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Samseung Halmang and Choseung Halmang, goddesses of childbirth, and death
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승인 2013.04.15  09:02:21
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Traditional Baby's Cradle (Jeonguigol Folk Festival, Seong-eup). Photo by Anne Hilty

There is always a goddess of childbirth. And, of child mortality.

Samseung (also known as Samsin) Halmang is the Jeju goddess who governs fertility, childbirth, and child rearing to the age of 15 – the traditional age of majority in Korea. Many 'halmang-dang' or goddess shrines throughout the island are dedicated to this deity, as fertility and infant mortality were critical concerns prior to modern times.

Her counterpart, Choseung Halmang, is the bringer of death.

Known also as Gu-Samseung Halmang, she is the “old” or “original” Samseung goddess of Jeju. Failing in her task, however, having learned how to help women conceive but not to deliver, she was replaced by Samseung Halmang and harbors resentment as a result. Whenever displeased or generally discontent, she is likely to withdraw her protection over the life of a child, and death ensues.

At any ceremony to Samseung Halmang, therefore, a smaller altar was erected and offerings laid for Choseung Halmang – the Gu-Samseung.

Following the death of a child, an overturned cradle was often laid at the shrine.

The upside-down cradle, a poignant embodiment of infant mortality, served several purposes. The very act of laying the cradle down symbolized the bereaved mother's release of her child and provided her with a powerful physical symbol, thus allowing her to externalize her feelings of loss. It placed some measure of blame on both Samseung and Choseung Halmang for not keeping the baby alive, providing an outlet for the mother's anger and self-blame. And it was perceived as a request to the goddess for another baby in the near future – a flicker of hope amid the pain, an amelioration of the sorrow.

At various times in history, Jeju shrines to Samseung were filled with cradles.

Samseung Halmang and her counterpart Choseung Halmang, for they are two sides of a mirror – birth and death, yang and yin (“umyang” in Korean), predate the island's shamanist traditions which were inherited from eastern Siberia, and are thus considered indigenous deities.

The primary myth begins with Choseung Halmang, a troublemaker in her household whose father, the East Sea Dragon King (in actuality the “Jeju Sea” today known as South Sea), determined to cast her out. Her mother, intervening before the child goddess was placed in a box and cast into the sea, a common motif of outcasts among Jeju myths, gave Choseung Halmang the talent of helping women conceive by planting seeds in their wombs. Her angry father banished his daughter, however, before she could learn how to bring pregnancy to term.

In this way, Choseung Halmang could also be conceptualized as a male god, with the ability of impregnation but naive regarding childbirth.

When she landed on a distant shore and began her work of helping women to become pregnant, to her dismay she found that they continued to grow larger and died as a result of not being able to give birth. The Emperor of Heaven was called upon to halt this travesty and in order to correct the imbalance, he chose another goddess to replace her: Samseung Halmang.

Choseung Halmang was not the sort of meek goddess that might merely accept such an affront, however. (In fact, few if any of Jeju goddesses are timid or weak; they are generally depicted as strong and even fierce, informing this characteristic in the Jeju women themselves.) She protested and demanded a test.

The Emperor of Heaven gave each goddess a plant which she was to bring to fruition, a symbol of their very task in assisting women from the moment of conception to the child's age of accountability. When the plant of Choseung Halmang withered, she secretly switched it with that of Samseung, but the Emperor was not fooled and kept each goddess in the position he had assigned to her as a result.

Traditional Baby's Cradle (Jeonguigol Folk Festival, Seong-eup). Photo by Anne Hilty

Following the birth of a child, the mother would perform rituals to Samseung Halmang at an appropriate Halmang-dang or shrine every seven days for three cycles. Other rituals to Samseung Halmang were performed when women sought to become pregnant, had difficult pregnancies or deliveries, or for any other concerns related to the rearing of children.

There are in fact 70-80 other Samseung goddesses in Jeju's polytheistic tradition, all under the governance of Samseung Halmang.

Choseung Halmang, however, the Gu Halmang, is not governed by Samseung Halmang, who instead is required to continually console the goddess who preceded her, by sharing her offerings (hence the side altar) and by giving her various tasks related to the care of children.

Nevertheless, Choseung Halmang simmers with resentment over her displacement and is thus capricious and easily angered. When displeased, she doesn't kill children directly but withdraws her care over their continued existence, a not-so-benign neglect.

These goddesses who govern the life of the child from beginning to adulthood, despite the many shrines maintained for their worship, were said to reside in the home, in the room reserved for the mother and child – considered the most important room in the house.

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.

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