Goddesses and Strong Jeju Women


In Jeju dialect, the word halmang means both ‘goddess’ and ‘grandmother’, and rightly so. A matrifocal, egalitarian society — with a creation myth centered on a giant goddess embodied by the central volcano which created this island some 200,000 years ago — Jeju is unlike any other culture in the world.

Jeju women are known for their strength — of prowess, stamina, and will. From the famed haenyeo  free-divers, a majority in their 60s and 70s, to those of the farms, businesses, and positions of social leadership, the women of this island are in many ways the mirror opposites of their mainland Confucian sisters. Through time they have internalized and projected the stories of the powerful and independent goddesses which are at the island’s cultural core.

The shamans of Jeju and their traditions have existed for millennia on this island, once a sovereignty known as Tamna. This magico-religious system is a heritage of the Altai and Tuvan regions of Eastern Siberia, Korea’s neighbor to the north. Active to this day, shamans serve as keepers of the people’s oral tradition, their myths and history, and as indigenous healers and spiritual counselors.

The island is not without its tragedies. Life through the centuries has been harsh, due to the nature of  volcanic topography with its base of hardened yet porous lava, the windy climate of an island at sea, and the dangers of typhoons and other natural disasters. Repeated invasions and colonizations, cultural obliteration, war and politically-based violence, and poverty with high infant mortality, have added to the deep sorrow and stalwart character of the island’s people.

It is both nature and community life that have sustained the inhabitants of Jeju. In the context of hardship and geographic isolation, they have relied on one another in the form of mutual aid societies and communal village traditions, and paradoxically — or perhaps as a matter of survival — have forged a profound relationship with the very nature that brought difficulty.

The central volcano stands as a Great Mother archetype, the entire island representing Her body. The nearly 400 parasitic cones created by its multiple eruptions are viewed as familial, even sibling in nature, and female. The sea, despite the threat that it brings, provides a womb in which this island persona rests. The fierce winds for which the island is well-known cleanse the air, all the while energizing and inspiring its people. Above all, it is the stone — prolific and often in dramatic, even personified shapes — that is at the core and even comfort of every native Jeju person.

And yet, despite its uniqueness, Jeju shares common ground with the world’s cultures. Stories of the ‘18,000 deities’ for which the island is known identify far more goddesses than gods in the traditional pantheon; the term halmang literally indicates ‘ancestor’ as Jeju people have a very familial view of their gods – and indeed, include their ancestors in worship as do a majority of Asian cultures. Yet their stories carry themes, motifs and archetypal images repeated in the world’s mythologies, and integral to the human experience.

Enter, and meet Jeju Island through its goddesses. Serving to empower the island’s women throughout time and now the women of the world as well, at the same time bringing a sensitivity and egalitarian sensibility to the men who are fortunate enough to meet them, they are with us even today. You will find yourself enchanted by their stories, at once fascinated by this unusual island culture — and convinced that you have come home.

Welcome to Jeju, Island of Women.

excerpted from Preface to Goddesses and Strong Jeju Women: Women’s Empowerment through Goddess Mythology, author Anne Hilty, ©2023

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