The Origin of the Korean Nation

The origin of Korea is shrouded deeply in myth, though there is one widely circulated story that is most popular. This is a version of the story told to me by my father, who grew up in Korea for 30 years before immigrating to the United States.

호랑이와 곰이 사람이 되고 싶어서 환웅이란 사람한테 부탁했는데, 마늘이랑 쑥을 100일 동안 먹으면 사람이 된다고 했다. 그런데 호랑이는 포기하고 곰은 100일 동안 참고 먹어서 진짜 사람이 된다. 사람이 된 곰(여자)은 나중에 환웅이랑 결혼해서 한국이란 나라가 만들어졌다.


ho-rang-ee-wah gom-ee sa-ram-ee dwe-go sheep-uh-suh hwan-oong-ee-ran sa-ram-han-teh boo-tak-het-neun-deh, ma-neur-ee-rang ssook-eur bek-ear dong-an mug-eu-myun sa-ram-ee dwen-da-go het-da. geu-run-deh ho-rang-ee-neun po-gee-ha-go gom-eun bek-ear dong-an cham-go mug-uh-suh jin-jja sa-ram-ee dwen-da. sa-ram-ee dwen gom(yuh-jah)eun na-joong-eh hwan-oong-ee-rang gyur-hon-heh-suh han-gook-ee-ran na-ra-ga man-deur-uh-jyut-dah.


A tiger and a bear person wanted to become so to Hwanung a person they asked, and garlic and mugwort if they eat for 100 days they will become a human. But the tiger gave up and the bear for 100 days endured and ate so they became a real person. The bear who became a person (female) later married Hwanung and the nation of Korea they created.


A tiger and a bear wanted to become a person so they asked a man named Hwanung, and he said that they would become people if they ate garlic and mugwort for 100 days. The tiger gave up but the bear endured and ate for 100 days, and she eventually became a human. The bear who became a person later married Hwanung and they created the nation of Korea.

This myth is very deeply engrained in Korean folklore and history, as it tells the story of the marriage between Hwanung and the bear. It is widely told that the two produced a son named Tangun (sometimes Dangun) who is regarded as the legendary founder and god-king of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom. He is said to be the “grandson of heaven” and “son of a bear”, and to have founded the kingdom in 2333 BC.

Personally, I really enjoy this story because it links the heavens with humans and animals, who all play a vital role in the subsequent creation of Korea. Seeing the relationship between the divine member and the animal-turned-human was quite novel to me, as I had never seen animals actively approaching deities before. The inclusion of the vegetarian diet requirement was fitting for the mythological founding of Korea as well, since the people were a mostly agriculture based society. I also found it ironic that the bear becomes the wife of the founding father of Korea, although the tiger is most commonly attributed to the country and serves as its national animal. Perhaps this creation myth was hinting at the future, as Siberian tigers are now extinct in Korea while wild bears still roam the lands.