Twelve Zodiac Days
Sibijiil (Kor. 십이지일, Chin. 十二支日, Twelve Zodiac Days) refers to the first twelve days of the Lunar New Year that are represented by the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, i.e., rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. They can also be called Jeongcho Sibijiil (Kor. 정초십이지일, Chin. 正初十二支日, twelve zodiac days of the beginning of the year) or simply Jimseungnal (Kor. 짐승날, lit. animal days). The zodiac calendar is a separate system that does not correlate to the lunar calendar. Thus, the Lunar New Year can fall on a day of a different animal each year.
The names of the first twelve zodiac days of the Lunar New Year are Sangjail (Kor. 상자일, Chin. 上子日, lit. High Rat Day), Sangchugil (Kor. 상축일, Chin. 上丑日, lit. High Ox Day), Sanginil (Kor. 상인일, Chin. 上寅日, lit. High Tiger Day), Sangmyoil (Kor. 상묘일, Chin. 上卯日, lit. High Rabbit Day), Sangjinil (Kor. 상진일, Chin. 上辰日, lit. High Dragon Day), Sangsail (Kor. 상사일, Chin. 上巳日, lit. High Snake Day), Sangoil (Kor. 상오일, Chin. 上午日, lit. High Horse Day), Sangmiil (Kor. 상미일, Chin. 上未日, lit. High Ram Day), Sangsinil (Kor. 상신일, Chin. 上申日, lit. High Monkey Day), Sangyuil (Kor. 상유일, Chin. 上酉日, lit. High Rooster Day), Sangsuril (Kor. 상술일, Chin. 上戌日, lit. High Dog Day) and Sanghaeil (Kor. 상해일, Chin. 上亥日, lit. High Pig Day). There are certain duties and taboos associated with each of these days.
The twelve zodiac animals appear in traditional Korean culture in various forms. For instance, they are used for the names of directions and hours in the traditional astronomy and calendar systems, and represent the codes in pungsu (Kor. 풍수, Chin. 風水 / Fengshui, lit. geomancy), fortune-telling, haemyeong (Kor. 해명, Chin. 解名, interpreting name meanings to predict the name-bearer’s fortune), taegil (Kor. 택일, Chin. 擇日, lit. choosing auspicious dates), and compiling horoscopes - saju (Kor. 사주, Chin. 四柱, lit. four pillars, fortune-telling based on the year, month, day and hour of one’s birth) and gunghap (Kor. 궁합, Chin. 宮合, lit. union of palaces, predicting compatibility of bride and groom based on the time of their birth, saju). The images of these animals can be seen as auspicious symbols on guardian statues or mound curbstones, in Buddhist and folk paintings, and in general household goods and personal ornaments. One of the most significant legacies of the twelve zodiac animals in contemporary Korean culture is their use as birth-year signs. Koreans believe that their fortune, personality and relationships with each other are determined by a birth year, or tti (Kor. 띠), and use this system to discover a person’s destiny and disposition.
According to the “Dongguk Sesigi” (Kor. 동국세시기, Chin. 東國歲時記, A Record of Seasonal Customs in Korea, 1849), Korean people in the late Joseon period (17th century-1910) performed several seasonal customs related to the days of twelve zodiac animals such as Sanghae Sangjail (Kor. 상해․상자일, Chin. 上亥上子日, lit. High Pig and High Rat Day), Myoil Sail (Kor. 묘일•사일. Chin. 卯日巳日, lit. Rabbit and Snake Day), Mochungil (Kor. 모충일, Chin. 毛蟲日, lit. Days of Furry or Furless Animals) and Sinil (Kor. 신일, Chin. 愼日, lit. Day of Restraint). The author of the book describes, for instance, the following celebrations on the High Pig and High Rat Days: “In the old Korean festival several hundred court eunuchs walk in a line around the place dragging the torches behind them and shouting “Let the pig be scorched! Let the rat be scorched!” The king prays for a good harvest by presenting Pig Pouches and Rat Pouches filled with singed grains to the ministers and secretaries. On the first Rat Day, there is a practice among the common people in which rats are actually burned with a torch. There is also a belief that washing one’s face with bean powder would help whiten it.” The record also states that on the first Rabbit Day, people made a cotton thread, which they called a “rabbit thread”, and carried it with them in the belief that it would help prevent misfortune. It was considered a bad sign if they had a visitor from outside the family on that day, if a female entered a house first, or if a wooden object was brought to their house. On the first Snake Day, people refrained from combing their hair for fear that this action would bring a snake into their house. People in the Gyeongju area regarded the year’s first Rat Day, Dragon Day, Horse Day and Pig Day as days when they should act with utmost care. Records say that the custom may have come from a historical episode in which King Soji of Silla (BCE 57- CE 935) was able to escape murder on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month in the 10th year of his reign, thanks to the omens given by these four animals.
Based on an association with fur, the twelve zodiac days were divided into two categories, yumoil (Kor. 유모일, Chin. 有毛日, days of furry animals) and mumoil (Kor. 무모일, Chin. 無毛日, days of furless animals). The first category included rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig, while the “furless” animals were only two – dragon and snake.
Days of furry animals were largely regarded as auspicious with regard to farming, business and fortune-telling, whereas the days of “furless” animals were seen as unlucky. For example, people believed that a year would end in a good harvest if New Year’s Day fell on a day of a furry animal, and in a bad harvest if on a day of a furless animal. An abundant harvest could also be expected if the first ten days of the new year were mostly those of furry animals. Consequently, a larger number of days of furless animals were associated with poor crops. In South Gyeongsang Province, a similar rule applied to the whole month starting the year. Many days of furry animals were thought to bring success in cotton farming and livestock rearing, while days of furless animals would result in misfortune. It was also thought that cotton farming would thrive in the year that had a Rabbit Day among its first few days.
When shop owners reopened their business after the New Year holiday season, they almost certainly chose a day of a furry animal. A Tiger Day was particularly favored because the animal’s thick fur was regarded as a symbol of prosperity. Even today, some hold fast to the traditional view that the (re-)opening of a shop or start of a new business should be done on the day of the ox, rabbit or, more preferably, the tiger.
Overall, the customs observed by Koreans on the twelve zodiac days either prescribed a certain action or prohibited it, both for the purpose of inviting auspiciousness and avoiding evil. The lists of what should be done on each day and what should be avoided were drawn based on the close observation of animals. Koreans considered the appearance and behavioral characteristics of each animal and attached to them various symbolic meanings.
In the past when Korea was an agricultural society the customs of the twelve zodiac animals were largely related to farming. The year’s first Days of the Rat, Ox, Dragon, Horse and Pig, for example, required performance of a number of rituals aimed at bringing in a good harvest. The above-mentioned ceremony, in which Joseon kings bestowed on their ministers and royal attendants Pig and Rat Pouches, was also conducted for this purpose. Korean farmers tried to comfort their oxen and horses on their respective days as these were the two most important animals working in the fields. People in South Jeolla Province believed that Gwaengi Halmi (Kor. 괭이할미, lit. Cat Granma) descended to the human world every Lunar New Year’s Day and ascended back to heaven on the first Ox Day. Once in this world, she would consume one doe (i.e. 2 liters) of grain a day. If she finished one mal (i.e. 20 liters) before the first Ox Day arrived, the harvest that year would be poor; if not, the farmers could expect abundance. Similarly, in South Gyeongsang Province there was a belief that barley would yield good crops if an Ox Day was among the first three days of the year.
On the first Dragon Day of the year, the farming communities in the past held sacrificial rites for dragon, whom they revered as a god of water. According to the traditional Korean farmer’s almanac, the number of dragons overseeing the year’s rain could be one, three, five, seven or eleven, depending on the year. It was the number of dragons that decided the amount of rainfall in a year, and the number was dependent on when the new year’s first Dragon Day fell. Korean farmers believed that the most appropriate number of dragons for a good harvest was three and any number larger or smaller than that would lead to a bad year with flood or drought. The idea was based on the folk belief that if there were only one or two dragons, they would not give enough attention to the farmers’ needs or would behave whimsically. A larger number would result in lack of rainfall due to discord among the dragons.
In general, on the days of the animals that represented auspiciousness or were helpful in agriculture the lists of what the farmers should do were much longer than the lists of taboos. The opposite was the case if the animals were associated with misfortune or were regarded as harmful. Consequently, the Days of the Ox or Horse were busy with the events related to these animals, and on the Days of the Tiger, Rat and Snake people paid extra attention to keep the taboos which, they believed, prevented the potential harm from these three animals.
Taboos related to the behavior or appearance of zodiac animals included, for example, the belief that people should be cautious in what they said and did on the Days of the Rabbit, Ram or Monkey, as these animals were widely regarded as careless and flighty. For example, the Day of the Pig was a day to take care of one’s skin to make it healthier and whiter because the animal has black, rough skin.
The abundance of taboos and precautions which Koreans observed in connection with the zodiac animals during the New Year holidays can be explained as the desire for a good start to the new year. The concerns and expectations were reflected in prayers for a good harvest, fortune-telling and rituals, all aimed at inviting good luck and expelling evil.