The Korean “zodiac” is much more complicated that the western “zodiac” as the 띠 is based on 10 heavenly stems - with each identified by yin or yang, with one of the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), and also with each assigned one of five colors – and by 12 earthly branches which are associated with animals. 10 heavenly stems X 12 earthy branches = 120 and the lowest common denominator of 120 by both 10 and 12 is 60. Therefore, 60 is the Sexagenary Cycle of the Korean “zodiac” system. Most notably with this cycle, when a person reaches 61 Korean age or 60 in actually living years, he or she has lived a “full” life; he or she has completed his or her Sexagenary Cycle and an honorary birthday celebration marking this great date is held, hoegap.
Tigers had holy or celestial qualities. First, tigers were deified as the third animal in the 띠 cycle. Then each month was assigned a representative animal and tiger is the first animal of the year, to kick off the spring [remembering of course that this cycle is based on the lunar cycles and Lunar New Year usually falls somewhere in late January to mid-February]. Each day is further assigned to each of the 12 animals, and the tiger hours are the third 2-hour block (3am-5am) in the 24 hours as introduced by the Roman Empire. Therefore to ask someone’s 사주 - year, month, day and hour of birth – is to tell their fortune - 사주하다.
A now obsolete but old folk tradition kept women at home on the first day of the tiger year as that day was Prime Tiger Day, and among mountain villages, if a visiting woman used the privy at another’s house, the family of that house would be a victim of a tiger in that year.
Tigers were also considered village guardian deities, and their images were painted on fans around images of central and important village people, monks or absent landlords. [Perhaps this could be likened to totemism, but am not sure.] Not only were they village deities but they were also transports to the other world after death. Pictured is a monk riding the propitious white tiger to the other world (not clear where the other world or the after-life is). Notice the elephant trunk on the tiger; this is due to the tiger not being earthly but mythical. Pictured taken from a Won Buddhism temple side door.
In pungsujiri, Chinese feng sui, celestial tigers were representative of the western direction, and so were painted on tomb murals and coffins in the west to ensure safety to the kings within. [I am only familiar with tigers being used in royal tombs and not high-statused yangban, which might be an oversight on my part as the representative animal for the king was the dragon.]
Other Folks Beliefs about Tigers
Tiger stones were constructed around royal tombs looking outward away from the tomb to protect the king from magui, evil spirits. These 호석 or tiger stones were the physical representation of a guardian protector and are not to be confused with the celestial tiger painted inside the tomb representing protection from the west. Their features were varied just as the character of the tiger can not be captured in stone.
Tigers were heavily used as talismans, and throughout the Yongin Folk Village this year on every door is a representative tiger talisman. Since this year is the Year of the Tiger, a tiger talisman paper is tacked on the main gate doors to prevent the evil from coming within. Talisman stamps and papers were often of both the tiger and the magpie as the magpie was an auspicious flight animals for bringing good luck and happiness and the tiger, when pronounced in Chinese, has homonymic word play on the word "happiness". Thus, the animals are often protrayed together, and here the tiger was a propitious animal. Notice also that the tiger is portrayed comically as if the animal were not fearful but a creature of jest and inspiring alarm (as they truly did in every day life until the early 1900s.)
Sometimes within a traditional house a piece of furniture with bamboo and tigers can be seen. This imagery is suggesting that the tiger is to be feared but painted or presented in conjunction with bamboo, which pops loudly and makes frightening sounds with being burned, the tiger can be overcome. The bamboo is seen as authentic protection from the fearful tiger.
Tigers in Stories and Myths
Tigers appear frequently in Korean fairy tales. In fact, the traditional fairy tale didn’t start out like the western counterpart “Once upon a time, long, long ago … ” but rather began with the mythical and mystical beginning “Long ago when tigers smoked long pipes … ” Here the tiger was given dignity as a human, and the longer the pipe the human smoked, the higher the status he (only men smoked) had. The tiger was given high class and equated to humans. Some fairy tales even suggest a brotherhood between he tiger and the human.
In the telling of the many fairy tales, tigers were portrayed as having dignity and especially as having moral conduct, for example, the tiger that ate an old woman’s only son and when the old woman wailed and lamented the tiger felt shame and became the surrogate filial son of the old woman until she died. Virtue, honor, dignity, filial piety among others were values of the Confucian society and these values were projected on the tiger in the telling of tales.