A Guide to Shamanism on Jeju Island, Post Three: The Door God’s Epic

The Munjeon EpicThe Door God’s Myth (simplified plot)

The following is the plot of Munjeon Bonpuri, the Door God’s epic, which relates to us the foundation myths of the household deities introduced in Post OneKeep in mind that the the following is the plot of the epic, not a direct translation of the epic itself. While some translations of the plot descriptions have been translated into English, the actual Jeju Island myths, which are chanted or sung at shamanic ceremonies, have never been translated at length from their original stanzas. The original dynamics of the original epic is, no doubt, far from preserved in this synopsis, but this hasty description of the plot will serve our purposes for now. On Jeju Island, depending on the region, the myths have slight differences in character names and plot. This isn’t to say that the epics aren’t standardized. Shamans memorize the various local versions of myths over their career and employ the changes when they work outside of their own regions. My plot descriptions will likely reflect aspects of the Gujwa-eup region as that’s where I made recordings of many of the epics directly from shamans. 

Namseonbi and his wife, Yeosan Buin, live in a village called Namseon. Yeosan Buin is a woman of great character but her husband, Namseonbi, has many vices. He is wasteful and squanders the couple’s wealth. Namseonbi and Yeosan Buin have seven sons. With so many mouths to feed, they are hardly in a position to waste resources. One day, 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. This would be an example of regional variations in Jeju mythology, most of which are minor details.)

Namseonbi, as susceptible to incompetence as he is, is charged with the task of selling the grain, and 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 at a loss to indulge in drink and gambling. Namseonbi, lacking the resources to travel home, is forced to build a house out of shoddy materials. Thus, he begins to live a life of squalor. Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter, seeing an opportunity to take Namseonbi as hers, takes the poor man in, starts feeding him soup that barely has any sustenance. Namseonbi continues this way, eating his mistress’s fetid soup, until he starves and or is poisoned and goes blind.

At this point Yeosan Buin, the future Hearth Goddess, 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 is so weak and blind that he fails to recognize his own wife. He finally recognizes her after she feeds him the rice cakes he was accustomed to eating back in their own village. (On Jeju Island, long ago, especially, but even now, the rice cakes are unique in each village) The crafty Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter, realizing that her crime has been exposed, resolves to get rid of Namseonbi’s wife to keep control of Namseonbi. On a rather frigid morning, she invites her to bathe in a nearby lake. Here, when she least expects it, she holds Yeosan Buin under water until she is drowned.

Next, Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter, plotting to take her wicked plan even further, returns to Namseonbi’s village where she pretends to be his wife. Upon their return, only Nokdisaengin, (the future Door God) the youngest of the seven brothers—and the brightest—realizes that the woman accompanying their father is not their mother. Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter, seeing how bright her new adversary is, decides to kill Nokdisaengin. She concocts a plan to trick the family once again. This time she plays sick and then, pretending to be a famous fortune-teller, gives the seven brothers and their father the following advice: only by eating the liver of Nokdisaengin could their (imposter) mother be saved. Namseonbi, finally coming to his senses, is disgusted and can not go as far as sacrificing his own son. But, eventually, he is persuaded and prepares to kill the boy.

Nokdisaengin, the only member of the family who is intellectually a match for Noiljaedae Gwiil’s Daughter, creates his own plan to kill a boar (or deer in some versions) to harvest its liver. He harvests the liver and offers it instead of his own. 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 the apparition of Nokdisaengin. Now, exposed as a fraud beyond redemption, 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, in one of the more grotesque episodes in Jeju Island shamanic mythology, retrieve her body from the outhouse and rip it to shreds. The different parts of her body—famously—become many of the delicacies that the island’s famed women divers (haenyo) harvest from the sea. Her hair becomes seaweed, the nipples of her breasts a type of thin shellfish and her vagina abalone. (The exact list of sea life and the corresponding body-parts differ between villages.)

Next, Nokdisaegin, continues on the next stage of his 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 then—again a famous detail of the myth—travels on the back of a crane to the mythical 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, a fate better than the standard afterlife. The children tend to magical flowers which thrive in the field. Each of these flowers has a unique and miraculous property which Nokdisaegin uses to resurrect his mother.

These flowers are the Hwansaengkkot and are significant in Jeju shamanic myth. Nokdisaengin, in a beautifully poetic passage, 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.

After Nokdisaengin revives his mother, Cheonjiwang, the supreme deity, assigns the position of Jowangsin (Hearth Goddess) to Yeosan Buin. From then on, she serves as the hearth goddess in each of Jeju’s houses. Namseonbi, perhaps due to his shortcomings, becomes the god of the shed that holds compost. (Although, it seems, in some versions of the epic he becomes the Door God—this appears in the collection of the researcher Jin Sun Gi—I will talk more on the famed mythology collector Jin in a later post) The brothers take various positions around the house, including rooms surrounding the main central room, where Nokdisaengin is positioned as the Door God—perhaps the most frequently celebrated deity on Jeju Island.

Joey Rositano is a writer and visual artist currently based in South Korea. He has produced a documentary on the shamanism of Jeju Island which is available now.


Help support the project!

Spirits the documentary is now available on gumroad for download for $5. Follow the link below and you will arrive.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s