Visitors to Jeju, having read their guidebooks or perhaps having been indoctrinated by local English-language tourist pamphlets, may come to island with the misconception that the people of Jeju worship the famed goddess of Halla Mountain, Seulmundae Grandmother, as a central deity. The legend of Seulmundae is certainly a beautiful and comic one (comedy and wit are important elements in the Jeju epic myths) but to understand the shamanic practitioners’ conception of the world, it is essential to examine the actual gods that play a role in common worship. One deity that is at the center of every Jeju household–a god that has taken on a primary role in shamanic practice would have to be the Munjeon, the Door God, at times referred to as ‘our Munjeon’.
Nokdisaengin, the youngest of seven brothers, and his mother Yeosan Buin are the heroes of the Munjeon Bonpuri–the epic that tells of how the gods who rule over the house came to be.
Like Kameungjangagi (see this post), Jeju’s goddess of fate, Nokdisaengin, was the youngest and smartest of his siblings. Yeosan Buin, a strong woman, dedicated to her family would go on to become the Hearth Goddess, an important deity in Jeju muism as well as Buddhist practice.
The Munjeon Epic (simplified plot)
Namseonbi and his wife, Yeosan Buin, live in a village called Namseon. Yeosan Buin is a woman of upstanding character but her husband has many vices. He is wasteful and squanders the couple’s wealth. The couple has seven sons and are hardly in a position to waste resources. Yeosan Buin comes into some money and manages to buy an amount of grain to sell in other villages at a profit. (In Pyoungdae Village on the Eastern side of Jeju Island, I heard a different version where she endeavors to sell seaweed, perhaps to inland villages)
Namseonbi, charged with the task, sets out to another village in the Kingdom of Odong.
Next Namseonbi, being a man who easily neglects his duty for vices, is seduced by a woman named Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter. Namseonbi quickly sells all his wares to indulge in drink and gambling. Namseonbi is forced to build a house out of poor materials and begins to live a life of squalor. Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter starts feeding him soup that barely has any sustenance. Namseonbi continues this way until he goes blind.
At this point Yeosan Buin begins her heroine’s quest to save her husband. She makes a small wooden boat and sails to the village where Namseonbi went. She tracks down Namsoenbi who fails to recognize his wife. He finally recognizes her after she feeds him the rice cakes he was used to eating back in their own village. Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter realizes that she must get rid of Namseonbi’s wife so she invites her to bathe in a nearby lake. Here she holds Yeosan Buin under water until she is drowned.
Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter returns to Namseonbi’s village pretending to be his wife. Upon their return, only Nokdisaengin, the youngest of the seven brothers and the brightest, realizes that the woman accompanying their father is not their mother. Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter decides to kill Nokdisaengin. She concocts a plan to trick the family once again. She plays sick and then, pretending to be a famous fortune-teller, gives the advice that only by eating the liver of Nokdisaengin could she be saved. Namseonbi, disgusted with the plan, can not go as far as sacrificing his own youngest son. Eventually he is persuaded and prepares to kill the boy.
Nokdisaengin, the only member of the family who is a match for Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter, creates his own plan to kill a boar (or deer) to harvest its liver to offer instead of his. When Nolijadae eats the liver she is ‘cured’. After this incident, Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter attempts to kill one of the other sons only to be surprised by Nokdisaengin. Now exposed a s a fraud, Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter hangs herself between the two stones that are used to squat on in traditional outhouses on Jeju Island. Thus she becomes the deity who rules over the outhouse.
The brothers retrieve her body from the outhouse and rip her body to shreds. (This part of the myth is quite animated when told, looks of disgust and eruptions of laughter are common) The different parts of her body famously become many of the delicacies that women divers (haenyo) harvest from the sea. Her hair becomes seaweed, her nipples a type of thin shellfish and her vagina abalone. (The exact list of body-parts, of course, differs between villages)
Next, Nokdisaegin, continues on a hero quest to resurrect his mother from the depths of the icy lake in which she is submerged. This involves appealing to the supreme deity of the sky and earth, Cheonjiwang. Nokdisaengin travels on the back of a crane to the famed fields of Seocheon, a realm ruled over by the Igong God. It is this field where deceased children on Jeju are sent to work when they perish. The children tend flowers which thrive in the field. Each has a magical property which Nokdisaegin uses to resurrect his mother.
These flowers are the Hwansaengkkot and are significant in Jeju shamanic myth. Nokdisaengin uses them to revive his mother, first a flower that revives flesh, one for the blood, one for the breath, one for the soul, and so on. It is one of the most beautiful passages in the Jeju epics. Cheonjiwang assigns the position of Jowangsin (Hearth Goddess) to Yeosan Buin. From that point on she serves as the hearth goddess in each of Jeju’s houses. Namseonbi becomes the god of the shed that holds compost. (Although in some versions of the epic he becomes the Door God) The brothers take various positions around the house, including rooms surrounding the main living room where Nokdisaengin is positioned as the Door God–the Munjeon.
Munjeon in context:
The Munjeon Bonpuli is told as part of many shamanic ceremonies in Jeju. One important example is the ritual ceremony employed when blessing/ consecrating a new house or construction on the island. Traditionally, an offering was made to the Munjeon before a wedding and commonly a table is set for him during family ancestral worship rites. All Jeju Islanders are familiar with the practice. The Hearth Goddess is also an important deity on Jeju. She is venerated in both in shamanic and Buddhist practices. I will write more on the Yeosan Buin’s hero-quest in a future post.
The Gods of the Munjeon Epic:
Yeosan Buin–The Hearth Goddess
Namseonbi–the compost shed god
Nokdisaengin–the Munjeon, the Door God (In some areas Namseonbi becomes the door god)
Noiljadae Gwiil’s Daughter–the outhouse goddess
Nokdisaengin’s brothers–the gods of the various rooms of the house, the back door,and god of the path to the house
For further information on Jeju Island’s deities:
Jeju Island’s Deities #1: Kameungjangagi- Jeju’s Goddess of Fate (post)
Jeju Island’s Deities #2: The Yowang- Jeju’s Grandfather God of the Sea (post)