic aspects are fairly well recognized by many. However, many overlook that the bell is a female icon with functionality. Put differently, the bell symbolizes the Goddess, the female who has the purpose. This essay, to be written in parts hereafter, will examine the symbology of ancient Korean bells and explore its implications with regard to Magoist history, cosmogony, and soteriology. At the outset, I posit that ancient Korean bells cast in the form of a woman’s body are there to awaken humanity to the arcane reality of the Female, that is Mago. 

In East Asia, bell connotes two distinct types, the open ended and the enclosed. In Korean, the open ended bell is called jong (鐘, Chinese zhong), whereas the enclosed one is called bang-ul or ryeong (鈴, Chinese ling). Jong and bang-ul are also distinguished by size. While the former tends to be larger, the latter are commonly used by a shaman or diviner to hold and shake (a group of bang-uls) to invoke the spirit. However, these differences are not unbridgeable. Some bang-uls are open-ended, like jong.

Seven banguls
Seven bang-uls

By definition, jong is a bell made of metal not stone. (The character jong 鐘 has the radical (basic element) of geum 金, metal or gold. The stone bell is called gyeong.) When jong is used in music, in particular as a musical instrument consisting of a set of bronze bells, it is called pyeon-jong (編鍾, Chinese bianzhong). Perhaps the invention of pyeon-jong follows pyeon-gyeong (編磬, Chinese bianqing), a stone musical instrument consisting of a set of L-shaped stone chimes. Discussing the differences between the two instruments goes beyond the purpose of this essay. Suffice it to say that jong was likely a metallic replica of gyeong presumably first introduced in the Bronze Age. (See the images below for comparison.)

Pyeon-jong, part
Pyeon-jong, part

My primary focus in this essay is on jong, in particular the Korean bells cast in the 8th century CE and thereafter. The beauty and significance of ancient Korean bells shed a new light on ancient Korea to be re-dis-covered in relation to Magoism. Both scholars and the public appear to be unaware that the ancient bells of Korea symbolize the female principle as well as woman’s body. It is my hope that this essay allows the ancient bells of Korea to reverberate through time and call people to return to the female origin.

Ancient Greek Bells as Woman’s Body

The variety of jong from the ancient world appears across cultures. The most explicitly rendered bells which mirror the female form are the terracotta bell figurines of Greece (Thebes) dated circa the 8th century BCE. Both are housed in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Protruded breasts are placed on the upper part of the bell. The body of the bell is sculpted to resemble the skirt that she is wearing. Two arms annexed from her shoulders appear to be aesthetic rather than functional. The elongated neck is made as a handle to be held. Her neck is adorned with elaborate necklaces. Geometrical designs and swastikas are compelling in both figurines — rife with arcane meanings. The legs are made as mallets. Imagine, then, where the sound comes from upon being shaken! It is her belly, more precisely the vulva from which the sound originates.

Terracotta Bell Idol, Thebae 720 BCE
Bell of Thebes I, c. 700 BCE

In the first, above, icon of the Greek bell, women are drawn on the bell’s body in a simplified and exaggerated manner. They are connected with each other hand in hand forming a circle, perhaps dancing a circle dance. As a whole, the bell depicts a dancing woman with her arms raised, standing on her toes. The women painting befits the spirited nature of the bell.

Bell of Thebes, circa 8th century BCE. Louvre Museum, Paris.
Bell of Thebes II, c. 700 BCE

In the second, above, icon of the Greek bell, 39.5 cm in height, her breasts are highlighted, encircled by the drawing of two circles. Thus, they appear to be more nipples than breasts. Her arms are laid downward as if pointing to the birds standing below on each side. Each bird is holding an elongated earthworm-like swirling thing at the tip of its beak. Geometric designs in the center of her body are catchily inviting to interpretations. The symmetrical balance is heightened. She appears to stand firmly or be ready to walk. As shown below, one leg when placed out to the side conveys to its viewer that the legs are mallets and at once creates a look that she is real, in motion.

Bell Idol, c, 700 BCE, Greece
Bell of Thebes II, another look

In my documentation, the Greek bell idols and ancient Korean bells are the only two groups that are explicitly made in the shape of a woman’s body. Yet, as to be shown shortly, these Greek bell idols, far smaller in size, date about a thousand years earlier than the ancient Korean bells. Furthermore, there is a vast geographical distance between the two bell icons. In comparing them, however, I have no intention to assume that the ancient Greek bell figurines are the earliest of their kind. (It is difficult to discuss the origin of bell as a woman’s body due to the nature of the task, too complex and daunting. It is suffice to say that the Chinese bells, dated older than the Thebes bell figurines, have relevance to ancient Korean bells, a point to be discussed at a later part.) Ancient worlds appear not too heterogeneous to say the least, as moderns tend to think.

Sillan Bells

Let me begin with introducing some ancient Korean bells from the Silla period (57 BCE-935 CE) and their major features that are also uniquely ancient Korean (read Magoist). They sound beautifully and deeply when struck. Sounding waves are calculated in the structure of the bell upon being cast. It is known that there are eleven jongs extant from the United Silla period. Only five of them are currently located in Korea, whereas the rest are in Japan.

These bells are known as beomjong, a term referring to a bell in Buddhist temples used for Buddhist rituals. Notwithstanding, the female principle that these bells embody bespeaks otherwise, in my view. This essay suggests that the female symbology of ancient Korean bells not only predates Buddhism but also redefines the nature of Korean Buddhism.

The following are the three representative bells from the Silla period.

1. Sangwonsa Jong: The oldest and the most beautiful extant bell of Korea, which was cast in 725 CE (24th year of King Seongdeok of Silla). 167 cm in height and 91 cm diameter. Currently housed in Sangwon-sa Temple, Mt. Ode, Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province.

Sangwon-sa (Sangwon Temple) Jong
Sangwon-sa (Sangwon Temple) Jong, 725 CE

2. Seondeok Daewang Sinjong (Divine Bell of the Great King Seongdeok), alias Emille Bell or Bell of Bongdeok-sa Temple: The largest bell of Korea, 373 cm in height, 227 cm in diameter, and 18.9 tons in weight. Its construction was begun by King Gyeongdeok, son of King Seongdeok, in commemoration of his deceased precedessor, and it was completed by King Hyegong, his successor, in 771. The story of a female child infused in the casting is widely known. Thus, the emitting sound, “emille,” when struck, calling for mother is explained. Currently housed in Gyeongju National Museum, Gyeongju, Gyeongbuk Province.

Seongdeok Daewang Sinjong
Seongdeok Daewang Sinjong, 771 CE

3. Seollimwon Jong: Made of copper. Cast in 804 CE (5th year of King Aejang). 122 cm in height and 68 cm in diameter. Excavated in the site of Seollim-won, Myeongju, Gangwon Province in 1948 but severely damaged by fire during the Korean War (1950-1953). Currently housed in Chuncheon National Museum, Chuncheon, Gangwon Province.

Seonrim-won Jong, modern replica
Seollim-won Jong, modern replica. Originally 804 CE
Seonrim-won Jong, original damaged by fire.
Seollim-won Jong, original damaged by fire.

Video Resources:

[My essay on Korean ancient bells, to be written hitherto in several subsequent parts, is written in an effort to share the insights and observations that I have gleaned from the discussions we have had in the Mago Circle, (especially thanks to Yona Yavana, Zeke Li, MaryAnn Columbia, and Max Dashu) and from the data that I have personally accumulated over the years. It is subject to revision after extensive research to be undertaken at a later point. To be continued in Part II.]