Korean myth: Tiger and bear

“So there was this prince-king who was living in the area that is now Korea. And one day, a bear and a tiger came along and wanted the king to turn them human. The king said he would do it if they went into a cave for a hundred days and ate nothing but onions. I think there’s another version where they have to eat only garlic. But anyways, they take on the challenge. But the tiger quit partway through. The bear made it through all the hundred days, and when it came out, the king turned it into a beautiful woman and married it, and their children became the Korean people.”

My informant thinks she first learned this myth at home, but she heard it again recently in a class on Korean culture. She suggested that the bear’s perseverance reflected Koreans’ conception of themselves as an overall determined culture. Also, Koreans use a lot of onions in their cooking, and onions are healthy and a very natural food. She does note, however, that tigers seem to be more important in Korean culture, and are generally portrayed as more fierce and noble in Korean art, while bears sometimes represent laziness.

This is an origin myth and its details reveal how the Koreans think of themselves. They come from the union of a powerful, magic-wielding king and an animal that proved its determination and commitment by eating healthy but not necessarily pleasant food for an extended period of time.