Korean Folklore – Goblins and Other Beings

goblin-blue-sea

SBS, Legend of the Blue Sea 푸른 바다의 전설 and TvN Goblin 도개비

This article is inspired by the TvN drama, Goblin 도깨비 and the SBS drama, Legend of the Blue Sea 푸른 바다의 전설.  Both dramas, airing simultaneously, focus on supernatural beings who originated during different eras in Korean history and are now living in the modern era. Goblin is about a creature well known in Korean folklore called “dokkaebi” and Legend of the Sea is about a mermaid.  We will take a look at the origins and history behind Korean folklore, goblins and other creatures.

Korean Folktales: Imuldam 이물담

There are many types of folktales in Korean culture, one of them is known as imuldam 이물담 ; these are Korean folktales specifically about supernatural beings such as ghosts, monsters and goblins. The common characteristic of imuldam tales is that supernatural beings enter the human world and engage in friendly or antagonistic relations with humans. These stories served a purpose as a reminder that there are other beings amongst us and that they are a constant presence in our lives. Tales of supernatural beings demonstrated the relationship between us and them through a wide range of perspectives.

Overview of Korean Folklore

jangseung

Korean totem poles, known as Janseung 장승 were put around all four corners of a village to guard and protect against evil spirits.

Korean culture is a mix of several belief systems – Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and since the 20th century, Christianity. Shamanism, the oldest of these systems, has been around since the dawn of Korean civilization. Shamanism’s impact on Korean folk culture was deep and far reaching; it has never died out. In an effort to seek harmony and provide an explanation of human events, the shaman worldview explained everything through a vast array of supernatural beings such as spirits, ghosts, and goblins; with a belief that spirits inhabit every object on earth. Korean folk culture reflects the connection between the human world with that of the spiritual world. The presence of these supernatural entities explained both life’s hardships and pleasures.

Korean Goblins – Dokkaebi (도깨비)

Amongst the most prolific of supernatural beings in Korean folklore is the dokkaebi. Translating dokkaebi into the English word “goblin” can lead to misconceptions because in European folklore, goblins have a demonic or evil element to them; whereas dokkaebi do not.  Dokkaebi are creatures with supernatural powers and skills and have both negative and positive characteristics; they generally take pleasure in making humans happy, but at times are known to bring misery.  The role of dokkaebi in Korean folklore can’t be overstated – let’s put it this way: dokkaebi is to Koreans as leprechauns are to the Irish. The first written story of dokkaebi appeared in the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) in the tale “Lady Dohwa and Bachelor Bihyeong” 도화녀 비형랑 which takes place during the Silla dynasty. This tale is considered to be the first documented narrative of dokkaebi.

In some remote villages of Korea, dokkaebi were held responsible for bringing diseases such as smallpox. Dokkaebi are said to possess powers giving them the ability to control all sea creatures, which is why in fishing communities dokkaebi were worshipped as spirits in hopes of gaining a big catch.

Characteristics of a Goblin/Dokkaebi

eb8f84eab9a8ebb984-21zen04There are multiple versions of dokkaebi, which come in different shapes and sizes. They have features including horns, bulging eyes, a big mouth, long, sharp teeth, a hairy body and long claws.  Dokkaebi are typically night beings, but you might find them out during day when it is foggy and rainy.

Now that we know dokkaebi are not humans, does this mean they are monsters? No, they are not monsters. Monsters typically look to harm humans, whereas dokkaebi are generally mild, friendly and playful with humans. The best way to describe dokkaebi are creatures.

Goblin, The Drama

This fictional drama is about General Kim Shin, a faithful servant and war hero during the Goryeo dynasty. Although General Kim fought gallantly for the king, the king was jealous that General Kim had so much love from the people; therefore he was sentenced to death.  But General Kim does not die – rather he is transformed into a goblin who lives eternally. According to the legend in the drama, a woman who can see the sword pierced through him will be his “Goblin Bride” (“dokkaebi shin-bu”도깨비 신부) and only she can release him from his goblin state.

goblin-drama

TvN drama, The Goblin

While this is a great story line, according to traditional Korean folklore, dokkaebi are NOT derived from humans nor are they in human form. Dokkaebi are derived from inanimate items – typically household objects such as brooms, baskets, grinding pestles, and objects stained with human blood. As I explained earlier, in the shamanistic worldview, it was believed spirits inhabited everything.  For dramatic purposes, it is much harder to create a drama series about a broomstick that becomes a goblin – you can agree, it doesn’t make for a great storyline. I personally love the retelling of the dokkaebi tale in this drama!Goblin at KoreanHistoricalDramas.com

Goblins Versus Ghosts 귀신

While European goblins are often lumped in with ghosts, dokkaebi are completely different and have nothing to do with ghosts. Korean ghosts are called gwishin 귀신. In Korean folklore, ghosts are derived from human beings who exist on the borders between life and death, whereas dokkaebi are derived from objects. Gwishin are humans who are physically dead, but their spirits are still in the human world due to unresolved grudges known in Korean as won-han 원한.  Won-han is a common theme in Korean ghost folklore; in order to successfully go to the afterworld, they must achieve and satisfy their grudges.

Four Types of Korean Ghosts

  1. Virgin Ghost in Arang and the Magistrate

    Virgin Ghost – Cheonyeo gwishin (처녀귀신): This is the most common of the Korean ghosts. Arang from the drama, Arang and the Magistrate is a good example of the virgin ghost.

  2. Bachelor GhostChonggak gwishin 총각귀신.  This the male version of the virgin ghost.
  3. Water Ghostmul gwishin 물귀신: This is the spirit of someone who drowned.
  4. Egg Ghostdalgyal gwishin 달걀귀신: This ghost is an egg shape with no face or arms or even legs. This ghost has no personality or any emotions; it is a ghost with no background. (Although this is considered one of the Korean ghosts, it’s a more recent addition. It is believed this ghost has Japanese roots because it is not found in any pre-modern or Joseon sources.)

Korean Grim Reaper: JeoSeung Saja 저승사자

korean-versus-western-grim-reaper

Western Grim Reaper compared with traditional Korean JeoSeung Saja

The Western personification of death is known as the grim reaper. The grim reaper is an ominous skeletal figure that wears a cloak and carries as scythe – it is neither a human, nor ghost, nor monster. The personification of death in Korean culture is called JeoSeung Saja 저승사자, which literally translates into Afterlife Messenger. JeoSeung” 저승 means “the afterlife” – it is neither heaven nor hell. “Saja” 사자 means “messenger” or “envoy. The job of the JeoSeong Saja is to guide the recently departed down the road to the afterlife.

Goblin Drama Grim Reaper

Modern interpretation of JeoSeung Saja in the drama, The Goblin.

JeoSeung Saja is always in human form and is personified wearing a black hanbok
(traditional Korean attire) and traditional Korean black hat called gat 갓. Even the modern take of JeoSeung Saja in the drama, Goblin, he wears a black hat, albeit a fedora rather than a gat. It’s the hat that lets you know you are staring death in the face.

arang-grim-reaper

Joseon’s version of JeoSeung Saja in the drama, Arang and the Magistrate

 

 

 

 

   The Goblin’s Hat 도깨비 감투

dokkaebi gamtu stamp

The story of the Goblin’s Hat is commemorated in a S. Korean postage stamp

In the drama, Goblin, the Grim Reaper is made invisible by wearing his black hat, which is actually not part of the traditional JeoSeung Saja narrative. This storyline is a clever twist on an famous Korean folktale called “The Goblin’s Hat” or “Dokkaebi Gamtu” 도깨비 감투.  As legend has it, if a person wears a dokkaebi’s hat, they will become invisible. According to the folktale, a man acquired a dokkaebi’s hat and became invisible to other people. He used his power of being invisible to steal food and other necessities from others in the village. He was ultimately caught and beaten.

Mermaids 인어

blue-sea-mermaid

The captured mermaid in the SBS drama, Legend of the Blue Sea.

Another drama currently airing is SBS’s  Legend of the Blue Sea, 푸른 바다의 전설 about a Joseon mermaid who makes it to the modern era. According to the drama, among some of the traits of mermaids include: the ability to grow legs once they become an adult, the ability to speak telepathically with other sea creatures, and the ability to erase the memories of humans.

Unlike the other mythical beings listed, mermaids mermaidare NOT part of Korean folk culture. This drama has more or less adapted the western legend of mermaids and put a Joseon spin to it. There are some stories of mermaids, but they are more closer to sea creatures than the beautiful half fish/half woman ocean princesses that we are familiar with. The Korean word for the mythical mermaid in this drama is called In-Uh 인어/人魚 which literally means human fish.

There is also another word that is more commonly translates into “mermaid” called hae-nyu 해녀, which literally means sea woman. Hae-nyu are not mermaids in the mythical sense, but rather they are actual female divers who, for hundreds of years, have worked off Jeju Island catching sea urchins, sea cucumbers, squid and sea abalones. The Korean government has listed hae-nyu as Intangible Cultural Assets of Jeju Island. I only bring this up because if you search for Korean mermaids, there’s a 95% chance you will find hae-nyu versus actual mythical mermaids, in-uh.

Gumiho 구미호

구가의서 gu family book gumiho

Gu Family Book, which takes place in Joseon era, tells the story of someone is half human and half gumiho.

While we’re on the subject of Korean folklore, let’s not forget the most popular of all to K-drama fans, gumiho 구미호, – the nine tailed fox.  Of all the supernatural creatures, the gumiho has been the center of the most dramas and films.

Gumiho is derived from Chinese mythology and has been part of Korean folklore since the Three Kingdoms Period. A gumiho is formed when a fox lives for a thousand years. Once a gumiho, they can shape-shift, often taking the form of a beautiful young woman. They are known to seduce men and literally eat their hearts out. While gumiho were known as really scary creatures in Korean folklore, today the role of gumihos in society has changed – often they are used for commercial purposes from promoting cosmetics to fashion. In the modern vernacular, the slang term for sexy woman is called yeo-wu 여우, which translates to fox.   

Additional Supernatural Beings

Though they aren’t really part of traditional Korean folklore, here are another beings visitors here might recognize:

VAMPIRE:

scholar who walks the night

Vampire: “Heup Hyul Gwi” 흡혈귀  which literally translates to “Blood Sucking Monster” from the drama, “The Scholar Who Walks the Night”

ANGELS:

Angel's_Temptation_Logo

Angels: There are no sageuks that I am aware of that focus on angels, known in Korean as “chun-sa 천사, meaning “heaven’s messenger.” Angels are not part of traditional folklore, but were introduced into the Korean culture through Christianity.  This is from a modern drama called, “Angel’s Temptation”

gaurdian-angel

Guardian Angel is known as “Soo-ho Chun-sa” 수호천사

I hope you enjoyed this overview. These were the only beings I could think of at the moment, I’m sure they are more that are missing! Feel free to expand or ask any questions in the comments section.

Which Korean folklore creature do you find the most interesting?

UPDATE: I totally forgot to include this (I felt I was missing something): the song the Grim Reaper sings in episode 2 is an actual Children’s song. It’s about dokkaebi’s dirty and smelly underwear. The song is called “Dokkaebi’s Underwear” (dokkaebi’s bban-seu 도개비 빤스)

 

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

  • KnoTTy BuLLeT

    Hi… Sorry for being this late to join the discussion!! But i have this doubt from episode 3!! When the couple was in Canada and Eun Tak asks Kim Shin ‘wanna bet?’ , why is he flustered and asks if she has done thorough study abt goblins or not!! I feel like m missing something !! Do help me!!

  • karmapolice

    did you watch GOBLIN? koz I did and it was explained that the goblin was created from HIS SWORD tainted with blood, which is exactly what a dokkaebi is

  • Samanta Camilo

    In the kdrama Goblin, the inanimate object of the dokkaebi, stained with human blood, is the sword.

  • Jehoon allows me fangirling

    awesome!

  • bokjooswag

    “Dokkaebi are derived from inanimate items – typically household objects such as brooms, baskets, grinding pestles, and objects stained with human blood.”

    From what I understood, the goblin in the show was derived from the blood-stained sword, when the butterfly (aka god) alighted on it. He took on a human form because it was his spirit inhabiting, being the sword’s master. 🙂

    • It’s funny that you mention this because my cousin and I had this VERY same discussion!! 😃 I think there IS a connection with the sword, but we concluded (for the time being) that the sword is a loose twist on the traditional dokkaebi folklore. Perhaps we’ll learn more as the story unfolds. (BTW, I’m still only on episode 3 because I’m taking a break so I can binge. Perhaps there’s more that I’m not privy to at this time). Have fun watching!!!

      • gimbap

        Hi! If you already had the chance to watch the other episodes, please come back here and tell me your opinion. I’m really confused by this “Dokkaebi are derived from inanimate items – typically household objects such as brooms, baskets, grinding pestles, and objects stained with human blood”. It just don’t get into my head. How the hell can they derivate from inanimate items? What does that means?
        And: why he turns into a Goblin? HOW? I just can’t understand. If he is a human and get in touch with a object stained with human blood ( HIS BLOOD BTW), how the hell does he turn into a goblin?
        It’s like, is so simple to understand something like “you get biten by a vampire, you become one”. But I can’t simply understand “you get killed by a sword, you become a Goblin”.

        Please help me! hahaha

        • Samanta Camilo

          There is a japanese belief in which an object gains a soul after 1.000 years. To understand the process in which an object turns into a supernatural being you have to learn about magic and ocultism.

          In the case of kdrama Goblin, the sword he used killed 1.000 people. The villagers prayed to their god to have mercy and save the warrior…he was much loved.
          So there were blood….prays…and a god who have moved by the love of people….pretty much like worship.

          • gimbap

            That makes a lot of sense! Thank you very much (:

        • My article was really about actual traditional Korean folklore. However, the drama is a twist on the dokkaebi folklore. Therefore the idea of getting killed by a sword and then becoming a goblin is NOT part of the Korean folklore – it was simply dramatic license. However, I think Samanta’s explanation below is very interesting. I’m not familiar with Japanese beliefs – but it seems to line up. 🙂
          Hope you enjoyed the drama as much as I did!

  • BP

    Frankly I’m a little glad lately they’ve been giving it a rest with the gumiho stories. They were getting a bit redundant. lol. Give the other mythological creatures a chance at stories! 🙂

  • jcxw

    This is incredibly fascinating and enlightening! Thank you for writing a post on Korean folklore. It’s great material for writers 🙂

  • cyn0514

    I love this article, its fun and informatif, the one I’m looking for while googling about dokkaebi background in korean folklore. Yeah, the drama made me head over heals….
    Thx bibimgirl, I think I’m going to be a permanent guest in this site.

  • zaneyb

    thanks for the info. i could not understand why the title used is ‘goblin’ as the usual definition is from a different folklore. the other descriptions of supernatural beings is also helpful.

  • Humbledaisy

    Thanks for the info about Dokkaebi being derived from inanimate items. In the tv show Goblin, the heroine jokes about removing the phantom sword and returning him to his “broom” state – which I didn’t understand until now. I had actually seen him as the Japanese style Goblin, which is more of a fierce hunter who can take on human form and attract women.

    • Yeah! I’m so glad this was helpful! 🙂

      • Aeri

        what about chicken?
        in ep 2 or is it 3? lee dong wook drew something on the towel and gong yoo was frightened…i dont understand that part actually ….

        • skrona

          I read a story about Dokkaebi with an old man. In that story, it was said that Dokkaebi scared of blood. The Grim Reaper did put blood on the towel in that episode.

          • Devil

            Horse’s blood, to be particular.