Budoji: A Tale of the Divine City of Ancient Korea (with an overview of Korean shamanism ~ By Jesang Park and Sungje Cho
(Alpha Sisters Publishing, 2023, ISBN #979-8-9869373-0-4)
Review by Bill Drucker (Winter 2024)
Every so often, a splendid little book comes your way. So it is with Budoji. Ancient myths and legends, earlier than the Dangun myth, come alive. There are stories of the earliest gods and goddesses, the creation of the universe, Earth and man. There are interesting parallels and similarities of ancient Korean myths with other cultural myths.
The original author of this work was Jesang Park (363-491 CE), an official of the ancient Silla Kingdom. In Park’s time, the ancient stories were already ancient. Some narratives of Budoji go back to 2333 BCE. As part of a 15-volume collection called Jim Shim Rok, the Budoji narratives have survived generations among Park’s descendants.
As part of the narrative, we learn that Park’s writings about ancient myths and legends were were brought from North Korea to South Korea in 1953. The 2023 Budoji version has been further updated and translated into English.
The word budo refers a capital city and also to a nation that exists in accordance with the divine, where divine ways or heavenly virtues are fulfilled on earth. The early beliefs in the divine were guided and interpreted by early priests or shamans, who influenced people’s cultural and spiritual lives, maintained the oral history, and practiced sacred rituals.
Budoji includes the earliest stories of the creation of the universe and humanity by the goddess Mago. Mago’s role is reminiscent of the goddess Gaia in the early Greek myths. In Magosung’s (or Mago’s) Paradise, humans lived in harmony. Eventually, humans migrated out into the world as four major clans. The book includes a story of the Great Flood. The flood is a shared event, actual or allegorical, among world cultures, notably the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the biblical Noah and the ark, and can also be found in Greek and Hindu myths, and Native American tribal legends.
Budoji consists of 26 brief chapters with modern interpretations, and five appendices that provide a concise and informative description of shamanism. In Chapter 1, Magosung, the creation goddess of earth and humanity, sits at the highest place on earth. Chunbu or the divine ways reside there.
Mago and her two daughters give birth to four heavenly clans. Hwang-Gung, or the yellow clan, became the Asian descendants in Korean, China, Manchuria, ad Siberia. Baek-So or the white clan became the Europeans. Heuk-So or the black clan migrated to the Middle East and Africa. Chung-Gung, or the blue-skinned clan, managed the waters. The Chung-Gung clan later disappear.
Remnants of the Mago mythology are found in Nogodan, an altar to the earth goddess, located in southern South Korea on Mount Jirisan. Her name is recorded in the Goryeo Kingdom era records.
There is a narration of the process of creation, as in the Genesis chapter of the Bible. At first, there was only the sun, and nothing had shape. Eight notes of sound make up Yulyeo or the divine energetic forces or vibrations that create the universe. The divine sounds go on to govern the earth and the universe. Four heavenly men and four heavenly women control Yulyeo, the high pitch of yin (women) and the long echoes of yang (men).
The earth comes into being when Mago opens the heavenly waters and the earth took shape with the elements of air, fire, water and earth. The four heavenly clans manage the primal elements.
After earth is created, the goddess Magosung orders the four heavenly men and four heavenly women to procreate. Soon the divine world had more than 3,000 humans. In Magosung, humans consumed the divine earth milk.
One tale is of a man of the Baek-So clan who goes to the well to draw earth milk. He gives milk to other humans but forgets to take some for himself. At home he hears the the song of the grapes in the vineyard. Still hungry, he gorges himself on the fruit. He experiences Omi, the five flavor sensations of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy. Thus begins humanity’s break with the divine and its move to sensual earthly life. This tale of a human eating fruit in the garden has many parallels with the Adam and Eve story.
When humans left Magosung, the gods gave the clans a special talisman to remind them of the divine ways. The various talismans included a rattle, a mirror, and a sword – all ritual items used by the shaman to this day.
Budoji also recounts a familiar narrative of the Great Flood. The story goes that a thousand years after leaving Magosung, humans lost their divine ways. The clans became strong and waged war on one another. In heaven, Mago and her daughters used celestial waters to cleanse paradise. Some of the water spilled over to the east and west, causing a great flood on earth, which cleansed the earth of evil. In this narrative, water has a familiar role as a way to ritually cleanse and cause rebirth and redemption.
Numerology plays an important spiritual and symbolic role. Yulyeo force is a dual force of yin and yang. Other cultures developed ideas around duality; as in the opposing relationships of light and dark, or good and evil. The idea of three is developed in various ways, such as in the virtues of goodness, clearness and generosity. The idea of four also gains importance and is seen in the primary elements of air, fire, water and earth. A symbol, known as sigil, consisting of three smaller circles within a fourth larger circle; the symbol represents Mago and the Triple Goddess Samshin.
Similar symbols using three circles are found among the Druids, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus. Numeric symbolism still manifests in modern spiritual practices and in superstitions.
The remaining chapters continue with an accounting of man’s destiny. After the great flood, Magosung moves to the Milky Way, putting more distance between the heavenly and earthly beings. But the gods did not abandon the humans. The sons of the divine descended to Earth for 7,000 years to maintain Budo and the divine ways. In the Korean culture, with its thousands of years of mythical, oral, and recorded histories, the virtues of the divine way, numeric symbolism, and ancient rituals are still very much alive in modern times.
The credit for the unique rendering of the ancient stories in Budoji begin with the original manuscript by the Silla official Jesang Park. His name is validated in another famous ancient Korean document, the Samguk Yusa (or the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). The modern team that made this collection readable and approachable for an English-speaking audience includes the commentary and analysis by scholar Sungje Cho. Seo Choi was responsible for the translation, editing and publishing, and Korean American artist and poet Meesha Goldberg designed the book cover and illustrated the pages.