Seoul is the seat of government and it’s as crowded and competitive, if more homogeneous, as any other developed megacity. Skyscrapers dwarf shanty towns, throngs of delivery men on motorcycles jockey with black Mercedes Benzes on the roads, and behind the straight major boulevards where multitudes of well-attired Seoulites shop at fancy boutiques and posh department stores, lies a maze of narrow alleyways filled with innumerable itty-bitty shops selling everything from dried squid to cell-phone paraphernalia. This bustling city has a lot to offer the first-time visitor, so when you visit the South Korean peninsula (which is technically an island because of the closed border with North Korea) make sure to hit some of the top tourist sites as well as places that are a bit more unorthodox.
Seoul is the capital and largest city in South Korea. It is considered a megacity because it has a population of over ten million people and it is one of the largest cities in the entire world. Nearly half of the South Korea’s entire population lives in the Seoul National Capital Area (which also includes Incheon and Gyeonggi and makes it the second largest metropolitan area in the world). Because of its very large population, Seoul is considered a global city and it is the center of South Korea’s economy, culture and politics.
Throughout its history, Seoul was known by a number of different names. The name Seoul itself is believed to have originated from the Korean word for capital city, Seoraneol. The name Seoul is interesting however because it has no matching Chinese characters, instead a Chinese name for the city, which sounds similar has recently been chosen.
Seoul has been continuously settled for over 2,000 years and it is believed that the city was first founded in 18 B.C.E by the Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. The city also remained as the capital of Korea during the Joseon Dynasty and the Korean Empire. During Japanese colonization of Korea in the early 20th century, Seoul became known as Gyeongseong.
The three-legged crow known as samjoko seems the most like it just shouldn’t exist. But during the Goguryeo Dynasty, the samjoko was considered a symbol of power, superior to both the dragon and the bonghwang. In East Asian mythologies, the three-legged crow is a symbol of the Sun and is said to live there.
It remains as a symbol of the Goguryeo Dynasty, and can still be seen in contemporary Korean historic dramas, such as Jumong.
The bonghwang is a mythical bird of East Asia that is said to have dominion over all other birds. It’s a major part of Chinese mythology, often even replacing the rooster in the Chinese zodiac.
In Korea, the bonghwang has appeared on the royal emblem, and more recently the presidential emblem, and there is a statue of it at Cheong Wa Dae.
Like pretty well every country, Korean legends make mention of dragons. Although Korea’s dragons are comparable to Chinese dragons, there are a few factors that make Korean dragons unique.
Korean dragons are associated with water and agriculture, a benevolent force often said to summon rain and clouds
You can see gwishin all over Korean horror movies, and the Japanese version of the image went global thanks to the 1998 film The Ring.
The idea of a gwishin is very similar to western conceptions of ghosts: they are the restless souls of the dead who refuse to move on, usually because of something they haven’t completed. In most stories their motivation is revenge, but there can be other reasons. Also like western ghosts, most gwishin are depicted as floating, legless, and translucent. They may move objects around, and their presence is accompanied by an eerie feeling, a light breeze, or a cold sensation, very much like western ghosts.
Gwishin are usually women or girls with long black hair, and most commonly they are depicted wearing white funerary clothes
Korean legends characterise a variety of mythical creatures, ghosts, monsters, and dragons. Many are derived from Chinese legends, but with their own unique Korean spin.
The dokkaebi is a mischievous creature, fond of practical jokes and games, but also known for rewarding good people. They are generally considered harmless, and have a penchant for challenging others to ssireum (a Korean style of wrestling). If you ever find yourself in a match with a dokkaebi, remember never to push them from the left side, only from the right. According to some stories, they are easily beaten by hooking their leg, as they only have one of those.
Dokkaebi are endowed with a few magical items. The gamtu (감투), or hat, grants them invisibility. Their club, called a bangmangi (방망이), allows them to summon any item they want. However, it cannot create the item out of thin air, thus obeying the Laws of Thermodynamics like a good little magic item; instead, the item is stolen from others. So, not much different from any other club at the hands of a robber
The haechi originally was an animal, sort of a hybrid between a lion and a watchdog, with a horn in the center of its head. Often symbolising justice, it was a common decoration of old Chinese and Joseon architecture.
During the construction of Gyeongbok Palace, geomancers predicted that the “yang” energy from Gwanak Mountain across the river would bring disaster to the nation, so the haechi statues were built to cancel out this bad mojo.
A gumiho is said to be a fox that has lived 1000 years, after which it gains the power of shapeshifting. They most often choose to transform into the form of a beautiful girl, and are rumoured to seduce men for the ultimate goal of eating their livers, or in some stories hearts. Although, it should be pointed out, in My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox this is revealed to be a rumour that ruined the main character’s reputation and kept her from landing a husband. Of course, she was still encouraged to drink blood, and told that her boyfriend must die after 100 days.
The Chollima is one of the more straightforward creations of Korean legend, as it can be very easily likened to the Greek Pegasus. The name means “1000-ri horse,” with “ri” representing a traditional unit of measuring distance. Due to conflicting definitions, the ri is either 393 meters or 2927 meters, the latter which was adopted by Korea during the Japanese imperial era, so I’m going to guess they’re referring to the first one. Thus, the Chollima could travel 393 kilometers in a single day, which is approximately the north-south length of the entire Korean peninsula.
Koreans ingest the chi of spring by drinking jindallae-hwachae (azalea blossom tea), believed to be good for diabetes and lowering blood pressure. In summer they drink fragrant yellow song-
hwa-misu (pine pollen and honey) tea, which helps the heart and lungs, as well as relieving heat fatigue. And in autumn? The drink of choice is omija-hwachae (“five-taste” tea, from the fruit of the Chinese magnolia vine), which is rich in organic acids and helps suppress coughs and soothe dry throats.
Year-round in their homes, Koreans brew grain teas made from roasted corn or barley and a “tea” they flavor by boiling water in rice-cooking pots with the scorched rice still stuck to the bottom. In the last 10 years, even younger Koreans (who once consumed coffee, Coke, and other Western beverages), have been rediscovering the benefits of traditional teas steeped in more than 700 years of heritage.
In Korea, the marriage between a man and woman represents the joining of two families, rather than the joining of two individuals. As such, the event was often called Taerye (Great Ritual), and people from all over participated. Steeped in traditional Confucian values, the ceremonies and events surrounding the actual marriage were long and elaborate, from the pairing of the couple to the rituals performed after the ceremony.
Professional matchmakers paired up likely candidates for marriage, with the new couple often meeting for the first time at their wedding! The families considered many factors in the decision, consuting with fortune tellers for predictions about the couple’s future life together. During the Chosun period, people married in their early teens, with the girl often being several years older than the boy.
The groom usually traveled to the house of the bride for the ceremony, then stayed there for 3 days before taking his new bride to his family’s home. The actual ceremony involved many small rituals, with many bows and symbolic gestures. The participants were expected to control their emotions and remain somber.