Professor, Dr. Habil. and Ph. D.
Korean Studies Department, Center for Eastern Languages and Cultures,
Faculty on Classical and Modern Philology,
Saint Kliment Ohridki Sofia University
White color is a universal and traditional symbol, which is often used by Koreans and nations of the so-called Altaic World in their myths, epic stories, legends and narrations both in esoteric and exoteric meaning. Different animals of white color play special role in ancient myths, oral epic and folklore stories based on authentic beliefs, cults, and rituals in Korea and Central Asia.
Key words: white animals, Korean and Central Asian myths, epic stories, folktales, rituals, cults.
As universal traditional symbol, white color signifies indifference, transcendental perfectness, simplicity, shine, the Sun, air, insight, purity, innocence, holiness, sanctity, salvation and spiritual power (Kuper 1995, 5). At the same time, this symbol has numerous and various applications which could be ambivalent and even polyvalent according to additional correlations. One can suggest that white color has simultaneously esoteric and exoteric value among Koreans and Altaic nations, and this logically means that any interpretation of this symbol would not be full and completed.
For example, many scholars suggest that the widely spread among Turks and Mongols tradition to worship white color is rooted in their cult of dairy foods. It is well-known that nomadic peoples use dairy foods and meat as their staple food because they breed livestock. Still, in Mongolian and Turkic epic stories one can find poetical formula “white livestock” (Maadai-Kara 1981, 141; Shorskie geroicheskie skazaniya 1998, 263) which is used in relation to nomadic livestock. In my view, such kind of denomination does not signify its direct link to “white products”, such as milk, cottage cheese, cream, butter, etc. Moreover, it is even more difficult to discover such a link with mythical and epical images of wild animals and birds of white color. To my mind, the poetical formula “white livestock” related to nomadic livestock and to wild animals and birds reflects quite ancient cult which was widely spread among the above-mentioned peoples a long time ago, in the time when their myths were creating.
This article is aimed at analyzing images of white animals and birds, as well as other objects in Korean and Altaic myths and epic stories in order to compare their esoteric and exoteric significance. The main objects of this research are mythical and epical texts written and created in mnemonic form by Koreans, Mongolians, Buryats, Kalmyks, Shors, Yakuts, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.
Perhaps the earliest scholar who recorded Korean myths and legends was Kim Tae-mun (late 7th to early 8th centuries). He was a powerful minister of state during Silla period. At least two works written by him, the Kyerim chapcheon (Tales of Kyerim) and Hwarang segi (The World of the Hwarang), probably contained mythical narrations and legends. No one of these works is now extant, but it is recorded that Kim Pu-sik (1075-1151) utilized them in his historiographical work the Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms)
Iryeon, a thirteenth century Buddhist monk from Koryeo period (918-1392), compiled the Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). James Grayson states that this is “an extraordinary rich source of information on the customs and beliefs of Silla, and to a certain extent of Koryeo” (Grayson 2001, 14).
It is recorded in Samguk yusa that once Aranbul, the grand vizier of Haiburu, dreamed a dream. The dream was a miraculous one. So, he dreamed a god who commanded him to move to eastwards and settle down in the land called Kaseopwon, “where milk and honey flow in abundance […]. Aranbul told the king about his dream and the king accordingly moved east and called his nation Eastern Puyeo” (Samguk yusa 1986). So, ‘milk’ is mentioned in this myth as one of metaphorical characteristics of paradise. In other words, the above-mentioned god asked Aranbul to move to the place which resembles real paradise, where milk and honey are in plenty. Milk in this myth is a dairy-food of white color which proves its divine status, or saying in other words, its celestial origin.
As it is well-known in Hinduism, Kamadhenu or a divine bovine-goddess is worshipped as the mother of all cows. Kamadhenu is regarded as a miraculous “cow of plenty”, who provides her owner whatever he desires. In Hindu iconography Kamadhenu is generally depicted as a white cow with female head and breasts or as a white cow containing various deities within her body (Mify narodov mira 1988, 2, 488).
Probably, the first image of cow recorded in ancient Korean literature is mentioned in the hyangga poem “Dedication of the Flower” (“Heonhwa ka”), which was created in the first half of the 8th century. This poem or song was sung by a certain old herdsman. The story recorded in this song is very simple: when Lady Suro, Lord Sunjeong’s wife, asked for an azalea blooming on a cliff, nobody except the old herdsman dared to climb to the top. He plucked the flowers and dedicated them to Lady Suro with this four-line song:
If you would let me leave
The cattle tethered to the brown rock,
And feel no shame for me,
I would pluck and dedicate the flowers!
(Lee 2003, 71).
The origin of the image of cow in this hyangga poem is still disputable. I suppose this image somehow implies cattle offering and has connection with the character of Lady Suro who plays important role in Korean folk and eventually mythological tradition.
In the myth of the founder of Silla king Hyeokkeose is said that in ancient times there were six districts in Chinhan, each belonging to a separate clan. On the first day of the third month the chieftains of the six clans and their families gathered on the bank of a stream called Alcheon to discuss problems of common interest. They agreed to seek a noble and glorious king to rule over them and defend them as their commander-in-chief. Then the chieftains and their families climbed a high mountain, where they all worshipped and prayed to heaven to send them a gracious prince according to their wish. Suddenly there was a lightning-flash, and an auspicious rainbow stretched down from heaven and touched the earth, where a white horse was seen kneeling and bowing to something.
The chieftains and their families run down to that place. They came near and saw that the white horse neighed loudly and flew up to heaven on rising veil of the rainbow, leaving behind a large red egg lying on a giant rock near the well. When the people cracked the egg they found within it a baby bow whose noble face shone like the sun. The people danced for joy, and the birds and beasts sang and danced round the boy. Heaven and earth shook, and the sun and moon shone brightly. They named the boy Hyeokkeose, meaning bright ruler (Samguk yusa 1986, 50).
No doubt, the white horse mentioned in this myth is a heaven messenger and belongs to heaven realm. So, white color in this case indicates the highest rank of the horse. It is well-known that the image of winged horse is quite popular in Korean mythology and folklore, and Cheollima (or Chollima) is perhaps the most wide-known winged horse in Korea in spite of its Chinese origin. Its literally meaning is “thousand-mile horse’.
Another evidence of the divine origin of the white horse one can find in the life description of Hyeokkeose: his birth was miraculous and his ‘death’ also was miraculous. It is recorded in Samguk yusa that after Hyeokkeose ruled the kingdom of Silla for sixty-two years, he ascended to heaven. After seven days the ashes of his body fell to the earth and scattered, and the soul of his queen ascended to join him in paradise (ibid.: 51).
In the myth about Kim Alji one can find an image of white cock which is represented also as a heaven messenger. It is said that once Phodong was traveling to Moon Castle at night when he saw a bright light illuminating Sirim forest. He also saw purple clouds to come down from heaven to earth. Later on he discovered that a golden box was hanging from a branch of a tree and the light was radiating from the box. Under the tree a white cock was crowing. Out of the golden box a beautiful boy came. He was called Kim Alji (ibid.: 56-57).
Summing up, one can say that in Korean myths white color animals and birds occur as white horse and white cock. On one hand, both images apparently play a role of heaven messengers and indicate heaven origin of main characters. On the other hand, in my understanding, on esoteric level there are some indications of the main characters’ belonging to the Sun. Purple clouds, golden box, red egg indicate the Sun through their colors.
Mythology of Central Asian Countries
As many Central Asian nations created their letters in the middle of the 20th century, it is quite difficult to study their mythology. Still, mythic motifs are incorporated in mnemonic stories and folk narratives. As another source of Central Asian mythology their rituals and rites, as well as shamanic practices could be used by scholars.
Mongolians and Manchus seem to be exception to the rule: Mongolians invented their own Old Mongolian script in the 13th century under Chinggis-khan, and Manchus did it in the 16th century under Nurhaci following the Mongolian tradition.
It is said that Kidans – the pre-Mongols who founded a vast empire in Central Asia in the 10-12th centuries worshipped white horse as a special totem. They believed that their ancestor was riding white horse when he met a virgin of heaven whom he took for his wife. Since that time among the Kidans, as well as among other Mongolian tribes, white horse is worshipped as totemic animal (Fedotoff 1998, 104). Some scholars treat white horse as non-personified image of fire god (Bardahanova 1970: 19-33; Galdanova 1987: 12-14). Opposite to this, I suppose that white horse in this case should be treated as a symbol of heaven, or sun, like in Korean myths. Moreover, as divine heaven messenger, white horse justifies heaven origin of most important from mythological and historical point of view heroes or characters: it is said in The Secret History of the Mongols (1240) that the ancestor of Temüjin or Chinggis-khan who was called Bodonchar, was born by Alan-Gua who conceived by sun rays penetrating into her belly (Mongγol-un Niγuca tobciyan 1947: 28). Hence, it means that Chinggis-khan himself also originated from heaven. Saying in other words, image of Chinggis-khan has both mythological and legendary characteristics as the above-mentioned mythic founders of ancient Korean states.
In many Central Asian myths and legends white color is directly connected with the Sun and Moon: for example, Dei Secen – a member of the Mongolian Honggirad clan – once dreamed an interesting dream in which a white falcon flew to his place an alighted into his hand (ibid.: 36). The falcon kept in its claws both the Sun and Moon. The image of the white falcon in this case should be treated as a symbol of heaven. That is why since time immemorial, Mongols have being perceived white color as the color of good omen. Correspondingly, white animals and birds have been treated as bearers of good omen because it was believed that they had heaven or Sun origin.
Among the Mongols there was a cult of white horse, as well as of winged horse. Even nowadays, Mongols believe that white color has supernatural and magic power because it is the color of the Sun and Moon. Mongols regarded white horses and milk, especially white mares’ milk as the embodiment of sacred qualities of the white color itself. That is why Chinggis-khan awarded his subject named Usun with beki title and ordered to wear white raiment and tide upon a white gelding (ibid.: 165).
On the other hand, white horse and other white animals and birds can be regarded as totems which have shamanistic functions. Among Mongols white horse could be used as sacrificial offering only for the supreme deities during grand gatherings and mass prayers. Whenever Mongols wished to offer a horse, they sprinkled the animal with milk as if they were asking deities to apologize them for horse offering. It was so because they knew that horses and especially white horses belonged to heaven, not to earth. For Mongols and Turks white animals and birds belong to gods, not to men.
Sometimes white horses were offered to great khans. For example, Marco Polo recorded that during the celebration of the Mongolian New Year (Tsagaan sar) the great khan Kublai usually received from his subjects one hundred thousand white horses (Marco Polo 1902: 355). Marco Polo also mentioned that the white mares’ milk was sprinkled on the soil and to the air because white horses and white mares’ milk were regarded as sacred (ibid.).
Image of white color horse one can find in Mongolian epic narrations about Geser – legendary ruler of ten lands. It is said that Geser rode a white horse which was embodiment of heaven. It is necessary to state that among Mongols and Turks the epithet ‘white’ color was used as positive marker. ‘White’ had a meaning of something good, noble, something one is longing for. Exactly this meaning one can find in Buryat heroic stories. For example, Agui Gohon – the sister of the famous Buryat epic hero Alamji Mergen – performed the rite of sacrifice in order to heal her brother: first, she slaughtered three-year white sheep; second, she put a white hadag (scarf) on the body of her brother; third, she took white arhi (vodka); finally she brought her brother, meat and arhi to the top of the sacred mountain Huhei and prayed there for three days (Buryatskii geroicheskii epos 1991: 163).
As a rule, good characters of the Buryat heroic epic stories ride white horses which prove their divine or heaven origin and their connection with supreme powers, whilst the so-called bad characters ride black horses. The Buryat Abai Geser Bogdo khan – the main character of the Tibetan-Mongolian epic narration about Geser khan – also rides white horse which has unique strength and can speak human language (Abai Geser Bogdo haan 1995: 25). It is recorded in Mongolian and Buryat versions of Geser-khan epic stories that Abai Geser usually gets all his horses from celestials known as tengrii (Sharakshinova 1987: 166-167).
One can find images of white animals and birds in uligers (oral epic stories) which are popular among western Buryat tribes. In my understanding, these animals and birds also show their connection with the above-mentioned celestials. For instance, tengri Tyurmas owned white silver roe which bore white silver chain and grazed on the top of the White-Silver Mountain. It is said that the only daughter of one of fifty five western tengris was cured thanks to the white lark which sang a song opening its silver beak (Burchina 1990: 71). Another version of the uliger about Geser-khan goes that on the top of the White-Silver Mountain there was a white sable with white silver chain (ibid.: 122).
According to the mythological and cosmogonic views of ancient Oirads – the ancestries of modern Kalmyks – the world consisted of three parts: heaven which was the gods’ realm, earth which was populated by humans and animals, and underground part which was inhabited by evil spirits. Respectively, the dresses gods and people wore, as well as the color of animals and birds living in the upper part were of white or silver color, while the inhabitants of the underground world were of dark or grey color. It is mentioned that the camel Havshil lived in heaven and his color was white (Janghr 1990: 209-210).
Epic stories about Jangar widely spread among modern Kalmyks give quite detailed description of the horse of the main character: amazingly strong, fantastically fast, and of course of white color (ibid.: 393).
Generally saying, white animals play sacral role in the views and perceptions of the different Mongolian tribes. White color is regarded as “mother-color”. It symbolizes happiness and wellness, purity and nobility, honesty and goodness, honor and high respect. All these qualities refer to dairy foods; the milk’s whiteness has sacral meaning. As a rule, when Mongols offered sacrifices to owners of certain places or spirits they used to sprinkle milk and to offer dairy foods. When they sacrificed animals to the Supreme Heaven God (Hormust) they took white horses and camels and that was a real justification of their highest respect and devotion to Heaven. Starting from the second half of the 17th century, Mongolian khans sent to the Chinese Imperial Court the tribute of the so-called “nine whites” which consisted of one white camel and eight white horses.
Still, one can suppose that among the Mongols the veneration of white animals and birds symbolizing sanctity and purity reflect the ancient cult of Sun and Moon because initially white birds (swans, larks and others), as well as white animals (horses, camels, sables, roes and others) incarnated these hosts of heaven, and later on – heaven itself.
As to Turkic ethnic groups and tribes, one should regard first of all Yakuts who in the past created many mnemonic epic stories called olonho. According to Yakutian olonho, Yakuts were given with horses by the god Kyuryo Jesegei Aiyy. He himself came down to earth in the image of white horse and delivered many horses which were distributed among Yakuts. Grateful Yakuts dedicated the most popular festival yisyah to Kyuryo Jesegei Aiyy (Predaniya saha 1995: 26). Moreover, one find in Yakut myths many other images of gods closely connected with totem animals and birds which have common name – tangara or tanara which in general means ‘god”. Yakuts worshipped animals and birds tangara not as creators of human beings or ancestors, but as saviors of dying ancestors and founders of Yakut clans.
There is a mythic story about gull which is said to be a girl who was promised to marry an inhabitant of the Upper World. When the wedding train reached the groom’s house, it turned that on the way to the groom’s parents a big piece of butter which was part of the bride’s gift disappeared. The Upper World inhabitants became angry, blamed the bride and converted her to white gull. It is said that the gull was white as the Yakut butter. The Upper World inhabitants ordered the gull to search the piece of butter all her lifetime (ibid.: 27). In this myth the white color of the dairy food (butter) combines in very interesting way with the white color of bird (gull) which in practice was created by the inhabitants of the Upper World.
In other Yakut myth about Omogoi Baai and Ellei Bootur one can find one more combination of such interpretations of white color symbolism: when the mare’s milk kumis was prepared in Yakutia for the first time by Ellei Bootur, he got up on one knee with toasted cup and said a prayer. When Ellei Bootur was saying a prayer, Omogoi Baai observed small white horses coming out from the cup with kumis and flying up to heaven (ibid.: 47).
The Yakut story about Onogoi, Tataar Taima, Ellei and Tygyn goes that in the past when people were celebrating yisyah, suddenly the heaven opened with a terrible noise and three white cranes showed up. The three gracious birds flew around the Sun and the people gathered and after that disappeared (ibid.: 69).
Yakuts as well as Buryats worshipped white bull which the founder of the western Yakut clan Horo-Kangalas rode while swimming across the river(ibid.: 185, 316).
In mythical and epic stories of different Turkic ethnic groups one can find images of white blackcock, white falcon, white horse, white duck, and so on. All these animals and birds symbolize purity and sanctity. Prayers were pronounced while sitting on white stone or on white horse skin (Yakutskii geroicheski epos 1993: 247, 253).
For example, in Shor (Altaic) heroic epos Altyn Syryk the main positive character Altyn Jana rode white horse which skin was whiter than milk, while horse of the negative character Kan Salgyna was black and had black horse’s mane. In Shor beliefs one can find quite categorical division between positive and negative: the positive view is associated with white color, and the negative – with black color (Shorskie geroicheskie skazaniya 1998: 28). In other Shor epic story Kan Pergen the expression “white livestock’ is also used (ibid.: 263). Similarly to other Turkic and Mongolian ethnic groups, in this epic story ‘the white livestock’ is perceived as pure, sacred and given by gods.
In Altaic heroic stories white livestock is also mentioned. It is said that the quantity of the white livestock is so big that reminiscent of white mist is used (Altaiskie geroicheskie skazaniya 1997: 22). The main character’s white horse is marked with two brands on two sides: the first is of Moon, and the second is of Sun. This proves the Moon/Sun origin of the horse, and, in more general meaning, it proves that in the past Turks and Mongols had lunar and solar cult.
The same Moon/Sun brand has the horse of the main character of the Altaic heroic epos Maadai-Kara (Maadai-Kara 1981: 10). In ancient times, Altaic people regard horse as a sacred animal. Turks and Mongols had a horse cult and treated this animal as the holy patron (erjine) of their clans (Surazakov 1985: 27). They believed that horse was dispatched to them by the Heaven Ruler. That is why the white horse could speak human language and was actively involved into the people’s life (Emel’yanov 1980: 25).
In Kazakh heroic epos Koblandy batyr white color is regarded as evidence of supreme qualities. For example, the batyr’s falcon was white, his livestock was also white (Nurmagambetova 1988: 121).
In Korean and Central Asian myths and epic stories white animals and birds have ambivalent meaning. White color signifies their heaven origin and quite often refers to the Sun and Moon. White animals and birds are regarded as heaven messengers and representatives of the Supreme Power.
As epic stories are not extant today among the Koreans, white color is used in Korean myths and legends as indication of heaven origin of Korean state founders. In Korean myths white color is often used in connection with gold, purple or red color and these colors also mark heaven, and more exactly Sun origin of main characters.
Like in Central Asian myths and epic stories, Korean mythic characters have both mythological and legendary characteristics.
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Brief overview of the Korean mythology from the point of view of its symbolism was made in my article “Egg Mythology in Korea and Central Asia” (Fedotoff 1998, 101-110).
For Korean, I follow the Revised Romanization System, set by the KoreanMinistry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
In this article, I use personal Korean names as they are given in the cited version of Samguk yusa (Samguk yusa, 1986).
For more information, please see the book written by Mariana Nikitina Mif o zhenshine-solntse i eyo roditelyah i ego sputniki v ritual’noi traditsii drevnei Korei i sosednih stran. Sankt-Peterburg; Peterburgskoe vostokovedenie, 2001;