While traveling in rural Korea, it is not uncommon to come across bird figurines sitting atop tall wooden poles, frightening human face sculptures, or large trees with multi-colored cloths and wishing paper hanging from their branches. They are ancient religious symbols of village guardians that are usually placed at the entrance of villages. They also represent the human desire to connect with the divine that is still deeply imbedded in Korean culture today. Here, we introduce three of Korea’s most revered village guardians as the reflection of Korea’s folk religion.
Sotdae (솟대) are tall wooden poles with bird figurines on top. According to ancient records, shamans and priests of a sacred place called Sodo first erected sotdae as a symbol of sanctity during the Samhan Era (1st century BC-3rd century AD). More recently, sotdae have come to represent prayers for protection from evil spirits and for abundant harvest. They are erected at the entrance of villages, and bags of rice are placed beside them during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar.
The poles symbolize the earnest prayers of village folks to Heaven. The bird, usually a duck or goose, symbolizes a messenger between Heaven and Earth. Some sotdae feature a bird with a fish in its beak, illustrating people’s wish to feed a bird on a long journey to Heaven.
Jangseung (장승) are wooden or stone totem poles with a human face carved into them. Some say that jangseung transformed from sotdae or seondol (standing stone), while others claim that they came from religion that worships the phallus. All agree that they are symbolic objects of an ancient folk religion still revered today.
Jangseung vary in shape and material by region. In the southern region, jangseung are usually made of stone, and feature round faces with soft, often humorous, expressions. In contrast, jangseung of the northern region are usually made of wood, and have elongated faces with serious and frightening expressions, demonstrated by large angry eyes and wide mouths. The facial expressions are thought to have originated from Korean traditional masks and dokkaebi (scary but friendly demons in Korean folk tales).
Jangseung, like different totem poles found across the world, serve multiple purposes. Like sotdae, they act as village guardians, and are placed at the entrance of a village. They are also believed to cure diseases. In the event of an epidemic, village residents would perform a ritual around the totem pole in hopes of regaining health. Finally, in rare cases, jangseung are posted on the village edges and roadsides to mark the village territory and to show distances between villages.
Sinmok (신목) are large, old trees. Records of sinmok can be found in Korea’s first creation legend titled “Dangun Sinhwa.” According to the legend, a bear, in order to turn into a human being, had to endure 100 days inside a cave with no sunlight, eating only mugwort and garlic. After successfully completing the task, the bear transformed into a beautiful woman, who married Hwanung (the son of God) under Sindansu, the sacred tree of Taebaeksan Mountain, and gave birth to Dangun, the founder of Korea. The sindansu, an ancient sinmok, is said to have served as a communication antenna between Heaven and Earth.
To this day, sinmok, also known as Dangnamu, are worshipped as the sacred place of meetings between gods and men, and also as village guardians, much like sotdae and jangseung. As such, they are found on mountains or at the village entrance. They are often adorned with pieces of white paper or multi-colored cloths, and are surrounded by sotdae and jangseung.
A sinmok is usually found midway up a mountain or in a village. It is sometimes hung with white papers or cloth of five colors. Even today, sinmok are deified and protected in villages. The Hahoe Village in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do (Historical village of Korea designated as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage) sinmok is 600 years old. Around its girth hang white papers holding the wishes of visitors and locals alike.