Table of Contents
In early Korea, religion was followed and practiced rigorously. At times, religious beliefs were different, thus, contradicting with one another. Till date, there is a complex religious system in Korea, and this essay is attempting to explore using example of Confucianism and cosmology.
The Crowns of Silla Kingdom
Shamanism was a religion practiced in Korea whereby they believed in the existence of demons, gods, and ancestral spirits, all of which could only be communicated with the Shaman by a leader. As for accessories accompanying the rituals, there was a golden crown of different shapes: two antler shapes on the back of the crown and one and three tree shapes on the sides and front respectively. In addition, gold pendants were part of the crown decoration with each of the shapes having a separate meaning: the antlers and trees symbolizing how the Northern Steppe had been abundant with reindeer and trees, for example. On the other hand, the trees symbolized a world tree that reached from Heaven to Earth.
Siberian shaman headwear had what inspired the making of the crowns for Silla leaders making them shaman queens and kings to some extent. In fact, the whole idea of the “world tree” is the essential symbol of Siberian Shamanism. When looking at crown design, it becomes clear that the crowns were not meant to be often worn or even used as headgear at all. However, the dead rulers of Silla were buried with the crowns on showing the relation to shamanism since the latter presumes existence of spirits; therefore, once the leader died, he joined the ancestral spirits and could be contacted by a Shaman to assist in the world of the living. The crowns were, therefore, religious items since their deer and tree shapes décor resembled animals that are reindeer. Additionally, the rulers were buried in deeply dug graves with their jewelry on confirming the practice of pre-burial religious rituals. Known as a theory explaining the beginning and further development of the universe, cosmogony and its influences could also be noticed in the crowns of Silla design and decoration. The “world tree” that reached from Heaven to Earth is the greatest sign of cosmogony in Silla because this element is seen as the source of life on Earth with the tree links giving it the necessary nourishment from above to grow and develop.
When discussing conflicting religious beliefs, the crowns of Silla cannot be a subject of study for shamanism and cosmogony complement each other. These two types of religions symbolize the beginning of life showing the existence of a higher power that helps to nourish and sustain the Universe and human life in it.
The Tan’gun Legend
The legend is about a myth inception telling a story of a heavenly prince who saw the Earth and wanted to rule it. In order to do so, he dropped to the Earth and created a woman out of a bear that had been praying together with a tiger for the two to be made humans. However, the tiger was unable to stick to the instructions so remained an animal while the bear became a woman marrying the prince later on. The couple had a son who became the first ruler of Korea and a mountain god later when upon his retirement. In this myth, the earth is already in place and the story shows that Korea was not created with the usual violence dethroning leaders but in rather a peaceful way. The legend also portrays various characteristics of Shamanism showing the prince from heaven where he lived with his father. This signifies that the people who believed in this story also believed in the existence of spirits and gods like the heavenly prince and his parent as well as three ministers. Additionally, the tale relates to Confucianism since the legend is more or less a philosophical narration used to teach people about the beginning of Korea as a state (Koehler, Jang, Mouat, and Larios 2012). Furthermore, the legend portrays Confucianism because it has ethical teachings where the bear can comply with the given instructions; therefore, it is rewarded with a human appearance while the tiger which fails to follow the rules remains an animal. Confucianism is a set of ethical teachings with some of them reflected in the legend of Tan’gun. The Shamanism and Confucianism in this legend do not contrast since both have a belief in gods and spirits. However, there is still a controversial aspect with ethics to be taught in Confucianism and no subject as such in shamanism.
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Confucianism and Cosmogony
Confucianism was seen early in Korea where the administration changed the way the Silla government was leading to the unification of the three kingdoms of Kogyuro, Paekche, and Silla. Besides, Ruism was also a part of the reasons to develop codes of conduct and laws in Silla highly based on Buddhism; thus, it conflicted with the other religious beliefs of the people in Silla (Beirne 2009).
In ancient Korea, there were many religions including shamanism, Buddhism, and cosmogony. Each of these religions had an authority figure who was either the Shaman or the Dalai Lama with every system practicing the veneration of their ancestors and worshiping sacred places. On the one hand, the Tan’gun legend shows a large amount of mythology. On the other hand, the story narrates about the beginning of the state of Korea.
While cosmogony, shamanism, and cosmology are all interrelated, these systems of philosophical and religious beliefs differ at the same time. All of them are a form of religion that is practiced in Korea. Yet, Shamanism is mainly about the ancestors, gods, and demons while cosmogony seeks to show the source of the Universe. Additionally, cosmology is intended for describing the philosophies of the various religions.
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Korean religions have a long history that has greatly developed over the years. All the religions in early Korea had one thing in common as they placed a high value on the dead and the ancestral spirits showing a lot of respect towards them. The religious leaders in early state were also considered to be some rulers of people in the same way that the political rulers were seen to be religious leaders as in the case of the emperors of Silla. Some of the earliest religious practices such as Buddhism are still present in Korea nowadays showing that the Koreans have great respect for religion; thus, they have not let it be forgotten. However, the dynamic nature of the religion in Korea complicates the task of attributing the discovered historical artifacts to only one system of religious and philosophical beliefs.