Dragons and Dragon Lore
KOREAN WATER AND MOUNTAIN SPIRITS
KOREA CAME very early in Oriental history under the influence, if not under the domination, of China, and a cult of the Dragon has existed there since antiquity. Dr. William E. Griffis, in his valuable book Corea, the Hermit Nation, has this to say of its presence there under the local name riong; and some absurdly extravagant legends might be quoted.
"The riong [Li Lung?]," Dr. Griffis writes, "is one of the four supernatural or spiritually endowed creatures. He is an embodiment of all the forces of motion, change, and power for offence and defence in animal life, with the mysterious attributes of the serpent. There are many varieties of the genus Dragon. . . . In the spring it ascends to the sites, and in the autumn buries itself in the watery depths. It is this terrific manifestation of movement and power which the Corean artist loves to depict--always in connection with waters, clouds, or the sacred jewel of which it is the guardian."
There is also a terrestrial dragon, which presides over mines and gems; and the intense regard for it is perhaps the chief reason why mines have been so little worked in Chosen, the people superstitiously fearing that disasters may follow disturbance of the metals which they believe are peculiarly the treasure of this jealous earth-spirit.
"All mountains are personified in Korea," we are told by Angus Hamilton, and are "usually associated with dragons. In lakes there are dragons and lesser monsters. . . . The serpent is almost synonymous with the dragon. Certain fish in time become fish-dragons; snakes become elevated to the dignity and imbued with the ferocity of dragons when they have spent a thousand years in the captivity of the mountains and a thousand years in the water. All these apparitions may be propitiated with sacrifices and prayers."
The most important of Korean heights are the Diamond Mountains, where the mines of the country are most extensively worked, to the trepidation of the populace who anticipate that some day a dreadful retribution will fall on the impious foreign exploiters of their mineral veins. "One dizzy height is named Yellow Dragon, a second the Flying Phenix; and a third, the Hidden Dragon, has reference to a demon who has not yet risen from the earth upon his ascent to the clouds."
Mr. Hamilton gives a description of the temples of Yu-chom-sa in the Diamond Mountains. Of one of them he says: "The altar of this temple is adorned by a singular piece of wood-carving. Upon the roots of an upturned tree sit or stand fifty-three diminutive figures of Buddha. The monks tell an old-world legend of this strange structure. Many centuries ago fifty-three priests, who had journeyed from far India to Korea to introduce the precepts of Buddha into this ancient land, sat down by a well beneath a spreading tree. Three dragons presently emerged from the depths of the well and attacked the fifty-three, calling to their aid the wind dragon, who thereupon uprooted the tree. As the fight proceeded the priests managed to place an image of Buddha on each root of the tree, converting the whole into an altar, under whose influence the dragons were forced back into their cavernous depths, when huge rocks were piled into the well to shut them up. The monks then founded the monastery, building the main temple above the remains of the vanquished dragons."
Apart from any historical suggestions which this interesting story may contain, one notes that the exorcism of the threatening demons was accomplished in just the same way as Christian monks did by a show of the Cross, as we shall see when we come to consider the dragon-lore of mediaeval Europe.
Whatever is most excellent the Koreans compare to the divinely virtuous Dragon. A 'dragon-child' is one that is a paragon of propriety; 'a dragon-horse,' one having great speed, and so on to indicate the superlative. A common proverb, "When the fish has been transformed into the dragon," means that a happy change has taken place. This embodiment of good nature and good luck is, of course, simply the Chinese lung, friendly and worthy of respect and worship.
It appears, however, that Buddhistic travellers and missionaries from cobra-worshipping India, corrupted this gentle faith long ago by the introduction of the Hindoo doctrines and practice of naga-worship, inculcating a system of diabolism that filled the land with fear and defensive magic: the cheerful old dragons of the past became horrid snakes, lurking in every pool, and filling the seas with terror. A Korean book describes an exorcist of nagas who went with his pitcher full of water to the pond inhabited by a naga, and by his magic formulae surrounded the reptile with a ring of fire. As the water in the pitcher was its only refuge the naga turned himself into a small snake and crept into the pitcher. Whether the exorcist then killed him the story does not reveal; but in the tale Visser finds evidence of the nagas "not only as rain-gods, but also as beings wholly dependent on the presence of water and much afraid of fire--just like the dragons in Chinese and Japanese legends."
Hulbert, author of The Passing of Korea, describes things and ideas as they were before the modernization of the country by the Japanese. He informs us that every Korean river and stream, as well as the surrounding oceans, was formerly believed to be the abode of a dragon, and every village on the banks of a stream used to make periodic adoration to this power. The importance of paying so much formal respect to it lay in the fact that this aquatic dragon had control of the rainfall, and had to be kept in good humour lest the crops be endangered by insufficient showers; furthermore it was able to make great trouble for boatmen and deep-sea sailors unless properly appeased. Hence not only the villagers and farmers, but the owners and masters of ships desiring favourable weather for their voyaging, made propitiatory sacrifices--not alone the important war-junks, but the freight-boats, fishermen, ferry-boats, etc., each conducting its own kind of ceremony to ensure safety. In all cases it was addressed as tribute to a water-spirit.
The ceremony, at least when held on land, was performed by a mudang (a professional female exorcist) in a boat, accompanied by as many of the leading persons of the village as were able to crowd in with her. "Her fee is about forty dollars. The most interesting part of the ceremony is the mudang's dance, which is performed on the edge of a knife-blade laid across the mouth of a jar that is filled to the brim with water." Even more elaborately nonsensical was the ceremony on a ferryboat--a great institution in a land without bridges, as Korea used to be.
Mr. Hulbert says that not until the beginning of the reign of the present dynasty was the horrible custom of throwing a young virgin into the sea at Py-ryung, as a propitiatory offering to the demon of the ocean-world, discontinued. "At that place the mudang held an annual seance in order to propitiate the sea-dragon and secure plenteous rains for the rice-crop and successful voyages for the mariners." With the change of the royal house a new prefect was appointed to the district, who had no faith or sympathy with either the theory or its frightful demands. He attended the next seance, where he found three mudangs dragging a screaming girl towards the seashore. Stopping them he asked whether it was really necessary that a human being be sacrificed. They answered that it was. "Very well," he said; "you will do as an offering." Signing to two policemen they tied and hurled one of the mudangs into the waves. The dragon gave no sign of displeasure, and a second, and after her the third, were 'sacrificed' without any visible response from the demon the people had been taught to fear. This demonstration ended the practice and the profession of the mudangs together.