[Fluent Fools] The Origins of Korea: Shamanism, Mountain Spirits, and the Legend of Dangun ⛰️

Episode Description

When the ancestors of the Korean people migrated southward from what is now Siberia thousands and thousands of years ago, they arrived in a beautiful peninsula covered in mountains. Since then and throughout our history, the Korean people have had a spiritual connection to and an unrelenting love for the land we call home. This relationship with nature is the basis of Korean Shamanism, our original culture. Shamanism didn’t come to Korea the way Confucianism, Buddhism, or other ideologies were imported. Shamanism arrived with the first Koreans. Because 70-80% of Korea is mountainous, the Sanshin or mountain spirits became a primary deity and continues to be actively worshiped today. The Legend of Dangun is a Shamanic creation and sovereignty myth that tells the story of the king who establishes Korea’s first kingdom and goes on to become the most famous Sanshin of them all.

Join us as we dive into Korean Shamanism, mountains and their spirits, the Legend of Dangun, and the origins of Korean culture and society, and how it’s progressed and been preserved to today.

Links to Professor David A. Mason’s websites:


Minju Park (“MJP”): You’re listening to the Fluent Fools podcast by Fluent Korean.

MJP: Hey everyone, it’s Minju here and this is the first episode of the Fluent Fools podcast, a show that looks at the many sides of being Korean in the 21st century – whether you’re in the peninsula, or part of the global diaspora, or maybe you’re neither and you’re just really into Korean language and culture. Everyone is welcome here. In this podcast, we explore the language, culture, society, history, and current events happening in the Land of the Morning Calm and around the world as we continue on our quest to go from fluent fools to fluent Korean.

“One who learns language without learning culture ends up becoming a fluent fool.”

MJP: For the first episode of this podcast, I thought it would be very fitting to talk about the origins of Korean society and culture. It centers largely around mountain shamanism and starts with the founding of Korea’s first kingdom – the story of which is told in one of our most important creation and sovereignty myths – The Legend of Dangun.

To help me tell this story, I’ve invited Professor David A. Mason.

Professor David A. Mason drinking tea in his office.
Professor David A. Mason drinking tea in his office.
(Photo from Prof. Mason’s website)

Professor David A. Mason (“DAM”): Hello there, everybody. Pleased to be talking to you today. David A. Mason, the Professor of Cultural Tourism at Sejong University in Seoul, and we’re going to talk about really interesting stuff about traditional Korean culture today.

MJP: Professor Mason here has lived and worked in Korea for almost four decades. He’s taught at various universities, he’s worked on many government cultural tourism projects including the temple stay program which we’ll get into a bit later. He’s written more than 10 books about Korean culture and history and he literally wrote the Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism and a book called Spirit of the Mountains which is about Sanshin and Korean mountain worship, which makes him the perfect guest for today’s topic.

An Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism by Ven. Hyewon and David A. Mason

Spirit of the Mountains – Korea’s Sanshin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship by David A. Mason

Sanshin (산신|山神) or mountain spirits are such a prominent figure in Korean culture that even though they’re a Shamanistic deity, they have a presence in every major Korean philosophy. And the most well-known Sanshin of them all is Dangun (단군|檀君).

So I hope you enjoy our conversation about the origins of Korea.

MJP: When we think about the major religious, philosophical or ideological traditions in Korea, there’s Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Korean Nationalism, Christianity, in North Korea, there’s Juche. Some of these traditions were introduced to the peninsula, and Koreans later added their own character to it. But when we talk about origin stories, Shamanism comes to mind. It was the one that came to Korea first and is truly Korean. How exactly did Shamanism come to Korea?

DAM: Well, it’s not that Shamanism came to Korea. It’s that the people who became Koreans, they were shamanic. As they moved in here, we always remember that there were Stone Age people here first, and they’re just gone. Absolutely gone. Those people migrated down from southern Siberia. They were shamanic people. And they brought their thing here and yeah, that was here first. Here, Manchuria, Mongolia, all that and then they encountered the Chinese. And that made all the difference in the world, made this very unique mixture because they got a whole lot of Chinese culture mixed in with the original Siberian Shamanism, their own ways that just ended up with something very unique.

MJP: I think it’s so interesting that Shamanism arrived with the first Koreans and since then other influences such as the ones from China, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism have arrived, and they enjoyed a lot of mainstream success throughout Korean history whereas Shamanism was kind of pushed down, especially during the Joseon Dynasty. But despite that, Shamanism has been able to survive through all these different ideologies, maintain a lot of its characteristics, and still permeates today in our modern society. Even if we don’t realize it, Shamanism is a huge part of our culture.

An example that comes to mind is our national anthem. The part that goes “하느님이 보우하사 우리나라 만세” which means “may God watch over our land, long live our country” and here “하느님” is often translated as God in a very Christian sense, but it’s actually the very Shamanic Lord of Heaven.

DAM: Yeah. Well, Christians use that too. But 하늘님, Lord of the Skies, Lord of Heaven. And then Christians sometimes do use that and they use 하나님, the one God. There are more Buddhist terms like Cheonwang (천왕|天王), Heavenly King.

It does permeate. It is Koreans’ original culture. And in the ancient times, shamans were leaders. Just like in many tribal cultures – Stone Age to Bronze Age cultures. Shamans were either a kind of a spiritual leader or just the outright leader of the tribe, from what we know. And it seems like Korea’s earliest tribal confederations had shamanic kings. Those gold crowns of Silla (신라|新羅) which are just incredible and the Baekje (백제|百濟) crowns which are not really Confucian or Buddhist in appearance, not Chinese style, but definite Shamanic motifs. Sure.

Left: National treasure No. 87, the The Gold Silla Crown from Geumgwanchong (Image Source)

Right: National treasure No. 295, Gilt-bronze Baekje crown from Sinchon-ri, Naju (Image Source)

And then as Buddhism and Chinese culture came in, Shamanism becomes a number two thing, and definitely second class with Buddhism on top and representing all general Chinese culture with Confucianism mixed into the Buddhism, and Shamanism definitely having a second place, still a rather strong position, there being shamans at the palace, still talking to the king and doing magic rituals, and sometimes those shamans are Buddhist monks acting as shamans and sometimes just purely a shaman, but really kind of mixing in there, but definitely the second level of society.

MJP: Usually when I think about Korean shamans, I picture them as female, but you’re saying that shamans were mostly male, at least in the early parts of Korean history.

DAM: At first, it’s all men being shamans as far as we can see, from the very earliest times, and these leaderships and into the ancient age to where it was second class. Mostly all male, it was really a profession.

Something where, you know, had status and made money and Korea has always been a very patriarchal culture, unfortunately, and women suppressed given less of a role. There’s some women shamans, not too many, though.

Then, by the Goryeo Dynasty, maybe medieval times, as Buddhism and Confucianism get more supreme, and Shamanism pushed a bit lower, they started getting more women doing Shamanism.

And by the Joseon Dynasty, there are still male shamans, there’s still a fair amount of them, but hiding and ashamed of it, especially as women tended to be oppressed and have terrible social position in many cases. Oppressed within their family structure. Many stories of this.

Then escaping the family to become a shaman. It’s a psychological way of escaping, and just physically being able to leave the family and having a way to make a living, a way to make some money and not just become a slave someplace or something. Being picked up by the authorities or kidnapped by somebody. Actually having some social position being a shaman and having that psychological release of Shamanism to be able to escape your oppression and deal with the emotions of it.

And if a woman became a shaman, a family just kind of disowned her, if a daughter became a shaman or a married woman. Becoming a shaman often would just be exiled, kicked out of a family household, and they would tell people that she died. They would just disown her and they’d wipe her out of the family record book and whatever and then she’d have a certain kind of freedom then, a freedom to be outside that oppressive Confucian social structure.

But on the other hand, maybe a very hard life, a difficult life.

And still today, that happens. Shamans are kind of unofficial, sort of illegal, to practice and make money openly, only legal in a few parts of the country. Some shamans live in great poverty, others have gotten quite rich, all kinds of results.

These days, they say mostly female because of that Joseon legacy. Still some men and sometimes male-female partnerships of various types.

MJP: It says a lot about Korea’s history of patriarchy, and how it continues to trickle down to now. So, a big part of Shamanism is spiritual connection to nature, the flora and fauna, the sun, the moon, the stars, the wind, and of course, your favorite thing about Korea, the mountains.

DAM: Oh, yeah.

MJP: What’s the significance of Koreans’ connection to our land? And why are mountains so revered in particular?

DAM: Shamanism, as we call it, that word comes from [Shamanism], the Shamanism of eastern Siberia that researchers discovered 150 years ago and made that word. But then really it’s the same as the paganism and animism and nature-worship found in ancient or more traditional kind of cultures or primitive cultures, whatever you want to call it, all over the world. And there’s great similarities from like Brazilian native beliefs to Africa to a Native American stuff to the Siberian Shamanism that Koreans inherited.

Now, all of it is very nature-conscious, just like those people were. People of the Stone Age, people of the Bronze Age, they lived in nature and had no way to escape it like we do now in our modern cities. They’re very conscious of nature and so it’s very appreciative. Valuing nature, believing that nature is very spiritually alive and seeing all the different ways that nature influences us and we influence nature and just being in touch with the earth, and the forest, and the weather, and such, day by day and in the long term noticing the cycles of the moon, the stars, the seasons, and such.

Now, mountains. Siberia doesn’t have that much mountains, only in some parts of Siberia, a lot of it in southern Siberia, great forests. And our evidence, the little that we have, is that these ancestors of the Koreans were much more tree-focused. Trees and animals like tigers and deer and such, not so mountain-focused.

But then, when they come down here, when they got to Manchuria and Korean peninsula, it’s all mountains. It’s like 75% mountains. Now, those who went over into what is now Mongolia, and those big flat grasslands and rolling hills. That’s a whole different thing. They developed a whole different direction. But coming into here, yeah, mountains and really sharp, craggy, and steep mountains and they are everywhere. That becomes predominant.

The mountain spirit who might have been a much lesser factor 5,000 years ago, when they got here, the mountain spirit becomes primary along with retaining, say, the tiger spirit as primary because the same tigers were here and very dominant in the mountains.

And then the deer, the fish, the birds, the ducks, whatever. The bears. The bears are same as Siberia. Brown bears and small black bears. So, some things remain constant, but the mountain spirits shot up in value.

In the Korean Peninsula, it’s one of the first things I noticed and anybody would coming in here that you see mountains everywhere on the horizon, and they’re rather sharp and steep mountains so very noticeable even in cases where they’re not really very high.

Even a mountain, say, it’s only 300 meters but maybe it’s so steep and rocky, like Inwangsan (인왕산|仁王山) right in Seoul, right from downtown Seoul. It really looks prominent and you notice it like, “Whoa, look at that!” Bugaksan (북악산|北嶽山) or Namsan (남산|南山) any of these. The valley lands are much more fertile and they have open fields and streams running but the mountain slopes being very rocky and having the twisted pine trees.

That’s another major factor, the unique, twisted Korean red pine trees. So lovely, so beautiful, so, kind of, meaningful in their very individual forms. And those are up on the mountain slopes among all the outstanding boulders and the cliffs and such.

And it just gives an idea that there is a spiritual area up above that’s very different from the civilization area down below. So this idea that sacredness gets associated with altitude. The higher you are, the more holy it is, is a theme running throughout the Korean Manchurian culture. And you would not have had that in Siberia or in giant flat forests. That wouldn’t have been so much of a factor but definitely is here.

MJP: And that leads us to the mythical founding of Korean society – The Legend of Dangun.

For the benefit of listeners who have no idea what this story is about, I’m going to do a quick retelling of the story, and then we can discuss it after.

A long long time ago, Hwanin (환인|桓因), the Lord of Heaven, had a son named Hwanung. Hwanin (환웅|桓雄), observing his son’s immense interest in the human realm and sends Hwanung to rule over the people and benefit humanity. Hwanung looks down upon the earth from the Heavens, sees Mt. Taebaek and decides that this is a suitable place.

But obviously, he isn’t going to let his son go down to earth alone and empty handed. He gives Hwanung the Three Heavenly Seals as sacred symbols of rulership: a divine mirror, which represents rulership over one’s people, a divine sword, representing military commandership, and the divine rattle or the divine drum, which represents sacred rituals and humanity’s relationship with the gods.

From the Heaven Kingdom, Hwanung also brings with him 3,000 followers along with the Wind God, the Rainfall God, and the Cloud God, and descends to the earthly realm to establish a holy city or Sinsi.

At Sinsi, Hwanung presides over 360 kinds of human affairs such as agriculture, arts, weather, life, disease, and punishment. He institutes laws, oversees good versus evil, and teaches humans how to farm, make art, and heal illnesses with medicine.

Around this time, in a cave somewhere, a bear and a tiger pray to Hwanung with a desperate wish to become human. They pray and beg so earnestly that Hwanung agrees to grant them their wish, but with one condition.

He gives them a bundle of divine mugwort and twenty divine garlic bulbs and says, ‘if you live on the sacred food and avoid sunlight for 100 days, you will become human.”

But after only twenty-one days, the tiger grows impatient and leaves the cave in search of better food, completely failing the mission. The bear, on the other hand, perseveres and transforms into a beautiful woman called Ungnyeo (웅녀|熊女), which literally translates to “bear woman”.

Ungnyeo, grateful for her new life, happily continues to pray and make offerings to Hwanung. However, she realizes that what she really wants is to mother a child. None of the human men want to marry her because they know of her past as a bear.

So again, she prays relentlessly beneath a divine tree called Shindansu (신단수|神檀樹). Moved by her prayers, Hwanung shape-shifts into a man and fathers her child.

The union of the Sky Father and the Earth Mother results in the birth of Dangun Wanggeom, the king who ends up founding Joseon, which is Korea’s first kingdom in 2,333 BCE. It’s now called Gojoseon because there’s another Joseon Dynasty later in Korea’s history.

DAM: Right, Gojoseon. Old Joseon. That’s right.

One thing many people could mistake on this is seeing Dangun as some kind of an Adam and Eve figure for the Koreans today like he’s the first Korean and all his children become Koreans.

But no, that’s not what the myth says at all. The myth, assumes, just like most of East Asia, they assume that they’re already human beings here. So this fits much better with the Theory of Evolution. They assume that humans were here, just they weren’t civilized.

They didn’t have a civilized organization. They had no king and Dangun comes along, and just like one of the great mythical, sage kings of China, a great human being shows up from Heaven or just somehow, and they organize the people. They get the people organized and get them working together building a city, damming up the river banks, organized hunting and fishing and creating a civilization and teaching them morality, which primarily in those – it would mean like the family, having a nuclear family unit.

You don’t just have sex with anybody, men and women are particular people who they have sex. Their children, that’s your children and children should respect parents, and parents should take care of their children.

The very basics of morality and ethics, social ethics were taught by these early kings. They just organized the people into a society and therefore, they are highly respected.

Now, in Dangun’s case, yes, his father came from Heaven supposedly to benefit humanity, which we can see here what that would mean.

Already there is humanity, but they were Stone Age, and truly, this Manchurian – this Peninsula were filled with Stone Age people.We have still a few relics we found of them. And then these Bronze Age people came in. They were Bronze Age, they have bronze, they have weapons, they had horses. They got horses there in southern Siberia, which allowed them to migrate southward.

They were conquerors, they were pirates. They attacked and took over whoever they encountered, and stole all their food, their stuff, their women, their animal skins, whatever they had, they stole it. And took it. And they thought they were superior. Surely.

Bronze Age people thought they were superior to the Stone Age people. In technology, and in every other way, yeah, they were. And so they took over and they thought they were benefiting the Stone Age people. By taking over them, we’ll bring you civilization. We’ll show you the wonder of bronze tools, farming, agriculture, building better houses, and fortresses, and bringing all this good stuff.

And then they encounter the Chinese people. The Bronze Age people encounter the Chinese. And this is part of the myth. This is told in the Myth of Dangun. They even originally use the date 1,122 BCE which is the traditional date for founding the Zhou Dynasty of China, the first real totally historic dynasty of China, which was an Iron Age civilization much advanced over these Bronze Age people. They had reading and writing, and they had carts with wheels on them instead of just dragging things behind a horse, and they have silk clothing which is so much better in the summertime than wearing animal skins or rough plant fibers. The Chinese had silk.

So they encountered them 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, midway, and kind of a similar – the Chinese did not take over the Koreans but really influenced them. They took a higher level of civilization from them then created that blend that we call Korean culture.

So quite interesting. I don’t think maybe a lot of people don’t realize, Chinese and Koreans are totally different kinds of people. Not today, but originally.

Genetically, racially, whatever, we think the early origins of Koreans is from Western Siberia or the steppes of what is now Ukraine and Eastern Europe. They migrated across Siberia 10, 20, 30,000 thousand years ago in different ways. And from Southern Siberia they migrated south again with horses and came south.

The Chinese are people who started in Southeast Asia, and migrated north. They moved north for 10,000 years and 5,000 years ago started making a kind of civilization faster in a way that Siberia did not allow.

Okay, so the Chinese are moving north. These people are moving south and the place where they met together, that’s what’s called the Great Wall of China. People don’t quite realize it, but that’s why the Great Wall of China was built. These Bronze Age people were violent, shall we say gangster tribes, they were riding horses, they were attacking. And Chinese were trying to be farming people building an agricultural civilization, and they got tired very quickly of being attacked and having their stuff robbed. And so they built the biggest wall in human history 2,200 years ago.

So today, Korean people, they love it. They go to Beijing, they climb up on the wall as a tourist and they say, “Hahahaha! They were really scared of us. Look at the size of this wall. They were scared to death of us. Woah, woah!” Which is true. It’s just true.

But then at that wall, sometimes there were fighting, sometimes there was violence, but often there wasn’t. For long periods of time and they were trading at the wall, at the gates. And sometimes Chinese military came north of the gate made some military camps. Four great towns even, and they traded together. Koreans would bring in tiger skins and ginseng root and the Chinese soldiers would give them paper and ink and maybe show them how to use it, and give them silk, and show them how to make wheels, and show them how to smelt iron instead of just bronze and all this stuff for hundreds of years.

And they changed, and then genetically, it’s been 2,000 years. A whole lot of Chinese people came into this area in one way [or another]. Refugees or soldiers, or what, and a fair number of Koreans migrated southwards into various provinces of China too. And so racial, genetic mixing really pretty strong by today.

Sure. Originally, they were totally different people. That still shows in the language. The original Korean language has nothing to do with Chinese. Nothing. It’s just totally different origin and still today, the official Korean language or those of Manchuria, very different from the Chinese.

So, anyway, getting back to the Dangun myth. Please go ahead.

MJP: According to the legend, after ruling for 1,500 years, Dangun abdicates his throne and becomes a Sanshin, a mountain god.

DAM: Love that part of the myth.

MJP: How does that happen and how is this explained?

DAM: I love that. It comes right at the end of the myth and it really ties everything together to me. Yes, he was supposedly king for 1,500 years, and the these days, the advocates of truth in this, they say it’s actually like a dynasty of 33 different Dangun kings father son dynasty for 1,500 years, whatever, but this did come to an end.

And the myth says it came to an end when Gija came from China. Gija seems to have been a Chinese Lord who brought an army into this area, a more advanced Iron Age army and yes, did conquer some of the Bronze Age people. And as a Chinese Lord, set himself up with Iron Age Chinese culture and therefore, Korean culture was relegated to a second place, a second level. They were introduced to Confucianism and later comes Buddhism but Confucian style kind of Chinese government.

And so, the myth says Dangun retreated to the mountains and it says hid himself. He was hiding as a Sanshin, a mountain spirit.

And I think that’s exactly true in the very symbolic sense as Chinese culture moved into the valleys, the major places that became towns, and then later cities. Chinese style culture and they start building houses and wearing clothing and using language and having a government of the Chinese style, all of it.

And Korean culture is in the mountains, the higher mountain villages, the farming villages, and so Korean shaman shrines, way up high in the mountain, Dangun is there in a painting or a statue of Dangun. And people still worshiping and doing that high in the mountains. That’s original Korean culture. Kind of hiding.

And later, as we know, Korea was dominated by a Chinese style of culture for 2,000 years, but then the Japanese came in (20th century) and Japanized things for 45 years. And original Korean culture still hiding in the mountains. Everything from actual independence activists to shamans and other people – Confucianists, Daoists, Buddhists, preserving original Korean culture high in the mountains where the Japanese authorities did not reach. They were there. And then Americanization later and with the Korean War and all that, American culture takes over and Christianity spreads in the cities, in the valleys, in the towns, lowlands, and original Korean culture hiding in the mountains in that Sanshin shrines.

And that is still true today.

So, if you look at it in that kind of overall sense, the myth makes perfect sense and explains a lot of what you find in Korea today. Yes.

MJP: What exactly is the role of Sanshin? What do people worship him for and what does Sanshin represent to the Korean people?

DAM: Well, remember, he or she. There are female Sanshin. They are mostly painted in the paintings as male because of the Confucian influence. And Buddhism is pretty patriarchal too, for that matter. You may notice all the Buddhism Bodhisattvas are men. In Tibetan culture, you can have female Bodhisattvas, but not here.

Anyway, I believe, Sanshin is a symbol of the relationship between the human beings and the mountain. Now just think about this, if you live at mountain, you live nearby a mountain, and pretty much everyone in Korea does. Always has. A mountain is nearby you, you’re at the foots or the slope of some mountain.

Well, you have a relationship with that mountain. If affects you and I mean all the trees, and the products from the mountain, and the animals that live on the moutain, and simply the looming presence of the mountain that you look up at every day. And the way it affects your local weather, sun and shade and everything. You have a relationship with that mountain.

Now, earlier people, people of the Bronze Age, Iron Age, the Agricultural Ages, they don’t really have the language. They don’t have a way to express that like we do now. But they create, and this is human religious psychology, they create a deity. A shamanic god, spirit, figure that represents that relationship. The same as the dragon spirit that represents the river that runs through your area or the stream of your village, or the ocean if you’re on the coast, whatever. Like that, this deity represents the relationship. And so by worshipping, or simply bowing, in respect or prayer chanting, you are honoring that relationship. You’re recognizing the relationship.

I think this goes to theories of modern ecology. The Green Movement, and such. And possibly, very useful that, in a way, we can express our relationship with nature by doing these kind of ceremonies and rituals to these kind of spirits still today and regard them as very beneficent and just understanding the relationship. Like, if we are good to the mountain, the mountain will be good to us.

There’s a lot of these ancient beliefs of taboos about not starting a forest fire, not polluting the waters of the stream, not killing the animals in certain parts of the mountain forest, not cutting any trees in some certain areas. Today we can recognize it’s very ecological, keeping the village below healthy by doing this. They didn’t understand about bacteria, but they had laws that on the upper part of the stream on the mountain slope, you cannot take a bath, you cannot do your pooping bathroom activities, you cannot wash your laundry up there. And because then the people in the village would get sick down below and they didn’t know about bacteria, they don’t know why that happens, but they knew it was true.

So today, we can still express this, if we keep the mountains healthy we keep the forests healthy, it will help keep us healthy. And if we do a ceremony and bow and humble ourselves that we great human beings who conquer everything and destroy everything. Maybe we should respect nature, we should have some respect for the water. Have some respect for the trees. Have some respect for the mountain and not damage it in order to protect ourselves.

Now you can imagine earlier people thinking this way and then having it as a guardian spirit protecting us, thinking of it as a very harsh judge. That sometimes the mountain punishes people. Sometimes rocks tumble down the mountainside and crush somebody or a house. Sometimes a tiger comes out of the forest and grabs a child of the family, or kills a farmer. Nature can be pretty rough. So you’re kind of scared of it, but also you love it. You love your local mountain, but you’re also kind of scared of its power, too, and you respect it. You show your respect and your chanting praise. “Oh, mountain spirit is a great spirit, a great lord, indeed. And we offer praise and we offer offerings. Basically just attention to your reality.”

Spirits are kept alive if you acknowledge them and if people believe in them, then that’s a living spirit. If it disappears, if nobody talks about that spirit anymore, it’s gone. There is no more spirit.

So, yup. Guardians. And they had all kinds of guardians. All kinds. And it became very complicated and it shifted and changed all through Korean history. Once smallpox disease showed up, they never had that before. And then it came, and they developed smallpox spirits and started having a lot of ceremonies to try to get them to leave the village. Never had that before. But mountain spirit remains as a constant, and the idea that Dangun became a mountain spirit and therefore kind of represents [all mountain spirit].

MJP: Is there just one Sanshin or does every mountain have a Sanshin?

DAM: Many Korean shamans or Buddhist monks have said something like, they say “Oh, every mountain spirit is Dangun, is really Dangun.” Okay, that’s not what the myth says. That myth says Dangun became a Sanshin. Now, other people say, all the mountain spirits are children or grandchildren of Dangun.

Now, do you know what the Baekdu Daegan is?

MJP: I do, but for listeners who aren’t familiar, the Baekdu Daegan is a continuous mountain range that runs through almost the entire length of the Korean Peninsula. It starts in Baekdusan (Baekdu Mountain) which is close to the North Korean-Chinese border up north and it ends in Jirisan (Jiri Mountain) which is located in the southern region of South Korea.

If you look at it visually, on a map, it does actually look like a spine, it follows the curvature of the Eastern coast as it continues along down the peninsula.

The Baekdu Daegan on a map of Korea (left) and represented visually as a tiger (right). (Image Source)

It also branches out into different ranges at various points, which provides another layer of meaning that I won’t go into right now, but for 1,400 kilometers, the Baekdu Daegan never once disconnects or crosses water until it finally ends at Jirisan.

So we already know that mountains are sacred. That in itself would make it significant, but the Baekdu Daegan is also the source of fresh water for the peninsula. All of the sources of the major Korean rivers can be found along these mountain ranges.

Because of this, Koreans throughout history have looked at the Baekdu Daegan as the source of the land’s energy and life force. And the source of the nation’s success, strength, health, everything … Because water is the source of life. Think about everything that requires water and this sort of energy to thrive.

And there’s the Pungsu aspect that’s so engrained into our culture. Pungsujiri is a form of Korean geomancy, the Chinese version is probably more well-known, Feng Shui, the patterns of wind and water. But Koreans, we, created our own principles based on the unique topography of our land.

So the Baekdu Daegan is and has always been geographically, spiritually, and symbolically very important to Koreans.

DAM: Okay, good. Now, let’s get into this. The Baekdu Daegan.

This becomes a very elaborate idea by the Joseon Dynasty, mixing in Confucian-style family worship. You know, family structure. That Dangun is like the Sanshin of Baekdusan. The ultimate male father Sanshin of the entire nation at Baekdusan. And then down at Jirisan, the end of the Baekdu Daegan, or some people say Hallasan in Jejudo (Jeju Island), that’s the ultimate mother. That’s the matriarch of the nation, the mother of Korea. Some people call her Mago, there’s different revived mythology about this.

Okay. Then all the mountains along the Baekdu Daegan are their children. All the mountain spirits, the spirits of each great mountain along the Baekdu Daegan, thousands of them, that’s their children. And then, the branch ranges that branch from the Baekdu Daegan and go down to the ocean, there’s 13 major branches, that’s their grandchildren. And then, the smaller mountain ranges branching off from those making each individual location within Korea are their great grandchildren and their great great grand children even.

So, all the mountain spirits in Korea, it’s like one big family that together makes physically Korea! And it gives the vitaliy and energy to the Korean people.

This is a wonderful thing. But that’s a fairly recent theory, I would say, within the last few hundred years under the influence of Confucianism developed that way.

I would mention, I have a long standing dispute with of the very few other academic professors, people qualified to debate this, the great James Grayson of England. Made his whole specialty in Korean folklore, and myths and legends of Korea, wrote the essential encyclopedia book on that. Alright. He translates that at the end of the myth, Dangun became the Sanshin meaning all the Sanshin are really Dangun upon his retirement. Every one of them. Somehow even the female ones.

I translate it oppositely. I say, Dangun became a Sanshin. In ancient classical Chinese, there is no such distinction. In modern English, it’s a grammatical distinction. He became one Sanshin, one of the Sanshin. He became Sanshin of one particular mountain.

Most people agree on Guwolsan on what is now North Korea, down the river from Pyeongyang. Traditionally, really, he seemed to have been born at Myohyangsan, but only in the 20th century did that belief shift to Baekdusan as people learned about Baekdusan, quite a hidden mountain previously.

Anyway, I say he became a Sanshin of one partiuclar mountain. I say this because many particular mountains in Korea have a particular identity of a Sanshin. Especially that some of them are females. How could that be Dangun? And then Grayson might counter and say, well, okay. Dangun’s wife. The great queen, there must have been one. Or Dangun’s mother, the Ungnyeo bear woman or something. She became the female Sanshin. That doesn’t work for me.

There’s many mountains here that have an individual identity that is — including some human beings that became a Sanshin, in some particular area. Like King Danjong of the Joseon Dynasty only 400 years ago. He became a Sanshin. So, they’re not all Dangun.

So me and James Grayson have had this dispute for 20 some years. I really love having a rival on this because very few people know what they’re talking about. I truly value him.

MJP: Speaking of these mountain gods, when we look at the imagery of Sanshin, and I know that in Shamanism, visuals in the form of paintings, portraits, in particular are really important because they help create this sort of sacred spiritual space for the shaman. And when we look at Sanshin paintings, we often see an older man with a long white beard and he has a staff and sometimes he’s holding a fan, but in every painting I’ve seen, there’s always a tiger.

How did the tiger, who in the legend, was not very patient and left the cave early become Dangun’s right hand man?

DAM: Yeah, it’s interesting in the way that intersects with the myth thing of the Dangun’s mother, having been a bear and becoming human, and the tiger remaining wild, I suppose, as a wild animal, but there were still bears in Korea, there were other bears.

The tiger is really the King of the Mountain and Koreans would know that and acknowledge that as much as a lion is the King of the African Savanna. Tigers are the most powerful. Tigers can kill bears. They would have a hard time about it, but they can. And they can kill anything and anybody. They’re simply the most impressive and it’s kind of, King of the Mountain.

So, therefore, as an animal spirit, tigers are King of the Mountain as it were already and the Sanshin is called the Mountain King, the Mountain Lord.

So there are various different stories and traditions, different ways of looking at this. Some see that the tiger himself is a manifestation of the Sanshin. Every tiger you see, there in the forest, is actually a Sanshin who has just assumed tiger form. Other people don’t believe that. They see Sanshin as a spiritual entity that you can’t really see, or you rarely can see in person, but sometimes appears to people in dreams or whatever in human form and the tigers are like their assistants.

The tiger is his pet, like a ped dog and his enforcer. The tiger’s kind of a thug, in some senses. Like, if a family and their child is outdoors during the winter and they’re — and a tiger grabs the child, drags it away, eats it, then the local villagers will say, “Oh, that family must have violated the Sanshin taboos.” They must not have worshiped Sanshin correctly or not sincerely. They didn’t give offerings or they cut down trees when they weren’t supposed to. They hunted where they weren’t supposed to. Something like that. They broke the taboos and the Sanshin punish them by sending the tiger.

In other cases, we have other myths of tigers doing good things for people like the little boy whose mother is deathly sick and the local doctor says, “Well, there’s a kind of fish on the coast that can cure this sickness.” That’s the only thing that could guarantee but they live deep in the mountains of Gangwon Province deep in the mountains far from the coast and there’s no way to get this. And the boy prays to the Sanshin spirit and a tiger appears, shows up, lets the little boy get on his back, and the tiger carries him quickly out to the coast, the tiger finds the fish, bites it, and carries it back, with the little boy on his back, caries it back to the village with that fish, the local healer uses the fish, cures his mother, and later the family builds a shrine to Sanshin, which still stands there in Pyeongchang today. Like that.

Also, Sanshin supposedly showed up in various places in Korea, giving wild ginseng roots flowering seeds to the Korean people teaching them how to cultivate it, how to actually plant ginseng and also appearing in dreams to ginseng hunters to help them find the wild ginseng.

So, Sanshin can be good and benevolent and helping people and also punish people who break the rules, and sometimes it’s just rather random, just like any powerful people, any government official just randomly oppress and be unfair at times.

Shaman spirits are like that too. Even though you didn’t do anything wrong. You can just get hit by some spirit, whether it’s smallpox spirit or Sanshin tiger, something like that. Just hit you anyway because life is like that.

Anyway. The tiger is there, either as alter ego, as a physical manifestation, or as the assistant, the thug, the errand boy of the Sanshin, any of those ways.

Also, there is a third element in a Sanshin painting that is essential. There’s three elements to make a Sanshin painting or a Sanshin statue. If any of those is absent, then maybe it’s not really a Sanshin, you’re just looking at a Daoist immortal or some other such similar figure.

And the other is the pine tree, the red pine tree with the red bark, the brilliant green pine needles, and the twisted, gnarly trunk. These are not at all the most useful kind of pine tree, they’re not respected for that. They’re not the best wood for construction. Not at all. But they’re the most individual, the most spiritual, the most amazing. Whether in coastal forests like in Gangneung, or very high on the mountains, like even right in Seoul.

So those pine trees must be present. A red pine tree, a tiger, and a human figure eihter male or female looking royal. Generally looking royal like some kind of king or queen. Although they can be painted as shamans also sometimes too or even in rare cases Buddhist monks.

Buddhist monks who became a Sanshin after their death are painted as Buddhist monks in a place like Seounsan (서운산/瑞雲山) mediation clouds mountain on the West coast has that. In fact, in that case, it’s twin brother Buddhist monks, each one has a tiger.

Now sometimes you even see a husband and wife Sanshin set where it looks like a king and queen sitting next to each other, both of them looking fairly stout, well-fed. But they’re sitting side-by-side, each one has a tiger.

There’s an amazing variety of these but they gotta have the three elements.

So, the pine tree, notice then, the pine tree represents all plants, a whole world of plants. That part of the biosphere. The Korean red pine tree is said by Koreans to be the king of the plant world because everything has a king. Every realm has a king. The tiger is the king of all animals, and the human figure is the king in the mountain that also represents the best kind of human being, the ultimate human.

So, it’s kind of earth and plants and animals all together as a triad, that you are respecting, and you can also see humanity blended in there. Human beings, having a relation with earth and plants and animals.

Mountains are certainly the best part of earth. Red pine trees are the best kind of plants. And the tiger is the supreme among animals and the king among humans. If he is a wise, a good, philosophical king, with wisdom, a spiritual, enlightened king, then he is the best kind of human being, isn’t he?

Ever since I first saw them, I’ve loved these Sanshin paintings, because they contain so many elements. Those three primary elements of which you can say quite a bit about, but then there’s like 25 other things in those paintings. Things that Sanshin is holding in his hands such as ginseng root or a bullocho (불로초|不老草) mushroom of immortality, or the staff of not only a mountain hiker, but also of an enlightened Buddhist Zen master, or a fan used by a Daoist army general to control the wind and the weather, or certain kinds of flowers, certain kinds of peach fruits of immortality, waterfalls, mountain peaks, the sun itself, the whole Shipjangsaeng (십장생|十長生).

If your listeners know about this, the shipjangsaeng, the 10 different symbols of longevity, symbols of long life, which means good health. These are in Sanshin paintings. Whether turtles of deer, often like a deer coming in, a male deer holding a ginseng root in his mouth, bringing it to the Sanshin, and a female deer walking up holding a mushroom in her mouth offering to Sanshin.

Symbols of healthy, herbal medicine. And again, that goes to the theme of if we protect nature, then nature will protect us. It’ll give us good health, which is something that modern people have just been very stupid to forget that. How could we forget that? It’s just so damn obvious. It’s a wisdom that we strongly need to return to.

Okay, so all these elements, it is so fascinating. And I find new elements still after 38 years. After collecting two thousand such images. It’s a rather narrow, in some ways, part of Korean culture, but it’s all over Korea. It’s everywhere.

I’m sure there are 10,000 Sanshin shrines in Korea, probably a good deal more. It could be 20,000. And in fact, you could usually find a physical Sanshin shrine pretty close to you, even in city areas, there are Shaman shrines that include Sanshin. Even in a flat city neighborhood and certainly if you’re anywhere near a mountain, you don’t have to walk too far before finding them in most cases, except in some of the most remote places. But yeah, it’s everywhere in such a tiny place.

Everybody, please remain aware that South Korea is about the size of Indiana. Look at a map of the United States, Indiana. It’s where my grandfather’s from. It’s about the same size. It’s a small piece of land, it’s tiny. And yet, there’s 20,000 mountains in that space and I think those 20,000 Sanshin shrines within that space.

South Korea is so dense, such amazing cultural offering if I may get more general. There’s so much great stuff to see in South Korea. I haven’t seen all of it. I’m not nearly finished. After 38 years, I haven’t come to the end of it, and it’s just size of Indiana. But so many places of Confucianism, Buddhism, Shamanic spirituality, Daoism, and then the Christian, interesting Christian parts. And then the other kinds of culture besides religious culture. There’s just so much. So.

MJP: It’s kind of amazing how Shamanism, Korean Shamanism, was able to survive thousands of years.

Yes. Well, that’s a kind of unique – not unique about Korean – but a very strong thing about Korea shared with some other countries.

In many countries, let’s say like what the Europeans did with Christianity in the past 1,400 years, kind of wiped out a lot of the original paganism, shamanism, they called them witches and Satanists, and just kind of wiped it out and supplanted it and now traces are hard to find. A few things remain, especially in like, something like Ireland or Wales, but in a whole lot of Europe, hard to find.

But in Korea, still got quite a lot. Quite a lot that’s fairly ancient, the stone shrines of Taebaeksan that we think go back 2,000 years, up to the modern Shamanism and Sanshin worship that’s still going on. Never was wiped out, kept going, despite all kinds – 600 years of oppression, actually, being suppressed, oppressed, unrecognized or even sometimes destroyed by Confucianists, and then Japanese, and then Christians, whatever. But still surviving.

Many shamanism and mountain-worship shamanism used to be all over the world, and can still be found in some way in many countries, in a place like Bhutan, or Nepal, Northern India, Latin America in the Andes Mountains, you can still find active shamanic mountain worship, but South Korea, I would say, one of the strongest in the world.

In fact, in South Korea, not only does it still exist, the old traditional ancient stuff, but it’s still developing. It’s still a living religion. You know, in many other countries, it’s just some old frying place you can see, and you’re lucky if there’s one grandmother who might do any prayers there anymore, but Korea, it’s still really active.

A lot of people are doing Sanshin activities, and they’re developing new styles, they’re putting out new artworks. They chant with a new different kind of praying chant. It’s still living, alive, developing.

iesIn a similar way, like in China, the Buddhist temples are just tourist places, mostly. They collect money, burn incense, and pray for good luck. That’s all there is, but in Korea, Korean Buddhism is alive, and it’s still developing monks are still arguing with each other over which is the best way to enlightenment and different masters are teaching different philosophies of enlightenment to their students and they fight on it, they don’t only fight but they argue about it and they got their different temples. It’s still developing and new theories are coming up and new teaching styles. Brilliant modern masters are using the new technology to go further.

In many other countries, Buddhism is kind kind of a museum thing. Like in Europe. Christianity is a museum thing, mostly. Great churches of the past, few people going anymore and it’s not really developing any kind of new theories or new artwork.

But Korean Buddhism, Daoism, Shamanism, are all developing new stuff. Confucianism, not so much. Confucianism is a bit dead, bit of a museum thing, but might be revived latler. Korean Christianity is definitely very dynamic, forging new paths in good ways and bad ways. But that means it’s a living religion, definitely very alive.

As a professor of, a student of a religion, spiritual culture, Korea’s been endlessly fascinating. Because of this, so many places to see and such a dynamic living, religious, spiritual culture.

MJP: Earlier, we spoke about how Shamanism was oppressed during the Joseon Dynasty. And that was more of an internal struggle. But aside from that, throughout Korean history, we’ve been invaded, attacked, and in some periods, colonized and oppressed by external forces.

What role did mountains play to help kind of preserve, not just Shamanism, but other elements of Korean culture throughout the ages?


As we just talked about in Dangun myth, the idea of Korean culture, hiding in the mountains, Korea has never been or rarely been a militarily strong country. This is something that Koreans don’t like to hear, but come on, it’s true.

Koreans have always preferred spirituality and scholarship. An education loving country. We have like the Hwarang soldiers of Silla, and Baekje and Goguryeo that also had strong military components and at certain timelines, like the Goryeo Dynasty had a strong military in its earlier days. But generally, no.

And whenever foreigners such as Mongols or Chinese or Japanese invaded Korea, Koreans tended to retreat to the mountains and either just wait them out, just be hiding in the mountains, let them ravage the valley and then when the foreigners leave, then you go back and you rebuild.

Or actively fighting from the mountains like during the Imjin War when the Japanese invaded also when the Mongols invaded, and later the Manchus. Resistance from the mountains, guerrilla warfare. Not really big armies, but small bands with a bow and arrow and launching spears from behind the boulders, attacking the enemy and then running back up into the mountains where the enemy can’t find you and there’s tigers up there, it’s dangerous, the Japanese won’t follow you into the mountains.

That has always been the Korean way so they’re hiding there, and then the spirituality goes with that. The deep mountain temples were places to preserve the culture in places where the foreigners could not get there and burn it down, in many cases, the places that survived.

And when the Mongols sacked Gyeongju, the ancient capital, that was so tragic. They destroyed so much and killed. But in remote or mountain areas, the Mongols never got there, the temples survived. Yay! With their artworks, with their traditions, and the Shamanism.

Even the Confucians put their libraries and study centers in these remote mountain areas, for the same way. Built everything from royal libraries to Confucian study centers in rather remote places against foreign invasion and against accidental burnings and such, where this would be preserved in that area. And then they often had a Sanshin shrine in the back or nearby to venerate the local mountains spirits and ask for protection in the same way.

Maybe that’s not so relevant right now in our 21st century culture, but still, the idea of cultural preservation, spiritual preservation, definitely. Definitely.

Koreans who grow up in the apartment blocks of Seoul, I have these Koreans students, and I talk to them. They grow up eating French fries and take out and hamburgers in an apartment complex. And where would you go? You go to the mountains. There’s a few places in the city like folk villages or museums, okay, but if you want to see really something authentic, like some real Shamanism, yeah, you go to the mountains. That’s where it’s still hiding, that’s where it’s still preserved.

And that’s all wrapped up with the mountain spirit, for sure.

MJP: And of course, one of the best ways to experience that is to do a temple stay! And Professor Mason, I know that you’re actually one of the people involved in bringing this program to life.

DAM: Right. I was fortunate to be able to be in on the base and beginning of that.

In 2002, Korea hosted the FIFA World Cup championships actually co-hosted with Japan, but nobody wants to talk about that. But Korea was half the host of the World Cup. And it was a big deal for Korea. And so they started a big effort on tourism to come up with innovative, new 21st century tourism programs for the World Cup and somebody had the idea for temple stay.

Somebody had the idea, the government put this together and made a committee of like 20 people including from the Jogye Buddhist Order, and from the tourism sector, and a few other parts of the government. And they, they got me on the committee as really just the guy to handle the English.

We put this together and launched it in time for the World Cup, we held some prototype temple stay trips, and I got to be the tour guide. The guy doing the narrative explaining everything in English, and I had Buddhist monks and Buddhist volunteers in a group watching me and learning how to do it. For all my research, I just happened to be the good person to do that.

Now, then we put together the temple stay and I must say, I’m proud of it, really proud. It developed into a great program from just a small prototype program, and it was supposed to be just very temporary for one year during the World Cup season and its aftermath, but it’s developed, all the way now 18 years into a huge thing where tens of thousands of people do temple stay and the Korean public loves to do it. They have their own programs in Korean but also they offer programs in Chinese in English and French or Spanish or German, at times, mostly English, but tens of thousands of people do it every year and a hundred different temples are involved.

And so you have a fantastic variety of different places. You can be right on the coast by the ocean, you can be at the deepest high mountains, you can be in South Korea’s most important historical monasteries, or in a fairly new urban city temple that is quite different and is involved with this urban city issues and their neighborhood.

Every kind of temple stay is different. It’s not a you-do-a-temple-stay-and-you’ve-done-them-all type of thing. Not at all.They have different themes like martial arts or sutra study or printing or meditation or ritual prayer or devotion to some certain Bodhisattva or Buddha. All kinds of different programs at different temples.

And of course, the settings. You can be right in the middle of a national park with some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Korea and you’re staying overnight. And having a green tea ceremony and lectures and taking a little walk and hike around the temple in this most beautiful scenery and you can sit on a big next to a waterfall and practice a little meditation. Wonderful experiences like that.

And it costs what like 70 US dollars for 24 hours, incredibly cheap. And you can see some of the best places in Korea, and have a spiritual experience, or simply a cultural education experience.

I would like to point out also Christians are welcome. Muslims are welcome. Anybody’s welcome. They’re not trying to force you to become a Buddhist, not even really trying to recruit you, they’re very passive about. They’re just explaining Buddhism. If you’re a hardcore Atheist, no problem. Just participate, get some benefit out of it, enjoy the green tea and the meditation, the physical beauty and you can just learn about Korean culture and history and enjoy the artworks.

Or, if you want to have an authentic spiritual experience for yourself, you can do that too. You can progress towards enlightenment if you want to through temple stay. It’s very flexible.

All that. I’m proud of it. I hope it goes for a hundred years.

MJP: Or longer.

DAM: Well, not sure how long the whole human race is going to make it. Different conversation. We, old men, tend to get pessimistic. I’m hoping my grandchildren can still enjoy Korean temple stay. I hope so.

MJP: Well, thank you so much professor for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. I learned so much about Shamanism, mountains, the Legend of Dangun, and the origins of Korean culture and society, and how it’s progressed and been preserved to today.

DAM: Thank you for having me on. This has been a fascinating discussion and I encourage everybody to have a look at my website and to see the 10 books I’ve written about Korea and the other items on the website. It’s a huge website, and, in particular, my latest book is called Solitary Sage. And it’s about Go-Un Choi Chiwon, the lonely cloud scholar from 1,100 years ago, one of Korea’s greatest heroes, one of its greatest geniuses and a scholar, and a very enlightened man in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, as well as government leadership, and a great figure in Korean history. And this is the very first book in English that tells completely about him. And please check that out on my website, and if you’re interested, you can buy a PDF copy with full color photos from the website. Go ahead and have a look at that. Thanks and take care.

MJP: And that was the very first episode of the Fluent Fools podcast. If you liked the episode, please consider subscribing and leaving a review and telling everyone you know about the show.

But more than that, I hope it inspires you to dig deeper into the stories of our past and see how it continues to shape our present, and maybe when traveling is safe again, I hope it inspires you to explore the many wonders of our mountainous peninsula, and maybe do a temple stay.

I know we covered a lot of things in this episode and we jumped around different periods in Korean history, so more detailed show notes can be found on my website, fluentkorean.com, and I’ll also include links to Professor Mason’s website.

I’d like to thank my friends, family, my SO, my sisters, all of whom have been my sounding boards, beta listeners, confidence boosters, and my overall support system. And finally, thank you to everyone who’s been following @fluentkorean and @fluentfools on Instagram and my website, fluentkorean.com. I love all the conversations I’ve been having and I feel like I’m part of this global community and we’re all on different stages of a similar journey. It’s really comforting, actually.

Please stay safe, wear your masks, be kind to one another and I’ll see you the next episode. Bye.