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.