The First and Last Tiger of Corea
By Theo Moon
sam 정우, 칠전팔기
The tiger’s nature is wild and violent, and it causes calamities. Do not act with violence and impatience, for these bring harm to yourself and to others. Always abide by the laws of the Heavens, and harbor love for all beings. Protect the one who is in danger, and do not disdain the weak. Help the one who is in misery, and do not despise the poor.
— The Eight Codes of Conduct, said to have been established by Dangun Wanggeom 단군왕검, the legendary founder of Corea
OCTOBER 3, 2023 — Welcome listeners to this very special episode of 불가사리: Impossible-to-Kill, a weekly podcast about chimeric beings and paradoxical phenomena in Corean folklore. Today, in honor of Corea’s National Foundation Day 개천절, “the day on which the Heavens open,” I am excited to present an interview of Beom, a living descendent of the Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). This fierce and auspicious creature is widely presumed extinct on the Corean peninsula yet still serves as a guardian spirit and revered protector of its people, memorialized in countless tales and legends. Beom claims her particular lineage can be traced directly back to the first tiger, who is perhaps most famous for their role in the creation myth of the Corean nation:
A bear and a tiger pleaded in prayer to Hwanung 환웅, the son of the King of Heaven, to make them human. Hwanung gave them sacred food to eat—twenty cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort—and told them to stay in a cave for 100 days. The tiger was too impatient and left the cave early; whereas the bear remained in the cave and finally emerged a human. She was Ungnyeo 웅녀, the “Bear-woman.” She made thankful offerings to Hwanung, but soon Hwanung noticed her crying under a sacred birch tree 신단수 for she could not find a husband and was lonely. Hwanung had pity on her and took her as his wife. They had a son whom Ungnyeo named Dangun, which translates as “Altar Prince” or “Birchwood.” Dangun Wanggeom established Gojoseon, the first Kingdom of Corea in the year 2333 B.C.
— Dr. Sanko Lewis, Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine, Issue #116
In this episode, we are also excited to introduce our newest host, Hyesung Moon 문혜성, a trans spiritworker of the Corean diaspora who joins us on the eve of his mudang initiation ceremony 신내림굿, a closed tradition where he will undergo several tests administered by an elder Corean shaman-priest to prove his spiritual mettle. If successful, he will be ordained by the gods and ancestral spirits, bestowing him the title of baksu mudang 박수 무당. This title is traditionally reserved for male-spectrum shamans of Corea’s oldest folk religion, Mugyo 무교, with over 5,000 years of history. One cannot properly celebrate the founding of the Corean nation without paying respects to this sacred, enigmatic, and sadly persecuted role.
Transcription Note #1: The following interview has been translated from the original Corean.
[The video recording opens with two figures sitting across from each other in a small recording booth, both dressed in traditional Corean regalia. The figure on the left is thumbing through a pile of notes, while the figure on the right drums clawed fingers on the threadbare arm of her chair. The table between them is also sparse, holding only two condenser microphones connected to a blocky control panel. In the audio recording, the intro music plays: rhythmic drums, cymbals, and chanting that gradually fade to silence.]
Hyesung: Hello, my name is Hyesung Moon and I’m very excited to host this episode of Impossible-to-Kill today. And hello Beom-nim, welcome! You’re quite the elusive guest.
Beom: [laughs] Is that so? Well, I’ve been here the whole time, just... unavailable.
Hyesung: Yes, you mentioned you’re on vacation. I appreciate you making time for us. [Glances down at his notes, then clears his throat] So, what does rest and relaxation look like for you?
Beom: You know, I’m still figuring that out. But I know what it doesn’t look like— [suddenly glances to the side]
Hyesung: Uh... something wrong?
Beom: Pay no mind. [half-smiles with slightly bared teeth] But I’ll need you to ask better questions if we are to continue this exercise, dear child.
Hyesung: Ah okay, well… I was wondering, in the creation myth of the Corean nation, it is said that your ancestor left the cave after twenty days due to hunger.
Beom: It is said, yes.
Hyesung: I bet that isn’t the whole story.
Beom: [grins] When is it ever?
Hyesung: Care to elaborate?
Beom: Well, I wasn’t there, mind you—at least not in the most practical sense—but this is what has been passed down to me: On the twentieth day, a wandering spirit with an insatiable hunger entered the cave, looking for an easy meal. It attacked Ungnyeo, the bear, while she was deep in slumber, dealing her a grievous wound of both body and soul. The tiger tried to fend off their attacker but was much too malnourished. Still, the spirit—frightened by the tiger’s ferocity—fled the cave at once. The tiger gave chase, unable to quell their hunter instincts. In doing so, they violated the divine decree of the sky god Hwanung and were forbidden from becoming human.
Hyesung: That’s quite the story… but that’s not where it ends, is it?
Beom: Far from it. Hwanung heard Ungnyeo’s pleas for help. On the twenty-first day he transformed her into a human, otherwise she would have surely lost her primordial soul.
Hyesung: I see. So Ungnyeo was originally supposed to remain in the cave for one hundred days to become human, but because she was gravely wounded, Hwanung transformed her the day after she was attacked. Then what about the tiger? Or the hungry spirit? What happened to them?
Beom: Hwanung spared Ungnyeo but left the tiger to die outside the cave. Having only eaten garlic and mugwort for three weeks prior, the tiger soon collapsed from exhaustion. As they lay panting in the dirt, the hungry spirit devoured their soul. It is an excruciating death.
Hyesung: Wait, but then if they died—
Beom: How am I alive? [smiles, eyes downturned as if watching something far away]
Hyesung: Yes, well, since that tiger was your ancestor, how did they preserve the bloodline?
Beom: That’s a good question, but good questions rarely have clear answers. Some say the spirit consumed the tiger’s flesh raw and transformed into a chimera, forever caught between the spirit and mortal realms, unable to return to either. Others say the spirit reanimated the tiger’s corpse and wandered through a nearby village; soon after, the villagers succumbed to a spiritual illness that drove them all mad. Unable to think or act for themselves, they became enslaved to the slain tiger’s spirit, aimlessly roaming the mountain range and preying on ill-fated travelers. We call those types of ghosts “changgwi” [창귀].
Hyesung: Scary… and what do you believe?
Beom: Neither. The truth is at once more complex and much simpler: I believe the tiger did not die—that they somehow escaped.
Hyesung: Oh? Can you tell me more about that?
Beom: [laughs] Can you?
Hyesung: What? I don’t know—
Beom: You are a vessel for tiger spirits, neither lost of mind nor enslaved to their will. So tell me, how would the tiger survive complete and utter annihilation…?
[The room suddenly quiets—not even the gentle hum of equipment is heard. In the footage, Hyesung and Beom are staring at each other from across the recording booth. The only noticeable movements are Hyesung’s softly heaving chest and Beom’s claws sinking deeper into the meatiest part of her chair. She seems all at once relaxed and on edge, as if one wrong move could provoke her attack.]
Hyesung: [half-muttered, half-whispered, barely audible] …The spirit didn’t destroy the tiger's soul.
Beom: No, it did not. [Her claws relax ever so slightly.] Instead, the spirit made an oath.
Hyesung: [voice rising in disbelief] An... oath?
Beom: To atone for ambushing the sacred bear and revered tiger while they were under the guidance of Hwanung, the spirit offered its primordial body, along with those of its descendants, as vessels. The tiger accepted, then passed away from their flesh. Thus, a new lineage was born.
Hyesung: A… new lineage?
Beom: [smiles] Yes, and I see it is still thriving today.
Hyesung: [furrows his brow] What do you mean?
Beom: [leans back with a shocked expression] Has no one told you this before? What else could I possibly mean?
Hyesung: No, I just… I don’t understand.
Beom: Tell me of your dreams then. You see tigers in every single one, do you not?
Hyesung: Well yes, but that doesn’t mean—
Beom: Then it is not understanding that you lack, but faith.
Hyesung: Faith? [voice grows quiet] Then, am I…?
Beom: Yes, dear child. You are one of my many descendants.
Hyesung: [eyes widen suddenly] You… You’re not just the last tiger. You are the first.
Beom: [smiles sadly] Just a remnant, I’m afraid.
Beom: Yet here we are… [waves hand in a sweeping motion between the two of them] In the flesh, more or less. And what will you do now? Now that you know.
Hyesung: What will I do? You’re a figure of legend!
Beom: Indulge me.
Beom: That’s not a request.
Hyesung: Well, okay… I would ask you to teach me.
Beom: Oh? [grins] And what do you desire to learn from me?
Hyesung: What do I desire to learn...?
Beom: Come now, our time is very precious. Tell me of your dreams.
Hyesung: [closes eyes, breathes deep, voice deepens] I want to learn how to become as undying and ever-shifting as a mountain god—to be born of the quaking earth with a spirit as old and unforgotten as time itself.
Beom: You have my attention…
Hyesung: [Hereafter Hyesung’s voice seems to split into two to four distinct pitches that rise and fall into each other] I want to learn how to hunt on my toes, peering through a million eyes from the tangled underbrush, perceiving every angle with the detached gaze of a predator at rest. I want to learn how to tear malicious spirits asunder with my steely claws and gaping maw. I want to learn how nerves sing, how blood weeps, how mirthful laughter sounds behind bared yellow teeth. I want to learn how to mete justice and vengeance and mercy all at once, flesh coiled around sinew around bone, just before I pounce and rip and devour and— [his eyes open wide, breath merges into one, head bobbing as if waking from a dream]
Beom: [a peal of laughter cuts through the silence] …You flatter me.
Hyesung: I may have gotten a little carried away... [face flushed, he reaches a hand up to rub the nape of his neck]
Beom: Well, come on then, let’s get started.
Beom: [grins hungrily] Your lessons! After all, my dear, I have so much more to teach you.
Hyesung: I’m not sure I’m ready.
Beom: And you never will be, that’s how it is. Sometimes all you can do is begin, and sometimes all you will gain is an end.
Hyesung: [leans back, eyes wide] Are you saying this path will kill me?
Beom: Eventually, yes, as all paths do. But in this context [shrugs]... it depends on your definition.
Hyesung: Ha! Well, that's not exactly comforting…
Beom: [smiles] Transformation rarely is. What else could ever hope to precede rebirth besides death? That doesn’t mean we should seek it out, of course. It just means it will come when it comes. There is no ready or not.
Hyesung: But if everything is cyclical, where do I even begin? And how do I go forward from there, or even take a single step in any direction? Who will support me, and what do I do if there’s no one? What will become of me if I continue down this path? Why was I chosen—
Beom: Oh my… remember what I said about good questions?
Hyesung: Uh, yes? That they rarely have clear answers?
Beom: Right, but the answer to your questions are as clear as day: You've already begun. You are already walking the path you were called to. You have been gathering support and there is no possible way to describe what you will become. The better question to ask is: What is there to learn right here, right now, in this very moment?
Hyesung: [takes a deep breath, then exhales slowly] That I already have all the answers? I just need to channel them, to reach inward and back and through, to open a portal not necessarily in time or space but—
Beom: Slow down! I was merely saying that your questions need work, my dear.
Hyesung: Sorry, I’m new to this, so… go easy on me? Please?
Beom: [devilish grin] Not a chance. You’re also not new to this…
Hyesung: Well, that’s not how I feel… but I appreciate that, Beom-nim. Maybe someday I’ll catch up with the part of me who remembers.
Beom: [softens] You will. Sooner than you imagine.
Hyesung: Well, this has been, I don’t even know what to say… [laughs, flipping to the end of his nearly untouched pile of notes] I suppose we are coming now to the end of our time together. It’s been a rare and esteemed pleasure to speak with you today, Beom-nim. Anything else you’d like to share with our listeners for now?
Beom: Why yes, there is. [turns to look directly into the recording booth camera]
Hyesung: [places hand over heart] Please.
Beom: To those who have been flattened into a single point and twisted into shapes against your will: Remember that you never walk alone. That your claws and teeth are sharp and your tongue sharper. That you are divinely protected in all your sacred grief, righteous rage, and wildest joy. That the spirits know your truest names, and the stars shine upon your darkest paths. That you are seen. That you are loved—so fiercely and profoundly loved. That your shatterings only prove that you have become unto infinity, that you belong to the eternal. And we cannot wait to see all that you will learn and grow and transform for yourselves, your ancestors, your descendants. We cannot wait to welcome you back home.
Hyesung: Beautiful, Beom-nim, thank you. See you on the other side of initiation?
Beom: Yes, dear child. See you on the other side.
[Outro music: rhythmic drums, cymbals, and chanting that gradually fade to silence, followed by what sounds like white noise or unintelligible whispers]
Transcription Note #2: Some strange audio phenomena in this one. It's in the raw video footage too, which also seems to be missing some frames at the end? Beom speaks her last line and just disappears from the recording booth. Maybe check the equipment... probably busted again.
Theo Moon is a queer, transmasc, polygender, mixed-race human of Corean and white German settler descent, born and raised on the unceded lands of the Chetco and Tolowa peoples along the southern Oregon coast. Theo currently lives in Seattle on the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish and Duwamish, where they work as a writer, software engineer, and tender-of-grief for all the tiny gods within and around us. Most recently, they have entered an apprenticeship with an elder mudang toward initiation into the closed tradition of Corean shamanic priesthood. They are also deeply honored to be a founding member of House of Kilig, a Trans+Queer diaspora-centered collective curated by Artistic Director and Visionary Moonyeka (@houseofkilig).
sam 정우 (he/him) is a queer & transmasc, 1.5 generation Corean immigrant and artist currently living as an uninvited settler on the ancestral homelands of the Cowlitz and Multnomah peoples. he creates art as a way to build spaces for deeper connection in his unfurling as a diasporic trans human with fellow diasporic trans humans and to feel more Alive in his body in a world that constantly tries to keep us desensitized and numb. he is also deeply grateful to be a founding member of House of Kilig, a Trans+Queer diaspora-centered collective curated by Artistic Director and Visionary Moonyeka (@houseofkilig). you can find him and more of his art @sam.doodles.