Korean folklore, the sun and the moon

(And the eclipse.)

On Friday, I jokingly said to my girlfriend that everything about my heritage is “the South” before I moved to the PNW — I was born in Florida, raised in Texas, and both sides of my family come from South Korea. My parents met in an arranged group date, then hooked up again a couple of years later after they both came to the US for schooling, and there they stayed. According to my mother, she clashed with baby me a lot in trying to have pride in a heritage that felt extremely distant and alienating, growing up in a series of very white-populace bubbles.

Ultimately, though, the way my mom won me over to caring more was by buying me a couple of books on Korean fairytales, folklore, and legends. From very early on, I’ve been into fairytales, and folklore, and general mythology; even my interest in the horror genre centers a lot around urban legends, and the modern day mythology that our society builds. As much as I grew up reading very European-centric fantasy and genuinely enjoyed it — still do! — I do find myself going back to those first stories I remember reading.

For example, thinking about the eclipse that’s coming on Monday, let’s talk about how the sun and the moon came to be.

Of course every culture has their own take on this, but the Korean take goes that a single mother is devoured by a tiger on her way home from something — work, a market, something that required her to travel some distance from her home — and the tiger, greedy for more, decides it would very much like to eat her children as well. It disguises itself as her and manages to trick the children, a brother and a sister, into letting it enter the house, but as soon as they realize what’s going on, they flee. As it pursues the children, they pray for the heavens to send them a rope to help them escape.

“For those who are pure of heart and intention, let this rope be strong and steady, but for those who are wicked, let it be frayed and brittle.”

That was the gist of it. And of course, being good kids, they were able to climb all the way to heaven, while the pursuing tiger falls to its death. (Incidentally, this also supposedly explains why buckwheat roots are red: the tiger’s blood stained them that color forever. That was in the version I read, though the variations I’ve read since don’t include that fact. I remember it, though, as one of baby-me’s first exposures to how casually brutal and capricious the world of mythology and fairytales could be.)

But the children do escape. They make it to Heaven safely. But they cannot simply stay there without contributing to the society above the clouds. Ultimately, the Emperor sets the boy to driving the sun and the girl to driving the moon, but the girl, kindhearted but timid, is afraid of the dark and has to switch places with her brother. And she’s a very modest girl, too shy with all the people looking up to admire her, so she began to shine brighter and brighter, until it became impossible to look at her straight on.

(That’s also a thing that later versions I read don’t usually mention. But I’ve always thought it was a nice touch; sun deities are usually bold and proud, so one would assume they would want for people to look at them! Instead it’s this shy young girl who isn’t sure what to do with the attention she’s getting.)

On the other hand, the story that Korea has to explain the reasons behind an eclipse was that the king of a dark kingdom — maybe the underworld, or maybe some strange distant land — is sick of suffering in the darkness, and so he sends a pack of his dogs to steal the sun and the moon for him. The problem is that when the dogs bite at the sun, it’s too hot, and when they bite at the moon, it’s too cold. Eclipses result from the attempts to fetch these things for their master, but those are doomed to fail because of the temperature of those bodies.

In this story, the personification of these heavenly bodies is absent, though I like to think that perhaps there’s some proactivity going on with that brother and sister. I mean, they escaped a tiger that had gone a step further than the Big Bad Wolf; surely they could do more to protect themselves.

You know what? I’ll come back to that one.

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