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
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
There 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.
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!
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
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.
- Bachelor Ghost – Chonggak gwishin 총각귀신. This the male version of the virgin ghost.
- Water Ghost – mul gwishin 물귀신: This is the spirit of someone who drowned.
- Egg Ghost – dalgyal 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
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.
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.
The Goblin’s Hat 도깨비 감투
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.
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 are 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.
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:
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)