There are two narratives related to the bird jeopdong- sae, or the lesser cuckoo, in the Korean oral tradition: One narrates the tragic story of a maiden harassed by her stepmother, who died and became a lesser cuckoo; and the other of a man who became a lesser cuckoo when he was driven to death by his grievance of losing his bride to the king. Jeopdongsae, with its mournful cry, the sound of which is reflected on its name, is featured prominently in traditional verse to capture sentiments of sorrow or grievances.
A long, long time ago, a mother died leaving behind nine sons and a daughter. Their stepmother resented the daughter and constantly harassed her. The daughter was set to wed, but unable to bear the stepmother’s ill treatment, met an abrupt death after preparing all her bridal gifts. Her nine mournful brothers were burning their dead sister’s bridal gifts in the yard when the stepmother tried to stop them, not wanting the gifts to go to waste. The brothers, furious, pushed her into the fire, and the stepmother turned into a crow and flew away. Their dead sister turned into a lesser cuckoo and came to see her brothers each night, crying its mournful cry.
The second tale features a poor millet farmer who married a pretty bride who lived inside a snail shell (ureonggaksi) and served him well. One day the bride was bringing his meal out to the field, when the king sent a secret inspector (amhaengeosa) and took her away. The farmer found his snail bride but was uable to bring her back and when his grievance killed him, he turned into a lesser cuckoo.
The jeopdongsae narrative belongs to the category of folk tales about humans being reborn as birds, which include the lesser cuckoo, bluebird, seagull, crow and chicken. In most of these tales, the protagonist dies an undeserved and untimely death, and his or her haunted spirit is reborn as a bird. The bird is depicted as a divine animal that can travel between the celestial and terrestrial worlds, and between the world of gods and the world of humans, a belief based on the shamanic view that the soul of the dead borrows the body of the bird to fly over the terrestrial world, and that emotional communication is possible between soulds.
The jeopdongsae narrative also belongs to the stepmother tale (gyemodam) category, with its typical narrative structure of the ill-treated daughter being reborn as a bird, and her older brothers punishing the stepmother by pushing her into the fire.