The Myth of Tan’gun: A Critical View of its Interpretations from the Perspective of Comparative Religion
(55th Meeting, 2012)
The myth of Tan’gun, the founder of the first Korean state (Old Chosŏn, allegedly created in 2333 BC) and the semi-divine progenitor of the Korean people, is the seminal myth of Korean culture. It has received enormous attention from the beginning of the 20th century and has been read mostly in nationalist key, as an affirmation of Korean independence and racial unity.
The present paper is a critical approach to the various interpretations the myth has received from the perspective of comparative religion. Korean scholars have mostly interpreted the religious elements appearing in the myth in relation with ritual and spiritual aspects from the life of neighbouring peoples and nomadic tribes that came into contact with the KoreanPeninsula over the centuries: the Khitans, the Mongols, Tungusic and Siberian tribes. The methodology of comparative religion has allowed for bold comparisons across a wide time range that have eventually led to the portraying of Tan’gun as a historical teocratic leader, an actual shaman-king who unifies several clans under his guidance, himself originating from a bear-totem clan. I question some of these assumptions, based on the fact that the myth provides too scarce information to support the hypotesis of influences coming from Central and Northeast Asia. Also, the first mention of the myth dates from the 13th century work of Buddhist monk Iryŏn, Samguk yusa, which has given rise to questions about the reliability of the text. In this light, the view of Tan’gun as a spiritual leader in remote antiquity is close to speculation, in the absence of relevant archaeological remains supporting such views.
My discussion of the myth of Tan’gun touches on the concept of social hierarchy and sacred authority established on earth through the heavenly descent of Tan’gun’s father, the Heavenly Prince Hwan’ung. His specific desire to descend among humans and civilize their world establishes not only the concept of sacred kingship (天王, ch’ŏnwang, lit. „Heavenly King”) and social order – with the divine family at the top of society – but also a sacred space, the so-called “Sacred City” (神市, shinshi) he creates. This implicitly hierachizes everything: the people of Old Chosŏn become the chosen people, a concept not unique to Korean worldview, but common in East Asian myths of sacred descent. Also, the SacredCity is the symbolic center of the new state created by the divine descendant Tan’gun, the sacralized Old Chosŏn. Given the ideological and political intent of foundation myths to legitimize the establishment and rule of a new state, it is only natural that the myth of Tan’gun affirms the high status and authority of both its founder and the kingdom itself.