Saturday, October 3, 2015

Nat'l Foundation Day at Dangun's Altar

National Foundation Day, in Korean known as Gaecheonjeol from "gaecheon" meaning "opening of heaven", celebrates the formation of the first Korean state of Gojoseon in 2333 BC, a state lasting approximately 2000 years. The date of October 3 2457 BC on the lunar calendar is believed to be the day that Hwanung, son of heaven, descended from heaven to live with mankind, to teach them various arts, medicine, agriculture and, assisted by his ministers of cloud, rain and wind, to institute law and moral codes.

As legend has it, time passed and a tiger and a bear prayed to Hwanung, son of heaven, to be changed into humans. Hwanung in his compassion but also his wisdom decided to give them a test to prove their passion in embracing the change, so he gave them each 20 garlic cloves and a bundle of mugwort with the strictest instructions to eat only this sacred food and remain in a cave out of sunlight for 100 days. After only 20 days the tiger gave up; however, the bear persevered and was transformed into a woman.

The bear-woman expressed her gratefulness through offerings and prayers to Hwanung; however, she lacked a husband and soon became sad. Beneath a "divine birch" she prayed to be blessed with a child. Once again Hwanung's compassion prevailed, and moved by her prayers, took her for his wife. Soon afterwards she became pregnant and gave birth to a son they named Dangun Wanggeom. And it is this Dangun, the legendary grandson of heaven and son of a bear, who became the founder of the first Korean state.

I'm rather confused by the different versions of how Dangun established his throne. One of perhaps many versions is that he ascended to the throne and built the mythical walled city of Asadal (but with a very disputed location - Manchuria, Hwanghae or Pyongyang?). The version that seemed to be enacted at the ceremony I observed at Dangun's altar on the top of Manisan, Ganghwado, was of a dance of the seven heavenly fairies that were explained to me to have accompanied Dangun ... but accompanied Dangun where? and for what purpose, especially as he was only half-god and was born on earth? In the English versions that I've read, there is no mention whatsoever of Dangun annually climbing Manisan and asking the heavens to bless his kingdom, but both of these beliefs were translated to me as part of the crucial tale. There's a lot more in the many Korean versions of the legend, and one of the big points is the mention of bronze instruments usage, "proving" that Gojoseon had bronze culture before other countries in the same time period. But then also, Dangun's foundation myth is taught as historical fact and is published as such in school history books. Rather a wooly history, but creation stories typically are. Legend also attributes the development of acupuncture and moxibustion to Dangun, but I'm not sure whether this too is propagated as cultural fact or remains as just legend.

The Gojoseon foundation date of October 3 2333 BC was based on the lunar calendar, but since 1949 and with the increased use of the Gregorian calendar, the celebration date was switched to the solar-based Gregorian calendar.

Other beliefs and behind-the-scene facts

The mountains with the greatest amount of ki (energy) in the Koreas are Hwangsan (Yellow Mountain) in present-day North Korea and Manisan in the South, but with South Koreans regarding Manisan as having the greater ki-force field. To tap into the concentration of the earth's energy at Manisan, Dangun is believed to have ascended the mountain and built an altar to the heavens for making his prayers on nature, earth and happiness and for receiving heaven's blessings, and because October is believed to be the time of year when the earth forces are strongest, Dangun performed his annual heavenly rites in that month.

As in all Confucian-held rites, the choice of officiators is very important. They are chosen by age, education degree, contribution to the development of Korean society, perhaps proxemics to the site and of course wealth and political ties play a part as well. The key officiators in this ceremony dressed in black Confucian robes denoting their high status: the manager of Korean tourism at Ganghwa, the mayor who also had the prestige of being a graduate of Korea University, the chairperson of the Ganghwa Council, the head of the Hwado-myun district in which sits Manisan (there are 14 districts on Ganghwa-do), and of course several others.

Then there were the simple white robes with the gentleman's hat for the people who were also of high position. Several people of my group (led by Dr. Sim Woo-kyung, Emeritus Professor of Landscape Architecture, Korea University) and wow, even myself!, were included in the white-robed ceremonies: Martin Palmer, author and Secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and his Chinese program director Claudia He; Martin Gray, National Geographic photographer and author of Sacred Earth; Seondo (Korean Daoism) Grand-master Choi Byung-ju; Jeong Chang-hyun, PhD in Korean Medical Classics at Kyunghee University and highly interested in the ki in healing; two other Oriental medicine and ki scholars: a practitioner and a therapist; plus a handful more of students tied to the professors.

Martin Gray, author and photographer for his web site "Sacred Sites" and contributing photographer to National Geographic, took this picture. He was offered a white robe but he kept saying to himself, "No, No! I can't wear this. I was traumatized the last time I was here and had to wear it!" We wouldn't have this picture if he had worn it, as the white robes had a very fixed and stationery position in the ceremony.

Papers are written with hopes for Korea, such as reunification, and expressions of gratitude to the ancestors.
When the papers are burned, the messages are consumed on earth but ascend to the heavens.
Those in the ceremony always face Chamseong-dan, the "truly holy altar".
I felt so honored and privileged to be even invited to this ceremony, and doubly so to be admitted beyond the gate, and then triply so to then receive a white robe to wear. Wow! So honored! Those dressed in white comprised a semi-circle behind the black-robed individuals and we all faced the altar. Behind us was another ring of people, but they put on no Confucian clothing. I'm sure even those people were so well-connected, because basically a person had to be to get admitted beyond the gate-check below. Only about 150-180 people, photographers included, were admitted beyond the gate. There was another peak a few meters lower than where Dangun built his altar and the people who were not admitted to the altar site itself could watch from that peak. However, they had to share the peak with the helicopter, which, as soon as the ceremony finished, was repeatedly landing in order to transport the ceremony goods off the mountain.

The 7 fairies were local girls who had participated in the annual-held contest for choosing 7 participants for this significant event. The number 7 was explained to be an auspicious number and that was why 7 heavenly fairies accompanied Dangun, to ensure an auspicious beginning to his kingdom. Only Ganghwado girls could compete, and the selection was further based on their smarts and their prettiness and also for their willingness to put in serious hours practicing and perfecting heavenly dance moves.

Dancing on top of Dangun's altar
During the heavenly fairy dance, one girl takes a burning torch and lights a fire on the top of the altar. This fire is lit every October 3rd and is the same flame used for the Korean National Sports Game also held on October 3. This fire sharing is an on-going remembrance of the Eternal Peace Flame, taken from Manisan (by Kwaak YoungHoon, PhD, landscape architect and designer of the Eternal Peace Flame and now president of World Citizens Organization: Silk Road Global Alliance-Board of Governors) and used to open the 1988 Seoul Olympics 27 years ago in the year of Dangun 4321. After lighting the sports flame, the 7 fairies dance down the altar steps to the square-earth platform, light the incense chamber to Dangun, and reascend the altar to complete the ceremony. I gather that the girls have returned to heaven after blessing Dangun and earth.

On the "earth"-level platform the fairies light the incense burner for signifying prayers rising to heaven.
The culmination of the ceremony is for a fairy to pass the torch which was ignited at Dangun's altar to an official, who passes it on to another official, and so forth, until the flame is passed to a member of the Korean National Sports Game so it can be transported down the mountain to the sport site to complete their own ceremony. Both ceremonies are always held October 3.

Pictures are a BIG thing in Korea, so of course we had to have an end-of-ceremony group pictures taken atop Chamseong-dan, Dangun's "truly holy altar".
For the hiker, Dangun's altar is open only two days of the year, one day in spring and the other day on National Foundation Day in fall as Dangun supposedly held memorial services to the heavens twice a year. Otherwise, hikers can only go as high as the sister peak to look across at Chamseongdan, Dangun's altar, Historic Site No. 136.

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