Jacheongbi greeted by a shaman at Ipchun-gut. Photo by Anne Hilty
Jacheongbi is one of the most popular goddesses among Jeju people – especially, the island's women.
A particularly strong figure, she is primarily an earth goddess – and also, a goddess of love. She is independent, courageous, and makes decisions based on logic rather than emotion; she wins over the Emperor of Heaven, and brings life-giving grains to the Jeju people.
Jeju women can both identify with her and project their own images onto her, coupled with fantasy and longing.
Indeed, her name, ja-cheong, can be translated as 'wants for oneself' – indicating independence and self-reliance coupled with compassion, a long-standing model for Jeju women. She held a very active life that she chose for herself. Unafraid of death, she did what she needed to do with courage and determination.
The paradox of Jacheongbi is that she appeals to both feminists and romantics alike.
Her story begins when she disguises herself as a young man in order to pursue higher education – in the company of a young god for whom she has an attraction. For three years she maintains her masculine appearance, studying at an academy in Seoul and sharing a room – but not her true identity – with this son of the Emperor of Heaven, with whom she has fallen in love. The implication is that her desire for education and opportunity is equal to that for her young god, and she will simply do whatever is needed to achieve her goals.
Only when their three-year term of study is over does she reveal her true nature to and feelings for the young god. He is inclined toward love with her, and they secretly marry. However, he is called to return to the Garden of Heaven where his father lives, and where he had been committed to marry another.
The father puts the two would-be brides to a test of walking on knives in the fire (a feat often performed by the shamans of Korea's mainland); the other woman refuses and instead starves herself to death, becoming a 'hungry ghost' that must be consoled at weddings by an offering set beneath the altar to the bride and groom's future.
The young god, though married to Jacheongbi, is nevertheless compelled by his father to spend half of his time in the Garden of Heaven. She, certain of his feelings for her and their entwined destiny, tells him that he must carry out this plan. Her husband, on the other hand, at last forgets to return to her.
Pining for him, or perhaps to set him straight, she travels to the Garden to find him and bring him home. The lost husband and strong wife who saves him is a theme in other of Jeju's myths, such as that of Jowang Halmang.
Reaching the Garden wherein the Emperor of Heaven lives is no small task, even for a goddess. Yet Jacheongbi, wise and crafty, finds the way and, after a long pilgrimage or odyssey involving magical shrinking and being restored to her original size, much like Alice in Wonderland, she reaches her destination. In this Garden of Life, there are flowers representing each person on earth, as well as one to cure each disease or negative circumstance – a microcosm of the macrocosm.
A servant of her father's, thinking himself in love with Jacheongbi, attempts to rape the young maiden. While she is thought of as a 'feeble girl' by her parents, she is powerful in reality, and easily kills the would-be rapist.
To atone for her deed, however, to restore justice and right the wrong that she feels she has done – or, out of simple compassion, she travels to the Garden of Heaven in order to find the plant that will restore him to life – and, a second plant that will cure his 'greedy desire' for women.
However, the plants in the Garden are not meant to be picked. To gain access to the Garden and decipher which of the flowers she needs, so that she might pick one of each and return with them to earth, she once again disguises herself as a young man and tricks the gardener's daughter into telling her the secret.
Jacheongbi does not anticipate, however, that the young maiden would fall in love with her, believing her to be a young man. She eventually has to marry the young maiden as a point of honor, again engaging themes of cross-dressing and gender ambiguity.
There is a similar story to be found in the Korean mainland, of Princess Pari or Paridegi, who saves her ill father the king by disguising herself as a man and traveling to the Garden of Heaven for a cure.
Indeed, Jacheongbi is often depicted as a shapeshifter, not merely disguising herself but able to change her gender at will and having the characteristics of both female and male in balance, according to the Taoist philosophy of yinyang that Korea inherited from China.
The message in this is that the same ability lies in each individual, if they only know how to access it.
[This is Part 1 of a 2-part article. Part 2 is here.]
– Kim Soonie, Jeju native, is a mythologist and Jeju representative of the nation's Cultural Heritage Administration. Anne Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home. Interpretation / translation was provided by Han Youngsook, Jeju native and instructor at Jeju National University.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.net)
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