The Legend of Dangun: Founder of Korea

Monday, January 24, 2022

With Korea's long history, many may wonder about the origins of ancient Korea. All Koreans are taught the legend of Dangun (단군), though a legend that is hard to believe because of its mythical aspects. Shall we dive into the story of how Gojoseon (ancient Joseon) came to be?

Portrait of Dangun
Image resource from Wikipedia

The Legend of Dangun

While researching the legend of Dangun, I came across slightly varying parts of the myth. I have deemed them as trivial and have chosen to tell the story of Dangun the way it was taught to me.

The story begins with Dangun's grandfather, the Lord of the Heavens named Hwanin (환인). He had a son named Hwanung (황웅) who yearned to live on earth among the people. Hwanin granted his son's wish and sent him down to Mount Taebaek along with the Three Seals of Heaven (Cheonbuin; divine mirror, sword, and drum), god of rain, god of cloud, god of wind, and 3,000 men. He helped the people and the land to flourish.

Nearby were a bear and a tiger watching all the wonderful things Hwanung was doing. Both approached him and pleaded for Dangun to turn them into humans. Hwanung told the bear and the tiger to stay in a cave for 100 days only eating mugwort and garlic. If they successfully did this to the end of 100 days, they would turn into humans. 

So, the bear and the tiger stayed in a cave only eating mugwort and garlic. However, the tiger could not last the entire 100 days and left the cave, losing the opportunity to become human. Meanwhile, the bear persevered and lasted in the cave for 100 days. On the hundredth day, the bear turned into a beautiful woman and was named Ungnyeo (웅녀, bear-woman).

After changing into a woman, Ungyeo prayed under the Sindansu (Divine Alter Tree) to be able to conceive a child. Hwanung took pity on her and took her in as his wife. Together they had a son and named him Dangun Wanggeum. 

Dangun grew up to be strong and wise, and later in 2333 BCE, he established a kingdom that he called Joseon, the land of the morning calm. Today, we refer to this time period as Gojoseon ('Go' meaning ancient) to be able to differentiate ancient Joseon from the later Joseon period. 

Korea's National Foundation Day

Korea celebrates Gaecheonjeol (개천절), National Foundation Day, on October 3. This national holiday celebrates the legendary establishment of Gojoseon of 2333 BCE. 

Similar to how other nations celebrate their holidays, Korea also displays fireworks on National Foundation Day.

Each year in honor of Dangun, a ceremony is held at the Chamseongdan Altar which is said to be built by Dangun. The altar is located on Manisan Mountain and it has been said that memorial services were held there throughout the Gorguyeo and Joseon period.

Chamseongdan Altar
Image resource from Cultural Heritage Administration

Chamseongdan Altar
Image resource from Cultural Heritage Administration

What do think about the legend of Dangun?



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