“A man travels to the royal palace to receive employment but lives in the middle of nowhere and crosses a mountain to get to the examination building. As he goes through the mountain, he sees two snakes going up a tree trying to eat a bird’s nest. The man sees the bird in danger, a particular breed that is synonymous with good fortune in Korea, and pulls out his bow and arrow and kills one of the snakes. The other snake runs off and the man mends the bird’s leg and puts it back into its nest. A couple days pass and he’s still crossing the mountain. Night falls and the man needs to find shelter on the mountain or else he fears that he might die if he spends the night in the mountain.
The man passes by an old house, sees a light, and it seems to be inhabited. The man hopes to stay the night and pay any amount to make it so. He knocks on the door and is met with a slithery and pale woman who comes out asking what he wants. The man explains his situation and asks to stay the night as he does not wish to risk dying out in the wilderness. The woman in raspy voice agrees, and guides him to an empty room. The man unloads his baggage and prepares to sleep but hears a knock on the door. The woman brings him some food and he thanks her for the hospitality. The woman lays down the tray of food and the woman leaves, but the man swears he heard some “ssss” noises from her. He passes it off as exhaustion and the man eats what he was offered, falls asleep, but in the middle of the night he hears footsteps and wonders whats going on. The door flings open and he notices it’s the woman again, whispering “murderer murderer”, and the woman transforms into a huge snake. The man wakes up, the snake woman screams that he killed her husband and they were a couple days away from becoming dragons. The woman swears to kill the man, binds him, and prepares to eat him but a far off gong noise scares the snake. “If that bell rings two more times and the sun rises, I cannot eat you anymore as I will ascend”. “But I still seek vengeance for my husband”. The snake becomes distracted and the man runs away. The snake chases him, another gong sounds and the snake begins to transform as the snake grows larger. The gong rings a second time and becomes a dragon and wails as she cannot seek vengeance and pleads for forgiveness from her husband.
The man survives the night and is relieved for whoever rang the bell on the mountaintop, which must mean there was a temple nearby. He seeks the temple out to thank the monks for saving his life. He finds the temple abandoned and the man tries to find the person who could have helped him. By the temple’s bell gongs, the man finds the dead bodies of a number of birds. The magpies had bashed themselves toward the bell to ring it and save the man from the snake and he recognizes the mended leg of the bird he had saved earlier among them.”
My informant is my brother who had recently returned home after many years away from the family due to the Covid pandemic keeping him longer than he planned for at home. He is more culturally more attuned to Korean stories compared to me and his own enthusiasm towards mythology and history rubbed off on me early. Most of his stories were told to him by our mother before I was born. The Korean Magpie is a symbol of good fortune in Korea as well as the national bird and the snakes in this story are a mythical kind known as “imugi”. Imugi are creatures who normally make homes near the water and they are considered imperfect dragons who must meet a certain requirement to fully become dragons. This story has the snake woman be distraught over the fact she will be unable to seek vengeance once she fully transforms as dragons are inherently forces of good in wider Asian mythology and cannot seek action in vengeance. My brother likes these types of folklore as he is an avid fan of mythologies and belief systems all over the world despite having been active debater against organized religion as well as having it be a fond memory of his country and family’s history before Christianity began phasing things out on the traditional spectrum of Korean culture.
Before my brother returned to work, I asked him if he could share any stories he remembers from his childhood that our parents told him. He picked out a couple stories while tabling a few others, not confident in being able to retell it as our mother did many years ago.
A story that relays the message “Good deeds are always returned in kind” promoting benevolence between all peoples. My father told me a similar story to this when I asked him for something to use for this project but his involved a different animal. The toad was the animal that helps out a human and the malevolent creature in question was an enormous centipede, yet another creature whose body symbolized a false dragon like snakes. It speaks highly to the benevolent light the Asian folk circles sees dragons as if they cannot commit acts of vengeance once they become one. As both of my parents originate from the Southern but different parts of South Korea, their stories seem to differ from each other in slight ways. Even in the most unlikeliest of expectations that animals would knowingly repay humans, it is a good mantra to live by to help and any and all living creature trying to survive out in the harsh realities of life. Even if Buddhist beliefs were starting to phase out individual names away from these types of stories, their message still carries a contextually Korean or humanistic element favoring a helpless bird over that of snakes as Buddhism usually speak against killing any living creature.