Retellings of Baridegi

Spirit_of_a_Noble_Woman_(Probably_Princess_Pari)_and_Attendant_LACMA_M.2000.15.11By: Max Hartley

Max Hartley is a senior studying Anthropology and Asian Studies, with a focus on East Asia. She is particularly fascinated by mythology, religion, and the influence of folk religions in the modern age, as well as shamanism in its many forms, particularly as it is practiced in Korea

The Korean myth of Bari-degi or The Abandoned Princess Bari tells the story of the first mudang, or shaman. The myth details how the young princess, abandoned at birth by her father, came to know of his sickness and used cunning and bravery to cross between the world of living and dead in order to save him. This act of traversing between worlds is what makes her the first shaman, establishing the uniquely female dominated tradition within Korea. It also touches on a common theme in Korean culture — the concept of filial piety, drawn heavily from Confucian tradition. Shamans give a voice to the marginalized, in some cases those experiencing stress or mental anguish, those who have been victimized in others, and in the case of Korea often women who were traditionally silenced under the rigid Confucian structure.

Similarly, the tale of the crafty young princess Bari has been re-purposed to give a voice to other communities in the present. Nora Okja Keller uses the imagery of the princess as a parallel to her novelization of the trials of a comfort woman, the name Koreans have given the many young girls abducted into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II. In his 2007 novel, author Seo Dongshin uses the tale — and name — of Baridegi to tell the story of a young girl defecting from North Korea and the subsequent trials and tribulations she faces which are written in parallel to the events of the myth.

While these novels deal with extremely different periods in Korean history and touch on different facets of the myth, the overarching idea is similarly interpreted- it is the desire to provide a voice for the voiceless. Traditionally, the myth stressed the strength that a woman may gain through filial piety, an important tenant of the Confucian system, which hardly made orphaned women out to be heroes with their own merit. Over time, however, the emphasis of the story shifted to be indicative of the power of the shamans and of personal agency, and to be interpreted more widely as offering a way to overcome the restraints of the system at the time. This is a theme that has echoed through the stories of shamans and into the present, inspiring these similar stories of resilience, showing the importance of the framework that myths provide us.

The original authorial intent is unknown. And quite frankly that intent is irrelevant — whether it was written to be the perfect example of true filial piety and adherence to the Confucian hierarchy or not, it has come to mean so much more than that. It has been re-imagined into a story of overcoming obstacles, into an example of how even the most lowly or the abandoned may succeed; thus the value in it is in the ways in which this current interpretation is used to inspire people.

Painting credit “Spirit of a Noble Woman (Probably Princess Pari) and Attendant,” image released into public domain by Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


6 thoughts on “Retellings of Baridegi

  1. Wasn’t the author or the 2007’s novel inspired by the tale of Pari Hwang Seok Yong?

  2. That’s a really interesting question – generally Dongsuja’s role ( and indeed whether or not he gets much attention at all) vary from myth to myth. For the sake of brevity I curtailed my general analysis to a single retelling of the original myth, in which he does not actively abandon her. In fact, the Baridegi myth varies across Korea. For instance in the North Korean regional retelling her role as a goddess, leader, and guide of spirits of the dead is very much limited and in some retellings she even dies. In the east coast narratives the story takes on a far more comical bent and Dongsuja spends much of his time ‘on screen’ so to speak engaging in the humorous task of trying to force Bari to admit she’s actually a woman , when disguised as a man. Sort of Shakespearean almost. Generally when Bari is ‘abandoned’ by Dongsuja in the myth its not quite so severe as that. In many of those iterations she marries and bears children with him as a means to procure the water and flowers necessary to cure her parents, and finds that when she’s had the third child and is allowed to leave to save her parents, Dongsuja has ‘released’ her from that service and she’s no longer tied to him as her husband, so to speak.

    1. Thank you for replying to my comment! If I am understanding this correctly, in certain myths, it seems that Bari actually “abandons” Dongsuja, in the modern sense of the word? Is there any indication as to why he would let her keep the children, since that seems to be his driving reason for marrying her in the first place?

    2. One of the most interesting things about the Barigongju or Baridegi myth is that the role of her husband is minimal. He’s not functionally than important except as the means to an end for Bari in her overarching quest. Bari’s role as mother, goddess, and daughter are more prominent, intertwining to become her role as the first shaman. In the mythological context the role of her children isn’t really addressed much and they’re sort of very minor footnotes to the telling, as the god of the mountain springs often is. More importantly and often her role in negotiating with or connecting with the wild mountain spirit so to speak is highlighted as one of the ways she transcends from her humanness, since a regular mortal wouldn’t have the fortitude or ability to persevere in those circumstances, which shows how her deep devotion and personal sacrifices have helped elevate her to something else. Donsuja and her children are sort of secondary to the central point of the myth, which deals with the kkut and the beginnings of ritualized shamanism, laying out the story of the first shaman and heralding back to her deeds and travels between realms. As such its not often touched much on her children or how / why she was allowed to keep them so to speak. Of course with over 90 variations on the myth there may be something I’ve missed to that effect.

  3. According to the myth, as I understand it, Bari was also abandoned by her husband, Dongsuja, guardian of the mountain spring. Is there any indication in the myth as to why he abandoned her and their three children?