“Mountain Gods” and “Lord Hallasan”

A common deity encountered across the various forms of spirituality practiced in Cheju and mainland Korea is the ubiquitous worship of an ambiguously-defined deity referred to as “sansin” (mountain god) 산신. Should one visit a temple or a private shrine in mainland Korea, one might notice a detached altar (or an entire prayer room) featuring the image of an elderly bearded sage accompanied with a tiger. Images may vary depending on the era of the painting or specific region in Korea, but the features are consistent all across the peninsula. As nearly three quarters of the Korean peninsula is mountainous, the mountain deity is among the most indispensable figures that appears in multiple forms of Korean spirituality from local variants of shamanic worship to Buddhism and from Confucian ritual to new religious movements. Not merely the refuge of shamans and Daoists, religious mystics of a variety of faiths, including early Protestant converts in the early 20th century, took to mountains in troubled times in hope of gaining spiritual insight directly from the divine. Aside from the aesthetic and spiritual import of mountains as the geographic point of contact between heaven and earth, mountains were also key refuge points during invasions; the multitude of fortifications on them such as Namhansansŏng, in which King Injo himself sought refuge during the early 17th century Manchu invasions, in the Greater Seoul area attests to their strategic value. In all cases, the presence of sansin is widely felt. In shamanic and Buddhist ritual, ritual practitioners perform specific devotional chants to the Sansin such as the Sansin’gyŏng for the deity’s protection as well as permission to build or maintain sacred spaces on mountain domains. To whom or what sansin refers is seldom explicit. The title tends to refer to an enigmatic caretaker deity of Korea’s wilderness. Some new religious movements in the Korean mainland associate sansin with Tan’gun, the purported ancestor of Korean civilization, as the tiger image is interpreted to represent the same tiger who failed to change to a human in the myth of ancient Chosŏn. Though often regarded as a particularly “Korean” feature, the mountain god is not unique to Korea per se. Many different spiritual traditions around the world identify mountains as points of access between this world and the supernatural realm such as Mount Olympus in ancient Greece or Mount Sumeru in South Asia. What sets apart Korean expressions of mountain veneration from neighboring traditions is the ubiquitous esteem given to the enigmatic guardians of these sacred geographies.

What of the sansin of Cheju Island where there is but one main mountain of reference, Hallasan? One may be surprised that the moniker can be equally vague in Cheju. If one were to follow popularized re-representations of island culture too closely, one may also be surprised that the mountain deity in Cheju is not actually related to the legendary titan-goddess Sŏlmundae, who, according to legend, crafted the mountain with her bare hands.  Even in the Cheju pantheon where deities are very much location-specific, the mountain deity’s identity is paradoxically defined yet also can be unclear. When Cheju islanders perform rites to sansin at Sanch’ŏndan 산천단 shrine in Ara-tong, the ponhyangdang 본향당 at Wahŭl 와흘, or the various Buddhist altars around the ruins of Pŏpjŏngsa 법정사 temple in upland Sŏgwip’o 서귀포, are people venerating a specific deity, a group of deities, or the abstract concept of nature guardian deity? Short answer: all of the above. An important characteristic of Cheju spirituality to keep in mind is that while it overlaps with the “universal” traditions (such as Confucianism and Buddhism) many practices are still very region-specific. Religion in Cheju has long related to immediate community or personal needs rather than abstract concepts. In forms of Buddhism in Cheju, how sansin are venerated are specific to particular congregations as local-born clergy may sometimes refer to an indigenous rather than generalized form. The “Confucian” Sanch’ŏndan rites likewise are directed at Hallasan as the original shrine itself was located further up the mountain side.

Across Cheju, one may find deities with the vague title sansin or the particular title “Harosantto” 하로산또 (“Hallasannim” 한라산님 in Standard Korean), or Lord Hallasan. Not to be mistaken with the smaller tree of the grandmother goddess Sŏjŏngsŭng Ttanim 서정승 따님, the main sinmok 신목 (god tree) at Wahŭl’s famed photogenic shrine, Han’gŏri Harosandang 한거리 하로산당, is a deity with the title of “Harosantto.” A deity with the same title also appears in other parts of Cheju such as Hogŭn-tong 호근동 and Sŏho-tong 서호동 in the Sŏgwip’o area. What differs in Cheju from the Korean mainland in the portrayal of Sansin and especially “Harosantto” is that instead of a wizened Daoist-like sage accompanied with a tiger, the mountain deities literally have a far more down-to-earth form. Cheju’s mountain deities tend to be represented as a fur-clad hunter-gatherers with a bow or rifle. The Sansin nori 산신 놀이(Mountain Deity’s Skit) portion of the May 1, 2015 Puldodang 불도당 ritual in Wasan 와산, which culminates in a chicken sacrifice, features shamans and somi 소미 (attendant shamans) playing the role of rifle-armed hunters who meander around the shrine grounds before the final sacrifice ritual. Their calls of “Mŏru mŏru mŏru, wŏri wŏri wŏri” 머루머루머루 월이월이월이 to one another mimic that of a hunter calling to a dog. In this case, one can observe that the animal that attends the mountain deity is not a tiger but perhaps a hunter’s dog. If sansin in the Korean mainland parallels Tan’gun, then sansin and Harosantto in Cheju likewise seem to parallel the ancestor demigods of T’amna: Ko, Yang, Pu were depicted as hunter-gatherers who sprung from the earth. The deity Soch’ŏn’guk 소천국, the consort to Songdang’s chief agricultural patron goddess Paekchu 백주, also is depicted as a hunter-gatherer. Not coincidentally, some of these “Harosantto” are related to the family of deities based at Songdang; Wahŭl’s Harosantto, for example, is the 11th son of Paekchu.


  • Fieldwork conducted on May 1, 2015 in Wasan; May 4, 2015 at Pŏpjŏngsa temple site; and February 21, 2016 in Wahŭl
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