Last year, K-dramaland has been dominated by mythical creatures in the form of Goblin and mermaid. But every story has its origin and most legends featured in Korean dramas came from folktales that have been passed down from one generation to another.

So in this lesson, let’s focus on Korea’s mystical stories. Kaja!

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Imuldam (이물담) are Korean tales that featured otherworldly beings such as goblins, ghosts, and monsters. Most imuldam stories are about transcendental beings entering the human world and engage with humans in either friendly or antagonistic relation. One should take note that Korean culture is a mix of several belief systems – Confucianism, Buddhism, Shamanism, and later Christianity. These religions strongly influenced many of their folklore.

Goblin

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도깨비 (Dokkaebi or Goblin) is the most prolific creature in Korean urban legend but it is only after the Gong Yoo-starer, Goblin: The Lonely and Great God, that this mystical creature catapult to K-drama fans’ consciousness. Not to be confused with the western version of Goblin, which is depicted as evil, Korea’s version of Goblins are playful and often take pleasure in helping humans. However, some rural villages in Korea believe Goblin also inflicts hardship to people. This belief stems from tales depicting Goblins with supernatural powers.

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Folklore vs K-drama
Prominent scriptwriter Kim Eun-sook created a more romanticized version of Goblin for the tvN series. The fictional character, General Kim Shin, was imortalized as a Goblin after he was sentenced to death by a jealous king. A 도깨비 신부 (Dokkaebi sinbu or Goblin’s bride) is the only woman who can see the sword that pierced through him and the only person who has the ability to release him from his immortal state. As opposed to the K-drama, folk anecdotes depict Goblins in various inanimate forms but rarely in human form. Goblins are usually nocturnal although they can be seen during daytime on rainy days.

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Fun Fact: Dokkaebi is the mascot for the Red Devils, the official supporting group for South Korea’s national soccer team.

Grim Reaper

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Unlike the western personification of death, 저승사자 (Jeoseung Saja or Korean angel of death) is always in human form. Korean grim reapers wear an all-black hanbok and a black gat, a Joseon-era hat popular with noblemen. Joseung Saja, which literally means afterlife envoy, is believed to guide recently departed to the path towards the afterlife.

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Folklore vs K-drama
Korean dramas such as 49 Days and High School Love On feature characters that were loose interpretations of Jeoseung Saja. Lee Dong-wook’s version is contemporary but still stick closely to the archaic stories about Korean grim reapers. However, the Grim Re pear’s hat doesn’t actually make them invisible. This depiction was probably based on a popular Korean folktale entitled 도깨비 감투 (Dokkaebi Gamtu or The Goblin’s Hat).

Gumiho

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Another popular Korean mythical creature is the 구미호 (Gumiho or nine-tailed fox). Like its Japanese and Chinese counterparts, Korea’s version of the shape-shifting creature is formed when a fox lived for a thousand year. According to Korean legend, gumiho can absorb humans’ energy by using their 여우구슬 (yeowu guseul or fox bead).

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Folktale vs K-drama
Both Gu Mi-ho (Shin Min-ah) from My Girlfriend Is a Nine-Tailed Fox and Choi Kang-chi (Lee Seung-gi) from Gu Family Book want to become real humans. According to some Korean folktales, a gumiho must refrain from killing or eating humans for 1,000 days in order to become human permanently.

Ghosts

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귀신 (Gwisin or ghost) are human spirits wandering in the human world due to unresolved grudges. There are four types of haunted spirits in Korean tales: (1) 처녀귀신 (Cheonyeo Gwisin or Virgin Ghost, (2) 총각귀신 (Chonggak Gwisin or Male Virgin Ghost), (3) 물귀신 (Mul Gwisin or Water Ghost), and the (4) 달걀귀신 (Dalkyal Gwisin or Egg ghost).

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Folklore vs K-drama
In the hit tvN series, Oh My Ghostess, Na Bong-sun (Park Bo-young) helped the ghost, Shin Soon-ae (Kim Seul-gi) to resolve her grudge and move on to the after world. Most Korean tales about haunted spirits revolve around the same story which could be attributed to Shamanism beliefs.

Mermaid

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With thousands of stories about mermaids from around the world, one can easily say it is probably the most popular mythical creature. Unlike other creatures in this article, there are only a few records of original Korean folklore featuring mermaids. The only story I found was a legend from Geomundo Island, which is about a mermaid called Sinjiki who warns fishermen about oncoming storms or typhoons. The mermaid, with fair white skin and long black hair, appears mainly during bright moonlit evenings or in early mornings.

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Folklore vs K-drama

The Legend of the Blue Sea, which starred Hallyu actors Lee Min-ho and Jun Ji-hyun, is said to be inspired by a classic Joseon-era legend from an early collection of tales, which tells the story of a fisherman who captures and releases a mermaid. Although it was adapted to fit the Korean culture, the fantasy drama’s interpretation of mermaids is clearly influenced by western myths.

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Fun fact: Korea actually has modern mermaids called 해녀 (haenyo). They are not mythical creatures but real life people. Haenyo are traditional female free divers of Jeju Island who descend into deep ocean waters for abalone and shellfish.

Image credits:
(1) tvN: Goblin: The Lonely and Great God; Oh My Ghostess
(2) SBS: My Girlfriend is a Nine-tailed Fox; Legend of the Blue Sea

References:
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