The legend of Bulgasari narrates the story, from late Goryeo, of a frightening monster that kept growing as it ate up all the metal around.
Bulgasari is an imaginary monster, sometimes found painted on folding screens or chimneys due to the folk belief that it provided protection against disasters and fire. The book Songnamjapji (Trivial Learnings by Songnam), from late Joseon, records that “In the final years of Songdo (Goryeo’s capital) lived a monster that ate up all the metal scraps, and people tried to kill it but could not succeed, and thus named the monster ‘Bulgasal (Impossible-to-Kill).’ Even when it was thrown into fire, it flew back to the village, its whole body aflame, and burned down all the houses.” One day the government issued an order to arrest all Buddhist monks, who fled their temples and were on the run. One of the monks went to his sister’s home and asked for shelter. The sister offered to hide him in the wall closet, but suggested to her husband to report her brother to the authorities in exchange for riches. The husband, enraged by his wife’s scheme to sell off her own brother, killed her and set the monk free. The monk, while he was locked inside the closet, had made a grotesque beast-shaped object out of steamed rice grains and fed it needles.
Surprisingly, the monster kept eating more needles and kept growing, and when there was nothing left to eat in the house it came outside and ate up any kind of metal scrap, growing bigger and bigger. In an attempt to catch this monster, the government assembled people to shoot it with arrows or slay it with swords, but all failed. Finally, they tried to melt the monster with fire, but the monster went all around the village, its body set on fire and setting fire to everything. In some variations, the monster is killed by an eminent monk.
The name Bulgasari is also interpreted, in a different set of Chinese characters, or in the variant form of the name Hwagasari, as “Killed-by-Fire.” Some versions cite as the reason for arresting the monks in the narrative the promiscuous acts of the Buddhist monk Sindon who took over the state affairs in late Goryeo, which were revealed when he took advantage of too many women and fathered too many children. In the variations of the legend in which the monster is eradicated by fire, the reason for the arrest of monks was due to the policy to uphold Confucianism and suppress Buddhism (sungyueokbul), and the monster is created by a divine monk in an attempt to criticize the government for locking up innocent monks. Some variations portray Bulgasari as a monster created by the runaway monk to thank his brother-in-law for saving his life from his greedy sister.
The method of eradicating the monster is similar in most varations: After luring the monster with a scrap of metal, its tail is set on fire using flint, which turns the monster into charred rice, accompanied by tremendous noise.
The legend of Bulgasari warns against material greed through the character of the sister who tries to sell off her brother. The sibling relation maximizes the story’s dramatic conflict, as well as enhancing the ethical effect of the story as a cautionary tale.
The narrative can also be read as a foretelling of the fall of a dynasty and the birth of a new one. It is a rare monster tale in the Korean oral tradition and related to a range of political, historical and religious discourses.