Where Do We Go When We Die? (part 1)/ Jeju Island’s Deities 4: Gangnim, Messenger of Death

The first in a series of posts about Jeju Island’s death deities. Here I present the basic plot points of the Chasa myth. As with all oral myths on the island, a slightly different version is told in each village. These posts are intended to be expanded upon and will eventually contain transcriptions and video of the actual myths.

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Photo courtesy of George Hodan (public domain)

On Jeju Island when one’s name comes up, written in red, on the King of the ‘Other World’, Yeomra’s list, it is time for that person’s soul to depart this world. Yeomra was the wisest of two brothers, sons of the Sky God, and it was by being deceived that he came to control the realm of the afterlife. The lesser of the two brothers became the King of Our (Human) World. Thus, the realm of the afterlife is a tight ship, with Yeomra at its helm. (More on Yeomra and his brother to come in a later post) Our own world is a disastrous place, tainted with the corruption of men.

Gangnim, Yeomra’s preferred messenger of death, knew the corruption of men all too well. He himself was once a mortal man. Gangnim is Jeju Island’s Hermes. Of the messengers of death who come for the souls of the soon to be departed, Gangnim is the most celebrated amongst them. He is the hero of the Chasa Epic Myth.

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Jeju Island landscape

Chasa Epic (abbreviated plot)

A king called Beomu, has seven sons, three of which are fated to die at a young age. A monk living in the kingdom suggests that the princes become monks for three years in order to lengthen their lifespan.

The three boys spend three years as monks in a temple and after that time are sent home carrying cloth and silk. They are instructed not to pass through the realm of Gwayang.

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Thread for ensuring a long life is a common offering at shamanic ceremonies on Jeju Island

The princes become weary and eventually succumb to temptation and enter the realm of Gwayang. There they visit Gwayangsaeng, a wealthy man in the region. After they enter the house they are coerced by a woman of the house to drink a mysterious liquid and fall into a deep, murky sleep. Each hears a faint whispering and then their seductress quickly pours boiling oil into their ears.

The treacherous woman takes the cloth and silk they are carrying and disposes of their bodies in the Jucheon River. Seven days later lotus flowers appear in the river. The woman spots them and takes them to her home. She starts to suspect something is awry with the flowers as they try to attack her whenever she passes by. She resolves to destroy the flowers by burning them in the hearth but to her surprise, after they burn, three otherworldly orbs appear.

By accident she swallows the orbs. This causes her to be pregnant and she delivers three babies.

She has three sons who grow up to be good boys with many merits, but one day upon greeting their mother they fall dead.

Rumors of the boys’ deaths spread throughout the land. The magistrate of Gwayang hears the rumors and starts to worry about what to do. He decides to call on Gangnim, a man known for his great intelligence. The magistrate tells Gangnim that he has no choice but to travel to the underworld and speak to Yeomra personally. Gangnim protests but eventually agrees to the task asked of him.

The magistrate gives Gangnim a letter with which to present Yeomra and is instructed that there is an entrance to the underworld through a certain pond in the area.

Gangnim arrives to the pond and sees that it doesn’t appear deep at all. He shudders with dark thoughts then jumps into the water. After entering the pond, he doesn’t feel at all as if he were in his own body.

Gangnim finds Yeomra, the King of the Other World, and gives him the letter he was sent with. The letter requests that Yeomra come to the world of the humans in order to speak with the magistrate of Gwayang.

“How is it that you think you can call on me?” Says Yeomra. Instantly they appear in the office of the magistrate back in Gwayang.

Yeomra orders the magistrate to bring forth Gwayangsaeng and the woman who poured oil into the boys’ ears. (In some versions she is Gwayangsaeng’s wife) He orders them to take him to their deceased children’s resting place. The couple dig up the grave of their children only to find three empty coffins. They search the river where the flowers had been and find their bones there. Yeomra brings the corpses back to life and it is discovered that the threes sons are actually the three missing princes, the sons of Beomu. Yeomra punishes Gwayangsaeng and the woman for their treachery by turning them into mosquitoes. The princes return to the land of Beomu.

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Subterranean Jeju Island
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Cave in Kimnyoung Village, Jeju Island

Yeomra, the King of the Other World and the Magistrate 

“Gangnim is very smart,” says Yeomra to the magistrate, “it’s a shame he lives in this human world. I will take him with me.”

The magistrate protests so Yeomra offers the man a compromise. “We’ll split him,” says the King of the Other World, “one of us will take his body, the other his soul. Magistrate, which would you take?”

The magistrate chooses Gangnim’s body. (At the time, humans didn’t yet have a clear understanding of the separation between the body and soul) Immediately, Gangnim falls dead and his soul returns to the Other World with Yeomra. Yeomra assigns Gangnim to be the new Cheoseungsaja, a messenger of death who retrieves the souls of the deceased on Earth.

Gangnim’s wife is embittered by this unfair turn of events and is instructed to hold a memorial service for her husband every month.

Chasa Epic in context

The Chasa epic is told on Jeju during the Keun Gut ceremony during a part of the ritual called the Siwangmaji. It is also told most commonly at shamanic funerary rituals around the island. The Gwiyangpuli is performed typically on the evening of the deceased burial, but can be performed several times after someone’s death. The function of the ritual is to guide the soul to the afterlife, thus offerings are made to Gangnim to ensure that the person’s spirit is guided properly to Yeomra’s realm.

For a beautiful portrayal of a Gwiyangpuli, if you get the chance, see director Lim Heung-soon’s film Jeju Prayer. (This film addresses the issue of the 4.3 Uprising at which time some 30,000 in Jeju people were killed at the hands of the National Government. See this post for more on the 4.3 Uprising)

YOUTUBE clip featuring a Gwiyangpuli ceremony, part of Lim Heung-soon’s ‘Jeju Prayer’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcNcv2e4SEI

More posts in this category:

Jeju Island’s Deities 1: Kameungjangagi, Goddess of Fate

Jeju Island’s Deities 2: The Door God

Jeju Island’s Deities 3: The “Yowang” Jeju Island’s Grandfather God of the Sea

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