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Jeju's Goddess of the hearthJowang Halmang and her counterpart, Noil-jeodae
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승인 2013.05.10  14:13:00
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▲ A hearth at Jeju Folk Village, Pyoseon. Photo by Anne Hilty

In Jeju's system of household gods, known as “ilban-sin” (“ga-sin” in mainland Korea), the kitchen goddess Jowang Halmang stands out.

There are some who believe that the worship of Jowang Halmang actually precedes and forms the basis of the ancestor worship integral to Korean society. In fact, this hearth goddess was worshiped throughout the Korean peninsula in addition to Jeju Island – but rather than come from mainland to island, it is quite possibly the other way around, as the origins of the Jowang myth are found in the Munjeon Bonpuri (myth) of Jeju.

The bonpuri tells the tale of Yeosan Buin, the impoverished woman who posthumously became Jowang Halmang, and her husband and 7 sons. Through her craft, she gathered valuable materials and sent her husband to market so that he might sell them for profit. Along the way, he met an evil woman, Noiljeodae, who tricked and seduced him into making her his second wife, whereby he lost all of his possessions.

Noiljeodae then made him leave her home and reside in a shed where she fed him the rough grains of animals, a diet that weakened both his body and mind and rendered him blind.

Yeosan Buin, worried for her husband so long gone, searched for and found him. She fed and clothed him, intending to take him home again. Along the way, however, she too was overtaken and tricked by Noiljeodae who, convincing Yeosan Buin to bathe together with her in a pond, drowned her instead.

Noiljeodae, disguised in the attire of Yeosan Buin, returned with the blind husband to their home and set out to kill all of the sons. She faked an illness, then disguised herself as a fortuneteller whereby she declared that the only cure for her illness was the livers of her 7 sons. She is the classic wicked stepmother of the world's fairy-tales – and, a cautionary tale for secondary wives in Jeju's then-polygamist society.

The youngest son, being suspicious (the youngest son or daughter often thought to be the wise one, in Jeju and world mythology), fed her boar's liver instead. Upon her 'cure' which revealed her deception, she hanged herself in the outhouse. She became the ghost of this area, the most dangerous household deity who must be appeased.

Yeosan Buin's bones were then discovered in the pond by her sons, who removed them from the water, laid out her skeleton properly, and threshed it with branches of a medicinal tree known for its tranquilizing effects. They molded clay onto her bones in order that it might become flesh, then fashioned a bamboo rice steamer for which each son poked a hole in the bottom (traditional rice steamers having 7 holes), exhorting the spirit of their mother to sit in the rice steamer and warm herself.

A hearth at Jeju Folk Village, Pyoseon. Photo by Anne Hilty

They were able to bring her back to life, and subsequently she was made Jowang Halmang, goddess of hearth and fire, “to warm her cold bones.”

One of the most well-known legends of Jeju household gods is that the kitchen and bathroom, the latter and sometimes also the former traditionally separate from the house, must be as far apart as possible, with nothing ever passing between them – for obvious reasons of sanitation, and to keep Jowang Halmang and Noiljeodae away from one another.

There is nothing in the household that Jowang Halmang doesn't know, and elder males of Jeju sometimes referred to their wives as “Jowang Halmang.” Because of this, when moving house, the main cooking pot was moved first; today, the burner or range is still often the first item to be moved. It is said that the cooking pot represents Jowang Halmang herself, and that she, in her omniscience, serves as “container” for the household.

If a husband wanted to divorce his wife, he would drag the cooking pot out into the yard and break it as a signal to his family and other villagers; divorce was referred to as “breaking the rice pot” or “breaking with Jowang Halmang.” In Jeju, however, this was rare; divorce was far more often initiated by the wife.

The Confucianism of the mainland listed 7 reasons that a man could divorce his wife and afforded the wife no such option; however, this tradition never took hold on Jeju, and the main reasons for a Jeju man to divorce his wife were that she consistently failed to keep the rice pot clean or the water pot (“heobeok”) filled. (Another way he could symbolize this to neighbors was to carry the empty water pot once around the village.)

An altar to Jowang Halmang was kept in the kitchen over the hearth or cooking fire. Central to this altar made of clay was a bowl of water, which the mistress of the house would empty and fill with fresh water each morning, lighting a candle and saying a prayer to Jowang Halmang as she did so.

The sons also became household gods, guarding the six points of the house (each corner, front and back gates); the youngest, cleverest son became the threshold (“munjeon”) of the front door, a liminal and thus sacred space in a majority of the world's mythologies. In worship of Jeju household gods, this god of the threshold is addressed first.

The husband, clearly depicted as an archetypal fool in the myth, was overcome by the turn of events between his wives and perished. He was not deified and has no place in the household.

The worship of the hearth goddess is one of the earliest and widest forms of worship found in Korea – and indeed, throughout the world.

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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