Samguk Yusa (삼국유사, 三國遺事), or Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, is a collection of legends, folktales, and historical accounts relating to the Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla), as well as to other periods and states before, during, and after the Three Kingdoms period. The text was written in Classical Chinese (as used in writing by literate Koreans at that time). It was compiled, at least in part, by the Buddhist monk Iryeon (일연– 然; 1206 – 1289) during the Koryo dynasty at the end of the thirteenth century, a century after the Samguk Sagi (삼국사기, 三國史記).
Unlike the more factually-oriented Samguk Sagi, the Samguk Yusa focuses on various folktales, legends, and biographies from early Korean history. Many of the founding legends of the various kingdoms in Korean history are recorded in the book. Iryeon covered legends from many Korean kingdoms, including Gojoseon, Wiman Joseon, Buyeo, Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, and Gaya. The collection includes the lives of Buddhist saints; stories about the founding of monasteries, the construction of stupas, and the fabrication of bells; accounts of miracles performed by Buddhas and bodhisattvas; and other tales rich in shamanist and Buddhist elements. Samguk Yusa contains the earliest extant record of the Dangun (단군왕검, 檀君王儉) legend, which records the founding of Gojoseon (고조선, 古朝鮮) as the first Korean nation.
Ancient Chinese historical records contain references to the Korean people’s love of dance and song. Songs thought to have magical properties were performed at rites and festivals celebrating events such as the worship of heaven in the north, and spring sowing and autumn harvest in the south. These songs were transmitted orally from one generation to the next, but three have been recorded in Chinese translation in ancient Korean histories. “Kuji ka” (or “Yong singun ka”; “Song for Welcoming the Gods”), in the Samguk Yusa, is connected to the myth of the founding of the Karak state, but was apparently a prayer sung at shamanistic rituals. The introduction of Buddhism and of the Chinese writing system to Korea during the Three Kingdoms period brought about the development of a literary tradition characterized by expression of individual feelings and heroes with unique personalities and emotions, rather than the ritualistic songs and tribal legends which had been handed down in the past.
The Koryo dynasty emulated the Chinese tradition of writing a dynastic history to record the historical events of the previous dynasty and demonstrate the legitimate succession of the present one. The first such Korean history was the Samguk Sagi (1146; “Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms”) commissioned by King Injong of Goryeo, and completed in 1145.
Samguk Yusa (삼국유사 三國遺事), or “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms,” was compiled, at least in part, by the Buddhist monk Iryeon (일연 – 然; 1206 – 1289) during the Koryo dynasty at the end of the thirteenth century, a century after the Samguk Sagi ( 삼국사기 三國史記). The word “yusa” cannot be precisely rendered in English since it means legends, history, anecdotes, and memorabilia. Samgal Yusa is a collection of legends, folktales, and historical accounts relating to the Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla), as well as to other periods and states before, during, and after the Three Kingdoms period. Many of the founding legends of the various kingdoms in Korean history are recorded in the book. Iryeon covered legends from many Korean kingdoms, including Gojoseon, Wiman Joseon, Buyeo, Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, and Gaya. It also covers the period during which Silla ruled the whole Korean peninsula, and includes, in a few cases, material from the Koryo dynasty which succeeded Silla, and during which Iryeon lived.
The text was written in Classical Chinese (as used in writing by literate Koreans at that time).
The most important myths in Samgak Yusa are those concerning the Sun and the Moon, the founding of Korea by Tang’un, and the lives of the ancient kings. The legends are mostly about places, individuals and natural phenomena. The folktales include stories about animals; ogres, goblins, and other supernatural beings; kindness rewarded and evil punished; and cleverness and stupidity. Because Iryeon was a Buddhist, his collection includes the lives of Buddhist saints; stories about the founding of monasteries, the construction of stupas, and the fabrication of bells; accounts of miracles performed by Buddhas and bodhisattvas; and other tales rich in shamanist and Buddhist elements. Most of the tales include a didactic or reflective element, intended to guide the reader towards a more profound understanding of life.
The Samguk Sagi (1146; “Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms”) and Samguk Yusa (1285; “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms”) remain the principal sources of Korean myths, legends, and folktales. The compilation of the Samguk Sagi was ordered by Goryeo's ( 고려왕조 高麗王朝) King Injong (인종 仁宗, r. 1122-1146) and undertaken by the government official and historian Kim Busik (金富軾) and a team of junior scholars. It was completed in 1145. Like the Chinese dynastic histories on which it was modeled, Samguk Sagi was intended to promote the Silla Kingdom as the orthodox ruling kingdom of Korea, and legitimize the Goryeo state as Silla’s rightful successor. Kim Busik also wanted to educate Korean scholars about their native history, and to establish Korean historical figures as exemplars of Confucian values.
Samguk Yusa was written a century later. The Buddhist monk Iryeon (1206 – 1289), who took refuge in North Kyongsang Province after passing monastic examinations in the Koryo capital, composed the Samguk yusa to preserve anecdotes from antiquity and to demonstrate that the tales of Korea's founding ancestors were of equal significance with those of China.
Both Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa are unique in that they begin Korean history with Tang’un, establishing an ethnic and cultural identity for the Korean people.
The first sections of the Samguk Yusa contain various legends and folk tales, particularly those associated with the founding and early history of the Three Kingdoms, mingled with fairly accurate factual history. Samguk Yusa contains the earliest documentary version of the legend of Tan’ gun, who is said to have founded Korea about four thousand years ago. The later sections of Samguk Yusa are mainly stories about the founding of various Buddhist temples and pagodas, events associated with them, and the lives of famous Buddhist monks and miracles performed by them. The end contains some Confucian tales of filial piety.
The great value of the Samguk Yusa comes from its inclusion of many types of local materials, anecdotes, traditional narratives, and native songs, as well as ancient myths and legends transformed by Buddhist conceptualizations of the universe. It remains the major source for this type of material, and over the centuries has served as an inspiration for the works of Korean historians, writers, poets and dramatists. Most traditional Korean fiction was based on narratives recorded in the Samgak Yusa and the Samgak Sagi.
The vivid account of the beliefs and customs of the people of medieval Korea in Samguk Yusa is a valuable resource for the study of Korean history and social development. The monk Iryeon had access to documents and historical sources, both Korean and Chinese, which have long since been lost.
Samguk Yusa is also of value as a work of literature. The fascinating tales of dragons, miraculous births, flying monks and courageous heroes capture the imaginations of readers today just as they did centuries ago. The charming and genial personality of Iryeon reveals itself in many places, and Buddhist themes such as the transience of life, the causes of suffering and pain, and liberation underlie many of the stories. Samguk Yusa reveals how the Koreans of the Silla Kingdom and the succeeding Koryo dynasty reconciled their native beliefs and practices with the Buddhist culture of East Asia.
The foundation myth of Koguryo concerns the migration of King Tongmyong and his people into the region. The stories of Ondal, King Mich'on, Prince Hodong, the heir apparent Yuri, and others that had their origin in Koguryo are still used today as the bases for dramas and motion pictures
From Samguk Yusa:
The Wei Shu tells us that two thousand years ago, at the time of emperor Yao, Tangun Wanggôm chose Asadal as his capital and founded the state of Choson. The Old Record notes that in olden times Hwanin's son, Hwanung, wished to descend from heaven and live in the world of human beings. Knowing his son's desire, Hwanin surveyed the three highest mountains and found Mount T'aebaek to be the most suitable place for his son to settle and help human beings. He then gave Hwanung three heavenly seals and dispatched him to rule over the people. Hwanung descended with three thousand followers to a spot under a tree by the Holy Altar atop Mount T'aebaek, and he called this place the City of God. He was the Heavenly King Hwanung. Leading the Earl of Wind, the Master of Rain, and the Master of Clouds, he took charge of some three hundred and sixty areas of responsibility, including agriculture, allotted lifespans, illness, punishment, and good and evil, and brought culture to his people.
At that time a bear and a tiger living in the same cave prayed to Holy Hwanung to transform them into human beings. The king gave them a bundle of sacred mugworts and twenty cloves of garlic and said, "If you eat these and shun the sunlight for one hundred days, you will assume human form." Both animals began to eat the spices and avoid the sun. After twenty-one days the bear became a woman, but the tiger, unable to observe the taboo, remained a tiger. Unable to find a husband, the bear-woman prayed under the Altar tree for a child. Hwanung metamorphosed himself, lay with her, and begot a son called Tangun Wanggôm.
In the fiftieth year of the reign of Emperor Yao, Tangun made the walled city of P'yôngyang the capital and called his country Chosôn. He then moved his capital to Asadal on Mount Paegak, also named Mount Kunghol, whence he ruled for fifteen hundred years. When, in the year kimyo (1122 B.C.E.), King Wu of Chou enfeoffed Chi Tzu to Chosôn, Tangun moved to Changdangyông, but later he returned and hid in Asadal as a mountain god at the age of 1,908.
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