The Myth of Dan-Gun
Like most Asian nations, Korea has a myth about the origins of their own people that ties itself with the intrinsic notions of culture and shamanism evident on the peninsula. China has the legend of the Yellow Emperor and Japan has the myth of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Korea has the legend of their descent from Dan-Gun and by presenting this myth it will allow insight into the culture.
Koreans say ... ...
When heaven and earth where one and at a time when animals could speak like humans, the God Hwanin sent his son Hwang-Ung to the East to build a new country. Hwang-Ung took three spirits with him; the Wind General, the Rain Governor, and the Cloud Teacher. Three thousand other spirits accompanied them.
They settled on T'aeBaeksan in what is now North Korea, and is the highest point on the peninsula. This occurred in the 25th reign of the Yao Emperor in China, roughly 2333 BC.
One day a tiger and a bear appeared in front of Hwang-Ung and asked to be made into human form. After great deliberation Hwang-Ung informed the animals that their wish could be granted, but it would prove difficult and take much patience. The animals agreed that they would undergo whatever it took to become human.
Hwang-Ung gave the bear and the tiger 20 cloves of garlic and some artemisia. They were told to eat them, stay in their cave for 100 days and pray earnestly.
After 20 days the tiger became hungry and could no longer endure his plight, he then preceded to exit the cave in search of food. When the 100 days were almost at an end, the bear began to lose its fur and its back feet began to change. At the end of the 100th day the bear was fully transformed into a woman.
Hwang-Ung then married Ung-Yo (which means the girl incarnated from a bear), and she gave birth to a son. The child was named Dan-Gun. This child gave rise to the first Korean Dynasty. As a spiritual figure he is still worshipped as first ancestor of the Korean people, and remains in the people's minds the firm spiritual root of the Korean nation. (Yoo, 1987:53-6).
In the past, agricultural-based societies like Korea found the greatest dangers to be natural disasters such as famine. They worshipped gods as the people believed they controlled the elements of wind and rain, which held great impact over crops. They worshipped Dan-Gun as a spiritual leader who had great supernatural powers, and his birth from Ung-Yo has seen the bear become a powerful and revered creature in the Korean mind-set. They worshipped his father, Hwan-Ung, because he descended from Heaven with spirits that could control elemental forces.
Two sociological events can reflect the current impact of the myth. The celebration of National Foundation Day a public holiday held every year on October 3, and the teaching of the myth to all students at elementary school level.