Geonguksinhwa, or founding myths, are sacred narratives of a nation’s origins.
Ancient states created epic poems that narrated the story of the kingdom’s founding to be performed as part of state rituals and proclaimed publicly for the purpose of emphasizing the sacred origins of the state. When history began to be documented in written form, the orally transmitted epics were recorded, generally in prose form, as the opening sections of national history. These documented narratives of a state’s origins are defined as founding myths. Examples of Korea’s founding myths include “ [Dangun](/topic/Dangun, FounderofGojoseon)gogi (Ancient Records of Dangun) ”quoted in Samgungnyusa (Memorabilia of the Three kingdoms), the“Goguryeobongi (Records of Goguryeo) ”section of Samguksagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) and other historical records.
Founding myths are based on progenitor myths (sijosinhwa). Ancient states were formed in the process of a single powerful tribe unifying a number of other tribes, as indicated by the administrative structure of“ bu (enclave) ”in Goguryeo and Silla, the former comprised of five enclaves and the latter six. Each tribe brings to the state their individual ancestral myths that narrate their tribal origins, which are combined into the ancestral myth of the unifying tribe and rearranged as the founding myth of the new state.
Korea’s ancient founding myths include the Dangun Myth of Gojoseon; Haeburu Myth of North Buyeo; Geumwa Myth of East Buyeo; Jumong Myth of Goguryeo; Bak Hyeokgeose Myth of Silla; Suro Myth of Garak; and the Sameulla Myth of Tamna. Medieval kingdoms also left behind myths about their founders, including Wang Geon of Goryeo, Yi Seong-gye of Joseon and their ancestors. Traces of elements that make up founding myths can be found in legends about progenitors whose states failed to continue through history, including Gungye of Taebong and Gyeon Hwon of Late Baekje.
The founding myths of Korea’s ancient kingdoms share several characteristics, including the motif of the union of the sky father and earth mother (cheonbujimo), as observed in the union of Hwanung and Ungnyeo of Gojosoen; Haemosu and Yuhwa of Gogguryeo; Bak Hyeokgeose and Aryeong of Silla; Suro and Heohwangok of Garak. In these cases, the groom is associated with the celestial gods and the bride with the terrestrial gods. The foundation of a state through their union possibly indicates the worship of the heavenly god Cheonsin by the ruling power, or the attempt by the rulers to emphasize the dominance of the paternal line in the monarchy.
These unions vary in form by region, mainly the southern and northern parts of the Korean peninsula. While in the south, the progenitor is crowned as founding king, in the north the progenitor founds his kingdom through competition and conquest, as in the case of Jumong.
Korea’s medieval founding myths differ from their ancient counterparts on several points. First is the tendency to combine various different lineages of divinity. In the founding myth of Goryeo, progenitor Wang Geon’s sixth-generation-back ancestor Hogyeong is identified as a former general from Silla’s Seonggol royalty who upon descending from Mt. Baekdu becomes the mountain god (sansin) of Mt. Guryong. Second is that the emphasis of the divine lineage is focused on the progenitor’s ancestors rather than the founding king himself. In the case of Joseon, the achievements of Yi Seong-gye’s multigenerational ancestors, from Mokjo and Ikjo to Dojo and Hwanjo, are mystified, rather than Yi’s own. This is the result of the attempt to justify the dynasty by establishing its sanctity through various alternative approaches of interpreting the world including blood lineage, geomancy and signs, within a new framework based on medieval rationality that no longer accepted ancient mythology featured deities and sacred animals.
Founding myths aim at justifying a state and its rulers by relying on transcendental authority, which make them not mere works of imagination but political narratives that reveal specific ideologies and impose them on the members of the state.