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The Indigenous Religions of Silla: Their Diversity and Durability

Lee, Kidong.
Korean Studies, Volume 28, 2004, pp. 49-74 (Article)
Published by University of Hawai'i Press
DOI: 10.1353/ks.2005.0021
For additional information about this article
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The Indigenous Religions of Silla:
Their Diversity and Durability
Kidong Lee
This article examines the indigenous religions of the Silla dynasty. According to the Silla
annals of the Samguk sagi, religion was significant in all walks of life in Korea’s pre-
modern societies and formed a basis for state rule. Although Buddhism was recognized
as Silla’s central religious belief from the early sixth century, other religions and con-
victions existed in Silla society. Introduced and discussed here are shamanism, Taoist
thought, belief in spirits of springs and dragons, progenitor myths, state sacrifice rituals,
and portent ideology.
Beliefs and religions played a significant social function in premodern societies,
increasingly so the further back in time one looks. Their role was quite promi-
nent in the ancient societies of Korea, and the state of Silla was no exception.
Not only did belief and religion provide stability in the everyday life of the in-
dividual, they even formed the basis for an ideology of state rule. Both state and
citizens depended on belief and religion and formed with them an inseparable
organic relationship. In fact, according to the Samguk sagi’s Silla annals, be-
liefs and religion—especially the ceremonies for state sacrifice—held priority
positions in Silla society.
Silla’s growth and development were accompanied by a continuous influx
of new philosophies and beliefs that coexisted side by side with earlier and in-
digenous faiths. Among these imports was Buddhism, which gained acceptance
in the early part of the sixth century. By endowing the Silla royal government
with the authority necessary to overcome the conservatism of a farming culture
and the isolationism of the old tribal state, Buddhism directly contributed to the
establishment of a system dedicated to maintaining state power. Moreover, it
deeply influenced the spiritual lifestyle of the people of Silla. Even so, the in-
digenous religions that had hitherto regulated the spiritual lives of the people
Korean Studies, Volume 28 © 2005 by University of Hawai‘i Press. All rights reserved.
KoreanStudies28 5/17/05 6:56 PM Page 49
never completely disappeared, tenaciously sustaining their own existence by ad-
hering closely to Buddhist belief in many forms. As the Swiss historian Jacob
Burckhardt said, moral spirits may change, but they never disappear.
One may thus view the thousand-year history of the Silla kingdom in two
ways. The first is from a geopolitical perspective that describes Silla from the
state’s earliest emergence in the Ky0ngju basin to its continuous expansion via
campaigns to subjugate the surrounding regions and to its final destruction of
the rival states of Kogury0 and Paekche in the struggle to unify the Korean penin-
sula. The second, a sociocultural view, depicts a succession of shorter periods
wherein diverse beliefs and religions, each with an ideology of state rule at their
core, engaged in rivalries while simultaneously undergoing a continuing trans-
formative process.
In this article, the various beliefs and religions subsumed under the cate-
gory of “indigenous religion” in the Samguk sagi’s Silla annals will be roughly
partitioned under the headings of shamanism, belief in the spirits of springs and
dragons, progenitor myths, Taoist thought, state sacrifice rituals, and portent ide-
ology. Afterward, each category will be analyzed and pertinent points of dis-
pute within academic circles will be introduced and discussed.
It must be noted that any study of Silla’s indigenous religions does not
suffice for a thorough understanding of its thought and religion, as it is also es-
sential to give due consideration to Buddhism and Confucianism. Confucian
thought, in early times monopolized by a small number of intellectual elites,
became more influential in later periods, serving as a prototype for political re-
form in Silla society as its importance continued to increase. As this subject is
dealt with in detail in chapter three of Yi Kibaek’s authoritative work Silla
sasangsa y0n’gu (A study of the history of Silla thought, 1986), it is unneces-
sary to cover the subject here.
Ranking foremost among the indigenous religions of early Silla is shaman-
ism. A form of indigenous religion common among the peoples of Northeast
Asia, shamanism came to constitute the mainstream of popular belief through-
out Korea’s long history. The origins of shamanism are found in remote pre-
and it undoubtedly functioned as a basic element of society when civ-
ilization first emerged in Korea and when the primitive state first came into being.
In fact, various implements used by shamans have been found in relative abun-
dance among the artifacts of Korea’s Bronze Age.
One example that provides a direct illustration of the influence exercised
by shamanism upon the society of early Silla is the royal title. The Samguk sagi
records that upon the death of the early chief (k0s0gan) Hy0kk0se, the chief’s
son Namhae succeeded him upon the throne with the title of ch’ach’aung or
According to Kim Taemun, the imminent literatus of early eighth-
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century Silla, the terms ch’ach’aung and chach’ung were originally vernacu-
lar terms for a shaman.
Since the shamans (mudang) worshiped ghosts and spir-
its and honored sacrificial ritual, the people stood in awe of them, such that finally
their elders came to be referred to with the title chach’ung. From this one may
surmise that the leaders of early Silla functioned as shamans.
However, a ch’ach’aung was much more than a mere shaman and should
be seen as having served in a more fully developed role of ritual priest. According
to scholars of indigenous religions, although a mudang may have been endowed
with the ability to contact the spirits, the ritual priest, on the other hand, had se-
cured the public trust through specialized training. Moreover, the range of ac-
tivities varied between the two; in contrast with the mudang, whose focus was
upon the individual, the ritual priest presided over the ritual ceremonies of the
community and acted as a guide for the people.
According to the “Account of Han” in chapter thirty of the Chinese his-
tory Sanguo zhi, a relatively well-informed account of Korea’s Han society up
to the mid-third century, the people of Mahan believed in ghosts and spirits,
and each township (the center of the minor state) appointed one person called
a ch’0n’gun to officiate over ritual sacrifices to the spirits of heaven.
there is some difference of opinion with regard to the interpretation of the ch’0n’-
gun’s role, in a chiefdom society, such as Mahan, where officiating over com-
mon ritual ceremonies carried a greater relative importance, it is more likely
that the ch’0n’gun was more of a ritual priest invested with public duties than
a mere mudang.
In the Dongyi zhuan (Accounts of the Eastern Barbarians) in the Sanguo
zhi, it is recorded that in the southern Manchuria state of Puy0, populated by
people of the (Korean) Han race, the people held the king responsible when grains
did not ripen in times of unusual flood or drought—some wanting to replace the
king and others wanting to have him killed.
Although this phenomenon was first
introduced in the chapter titled “The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings” in
James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, it was Inoue Hideo who emphasized that
the individual kings of early Silla were by nature said to be vested with the
shamanistic ability to predict the weather—a feature essential for the stability
and expansion of farming productivity. In addition to citing the royal title of
ch’ach’aung (chach’ung), Inoue took note of the account given in chapter two
of the Silla annals regarding the accession year of P0rhyu Isag1m, which states,
The king could prognosticate by looking at the wind and clouds and knew
in advance if there would be calamity from flood or fire and if the harvest would
be bountiful or poor. He also knew if people were upright or corrupt, and because
of this he was called a sage.
Inoue also made note of a passage in the Samguk yusa recording Queen
S0nd0k’s (r. 632–647) use of portents to prognosticate three events
and from
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these records asserted that up to the time of the unification of the three king-
doms, when the Silla kings first acquired the characteristics of truly authorita-
tive rulers, they had maintained a strong shamanistic character.
Attracting a great deal of interest is the fact that the gold crowns discov-
ered in the Silla royal tombs in Ky0ngju, ranging in antiquity from the late fifth
to early sixth century, are reminiscent of shamanistic caps of the Siberia region,
especially those of the Buriat people. Moreover, these gold crowns suggest con-
nections with the gold crowns of the distant Sarmatians of Novocherkask in the
Rostov region along the coast of the Black Sea, as well as with those found
among the ancient remains of Tillya Tepe in a suburban area of Shibarghan north
of Afghanistan, an area that served as an important point of east-west cultural
In present Korean society, shamanism has been preserved as a female folk
custom, and such a tradition seems to date from Silla times. In the early records
of the Silla annals, shamans frequently appear as old women or mothers. For
example, in the first month of the first year of Hy0kk0se’s reign, it was an old
woman who took in and reared the young girl born from the right ribcage of a
dragon appearing at Aly0ng well and gave her such instruction in virtue and de-
meanor as to become the future queen.
Similarly, it was an old woman living
by the seashore who, in the thirty-ninth year of Hy0kk0se’s reign, found a chest
floating up to the mouth of Chinhan’s Ajin-p’o bay (modern P’ohang coast),
and took in and raised the child she found inside. He later became the son-in-
law of Namhae Ch’ach’aung, serving in the capacity of taebo (high minister)
and eventually reigning as T’arhae Isag1m of Silla.
In addition to these examples, there are records concerning old women in
the accounts in the Silla annals in the eleventh month of 28 c.e., in the reign of
Yuri Isag1m, and the ninth month of 500 c.e., in the reign of Soji Maripkan. It
should be understood that these figures were not merely elderly women—they
were sorceresses who possessed the ability to see the future, foretelling both
fortune and misfortune.
Additionally, according to the “Treatise on Sacrifices”
in chapter thirty-two of the Samguk sagi, the shrine for the progenitor Hy0kk0se
was established in the reign of Namhae Ch’ach’aung (7 c.e.), sacrifices being
conducted there in each of the four seasons.
Judging from the statement that
the chief’s sister Aro was appointed to officiate at these ceremonies, one may
generally recognize the spiritual predominance of females in Silla society.
In Silla society, the dwelling places of shamans were, in the case of the
capital, in groves such as Sinyu-rim south of Nang-san and Ch’0n’gy0ng-rim
east of K1m-gyo (S0ch’0n-gyo). Ich’adon, acting in accordance with the desire
of King P0ph1ng (r. 514–540) for official recognition of Buddhism, intended
to establish H1ngnyun-sa temple at the Ch’0n’gy0ng-rim site so that Buddhism
might assume the position formerly occupied by shamanism.
The spirits that were the basis of the shamanistic worldview, who regu-
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lated the world and human life, were for the most part believed to have resided
on mountain peaks. From this one may conjecture that mountains were where
the protagonists of Korean myths originally descended to earth. In fact, it seems
that the heavenly spirits who had descended to earth and mountain spirits were
precisely the same thing. Among them were those who assumed the forms of
animals such as tigers, bears, or deer, but the majority were spirits taking on
human form, female form in particular.
When given a closer reading, the
records of the Dongyi zhuan in the Sanguo zhi specifying that ghosts and spir-
its were worshiped in Samhan society quite likely indicate instead the worship
of mountain spirits. Due to personification, however, these mountain spirits were
simply called ghosts and spirits by the people who believed in them.
Occupying a relatively important position in the training of the unique
youth group of Silla society, the hwarang-do, was singing and dancing as well
as pleasure travel to mountains and rivers. The people of Silla believed that song
and dance were precisely the incantational means by which they could cause
the spirits to be moved. As can be seen in the case of Kim Yusin (595–673),
who emerged from the ranks of the hwarang to become a hero in the unification
wars, the purpose of the travels of hwarang to mountain peaks was to find the
shaman mediums hidden in the mountain grottos so that superhuman spiritual
strength might be gained or the thoughts of the mountain spirits might be heard.
According to the biography of Kim Yusin in chapter forty-one of the Samguk
sagi, when Kim Yusin was seventeen, he went alone into a grotto at Chungak
and beseeched heaven to grant him superhuman strength with which to defeat
the armies of enemy states. After four days there appeared an old man named
Nans1ng who taught Kim Yusin his secret arts. This Nans1ng can be viewed as
a kind of shaman. Having completed his quest in this manner, Kim Yusin made
a second attempt the following year. He went deep into the valleys of Inbak-
san, lit incense, and prayed to the heavens, whereupon the spirit of the heav-
enly seat sent down rays of light that imbued his sword with its spiritual essence.
On the night of the third day, two stars shone brightly, whereupon his sword
seemed to move of its own accord.
In his famous “Treatise on Purham Culture” (1925), concerning the period
of the unification of the Three Kingdoms, Ch’oe Nams0n offered a very inter-
esting interpretation as to why the hwarang engaged in these “nationalistic” pil-
grimages: “The lives of men and the fortunes of state were thought to depend
solely upon the will of the spirit of K1mgang-san, and like Olympus in Greece,
oracles and prophesies were thought to have been revealed on this mountain.”
Even after the official acceptance of Buddhism around the first half of the
sixth century, shamanism tenaciously maintained its existence. A representa-
tive example is the case of the priest W0n’gwang. The Silla annals record that
W0n’gwang went to the southern Chinese state of Chen to study Buddhism in
the third month of 589 in the reign of King Chinp’y0ng.
According to the an-
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cient document called “Accounts of the Extraordinary” cited in chapter four of
the Samguk yusa, the motivation for W0n’gwang’s trip abroad was the revela-
tion of a ghost that had suddenly appeared to W0n’gwang while he was living
alone at Samgi-san engaged in Buddhist study.
Because another monk who
had built a temple near W0n’gwang’s home was producing a clamor of incan-
tation and was obstructing the ghost’s path, the ghost caused the mountain to
collapse during the night, burying the monk’s temple. Such tales suggest that
for some time, shamanism held greater influence than Buddhism among the com-
mon folk, even after Buddhism had received official recognition.
Belief in the Spirits of Springs and Dragons
Just as the water spirit Osiris, identified with the Nile of ancient Egypt,
and the water spirit Enki of the Mesopotamia region held the ability to integrate
society and nature, similar beliefs concerning water spirits were widespread in
early Silla society. However, in the case of Silla the name of the water spirit is
not to be found in historical records. For the sake of convenience, this will be
referred to in the present work as spring belief, which is in fact the term used
in Yi Py0ngdo’s technical study of the subject.
Worship centered on freshwater springs is by nature closely connected to
the worship of trees. The ancients saw springs and trees as sacred because of
their great powers of life and saw them as indispensable elements in the for-
mation and survival of society itself. In the ancient Middle and Near East, sim-
ilar water spirits appeared as the creators of grain and the earth, and the over-
whelming majority of the spring belief legends of ancient Korea were related
to human birth. Connections were made between springs or rivers and the birth
or conception of clan progenitors or great men. According to the account of
Hy0kk0se K0s0gan in the Silla annals, the progenitor first appeared in the form
of a great egg in the forest beside Naj0ng well at the base of Yangsan mountain
in Ky0ngju .
In an account in the Samguk yusa, the child Hy0kk0se, born of
a great egg, was taken to the eastern spring and bathed, whereupon a radiance
shone from his body, the heavens and earth trembled, and the sun and moon
shone brightly as he danced with birds and beasts. Therefore was he named
Also, according to a record dating to the first month of the fifth
year of the reign of Hy0kk0se in the Silla annals, the girl named Aly0ng, later
to become Hy0kk0se’s queen, was born from the right ribcage of a dragon that
appeared at Aly0ng well, and her name was taken from the name of that well.
In the second month of 487 in the reign of Soji Maripkan, the Silla court had a
national shrine (sin-gung) constructed at Na1l, the birthplace of the progeni-
This Na1l is without doubt synonymous with Naj0ng, and the term “Na1l”
is clearly a written representation of the phonetic quality of the word nal, mean-
ing transmigration. From the fact that in the third chapter of the Fangyan, a dic-
tionary written by the Confucian scholar Yang Xiong (53 b.c.e.-18 c.e.), the
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character nie (pronounced ny0l or nal in Korean) indicates Buddhist transfor-
mation, one may see that the origins of this word are very ancient.
The aforementioned legend of the dragon at Aly0ng well spotlights the
creature most closely associated with water—the dragon, the imaginary crea-
ture that originated in the beliefs of the Han people of China. The dragon of the
ancient Chinese was the most peculiar of creatures, being at once a spiritual be-
ing bringing good fortune and a demon of cruelty, appearing both as a controller
of weather and a fearful and violent destroyer. Such dragon-spirit belief was
transmitted to Korea at an early stage of its history. In Silla especially, the wor-
ship of dragon spirits and dragon kings was widespread, and many legends con-
cerning dragons are recorded in the Samguk yusa. Numerous researchers have
exhaustively analyzed the data concerning dragon-spirit belief in Silla, and thus
numerous pertinent interpretations and perceptions are available.
Of particular interest is the fact that two contradictory types of dragons
are mentioned in the Silla annals. One type of dragon protected the royal house
and the fortunes of state and caused rains to fall, while the other type foretold
the death of the king or was connected with antistate acts. An example of the
first type of dragon can be found in the Samguk yusa, which states that a boat
containing a chest drifted ashore on the Silla coast and was placed in a forest.
T’arhae emerged from this chest and claimed birth in the Dragon City King-
dom, where twenty-eight dragon kings had all sprung from the wombs of two
individuals, and a red dragon had kept guard over him when the chest in which
he had been placed was cast adrift upon the sea.
As Mishina Akihide has pointed out, the T’arhae legend is a complex con-
struct representing an embellishment of Chinese serpent tales and Buddhist
dragon-king legends, which later came to reflect the social organization and
thought of Silla, possibly combined with the concept of state protection.
tales of dragon-related state protection also appear in the Silla annals. In a tale
dating from the second month of 553 in the reign of King Chinh1ng, which re-
lates the origin of Hwangnyong-sa temple, a yellow dragon appears at the con-
struction site of a new palace east of W0ls0ng. The king thinks this event re-
markable, so he orders a Buddhist temple constructed in place of the new
In the summer of 628, in the reign of King Chinp’y0ng, there was a
severe drought, so that the markets were relocated to different sites and pictures
of dragons were drawn to pray for rain.
This kind of concept also appears in
passages of the Chinese text Lushi chunqiu, wherein mention is made of using
dragons to bring rain.
The cases wherein dragons presage natural calamities or other such in-
auspicious events are rather diverse. The Silla annals, in the ninth month of 3
c.e., in the reign of the progenitor Hy0kk0se, tells of two dragons that appeared
from a well in the capital of K1ms0ng, whereupon thunderstorms suddenly arose,
and in the third month of the following year, Hy0kk0se died.
Similarly, in the
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fourth month of 56 c.e., in the reign of the third king, Yuri Isag1m, a dragon
appeared from a well at K1ms0ng, whereupon violent rains fell from the north-
west, and in the tenth month of the following year, the king died.
It is also par-
ticularly impressive that both Hy0kk0se and Yuri, as well as the second king,
Namhae Ch’ach’aung, and the fifth king, P’asa Isag1m, were all said to have
been buried within the grounds of San1ng, or Serpent Tomb. As Matsumae Ken
has pointed out, this could be interpreted to mean that those kings, in their deaths,
were truly worthy of dragon descendants.
Accounts of dragons also appear in Silla’s later periods. In the fifth month
of 875, in the reign of King Ky0ngmun, according to the Silla annals, soon af-
ter a dragon appeared from a well at the royal palace, fog rolled in from all di-
rections and the dragon flew off into its midst. On the eighth day of the seventh
month, the king died.
Yi Us0ng’s analysis of these later dragon-related events
in the Samguk yusa led to his conclusion that, toward the later periods of Silla
history, such records reveal anti-Silla sentiments, with numerous dragons ap-
pearing in outlying districts and away from the capital. He interprets them as
tales symbolizing the resistance by regional powers of central authority.
Progenitor Myths
The Silla annals record that kingship shifted between clans during Silla’s
early period. Rulers from the progenitor Hy0kk0se to the third king, Yuri Isag1m,
and from the fifth king, P’asa Isag1m, to the eighth king, Adalla Isag1m, were
kings from the Pak clan. The fourth king, T’arhae Isag1m; the ninth king, P0rhyu
Isag1m, to the twelfth king, Ch0mhae Isag1m; and the fourteenth king, Yurye
Isag1m, to the sixteenth king, H1lhae Isag1m, were kings from the S0k clan. The
thirteenth king, Mich’u Isag1m, and the rulers from the seventeenth king,
Naemul Isag1m, forward were kings from the Kim clan. Finally, the fifty-third
king, Sind0k, to fifty-fifth king, Ky0ngae, were from the Pak clan, while the fifty-
sixth and last sovereign, King Ky0ngsun (r. 927–935), was from the Kim clan.
The question as to whether or not the kingship prior to Naemul (r. 356–
402) did indeed alternate among three clan lineages has been the subject of on-
going debate in academic circles. Japanese scholars have tended to dismiss the
three-clan view as groundless fiction, while the nationalist historian of the colo-
nial period, Sin Ch’aeho, in his Chos0n sanggosa (History of ancient Korea),
criticized this reverence of the three clans as having been modeled on the Three
Divinities of China. Since the 1960s, however, Korean historians have recog-
nized the importance of the three-clan lineage as it reshaped the history of an-
cient Silla. Nonetheless, opinions regarding this topic are contradictory, with
some scholars maintaining the historicity of the three-clan lineage as put for-
ward in the Silla annals and others claiming that the three clans might have co-
existed as rulers at one time. Moreover, even if one for the most part accepts
the three-clan lineage and its chronology in the Samguk sagi, it would still be
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necessary to make some adjustments to both lineage and chronology. In sum-
mary, it may be said that the historical value of the three-clan lineage of ancient
Silla and its chronology as presented in the Silla annals has yet to be ascertained.
At any rate, it is an indisputable fact that there exist progenitor myths for
each of the three Silla lineages of Pak, S0k, and Kim. These tales not only reflect
past events but also serve to reinforce tradition and to provide retrospective mod-
els for morality, social order, and religious beliefs, and in this sense they fall
within the domain of mythology. Myths are essentially the collective creation
of a people at the dawning of their culture, but since such myths can later be
embellished to accord with various political aims, it is often very difficult to re-
construct their original forms.
Among the progenitor tales of Silla, the myth of Hy0kk0se is not only the
tale of the progenitor of the Pak clan but also the foundation tale of Silla itself.
According to the Silla annals, around the time six villages had formed among
the mountains and valleys of S0rabol in modern Ky0ngju, a horse knelt down
and brayed in the forest next to Naj0ng well at the foot of Yangsan Mountain
in Alch’0n. After the horse suddenly vanished, the elder of Koh0 village at Tol-
san rushed to the site and discovered a large egg. When he broke the egg, he
found inside a young boy, whom he took in and reared. The people of the six
villages considered the birth of this boy to have been miraculous, so they ele-
vated him to a high position and made him their king when the child was thir-
teen years old. Since the egg from which the child, Hy0kk0se, emerged was
shaped like a gourd, the people of Chinhan gave him the surname Pak (gourd).
A more detailed record of this tale can be found in the Samguk yusa.
Mishina Akihide took special note of the egg-birth element among the motifs
appearing in the Hy0kk0se myth, noting that such a motif also occurs in the tales
of Tongmy0ng (Chumong), the founder of Puy0 and Kogury0, and Alchi, the
progenitor of Silla’s Kim clan. He emphasized that the basis of these myths was
the so-called corn-spirit ceremony, which is a common element among farming
In contrast, Kumagai Osamu emphasized the gourd-birth concept over
the egg-birth motif. According to his view, the gourd was an everyday utensil
of practical use considered to hold very special spiritual power and as such be-
came a motif in the progenitor myth of the Pak clan.
In fact, the account of 20
b.c.e. in the reign of Hy0kk0se in the Silla annals states that in the second month
of that year the king sent Ho-gong to Mahan to pay respects. It is recorded that
this Ho-gong was originally a man of the Wa of Japan who had crossed the sea
to Silla by strapping gourds around his waist as a means of floatation, and he
thereby came to be called Ho-gong, or Sir Gourd.
Judging from such exam-
ples, one may infer that gourds had spiritual significance to the people of Silla.
The account of Hy0kk0se in the Samguk yusa, however, states that he was
named Hy0kk0se because his body shone with a radiant luster.
A note in this
passage, moreover, suggests that because he ruled with brilliance he was ac-
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cordingly called King Pulgunae (perhaps meaning one who projects brightness).
It is therefore clear that the “hy0k” character in the name Hy0kk0se was se-
lected for its meaning of brightness. One may infer from this, as many schol-
ars do, that the Hy0kk0se myth arose in connection with the worship of the sun
and its radiance.
The progenitor of the S0k-lineage kings was the fourth ruler, T’arhae
Isag1m, and his arrival on the shores of Silla is described in the Silla annals as
T’arhae was originally a native of the state of Tap’ana, which was lo-
cated one thousand li northeast of the Wa state of Japan. The king of Tap’ana
had taken the daughter of the ruler of the Queen State of Wa (Y0wang-guk) and
made her his wife. She conceived a child and after the passage of seven years
gave birth to a large egg. The king thought this to be an inauspicious event, so
he intended to have the egg done away with. However, the queen disregarded
his command and instead wrapped the egg in silk, placed it in a chest with rare
treasures, and placed the chest in a boat, which was then cast adrift on the sea.
The boat eventually reached Ajin-p’o bay in Chinhan after passing by way of
the K1mgwan state. An old woman living by the shore snared the boat with a
rope and guided it to the shore, whereupon she opened the chest and found a
young boy within. She took the boy in her care and raised him, and when he
reached adulthood he stood nine ch’0k tall, had robust features and surpassed
others in intelligence. Since a magpie had flown in the wake of the boat as it
reached the shore, the radical of the character for magpie (chak) was removed,
leaving the character pronounced s0k, and this became the child’s surname. And
since the child had appeared upon being freed from the chest, he was named
T’arhae (escape-release).
It is of interest that the account of T’arhae in the Samguk yusa contains
unique material not found in the Silla annals. An example is the tale of T’arhae’s
clever scheme to appropriate the house of Ho-gong, which was located below
Yangsan mountain and which T’arhae believed to have been an auspicious site.
When this affair was brought before the Silla judges, part of T’arhae’s expla-
nation included the mention that he was originally a blacksmith by trade.
provides us with a very valuable key for understanding the character of the
T’arhae myth, for it is commonly known that sovereigns and chiefs of the var-
ious Mongol tribes were smith-kings.
The Djamit ut Tevarikh (Compendium of history) by the fourteenth-cen-
tury Persian historian Rashid-al-Din notes that the ancestors of Genghis Khan
were blacksmiths by trade, as attested to by the fact that the khanate court prac-
ticed an iron-forging ceremony in accordance with this belief. Similarly, the
smith-masters of the Yakut tribes inhabiting eastern Siberia always made phys-
ical contact with iron while chanting, so as to cause their bodies to become ac-
climated to the spiritual powers of the iron. Another example of the spiritual
power of iron can be seen in the case of the people of the Buriat tribes occupy-
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ing the Lake Baikal region in western Siberia, who believed that sick or sleep-
ing people could be protected by placing a sickle or hatchet by their side. It is
also recorded in Chinese historical texts that the ancestors of the Ashina clan,
a Turkish tribe closely related to the Mongols and overlords of the Tujue em-
pire, were blacksmiths. In summary, the original chiefs and figures of author-
ity among the nomads of northeast Asia were smith-masters.
When this rela-
tionship between the spiritual powers of the blacksmith and the primitive chief
is established, the T’arhae myth can be clearly seen to include elements link-
ing it with myths of the nomadic peoples of the north.
Moreover, the account of T’arhae in the Samguk yusa makes mention of
cups shaped like oxhorns. This unique style of wine cup was originally the cer-
emonial implement preferred by the nomadic peoples occupying the steppes
south of the Altai Mountains and the shores of the Black Sea. The particular no-
tions the Silla people held toward oxhorn can be seen in the seventeen-grade
official rank system, the highest rank of which was kak-kan (“horn”-kan). In
more recent times, earthenware in the shape of an oxhorn has been discovered
in the fifth and sixth century Silla and Kaya tombs located at Pokch’0n-dong
in Pusan. Archaeologists have interpreted these finds as the result of an east-
ward movement of the civilization of the Scythian lineage by way of the steppe
routes of Central Asia.
Finally we come to Alchi, the progenitor of the Kim-clan kings. The tale
of his birth in the third month of 65 c.e., in the reign of T’arhae Isag1m, is re-
lated in the Silla annals as follows.
After the king (T’arhae) heard the sound
of a rooster crowing in the night from the direction of Sirim grove west of the
capital of K1ms0ng, he sent Ho-gong out at dawn to investigate. Ho-gong found
a small golden chest suspended from a tree branch, and underneath it a white
rooster was crowing. Ho-gong returned and reported his findings to the king,
who sent people out to retrieve the chest. When they opened the chest, there
emerged from within a small boy with outstanding features. The king took him
to be a son sent from the heavens, so he took the boy in his care and reared him.
As the child grew, so too did his intelligence and resourcefulness increase. He
was named Alchi, and since he had emerged from a golden chest, he was given
the surname Kim (gold).
There are, however, some slight variations in the records concerning
Alchi’s birth. Following the account of King Ky0ngsun’s surrender of his state
to Kory0 in the Silla annals, compiler Kim Pusik included his own commen-
tary, which stated that another version of the tale had Alchi descending from
the heavens in a golden chariot instead of emerging from a golden chest.
version is recorded in the same words in the account of King Kim Pu in chap-
ter two of the Samguk yusa.
In fact, the inscription on the stele set up at the
tomb of King Munmu (661–681) states that the king’s fifteenth-generation an-
cestor, King S0nghan, had descended from the heavens seated in a golden char-
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iot, apparently showing that the Silla royal house of the late seventh century
had adopted the golden-carriage version of the tale.
Creating further confusion is the fact that Silla-period inscriptional ma-
terials, beginning with that of King Munmu’s tomb stele mentioned above, state
that the Kim-clan progenitor was named S0nghan rather than Alchi. The in-
scription on the stele set up at the tomb of King H1ngd0k (826–836) as well as
the inscriptions on the pagoda memorials for Chinch’0l Taesa and Chin’gong
Taesa, both written by Ch’oe 4nwi in the early tenth century, all claim that the
progenitor of the Kim-clan kings was S0nghan (though the name is written
slightly differently in the Chin’gong inscription). One theory suggests that the
name S0nghan comes from a term indicating a village chief, since the s0ng el-
ement of S0nghan means star, pronounced py0l in Korean, the sound of which
corresponds somewhat to the words p0l and pul (meaning a plain), while the
han element can be connected with kan, which signifies a high rank.
In the opening account of the reign of Mich’u Isag1m, the Silla annals
describe the lineage of descent from Alchi to the earliest Kim-clan king, Mich’u
According to that arrangement, Alchi’s first-generation descendant
was Sehan.
The name Sehan seen here is similar in pronunciation to S0ng-
han, which might make one wonder if S0nghan was not the same person as
Alchi’s son, Sehan. In fact, Maema Kyosaku concluded that King Munmu’s
fifteenth-generation ancestor S0nghan and the figure of corresponding genera-
tional rank, Sehan, were the same individual; however, his explanation does not
follow a natural flow of logic.
The inscription on King H1ngd0k’s tomb stele makes mention of “T’aejo
S0nghan,” showing that S0nghan was considered a t’aejo (grand ancestor) at
that time. Similarly, the inscription on the tomb stele dedicated to King Munmu’s
younger brother, Kim Inmun (629–694), also contains a passage referring to
“T’aejo, King Han.” In the account given in the Silla annals for the fourth month
of 687 in the reign of King Sinmun, the title Great King T’aejo also appears in
the text of a sacrifice to the royal ancestral shrine. It is fairly certain that this
title refers to King Mich’u. This may be inferred from the fact that the preface
to the “Treatise on Sacrifices” in chapter thirty-two of the Samguk sagi states
that when King Hyegong (r. 765–780) first established the Five-Shrine sys-
tem, the Kim-clan progenitor was King Mich’u and that the Great King T’ae-
jong (Muy0l) and the Great King Munmu were given the unalterable status of
Kinoshita Reijin has offered a new explanation to account for the
confusion surrounding the problem of the Kim-clan progenitor. He suggested
that notions concerning the progenitor of the Kim-clan kings changed along with
the shifts and transformations that affected the course of Silla history and that
these changes were directly related to changes in the royal authority. Accord-
ing to this view, the progenitor was said to have been S0nghan in the early period,
and it was the practice to sacrifice to him as progenitor during the time of his
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descendant, King Naemul. However, at some point in Silla’s middle period af-
ter King Munmu’s tomb stele was inscribed, a new tradition was established
wherein either Alchi or Mich’u was revered as progenitor. Moreover, these two
progenitor traditions, one arranged with Mich’u as the progenitor with Naemul
descended from him and the other with Alchi as the progenitor with S0nghan
descended from him, were finally united into a single lineage tradition.
Taoist Thought
We have seen in the section dealing with shamanism that in the shaman-
istic worldview the dwelling place for spirits was typically a mountain peak.
Accordingly, mountains were where many key figures in Korean mythology de-
scended from the heavens, and the progenitor myth of the Kim clan conforms
nicely with this pattern. It appears in the following majestic words in the in-
scription on King Munmu’s tomb stele: “His fifteenth-generation ancestor, King
S0nghan, descended from the heavens, born as a divine spirit on the peak of im-
mortals, and thereupon founded his state.”
The birth of this ancestor-spirit on a mountain peak appears in greater de-
tail in Kim Pusik’s commentary at the end of the Silla annals. Around the
eleventh year in the reign of Kory0’s King Yejong (1116), Kim Pusik attended
Yi Charyang on a mission to the Song capital of Bianjing (modern Kaifeng).
On a visit to the statue of an immortal goddess in the Youshen Hall, the Song
academician Wang Fu informed them that the goddess was a spirit of Kory0,
saying, “In ancient times, an imperial princess became pregnant before mar-
riage, thereby drawing the suspicions of others, so she crossed the sea to Chin-
han, where she bore a son. The son became the first ruler of Haedong, and the
princess became an earth-goddess, residing for a long time at S0ndo-san. This
is her image you now behold.”
Kim Pusik added that in 1110 in the reign of Yejong he had personally
seen a text titled “Sacrifice to the Eastern Spirit Sage Mother,” written by the
Song state courier-envoy Wang Xiang, who had been sent on a mission to
A passage in that text read, “She bore a worthy son who founded a na-
tion.” Kim noted that this Eastern Spirit was the same as the sage spirit of S0ndo-
san, but he did not know when her son reigned as king.
A related account in the Samguk yusa, titled “The Sage Mother of S0ndo
Happily Performs Worthy Deeds,” states that the Buddhist nun Chihye dreamed
that the spirit-mother of S0ndo-san had given her specific directions on how to
go about repairing the image hall of Anh1ng-sa temple.
The account notes
that the spirit-mother was originally a princess of the Chinese imperial house
and that her name was Sousu (K. Saso). She had learned the arts of the Taoist
immortals and had crossed the sea to become an earth-goddess. The author of
the Samguk yusa claims that Sousu first came to Chinhan and bore a sage son,
who became the first ruler of Tongguk, and that this possibly refers to the ap-
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pearance of Hy0kk0se and Aly0ng. Unfortunately, such theories are likely just
imaginary links between China and the indigenous Taoist-style thought and
mountain-spirit beliefs of Silla.
In fact, Taoist thought and schools were quite widespread in Silla. As Ch’a
Chuhwan noted in his exhaustive examination of the subject, the development
of Taoist thought was typically related to beliefs in mountain spirits.
ering the geographical features of the Ky0ngju region, surrounded on all sides
by mountain peaks, one may surmise that the seeds of Taoist thought proved
quite fertile in Silla. The Samguk sagi records that in the eighth month of 413,
in the reign of Sils0ng Isag1m, the clouds rose up from Nangsan, appearing in
form like a towered pavilion when viewed from a distance, while the air was
filled with a fragrance that lingered for some time. The king declared this an in-
dication of the descent of a Taoist spirit and that the site should be considered
auspicious ground, and he therefore decreed that people were no longer to cut
down the trees of Nangsan.
But perhaps the best-known example of the strong
sense of esteem that the lay folk of Silla felt toward Taoism was the youth train-
ing and military corps called hwarang-do. The inscription on the bell of King
S0ngd0k (also called the Emille Bell), cast in 771 in the reign of King Hyegong,
contains a passage that reads,
Upon the East Sea where the host of immortals is hidden,
Where the land rests in a peach valley utopia,
And the boundaries stretch to the Eastern horizon,
There is our country—united in a single home.
We may surmise from this passage that the Silla court of the time actively pro-
moted a view that described Silla as a land inhabited by immortals.
The Samguk sagi relates the singular tale of how in the seventh month of
587 in the reign of King Chinp’y0ng, King Naemul’s seventh-generation de-
scendant, Taese departed for lands across the sea.
In that tale, Taese relates his
desires to his acquaintance, the monk Tamsu,
saying, “If I could but transform
my mortal bones and learn the way of the immortals, I would ride the winds
aimlessly and fly away beyond the skies.” It is known that this “transformation
of bone” had been used from ancient times to treat disease and is thought to re-
fer to the so-called art of wondrous healing (shenfang). Moreover, the riding
the wind and flying through the skies are magic arts featured in Taoist teach-
ings. In summary, the tale of Taese suggests that Taoist thought and the asso-
ciated magic of religious Taoism were prevalent in Silla society.
In connection with Taoist thought in Silla society, Cho P0pchong has re-
cently proposed a view emphasizing a direct Chinese influence. Cho hypothe-
sized that groups of people who associated themselves with forms of occult Tao-
ism prevalent in China since the Warring States period, especially in the regions
of Yan and Qi, migrated into the Chinhan society that preceded the Silla state
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around the time of the dynastic shift from Qin to Han. Making reference to
records in the Silla annals that concern the lineage of kings from the S0k clan,
Cho further surmised that this migrating group might have influenced the S0k
clan from the days of T’arhae.
We have already dealt with the T’arhae legend, but in addition to the ac-
counts examined previously, there exists another from the Silla annals. In the
third month of 59 c.e., in the reign of T’arhae Isag1m, dark clouds are said to
have floated like a blanket over the king’s head while he ascended T’oham-san
and to have remained for a long time before dispersing.
The shamanistic abil-
ities of P0rhyu Isag1m, grandson of T’arhae, have also been mentioned. Ac-
cording the Samguk sagi, in the year P0rhyu’s descendant, Nahae Isag1m, as-
sumed the throne, there was no rainfall from the first month to the fourth month,
yet on the day of Nahae’s accession there was a heavy rainfall, an event cele-
brated by the people of Silla.
Similarly, P0rhyu’s great-grandson, Yurye
Isag1m, is recorded as having been conceived and born in an unusual fashion.
One night when Yurye’s mother, Pak-ssi, was walking, the light from a star en-
tered her mouth, and she thereby became pregnant, and on the day she gave
birth to Yurye a strange fragrance filled the birth chamber.
Cho P0pchong fur-
ther draws attention to the peculiar fact that such miraculous tales of the S0k
clan do not have counterparts in those records concerning the Pak- and Kim-
clan kings.
State Sacrifice Rituals
The sacrifices practiced by an ancient state can serve as an indicator of
the developmental stages and social phases of state authority, as well as illus-
trate its beliefs. Records in the Samguk sagi describing state sacrifice ceremonies
are relatively abundant, in particular in the “Treatise on Sacrifices” in chapter
thirty-two, which describes the categories of state sacrifice practiced and
identifies the various sites of such ceremonies. More comprehensive examina-
tions of this subject have been undertaken, but for the purposes of this survey
Silla state sacrifices have been classified into three groups: ceremonies for the
sacrifice to heaven, sacrifices at the Progenitor Shrine, and sacrifices at the Na-
tional Shrine (sin-gung).
Ceremonies for the sacrifice to heaven had been present since the Samhan
period. The Dongyi zhuan of the Sanguo zhi records that seasonal sacrifices were
practiced in the fifth and tenth months in Samhan society, and scholars are in
agreement that this sacrifice to heaven is strongly reminiscent of farming ritu-
als. Furthermore, the “Account of the Han” in the Sanguo zhi mentions that the
townships of the various Samhan “states” permitted the existence of a kind of
sanctuary called sodo. We may surmise that this practice originated from vil-
lage sacrifices centered on the village community and that the sacrificial cere-
mony itself developed out of these as the authority of the state increased.
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Even after a centralized Silla state emerged from the previous era of con-
federated kingdoms, the old ceremonies for the sacrifice to heaven continued
to be observed. This is demonstrated by an inscription on a stone stele discov-
ered in 1988 in Pongp’y0ng, Ulchin-gun, Ky0ngsang-pukto. It was erected in
524 in the reign of King P0ph1ng, after a disturbance in K0b0lmora, in the mod-
ern Ulchin region on the East Sea, brought about when locals from that area put
up a resistance to Silla rule, ultimately resulting in the mobilization of Silla troops
and the suppression of the resistance. The court memorialized the drastic mea-
sures taken on that occasion by inscribing them on a stele displayed at the site
of the incident. The inscription states that the officials in charge were sent out
in the name of the “six divisions of Silla” and made to capture an ox with which
to hold some kind of ceremony and that the natives implicated in the uprising
were punished by flogging.
This ceremony involving the slaying of an ox also appears in the inscrip-
tion on a Silla stele discovered in 1989 at Naengsu-ri, Y0ngil-gun, Ky0ngsang-
pukto. This stele was erected in 503 in the reign of King Chij1ng after a dispute
arose among locals of the region over the ownership of some property. The re-
sulting judgments by chief members of the court were engraved on the stone,
and the ceremony wherein the court’s decision was publicly announced included
the slaying of an ox. From these examples it is known that even early in the sixth
century, when the Silla court enforced laws based on a Chinese-style legislative
system, ritual sacrifices involving oxen were still observed.
Though such rituals appear to be ancient traditions held over from the
Samhan period, other theories emphasize the influence of Chinese laws upon
the ceremonies. Sin Chongw0n, for example, felt that since the Puy0 ritual slay-
ing of oxen, appearing in the Dongyi zhuan of the Sanguo zhi, was used in all
instances merely as a fortune-telling device and not as a sacrifice to heaven, a
connection could not be made between the Puy0 practice and that of Silla. How-
ever, in the rituals of Silla are elements similar to Chinese sacrificial rites
wherein an ox is killed when forging a pact. In summary, Sin states, the ox-
slaying ceremony seen in the stele inscriptions should be viewed as a Chinese
import of ritual customs, parallel to Silla’s adoption of Confucian ideology in
the early sixth century, upon which Chinese-style sacrifice and funeral stan-
dards were promulgated.
Ch’oe Kwangsik disagrees, however, conceding that
the ox-slaying ceremony was essential to the sacrifice rites, but arguing that
such ceremonies had been practiced even before Chinese-style laws and cus-
toms were introduced.
As noted previously, ceremonies involving mountain peaks had been prac-
ticed in Silla society from early times, and the “Treatise on Sacrifices” in the
Samguk sagi presents in great detail the various state sacrifices centered on fa-
mous mountains and great rivers, graded in classes of major, medium, and mi-
nor sacrifices. Sin Chongw0n surmised that this codification occurred during
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the unification period under the influence of Chinese sacrificial forms and after
the introduction of Chinese laws into Silla. Noting that the organization into
major, medium, and minor sacrifices took on a unique ritual form, he suggested
that such an arrangement could have facilitated the centralization of authority
throughout the state. After examining the introduction by King Sinmun (r.
681–692) of the Five-Shrine system and the establishment of the altars for the
spirits of earth and grain under King S0nd0k (r. 780–785), and hypothesizing
that both constituted reorganizations of the existing system of sacrificial rites,
Sin inferred that the contents of the “Treatise on Sacrifices” in the Samguk sagi
merely represented the final state of this transformative process.
On another
note, Ch’oe Kwangsik presented the view that importance afforded mountains
and rivers were significant not only in a religious sense, but also paralleled prac-
tical military objectives. Thus major sacrifices served to protect the capital city,
medium sacrifices the state’s domain, and minor sacrifices the local regions.
According to the Samguk sagi, the shrine for Hy0kk0se was first estab-
lished in the first month of 6 c.e., in the reign of Namhae Ch’ach’aung.
“Treatise on Sacrifices” agrees and further states that seasonal sacrifices were
made there, with the king’s younger sister present to officiate over them. The
Samguk sagi also records that the Progenitor Shrine was repaired in the second
month of 170, in the reign of Adalla Isag1m, and that in the fourth month of
485, in the reign of Soji Maripkan, the number of households responsible for
maintenance of the shrine was increased to twenty.
Inoue Hideo, who saw the
ancient kings of Korea as rulers possessing shamanistic abilities, asserted that
the Progenitor Shrine displayed some common characteristics with the Spring
Festival’s preliminary celebration sacrifice, wherein prayers were given for a
good harvest. Thus, he interpreted the addition of households for shrine main-
tenance in 485 as an indication that the harvest ceremonies hitherto practiced
at sacred grounds on mountains or riverbanks were for the first time practiced
at a Confucian shrine.
According to the Samguk sagi’s accounts of the Silla reigns up to that of
Soji, nearly every newly succeeding king visited the Progenitor Shrine in the
first or second month of the year following his accession to pay respects and of-
fer sacrifices. This practice seems to have been part of the accession ceremony
itself. However, even if one ignores the changes in royal lineage from Pak to
S0k and then to Kim, it would still be difficult to presume that successive gen-
erations of kings all held the shrine of Hy0kk0se in equal esteem. Especially
when one considers that the four-season sacrifice was a ceremony performed at
ancestral temples in China, one cannot but wonder if a connection might not
have been drawn between the Chinese practice and the Progenitor Shrine
sacrifice. In view of these points, some theorists maintain that the records in the
Samguk sagi describing the king’s personal sacrifice at the Progenitor Shrine
were all fabricated accounts modeled after the example of ancestral shrines or
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the national shrine.
However, views that go so far as to deny the existence of
the Progenitor Shrine itself have always triggered strong debate.
The National Shrine (sin-gung) appeared in the wake of the Progenitor
Shrine. The Samguk sagi’s Silla annals record that in the second month of 487
the National Shrine was established at the progenitor’s birthplace in Na1l.
same work’s “Treatise on Sacrifices,” however, dates the establishment of the
National Shrine to the reign of King Chij1ng (r. 500–514), a difference of a few
years. Fortunately, further clues can be found in the inscription on King
Munmu’s tomb stele, which indicates that by Munmu’s reign seven generations
of kings had passed since the ceremony for the sacrifice to heaven had been es-
tablished. This ceremony for the sacrifice to heaven must refer to the ritual
sacrifice at the National Shrine. Counting back seven generations from King
Munmu finds one in the reign of King Chij1ng. Even so, Chij1ng and his pred-
ecessor Soji were cousins, and both reigned at the end of the Maripkan period.
Therefore, it is of little consequence whether the National Shrine was established
at the end of the fifth century or at the beginning of the sixth century. Instead,
it must be remembered that the period encompassed by the reigns of Soji and
Chij1ng was one in which Silla was transformed from a confederated kingdom
to a centralized state and the structure of the state was assembled. In particular,
it was a time when the influence of Chinese sacrificial ceremonies effected ma-
jor changes to Silla’s own practices.
Opinions are divided over the identity of the spirit worshiped in the Na-
tional Shrine. In the Samguk sagi, records concerning the Silla kings’ personal
sacrifices at the Progenitor Shrine do not appear after the fourth month of 485,
and since the National Shrine first appears in place of the Progenitor Shrine from
495, it seems that the National Shrine was established to take the place of the
Progenitor Shrine. If this is the case, it is possible that the National Shrine’s ob-
ject of worship remained the spirit of Hy0kk0se. However, by that time more
than a hundred years had lapsed since the Kim clan of the Naemul lineage had
secured the kingship, and it is much more likely that the object of worship in
the National Shrine was instead the Kim clan’s progenitor, perhaps King
Naemul. Therefore, certain scholars have presented unique viewpoints with re-
gard to this issue. For example, Sin Chongw0n suggests that at the time of the
shrine’s foundation the spirit worshiped at the National Shrine was that of King
Naemul. But in the time of King Chij1ng, when relations were forged with the
Northern Wei state and the Chinese system of sacrifices to heaven and earth was
adopted, the sacrifices at the National Shrine were accordingly altered in favor
of a sacrifice to heaven. On the other hand, Ch’oe Kwangsik maintains that the
spirit of the National Shrine was not an ancestral spirit such as a Pak or Kim
progenitor but was instead a vast multitude of spirits of heaven and earth. Ac-
cording to this view, what appeared in place of the Progenitor Shrine was not
the National Shrine but rather the Five-Shrine system established under King
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Sinmun, while the National Shrine was replaced under King S0nd0k (780–785)
with altars to the spirits of earth and grain. In contrast to both is Hamada Kosaku,
who is skeptical even about the existence of the Progenitor Shrine in ancient
Silla. He maintains that the ceremony for the sacrifice to heaven, the practice
of which had begun only during the Maripkan period, gradually developed in
the period preceding the establishment of the National Shrine. In the beginning,
Hamada argues, such sacrifices had the characteristics of a royal accession cere-
mony, and when replaced in Silla’s late period by the Hundred Seats Assembly
of Hwangnyong-sa temple, this then took on the characteristics of an accession
Portent Ideology (Natural Calamities and Auspicious Omens)
Just as numerous as records concerning political affairs in the Silla an-
nals are those that record extraordinary natural phenomena appearing in the
heavens and on the earth. These phenomena hold greater importance the fur-
ther back they appear in the chronological record. Sin Hy0ngsik conducted an
analysis of all recorded events in the Silla annals and grouped them into polit-
ical events, extraordinary phenomena (portents), warfare, and international re-
lations. He further divided those records into chronological periods, and his
analysis showed that during the first period (the reigns from Hy0kk0se to Soji)
records concerning portents occupied a total of 38.5 percent of the total, sec-
ond only to the 38.7 percent yielded by politically related records. Proceeding
forward to periods when Silla’s military and political affairs were more active
and numerous, there is a corresponding drop in the percentage of records con-
cerning portents; however, in the fifth period (the reigns from Chins0ng to
Ky0ngsun), the portent-related records again ranked second with a percentage
of 28.6 percent, after records concerning political affairs, which took up 48.7
percent of the total.
That there are so many records concerning natural calamities in the Silla
annals is directly related to issues surrounding the compilation of the Samguk
sagi itself. The dynastic histories of China, beginning with the Han shu, pro-
vided separate sections for treatises on astronomy and the Five Agents, in which
extraordinary phenomena of all types were recorded. However, in the Samguk
sagi, where treatises on such topics were not provided, details of all extraordinary
phenomena, both celestial and terrestrial, no matter how trifling, were recorded
in the Silla annals portion.
Without exception, the deaths of Silla kings of the early period are
recorded as though their passing had been foretold by some extraordinary nat-
ural phenomenon. It is recorded that the death of Hy0kk0se occurred after an
ominous thunderstorm, and the deaths of all successive kings were likewise as-
sociated with extraordinary phenomena: the death of Namhae was preceded by
a plague of locusts, Yuri’s by heavy rains and winds, T’arhae’s by heavy winds,
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P’asa’s and Chima’s by drought, Ils0ng’s by fires, Adalla’s by drought, P0rhyu’s
by drought and thunder, Nahae’s by earth tremors and heavy snowfall, Chobun’s
by earth tremors, Yurye’s by fog, Naemul’s by drought, Nulchi’s and Chabi’s by
earth tremors, and Soji’s by violent winds. Even the death of the hero of the
unification period, King Muy0l (r. 654–661), was connected with a natural
calamity. The account for the sixth month of 661 in the Silla annals reads, “The
waters in the wells of Taegwan-sa temple turned to blood, and in K1mma-gun
blood flowed from a crack in the ground five po wide, whereupon the king died.”
Taegwan-sa temple was located in what is now modern Iksan in Ch0lla-pukto,
while K1mma-gun was the name for Iksan during the Paekche period. It was in
the seventh month of 660, the year before King Muy0l died, that Silla allied
with the armies of Tang China to destroy its rival Paekche.
In addition to the examples already mentioned, numerous records appear
in the Silla annals describing such astronomical phenomena as solar eclipses,
changes in the appearance of the sun and moon, movements of the five planets
(Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury), comets, and meteors. Other records
describe terrestrial phenomena such as trees uprooted by storm winds, earth
tremors, landslides, drought, boulders moving of their own volition, dead trees
returning to life, multiple births, anomalous births, and peach and plum trees
blooming twice in a single year. Such extraordinary phenomena almost always
appear as harbingers of misfortune, such as invasion by enemy armies, rebel-
lious plots, the death of a general or a minister, or a shortage of food. A famous
hyangga known as the “Song of the Comet,” composed during the reign of King
Chinp’y0ng, appears in the Samguk yusa. The story of the composition of this
ode states that a comet appeared to presage the invasion of troops from Japan.
However, after the priest Yungch’0n composed and recited the “Song of the
Comet,” the comet immediately vanished and the Japanese troops withdrew.
Many scholars have taken an interest in the significance of these portent
records, and the topic has been thoroughly debated.
In particular, Inoue Hideo
reclassified certain celestial portents as ill omens and maintained that the shift
from celestial portents in the deaths of Silla kings to the subset of ill omens in
the same capacity is related to measures taken by the kings to counter the ef-
fects of poor harvests.
Yi H1id0k, on the other hand, saw those records con-
cerning extraordinary phenomena in the Silla annals to be based on traditional
Chinese theories of portents and heavenly retribution, as seen in the Shu jing.
He argues that the records show a gradual introduction into Silla of Confucian
political thought and the ruler’s aspirations for virtuous government.
ever, Yi’s view supposes the existence of Confucian political notions during the
period in question. One cannot completely eliminate the possibility that such
records found in the Silla annals presenting an indigenous belief peculiar to Silla
had been altered or embellished for the sake of presenting a Confucian view of
As noted above, the authors of the Samguk sagi recorded the death of
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King Muy0l after noting the occurrence of strange phenomena in the former re-
gions of Paekche, which Muy0l had conquered the previous year. If this de-
piction of history is based on Confucian notions of portents, implying that heaven
was inflicting a penalty on the king for his lack of virtue, then a fundamental
inconsistency arises concerning the basic standpoint of the Samguk sagi’s au-
thors that Muy0l’s conquest of Paekche was morally justified.
The Silla annals contain occasional references to such typical auspicious
portents as red crows, white pheasants, divine sparrows, blue oxen or white fish,
as well as trees joined by intertwining branches and auspicious grain. Since such
portents were thought to appear attendant upon the beneficent rule of the king,
these records are always presented as auspicious omens. They also conform to
the Chinese view of portents that illustrate the abundant virtues of the king, which
may explain their inclusion in the records. However, one characteristic worthy
of attention is the fact that among the auspicious portent records in the Silla an-
nals are those taken directly from Chinese historical sources. For example, in
the sixth month of the tenth year of the reign of King Soji (488), a turtle with
six eyes was presented from Tongyang and upon its carapace were written char-
acters. In the treatise on portents in chapter twenty-eight of the Chinese dynastic
history Song shu, compiled in the late fifth century, is a record that states that
on the day bing-yin in the eighth month of 466 in the reign of the Song emperor
Ming, a six-eyed turtle was seen at Changshan mountain in Dongyang and that
turtle had divining diagrams written on its body.
Judging from the corre-
sponding elements, even to the place name Dongyang (K. Tongyang), it seems
that the record in the Silla annals was copied directly from the Song shu.
In this article the indigenous religious practices of Silla, as presented in
the Samguk sagi’s Silla annals, have been divided into several categories and
examined in a very summary fashion. The author’s primary objective through-
out this work has been to present a review of the research efforts of historians.
A discussion of the relationships between those indigenous religions and poli-
tics and society, as well as a functional approach to the indigenous religions
themselves, needs to be carried out by others in the future. The lack of such
comprehensive studies is a general limitation affecting the research of indige-
nous religions in Korea.
From the Silla annals we may confirm the existence of very diverse and
mutually interwoven beliefs and religions present in the society of the long-lived
kingdom of Silla. In particular, these religions regulated the spiritual lives of
both the ruling class and the common people for a long period, while contend-
ing with the imported thought and politics of Confucianism and Buddhism for
a leading position in Silla society. Although Buddhism and Confucianism may
appear on the surface to have won out over the indigenous religions, there was
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in fact no clear victor. The shift between old and new ideals and religions was
never complete. For example, although Buddhism enjoyed the status of a state
religion with the full support of the Silla royal house, it failed to prevail in a di-
rect confrontation over indigenous shamanism, instead inheriting some shaman-
istic elements and thereby taking a course that led to modern Korean Buddhism.
The Taoism later adopted by Silla proved to be no exception to this pattern.
Therefore, by the end of the Silla period the various religious traditions had taken
on a highly intermixed aspect. In fact, the situation appears to have continued
fundamentally unchanged through the Kory0 period that succeeded Silla.
If viewed in this manner, it would not be incorrect to say that the people
of Silla, throughout their long history, never realized an abrupt spiritual revo-
lution. Despite Silla’s considerable political capacity realizing the grand enter-
prise of unification of the Korean peninsula, the conservative character of its
people remained virtually unchanged up to the moment the state itself perished.
This was due primarily to the effects of geographical isolation. The Sobaek
mountain range provided Silla with a natural barrier, which for a long time pro-
tected Silla from the invasions of Kogury0 and Paekche. Once peoples migrat-
ing from the north crossed the Sobaek range, they were surrounded and cut off
by this geographical obstruction. Due to the unique natural environment of this
region, historically known as Y0ngnam, its populace became insular by nature,
and the process of homogenization could not help but run its course in a rela-
tively brief period of time. Gradually, with the passage of time, these people
came to possess a tenacious sense of regional identity.
Some leading scholars of religious studies in Korea, taking note of the in-
digenization, or Koreanization, of Christianity today, maintain that the foun-
dation of the religious consciousness of the Korean people is governed by the
shamanistic world view. But considering the Koreanization process Buddhism
underwent in the Silla period, we may infer that additional elements were in
play. Such elements seem to derive not only from the natural environment of
Silla but also from the mentality of the Silla people and their views toward an
overall syncretization of religions and ideologies. Such can be seen in the ex-
amples of W0nhyo (617–686), who sought to understand Buddhism from a syn-
cretic viewpoint that transcended the contentions of the various sects, and Ch’oe
Ch’iw0n (b. 857), who sought the basic ideology of the hwarang groups in a
fusion of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
1. Scholars of indigenous religions tell us that after the development of a terres-
trial cult, centered on the worship of an earth-spirit, in the early agricultural phase of
society, shamanism appeared as a celestial cult that had as its core a belief that the heav-
ens were deeply connected to the ideas and forms of nomadic lifestyles.
2. Samguk sagi, ed. Yi Py0ngdo (Seoul: Uryu Munhwasa, 1977).
70 korean studies vol. 28 • 2004
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3. Kim Taemun was a high-ranking official of the chin’gol aristocracy. This pas-
sage may have been based on his Kyerim chapch0n (Tales of Silla), a text that is no longer
4. Sanguo zhi [History of the Three Kingdoms] (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1959),
5. Kim Ch0ngbae, “Sodo 1i ch0ngchisaj0k 1imi” [The politico-historical signi-
ficance of the Sodo], Y0ksa hakpo, 70 (1978); also in Han’guk kodae 1i kukka kiw0n kwa
hy0ngs0ng [The origins and formation of the state in ancient Korea] (Seoul: Kory0 Uni-
versity Press, 1986), 153–54.
6. Sanguo zhi, 841.
7. Samguk sagi, 15.
8. Samguk yusa, ed. Ch’oe Nams0n (Seoul: S0mun Munhwasa, 1996), 58–59.
9. Inoue Hideo, Introduction to the Ancient History of Korea—The King and
Religion (Neirakusha, 1978), 37–38.
10. Samguk sagi, 1.
11. Samguk sagi, 6–7.
12. Ch’oe Kwangsik, “Samguk sagi Sojae nogu 1i s0nggok” [The characteristics
of elderly women recorded in the Samguk sagi], Sach’ong, 25 (1981): 7–13.
13. Samguk sagi, 313–15.
14. Yi Kibaek, “Samguk sidae pulgyo ch0nnae wa k1 sahoej0k s0nggy0k” [The
reception of Buddhism in the Three Kingdoms period and its social significance], Y0ksa
hakpo, 6 (1954); also in A Study of the History of Silla Thought (Seoul: Ilchogak, 1986),
15. Son Chint’ae, “Chos0n kodae sansin 1i s0nge ch’wi hay0” [On the nature of
mountain spirits in ancient Korea], Chindan hakpo, 1 (1934); also in Chos0n minjok
munhwa 1i y0n’gu [A study of the culture of the Korean people] (Seoul: Uryu Munhwasa,
1948), 264–75.
16. Sanguo zhi, 852.
17. Samguk sagi, 394.
18. Ch’oe Nams0n, Yuktang Ch’oe Nams0n ch0njip [The complete works of Yuk-
tang Ch’oe Nams0n], (Seoul: Hy0namsa, 1973), 2: 50.
19. Samguk sagi, 42.
20. Samguk yusa, 179–85, entry titled “W0n’gwang Goes West to Study.” The
Accounts of the Extraordinary (Sui-ch0n) was written by Pak Illyang (d. 1096) and is
no longer extant.
21. Yi Py0ngdo, “Han’guk kodae sahoe 1i ch0ngch’0n” [The spring belief in an-
cient Korean society], Chosen gakuho, 49 (1968); also in Han’guk kodae sa y0n’gu [A
study of the history of ancient Korea] (Seoul: Pagy0ngsa, 1976), 781–95.
22. Samguk sagi, 1.
23. Samguk yusa, 43–45, entry titled “Silla’s Progenitor, King Hy0kk0se.”
24. Samguk sagi, 1.
25. Samguk sagi, 32.
26. Kim Sanggi, “An Examination of the Foundation Legends in Korean History,”
in Academic Journal of K0n’guk University, 5 (1964); also in Tongbangsa munchong
[Discussions on eastern history] (Seoul: Seoul University Press, 1974), 37.
27. The primary works in this area are: Yi Us0ng, “Samguk yusa sojae ch0yang
s0lhwa 1i ilbuns0k” [Analysis of the Ch0yong legend recorded in the Samguk yusa], in
Han’guk chungse sahoe y0n’gu [A study of the society of Korea’s middle period] (Seoul:
Ilchogak, 1991), 166–99; Yi Yongb0m, “Ch0yong s0lhwa 1i ilgoch’al—T’angdae
is1llam sangin kwa Silla” [An analysis of the Ch0yong legend—Silla and Islamic mer-
kidong lee: The Indigenous Religions of Silla 71
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chants of the Tang period], Chindan hakpo, 32 (1969); also in Hanman kyorusa y0n’gu
[A study of the history of Korean-Manchurian interchange] (Seoul: Tonghwa Press,
1989), 13–56; Matsumae Ken, “Dragon and Serpent Worship and the Royal Authority
of the ancient Korean People,” Chosen gakuho, 57 (1970); also in Ancient Traditions
and Court Sacrificial Ritual (Hanawa Shobo, 1974), 369–94.
28. Samguk sagi, 47–48.
29. Mishina Akihide, “A Study of the T’arhae Tradition—The Dragon King of
the East Sea and the State of Wa,” Seikyu gakusu, 5 (1931): 71–100; also in A Study of
the Mythological Traditions of Japan and Korea (Yanagihara Shoten, 1943); also in re-
vised form in The Collected Works of Mishina Akihide, (Heibonsha, 1972), 4: 263–303.
30. Samguk sagi, 38.
31. Samguk sagi, 44.
32. Yi Yongb0m, “Ch0yong s0lhwa 1i ilgoch’al,” 20. The passages in the Lushi
chunqiu are in the section titled “Knowing Divisions” in the twentieth chapter, “Serv-
ing the Lord.”
33. Samguk sagi, 3.
34. Samguk sagi, 6.
35. Matsumae Ken, “Dragon and Serpent Worship,” 372.
36. Samguk sagi, 117.
37. Yi Us0ng, “Samguk yusa sojae ch0yang s0lhwa 1i ilbuns0k,” 169.
38. Samguk sagi, 1.
39. Samguk yusa, 43–45.
40. Mishina Akihide, “On the Myth and Ceremony of the Appearance of Royal
Figures in Ancient Korea,” Shirin, 18.1–3 (1936); also in “Ancient Religion and State
and Corn-spirit Belief,” in The Collected Works of Mishima Akihide (Heibonsha, 1973),
5: 37–140, 475–582.
41. Kumagai Osamu, “The Gourds of the Korean Peninsula,” Chosen gakuho, 101
(1981); also in Peoples and Rituals of East Asia (Yuzangaku Shuppan, 1984), 52–53, 58.
42. Samguk sagi, 2.
43. Samguk yusa, 44.
44. Samguk sagi, 6–7.
45. Samguk yusa, 47–48. Many of these early myths can be found in Peter H.
Lee, ed., Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1993).
46. Mori Masao, The States of Nomadic Horseriding Peoples (Kodansha, 1967),
47. Samguk sagi, 7.
48. Samguk sagi, 127.
49. Samguk yusa, 94.
50. Maema Kyosaku, “Concerning the Sequence of Silla Kings and Their Names,”
Toyo gakuho, 15.2 (1925); also in Civilization of the Peninsula in Ancient Times
(Fukuoka-shi: Matsuura Shoten, 1938), 30–31.
51. Samguk sagi, 20.
52. He is called Y0lhan in the account of Kim Alchi in the Samguk yusa (48–49),
the first character being written slightly differently.
53. Maema Kyosaku, “Concerning the Sequence of Silla Kings,” 20.
54. Samguk sagi, 313.
55. Kinoshita Reijin, “The Structure of the Progenitor Lineages of Silla—Centered
Around the Kim-clan Progenitor,” Chosenshi kenkyu kairon bunsho, 2 (1966); also in The
“Nihon Shoki” and Ancient Korea (Hanawa Shobo, 1993), 239–57, especially 254–57.
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56. Samguk sagi, 127–28.
57. Wang’s vice-envoy on this occasion was Zhang Bangchang, who was selected
as emperor of the puppet state of Chu in 1127 by the invading Ruzhen armies of the Jin
58. Samguk yusa, 216–17.
59. Ch’a Chuhwan, Han’guk togyo sasang y0n’gu [A study of Taoist thought in
Korea] (Seoul: Korean Culture Institute of Seoul National University, 1978), 141–62.
60. Samguk sagi, 28.
61. Samguk sagi, 41–42.
62. In the “Treatise on Music” in chapter thirty-two of the Samguk sagi (318),
Tamsu is said to have composed an ode called Nalhy0nin.
63. Cho P0pchong, “An Examination of the Vocabulary Relating to the Hwarang,”
in Hwarang munhwa 1i sin y0n’gu [A new study of Hwarang culture] (Seoul: Mund0ksa,
1995), 422–35.
64. Samguk sagi, 7.
65. Samguk sagi, 16.
66. Samguk sagi, 21.
67. Sin Chongw0n, “Yuk segi 1i h1isaeng rye” [Silla’s sacrificial rites of the early
sixth century], Chindan hakpo, 70 (1990); also in Silla ch’ogi pulgyosa y0n’gu [A study
of the history of Buddhism in early Silla] (Seoul: Minjoksa, 1992), 105–114.
68. Ch’oe Kwangsik, Kodae Han’guk 1i kukka wa chesa [State and sacrifice in
early Korea] (Han’gilsa, 1994), 146–47.
69. Sin Chongw0n, “Samguk sagi chesaji y0n’gu” [A study of the treatise on
sacrifice in the Samguk sagi], Sahak y0n’gu, 38 (1984); also in Buddhism in Early Silla,
70. Ch’oe Kwangsik, Kodae Han’guk, 317–23.
71. Samguk sagi, 4.
72. Samguk sagi, 32.
73. Yoshioka Kansuke, “Chugoku Koshino shuhen koka eno denpa” [The ex-
pansion of Chinese Jiaosi to neighboring states—From its appearance to the introduc-
tion of Kawara Sillasin], Chosen gakuho, 108 (1983): 1–70.
74. Samguk sagi, 32.
75. Sin Chongw0n, “Samguk sagi chesaji y0n’gu,” 75–84; Ch’oe Kwangsik, Ko-
dae Han’guk, 205–209.
76. Hamada Kosaku, “The National Shrine, the Hundred Seats Assembly, and
Religion of Silla,” in Ceremony and State in East Asia, Lectures on Ancient Japanese
History (Gakuseisha, 1982), 9: 233–38.
77. Sin Hy0ngsik, Samguk sagi y0n’gu [A study of the Samguk sagi] (Seoul:
Ilchogak, 1981), 21–87.
78. Samguk yusa, 228.
79. The primary publications concerning this subject are: Park Seong-rae (Pak
S0ngnae), “Portents in Korean History,” Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 47
(1978); Inoue Hideo, “Celestial Calamities and the Deaths of Kings,” in Introduction to
the Ancient History of Korea (Neirakusha, 1978); Sin Hy0ngsik, “Han’guk kodaesa e
iss0s0 chijin 1i ch0ngch’j0k 1imi” [The political significance of earth tremors in the his-
tory of ancient Korea], Tongyanghak, 14 (1984), also in T’ongil Silla sa y0n’gu [A study
of the history of Unified Silla] (Samjiw0n, 1990). However, the most comprehensive study
is: Yi H1id0k, Han’guk kodae chay0ngwan kwa wangdo ch0ngch’i [The concept of na-
ture in ancient Korea and rule by the kingly way] (Seoul: Han’guk Y0n’guw0n, 1994).
80. Inoue Hideo, “Celestial Calamities and the Deaths of Kings,” 287–96.
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81. Yi H1id0k, Han’guk kodae chay0ngwan kwa wangdo ch0ngch’i, 31–32, 89,
132–33, 195–98, 225–28, 229–37.
82. Seo Y0ngdae, “Samguk sagi wa w0nsi chonggyo” [The Samguk sagi and in-
digenous religions], Y0ksa hakpo, 105 (1985): 1–33.
83. Song shu (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1974), 801. Records of portents from a
wide range of Chinese history were here compiled from multiple sources.
84. Yi H1id0k, Han’guk kodae chay0ngwan kwa wangdo ch0ngch’i, 138–39.
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