“When you have a dream about teeth falling out, that is a very bad omen that brings death.”
My informant first heard this superstition from her mother when she was ten years old, living in the city of Pusan in South Korea. Her mother had a dream that one of her bottom teeth fell out, so she told all her children to be careful. Her mother was afraid that since her bottom teeth fell out in her dream that would mean someone younger than she would meet his or her death. In Korea the people are anxious about having dreams of teeth being knocked out because they take that as a sign of death. The upper row of teeth would mean death for someone older and the lower row of teeth would mean death for someone younger. She believes that teeth falling out signifies death because once you reach a certain age, your teeth would start to deteriorate. Teeth were vital in consuming food, so the absence of them were a great discomfort. Therefore, when someone lost his or her teeth, it was common to believe death was near, especially without the technology of dentures then.
I can see how death and teeth falling out can be linked together. The sign of youth can be when a baby first grows his or her teeth. Hence, when someone becomes old enough to lose his or her teeth, that symbolizes a life coming to an end rather than a beginning.
My informant claims he had created this joke himself. Nonetheless when he used it on others, they were not surprised saying they have heard the joke before. Perhaps he did originally think of the joke but others also thought of it simultaneously. This joke is a play on words. To say, “It’s weird,” in Korean uses the exact same wording as saying, “Teeth will rot.” He thought of the joke when he misinterpreted his wife. While she was stating that something was weird, he took it as her saying that she had a toothache. Without paying close attention, he advised her to go to the dentist. Upon hearing such an arbitrary piece of advice, his wife understood his misinterpretation and laughed at him. Ever since then, which was about a decade ago, he tells a person to go to a dentist if he or she says something is weird.
“It’s weird” and “Teeth will rot” are not just similar; they sound and are spelled exactly the same way. It is easy to see why someone may accidentally misinterpret the two meanings. Misinterpretations can be hilarious, so it is not wonder this turned into a joke with several people thinking of it at the same time.
My informant first heard this superstition from his mother when he was fourteen years old. His father had passed away when he was thirteen, so in Korean tradition, the sons must prepare a shrine for the deceased father on the day the father died to commemorate his death. It is a time of reflection and a time to remember the loved one who has passed away. When he was preparing the meticulous shrine for his father with the help of his sisters and mother, his mother explained to him that the shrine must be set up towards the north side. When he asked why, she answered that north is always the way of death. She also added not to sleep facing the direction of north because that is like facing death.
There is some logic to people believing that north would be the direction of death. Since it is a general belief that there is some kind of an after-life in most religions, people believe in spirits. Usually after death, the spirits leave the heavy bodies and elevate to a higher plane. That is why I believe people perceive north as the direction of death.
It is bad luck to cut your hair or fingernails at night.
My informant first heard this superstition from his father some time during the late fifties in his hometown, the rural city of Daegu in Korea. When he took out nail clippers from his drawer one night, his father ordered him to put it back in the drawer. His father warned him that it was very bad luck to clip your nails at night. Suk-Won’s father had learned from his father that at night crows lurk about and would pick up the discarded nails in their beaks and drop them off into the fields. The nails would keep the seeds from sprouting and suck the nutrients out of the soil. Afterwards there would be seasons without any good harvest. The nails would have been easily accessible to the crows because Koreans who lived on farms during 1950’s and even now have paper doors that slide in their homes. They do not have the hard wooden doors with knobs as we are accustomed to in America.
I do not believe that nails in the soil are detrimental to the growth of crops. However, people in the countryside were sensitive about anything pertaining to their harvest because that was their only means of living. Particularly living in the city nowhere near the action of agriculture, I do not heed this superstition at all since there. Once again the Korean culture has an extremely negative view on the crow. Farmers were superstitious that the crows would not only bring death through merely crowing in front of their homes but indirectly by preventing a successful harvest.
A spirit descended from the heavenly skies in search of a bride. If you feed animals garlic for a hundred days, they will transform into women. Thus, the spirit imprisoned a tiger and a bear in the Baik-Doo Mountain for a hundred days, feeding them garlic. However, the short-fused tiger escaped before the hundred days while the patient bear waited. The bear consequently transformed into a woman, and the spirit took her for his bride. They bore a son, the Dang-Goon, the creator of Korea. That is how the country of Korea came to be.
My informant first learned this myth in his elementary school in Daegu, Korea. His teacher taught his class how Korea became what it was that day. She started with this particular myth that explains how the great predecessor was divinely created – directly from a heavenly spirit and a bear turned into a woman. The children believe the story completely, especially since Baik-Doo Mountain is an actual mountain. Everyone in Korea is familiar with this myth; it is something that has been told from generation to the next. It has become a vital part of the Korean tradition.
It is common for the Koreans to use animals in their narratives and give the animals characteristics. Oftentimes, the tiger is portrayed as conniving, ravenous, and temperamental. Therefore in this myth, the tiger cannot stand the hundred days and escapes. The bear is usually portrayed as wise, slow and lazy, though. The bear in the myth remains patiently. Although this myth shows the bear in a positive aspect, in other Korean stories, the bear can represent stupidity and indolence. I was not surprised to hear that the bear was the animal that waited long enough to become a woman. In my opinion, Koreans have such a myth as this to reinforce the idea that their first king was not a mortal being but a direct descendent from a god.