Jeju’s Deities 1: Kameunjangagi, Goddess of Fate

Kameunjangagi, Jeju Island’s goddess of fate with her iconic black cow.

The first in a series of posts about Jeju’s major deities. The some dozen Ilban Bonpuli, or epic myths tell how Jeju’s deities came to play their current roles in the island’s cosmology. These epics are sung during rituals as well as portrayed during ‘nolli‘, dramatic reenactments that take place during major rites. The epics are sung, each usually lasting some hours, by shaman in both public and private ceremonies. The posts in this category are not intended to be static. I will be updating each with video and audio. I hope to provide direct translations of the Ilban Bonpuli epics into English in the near future.

Samgong Bonpuli: Kameunjangagi, Goddess of Fate

The Samgong Bonpuli is the story of Kameunjangagi, Jeju Island’s goddess of fate, luck, destiny…the goddess associated with a concept called junsang, which is not easy to define even when done so by the island’s shamans or the text of the Samgong Bonpuli itself. I will get into to junsang in another post, but simply put, the word means fate or destiny, which in local shamanic thought is greatly influenced by one’s ancestral karma. One should take into consideration, as Kim Jung Suk points out in her book on three of Jeju’s goddesses, that in the myth itself, the teenage Kameunjangagi very much creates her own fate.

So we can understand that one’s lot in life is not dictated entirely by the will of one’s ancestors or circumstances. In fact, the ‘nolli‘ or play performed to convey the story of Kameunjangagi is itself a rite to bring the onlookers good junsang. In Jeju belief one can appeal to one’s own ancestors, village ancestor gods and the higher-tier gods such as Kameunjangagi to improve one’s destiny. Shamans describe the rite performed for Kameunjangagi as well as the sung myth itself as a story ‘of this world’ as opposed to ‘of the afterworld’ or of mythic time. The Samgong Bonpuli is, they say, a present day story which universally relates to all human experience.

(scroll down for the plot of the Samgong Bonpuli)

Recording Bonpuli told by the great shaman of Hado Village. Image courtesy of Tanner Jones.
Jeju’s shimbang (great shamans) perfect the craft of singing myths in ritual such as the Samgong Bonpuli of which Kameungjangagi is the heroine.

The following is the Samgong Bonpuli (abbreviated plot):

Kameunjangagi’s parents live as teenagers in two villages in Jeju. The villages are Upper Sangsil and Lower Sangsil. The as-of-yet unborn goddess’s mother hears that the harvest in the lower village has been successful while her father hears the upper village’s harvest has been successful. In reality both of their villages experience a great plight. The two meet on the road in route to the other’s village. They end up marrying, become rich and have three daughters. The two eldest daughters are respectful and model children, but they are two-faced and plotting. One day, father calls each daughter one-by-one into the great room of the house. He asks of his eldest daughter, “To whom do you owe your life and well-being?” “To the god of the sky and the god of this world, of course. And my mother and my father.” The father is pleased with her answer and dismisses her. Next he calls the second daughter. He asks her the same question. “To whom do you owe your life and well-being?” “To the god of the sky and the god of this world. And to my mother and my father,” she responds. The father praises her and sends her away. Next he calls Kameunjangagi, the youngest. “To whom do you owe your life and well-being?” he asks. “I owe my life,” says Kameunjangagi, “to the god of the sky, the god of this world, my mother, my father and that small crack that runs below my belly button.” The father becomes furious and banishes his youngest daughter from the house. (The Jeju epics are full of this type of witty humor)

Next Kameungjangagi begins to pack her things to prepare for her journey away from her family. As she loads her iconic black cow up with some weeks or months of supplies, her mother becomes regretful about what has happened and implores her eldest daughter to take Kameunjangagi something warm to eat. She tells the eldest to ask Kameunjanagi to come home where it is safe. Contrary to her mother’s wishes the eldest daughter runs out into the way and stands atop a stone hitching post for horses. “Younger sister,” she shouts, “run, run! Mother and father are coming to beat you!” Kameunjangagi realizes that her sister is lying and blasts an incantation at her. “When you come down from that hitching post you will turn into blue centipedes!” Her sister comes down and, indeed, turns into to blue centipedes. Inside the house, mother begins to worry so sends out her second daughter with the same task. The second daughter tries to trick the wittier Kameunjangagi, “Run, sister, run! Mother and father are coming to beat you!” The second sister stands atop a compost bin. “When you come down from that compost bin,” says Kameunjangagi, “You will turn into the mushrooms that grow atop horse shit.” The second daughter comes down and is, indeed, turned into mushrooms. After a while Kameunjangagi is on her way. Her mother and father, worried about their children, come out into the way, but upon breaching the gate house’s threshold the two are blinded. From that point on, they fall into destitution and become traveling beggars.

Kameunjangagi, now separated from her own family finds a new family in whose house she can board. The family has three sons and without going into detail, it turns out the youngest son is both kind and considerate to his parents while the elder two are neglectful and abusive. Kameunjangagi chooses the youngest son as her husband and the two go on to live in material abundance. Before long, Kameunjangagi begins to think about her parents. Following the custom of the day, she begins to hold banquets at which she can feed the beggars that circulate the countryside. She carries on doing this for sometime, sacrificing the rice or grain from her own storehouses, all the while searching for her parents amongst the indigent visitors. At last, she finds her parents and they are reunited.

Great shaman ‘O Halmang’ told me the Samgong Bonpuli, the story of Kameungjangagi while seated in the great room of her house. (2013)

There is something artful about tricking-up life. It pleases us to her stories about people who break with convention.  Kameunjangagi roaming the countryside with her black cow is an important image. It’s the black cow of independence, of risk, of opportunity of freedom and flight. Kim Jung Suk points out that you can meet many Kameunjangagis on Jeju Island. In my experience, living here for almost a decade, I can say it’s true. I know many Kameunjangagis, women who at some point drew a line like the line at the threshold of Kameunjangagi’s gate house that blinded her parents, and these women are from each of Jeju’s four living generations. Those who survived the massacres of the 4.3 uprising, their children, the children of the political turmoil of the seventies and eighties and their children.

Kameunjangagi’s parents couldn’t have expected her vulgar response to their question.  The profane response emerges from the girl organically, without thought, a natural emanation of her character, so it seems, entirely without premeditation. Kameunjangagi’s nature is contrary, but she is both pure and very capable. Of the three sisters, it is Kameunjangagi, the youngest that becomes a goddess. The youngest sibling playing the role of hero is common occurrence in the Jeju Bonpulis. This will be illustrated in other posts.

‘Dangwol’ or practitioners of Jeju Island’s shamanic traditions are led in ritual by shaman Kim Dol San

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