The legend “Agijangsu” narrates the story of Mighty Baby, who meets a tragic death for being born with extraordinary abilities into a lowly family.
It is unclear how far the tale dates back to, but a warrior born with wings under his arms is documented in Samguksagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), from 12th century. A story similar to the Agijangsu legend is also included in the “Ancient Relics of Gangneung” section of Joseoneupji (Village Records of Joseon). The tale was transmitted widely in mid- and late Joseon, as seen in the connection made between the Agijangsu motif and legends about anti-establishment figures from Joseon, and public anticipation of the emergence of the enlightened hero (“jinin”), related to rebellions in late Joseon.
In the village of Yongsan in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, a son was born in a poor farming family. When the mother returned after selling grain-pounding labor, the baby, less than three weeks old, had flown to the ceiling. She told her husband about what had happened. He said that it will be very harmful if the authorities found out, and that they should kill the baby. They put the baby in an oil press, under a boulder and one seom of rice stalks, but the baby did not die. Two seom of rice stalks made the oil press rock. When three seom of rice stalks were placed on him, the baby trembled in fear and finally died. Following the baby’s death, Yongma (Dragon Horse) emerged from Yongbawi (Dragon Rock) and circled the air, before drowning in a pond named Botangdeul. It is said that the rock is still stained in blood.
This narrative, transmitted around the country, has myriad variations. The basic plot involves parents killing their extraordinary child in fear of potential harm, under varying circumstances and through varying methods of death. In some versions, when the parents are distressed that the baby is so strong he cannot be easily killed, the baby instructs them that they need to tear off the wings from under his arms. In some, Agijangsu flees to pursue a grand plan but the mother’s mistake or betrayal leads to his death in the hands of the authorities. In the variations that feature mighty baby Uturi, it is Yi Seong-gye, founder of Joseon, who kills the baby, which reflects the public opposition to Yi’s revolt that led to the founding of the new kingdom. Some versions cite a badly positioned ancestral tomb, which in some cases are blamed on the daughter-in-law, as the reason behind the birth of the mighty baby. In some cases the mighty baby does not die and survives until youth or middle age.
The baby’s wings and the Dragon Horse are symbols of otherwordliness, which show that Agijangsu’s origins are related to the heavens. An extraordinary child born into an ordinary family was often viewed as a sign that he would grow up to commit treason. In the legend, fearing the damage that the baby might cause, the people around him get rid of the heaven-sent hero, and the tragedy of the story in heightened by the fact that it is his own parents that commit the murder. Infanticide by the parents signifies the absence of minimum space to accommodate the child, with the parents symbolizing the public. The episode of the emergence of the Dragon Horse and its death reflects the public protest for the unjust and undeserved death of Agijangsu.
The versions in which the baby dies in the hands of state authorities depict Agijangsu’s potential being crushed by the ruling powers, highlighting the negative worldview and despair of the public.
But even these versions in the end blame the baby’s death on the mother, which can be interpreted as the public’s self-reflection about their inability to accommodate their own hero.
Agijangsu is a Messiah-like character, reflecing the public’s yearning for a new world order. He is an incomplete hero who meets a tragic end, but he is continually revived in legends of anti-establishment heroes throughout Joseon, which in a sense makes him an undying, eternal hero. The same analysis can be applied to the disappeared baby featured in some versions, reflecting the public’s anticipation of a savior who will one day reemerge to liberate them from the hardship of this world.