(2015 Mago Pilgrimage Essay 2) Neuk-do (Serpent Island) by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang

Serpent Island from Samcheon Port, Photo by Helen Hwang
Serpent Island from Samcheon Port, Photo by Helen Hwang

I wanted to go to Neuk-do because of the Mago story told in the region. Its name Neuk-do, which means the Serpent Island (구렁이섬), whispers a deep memory of the gynocentric past. However, people today seem to be least concerned about it. Our guides did not inform us of the meaning of the island’s name. I relished being surrounded by an air of mystery about the island during our visit.

Mr. Kigap Kang, former politician but now an orchard owner who experiments with nature-based farming for fruit trees in Sacheon City, arranged our meeting with the Director of Sacheon City Cultural Center. The place-name Sacheon (Xichuan in Chinese) is no unknown place in the mytho-history of Magoism. Like many other place-names, “Sacheon” is located in present-day China and the Korean peninsula. Neuk-do is under the administration of Sacheon City. Director alongside his companion met us in his office. They told us Neuk-do’s stories of Mago Halmae. Then, we drove to the road off the shore where we could look out the stepping stones in the sea that Mago Halmae is said to have placed. The tide was high and we could see only the tips of rocks. I could see the island across the adjoining water. Neuk-do was unusual in landscape, it was an island conjoined by two mountainous isles. From such topography the name, the Serpent Island, may have derived. Houses are populated in the conjoined area. We drove to Neuk-do through the modern bridge with the hope of running into someone who could guide us to the site of Mago stepping stones. A native of Neuk-do, our guide-to-be, happened to be right there, when we got off the car.

Stepping stones created by Mago Halmi, Photo by Helen Hwang
Mago’s Rock of Washing Laundry, Photo by Helen Hwang

Mr. Gyeung Jang, 61 year-old fisherman and native of Neuk-do, showed us the site in the sea where stepping stones that Mago is told to have placed. Due to the high tide, we could see the top parts of Mago’s stepping stones surfaced over the waterline. He also led us to the rock of Mago Halmi’s washing laundry and informed of its size to be about two meters high at the low tide. He added, Mago Halmi was so tall and giant that she needed a tall rock.

Having dinner at a seafood restaurant in Neuk-do, our conversations grew. Mr. Jang informed us of the fact that the whole island of Neuk-do is designated as a cultural and notable site by the province and the state. Its archaeological unearthing began in early 1980s and has brought out a large number of multi-periods findings (about 13,000 items) ranging from the Neolithic to the early Iron Age. The unearthed include shell mounds, house sites, human and animal burials, potteries, and daggers that originated from not only Korea but also the Yayoi Japan and the Nangnang China. As such, Neuk-do has been known for the location of ancient transnational maritime centers.[i]

Neuk-do, South Gyeongsang Province, S. Korea

As I write this, the Mago story turns out to have several versions. I will share three versions here. One story has that Mago Halmae, so tall and giant, walked around the sea. She brought rocks in her skirt to build a bridge at Deumun Dolpak, located between Samcheon-po and Neuk-do. Rocks fell off, when her skirt wore out. Thus, her construction of the bridge was interrupted.

Another version of the story is that Mago Halmae, also known as Mabu Halmae, Goddess of the Jiri Mountains, visited Neuk-do. Welcomed and hospitably treated by the islanders, she asked them a wish from her. People wanted her to build a bridge that connects to the mainland. Strong and giant as she was, Mago began to bring rocks from Jiri Mountains in her skirt. However, she was startled by the shout of a man at the sight of her underwear and drowned in the sea.

Yet another version of the story has that one day Mago Halmi who resided in Jiri Mountains wanted to go sightseeing in the sea. She hopped one step and landed on Samcheon-po (Harbor of Three Thousands), a port  across Neuk-do. Her hop caused a wave to surge. That made a ship almost capsized. The ship was sailing from Ma-do (Ma Island) to the mainland. Feeling sorry for that, Mago Halmi determined herself to build stepping stones to connect Ma-do to the mainland. She carried rocks from Jiri Mountains in her skirt and placed them for stepping stones. By the time she almost completed the construction, she saw the white waves cresting in a distant sea. A shoal of gizzard shads was approaching. Mago Halmi realized that she should not continue constructing stepping stones. Those stepping stones are the islands we see near Neuk-do.

[i] From the official website of Sacheon Cultural Center.

http://www.4000cc.or.kr/bbs/board.php?bo_table=mun&wr_id=48&sca=%EC%82%AC%EC%A0%81 (11/27/2015)

For more on Mago Pilgrimage to Korea, see here.

See (Meet Mago Contributor) Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, Ph.D.

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