In the Korean folk story 해와 달이 된 오누이, translated here as "The Origin of the Sun and the Moon" from Pyun Yung-tai, Tales from Korea (Seoul, 1948), two children are pursued by a tiger and end up becoming the sun and the moon. To escape the tiger, they call on God to let down a chain from the sky so that they can climb up, and this is how they end up in the sky.

What struck me is the notion of "God" in this story, and I couldn't figure out what sort of religious background it comes from. Quoting from the translation linked above:

Stretching out their tiny hands toward Heaven, they began praying, "O Heavenly Lord, send help and save us two souls! Let down a strong chain, if you are pleased to save us, and send us a rotten straw rope, if you mean to forsake us." Presently a chain came down, to their joy, and took them up.
The cunning beast thought that he was sure to be forsaken by God, and likewise prayed. "Heavenly Lord, if you mean to help me, send me a rotten straw rope; if you want to forsake me, send me a chain." His prayer was also answered by the all-helpfull [sic] Lord, and accordingly a straw rope appeared, which snapped half way up.

This seems to suggest a monotheistic religion, belief in a single "Heavenly Lord" a la Christianity. I did a little research on religion in Korea and learned that Christianity only began to gain a foothold in the 19th century, although presumably this story is older than that. Before then, Confucianism and Buddhism were popular in Korea, but as far as I know neither of them has the concept of a "Heavenly Lord". The older Korean folk religion is polytheistic and animistic, which again doesn't seem to fit well with this story.

What gives? Is it a poor translation, putting the story into more Christian terms when originally it was something like "the god of the sky" rather than just "God"? Did the story evolve over time as different religions became dominant in Korea? Is the story newer than I presumed?


1 Answer 1


You don't know how funny it is to read this. This requires both cultural knowledge of Korea as well as the language.

The "Heavenly Lord" or in this context is formally called Haneulnim (하늘님, "Heavenly King"). "Heaven" in this context is not the afterlife, but the literal sky and everything in the sky. I'm not too sure on the lore behind it, but Haneulnim is considered like the "top deity" of the Korean culture. I believe there are some other deities but it's considered the most powerful. Not all-powerful per se, but most-powerful. He's typically thought of with a very long goatee/beard and dressed in an all-white traditional Korean clothing. This being is (I believe) largely part of Korean shamanism, but honestly, this being isn't tied to a specific religion. This being could be monotheistic or part of a polythestic religion.

Now, this can get very confusing with the Korean word for "God" (in the Judeo-Christian sense) which is Hannahnim (하나님, One King, more or less). These two words sound extremely similar in Korean and are distinctly differentiated to avoid confusion. My suspicion is that Koreans changed the word "하늘" (sky) with "하나" (one), with 하나님 fitting into the monotheistic belief of Judeo-Christianity (i.e., there is one God).

Update: The Wikipedia post says this is based on the Dangun (단군) mythology. His original name is "Hwanin"(환인) or also Sangje (상제, lit. "highest being"). I'm not familiar with this myth so I can't give too much commentary. But in general, Haneulnim is the like highest deity. He's not the only deity in Korean folklore (see The Honest Woodcutter in Korean. That deity is like a water deity that's similar to Haneulnim).

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    I can clarify more if needed. There's not specific examples that I can really think of. Jul 21, 2020 at 23:25
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    I assume Western translators may have confused the translation, because 하늘님 can be very similar to the idea of "God". But for the sake of clarity 하늘님 is "Heavenly King/Lord" and 하나님 is "God". Jul 21, 2020 at 23:29

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