(Essay) Living Goddesses and Asian Amazons by Anne Hilty

On Jeju Island, Korea, known as “The Island of 18,000 Gods,” the residents are living with Goddess even today.

This ancient island community, its own sovereignty until subsumed by what is now known as Korea in 1105, has retained a culture largely distinct from that of Korea’s mainland. An active and millennia-old shamanist practice, inherited from Siberia and Mongolia with influences from China, Japan and the South Pacific region, is still integrated into the daily life of the island, even as it modernizes. An even older indigenous animism preceded the introduction of shamanism.

To wit: there is a 2-week period just before Lunar New Year, called “shin-gu-gan” in local dialect, during which islanders move house if so inclined. Household gods, traditionally worshiped by all and still today by many of the elders, are thought to be delivering an annual account to the Emperor of Heaven during this time. As a result it is considered a “clean” period for moving, in that the household gods are not present and thus do not require worship and, upon their return, they can align with the new residents of the house for the coming year.

As another example of the daily experience Jeju people have with the gods, the unique “hae-nyeo” or diving women have regular rites to Yowang and his wife, Yowang Buin, dragon king and queen of the sea, entreating their protection and beneficence.

Waheul Shrine to God and Goddess
Waheul Shrine to God and Goddess

The central creator figure of this volcanic island is a goddess known as Seolmundae. A single female creator is highly unusual in the world’s mythologies; alternately envisioned as youthful, maternal or grandmotherly, she is the local representation of Maiden, Mother and Crone in one. Seolmundae is the embodiment of the central volcano by which this island and its surrounding islets emerged, within which she is said to be sleeping.

“Seolmundae watches over us all,” the people of Jeju are fond of saying. By extension, they perceive the island’s remarkable topography, with its 368 secondary volcanic cones mostly rounded in shape, to be female.

Haesin-dang - Natural Seaside Goddess Shrine
Haesin-dang – Natural Seaside Goddess Shrine

More than 400 remaining ritual spaces to Jeju’s multiple deities were documented in 2009 and 2010, most of them in natural settings and many still in use today. In addition to village rites that are shaman-led, residents can visit the shrines individually on certain days of each month. A majority of these places of worship are known as “halmang-dang” or goddess shrines.

The word “halmang,” from the local dialect, can mean “goddess” or “grandmother” – and rightly so. Jeju, a matrifocal and egalitarian society at its core, has a particular fondness for goddesses. Combined with ancestor worship, the deities of this island are considered as members of the community in a familial way.

There’s Jacheongbi, goddess of earth who brought to Jeju people the six grains on which their diet has been based – and who is also considered a goddess of love. Gamunjang-agi is the goddess of fate, fortune, destiny – who teaches Jeju people that their life path is of their own making. Samseung and her counterpart, Choseung, are the goddesses of childbirth and rearing – and sometimes, infant mortality.

Songdang singwa segut to Geum Baekjo
Songdang singwa segut to Geum Baekjo

Geum Baekjo, mother of all shamanist gods on Jeju (though other indigenous gods predate her), divorced her husband and elected to become a “single mom” when she deemed that his values did not match her own. Jowang is the goddess of the hearth, who rules the house; her arch-rival, Noil-jeodae, governs the toilet area – and the two should never meet.

In addition to Yowang and especially his goddess wife, Yowang Buin, whose worship is critical to the diving women, as it is on these sea gods that their life and livelihood depend, another goddess of great significance to this island community visits for two weeks each spring: Yeongdeung, she of wind and sea. Her farewell rite as conducted by the Chilmeori Shrine shamanist group has been designated by UNESCO as World Cultural Heritage. Many other villages also hold Yeongdeung worship rituals.

Chilmeori Shrine Ritual to Yeongdeung
Chilmeori Shrine Ritual to Yeongdeung

Jeju is also known for its snake goddess worship. During the Joseon Dynasty of mainland Korea (1392~1897), many of the myths related to Jeju snake deities became distorted, the snake depicted as something to be conquered – perhaps a symbol for the island kingdom itself, which had retained a fair measure of autonomy and a high degree of distinctiveness prior to that time.

The snake goddesses of Jeju were revered, even as it was understood that to forsake their worship meant dire consequences. Each household maintained small shrines to serpent goddesses of both indoor and outdoor granaries, while numerous village shrines were erected to other serpent deities. The spirit of this deity was said to be particularly aligned to the women, and passed from mother to daughter.

The island has several legends of virgin sacrifice which led to maiden goddesses. Two of the most well-known are the goddess of outlying Mara Island, who protects the women divers there, and she of Gwancheong, an old government facility and fortress, entreated by those hoping to pass the civil service exam or be promoted.

Many more goddesses can be found in Jeju’s pantheon. The women of Jeju are notoriously strong in character, mind and body, and have always been a force in this society. Even as the island community has modernized rapidly in the past half-century, the people retain this innate knowledge of Goddess – the women thus empowered – in their very DNA.

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3 Comments on "(Essay) Living Goddesses and Asian Amazons by Anne Hilty"

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Donna Snyder
Donna Snyder

Fascinating and inspiring.

DrMary Ann Ghaffurian

I am looking forward to Jeju Island. The fact it is a volcanic area as well as surrounded on all sides by sea makes for a perfect Goddess-centric culture, alive to all the elements, and still alive today. Thank you Dr Anne Hilty. Absorbing. Thanks also to further elucidation by Dr Hwang.