Have you ever ducked underwater in the bathtub or swimming pool and timed yourself? How many seconds could you stay underwater? 6 seconds? 10 seconds? Perhaps even 20 seconds? Off Jeju Island in Korea, women divers – known as Haenyos – have dived for centuries. These Korean divers can hold their breath for several minutes and dive to 65 feet deep.
Korean Mermaids Facts For Kids
- “Haenyeo” refers to female divers of Jeju Island.
- Haenyeo harvest seafood without diving gear.
- Known for deep breath-holding skills.
- Tradition dates back to 434 A.D.
- “Jacheongbi” is a mermaid-like folklore figure.
- Jacheongbi falls in love with human men.
- Haenyeo’s culture is a UNESCO heritage.
- Haenyeo are symbols of Jeju’s matriarchy.
- They dive for abalone, seaweed, and shellfish.
- Haenyeo traditions pass down generations.
Note: Some of these facts concern the Haenyeo, who are real women and not mermaids. It’s important to differentiate between the folklore of mermaid-like beings and the cultural history of the Haenyeo.
Haenyeo (female divers)
Known as Haenyeo or ‘sea women’, these real-life mermaids of South Korea have a unique lifestyle involving deep sea diving without any breathing equipment to hunt for seafood and pearls, a tradition they’ve maintained for centuries.
Their exceptional diving skills enable them to hold their breath for over two minutes and dive nearly equivalent to a seven-story building, up to 20 meters deep. While they may not possess the fish tails like the mermaids in fairy tales, their deep-sea connection and extraordinary diving capabilities have not only earned them the nickname ‘mermaids of Korea’, but also a prestigious UNESCO cultural heritage status.
Jeju Island traditions
A distinctive tradition on Jeju Island revolves around the Haenyeo, or ‘sea women’, often dubbed as Korean mermaids, who are a very real and integral part of the island’s culture. These formidable women have been diving into the ocean for centuries, gathering seafood, holding their breath for over two minutes, and reaching depths of up to 20 meters, demonstrating seemingly superhuman skills.
Recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Haenyeo tradition serves as a potent symbol of the island’s matriarchal family structure and underscores the significant contribution of women to Korean society.
Korean folklore and mythology
In Korean folklore and mythology, mermaids, referred to as ‘Ineo’, are depicted as benevolent beings, embodying gentleness and kindness. They are endowed with the remarkable ability to morph their fish-like tails into the legs of beautiful women.
A renowned narrative within this context is the tale of Princess Hwangok of the underwater kingdom of Naranda. She wedded a king, establishing the Gimhae Kim clan. The Ineo are also celebrated for their magical tears, which are believed to crystallize into valuable pearls.
This depiction significantly contrasts with certain Western interpretations of mermaids that often portray them as sinister characters. In the Korean context, mermaids frequently assist humans, serving as symbols of peace and prosperity.
Muljil (underwater harvest)
Korean mermaids, colloquially referred to as ‘mermaids of the East Sea,’ are intimately linked to the age-old tradition of Muljil, which is essentially an underwater harvest. These mermaids are attributed with phenomenal diving abilities, enabling them to remain submerged for extended durations to assist in gathering seaweeds, shellfish, and other hidden treasures of the sea.
Unlike their Western counterparts, who are typically depicted as half-human, half-fish beings, Korean mermaids bear a closer resemblance to humans, distinguished only by their exceptional swimming prowess. Immortalized in Korean folklore, tales abound of these mermaids aiding fishermen in their underwater harvest, thereby contributing to the success and abundance of the Muljil event.
For children, these narratives not only offer captivating adventures but also exemplify the spirit of collaboration between humans and magical sea beings.
Korean shamanistic beliefs
In the realm of Korean shamanistic lore, ‘Ingyeo’ is the term used to describe mermaids, mystical entities that embody a fusion of human and fish characteristics. Renowned for their captivating voices, these beings are capable of bewitching anyone who is within earshot. The Ingyeo, widely associated with the sea, are credited with the power of prescience.
They are perceived as kind spirits, bestowing good fortune upon those fortunate enough to cross their paths. Intriguingly, Korean mythology holds that the tears shed by these mermaids solidify into precious pearls. These semi-aquatic creatures hold a significant place in the folklore of Korea, frequently appearing in tales and rituals tied to the sea and fishing communities.
Mago (ancient goddess of East Asia)
Korean mythology offers intriguing narratives about mermaids, known as ‘Ingyeo’, which significantly differ from their Western counterparts. Ingyeos are closely associated with Mago, the ancient East Asian goddess, who is believed to have fashioned the world and mothered the first two Ingyeos.
These Korean mermaids possess exceptional healing powers and are frequently portrayed as compassionate beings. They symbolize fertility and life, reflecting the nurturing attributes of Mago. Thus, in Korean folklore, mermaids transcend the realm of mythical sea creatures and embody potent symbols of creation and restoration.
Korean folk tales and legends
Ineo Gongsu, the Korean mermaids, hold a vital role in the nation’s folklore, inspiring awe and admiration in children across multiple generations. These mystical sea-dwellers, unlike their Western counterparts, are celebrated not for their beauty, but their remarkable wisdom and enchanting powers.
As the purported protectors of the ocean, they are ascribed with the ability to command sea life and manipulate maritime elements. Their benevolence is highlighted in a popular narrative where a mermaid rescues a stranded fisherman, reinforcing their role as guardians. In teaching the virtues of kindness, courage, and environmental respect, these Ineo Gongsu tales serve as an educational tool for young minds.
Jacheongbi (a type of mermaid in Korean tales)
In Korean mythology, the depiction of mermaids, known as Jacheongbi, significantly differs from the traditional Western portrayal. Rather than being half-human, half-fish creatures, they are illustrated as entirely human-like beings with the capability to alter their form between human and mermaid, living beneath the water.
The Jacheongbi are renowned not only for their radiant beauty but also for their benevolence towards humans. They hold an esteemed place in Korean culture due to their power to bestow good fortune and wealth. Additionally, they are often the central figures in many Korean folk narratives, which frequently recount the passionate, yet tragic love affairs between these mermaids and human males.
Traditional Korean aquatic life
In traditional Korean folklore, the mermaids, also known as ‘Ineo’, symbolize the distinctive marine life of Korea and play a significant role in its cultural narratives. Unlike the Western depiction, Korean mermaids are perceived as the spirits of women who tragically lost their lives at sea, combining elements of beauty, kindness, and generosity. They are revered for their alleged power to grant wishes and heal illnesses.
The belief extends to their transformation into sea foam or bubbles upon passing away, adding a unique layer to Korea’s traditional beliefs around life after death. These enchanting mermaid stories not only animate the rich variety of Korea’s marine life, given its extensive coastline and numerous islands, but also instill a deep sense of appreciation for the sea and its mystical inhabitants among Korean children.
Cultural symbols in Korea
Ineo Gongju, also known as Korean mermaids, are powerful cultural symbols in Korea, often depicted as benevolent beings that guide fishermen to plentiful fishing grounds, contrasting with Western mermaid interpretations. These mythical creatures find prominence not just in Korean folktales, but also in local traditions and customs.
For example, the Jindo Sea Parting Festival annually commemorates a popular legend of a mermaid using her magical powers to part the sea, aiding villagers in escaping a tiger, thus highlighting her empathy for humans. These Korean mermaids symbolize prosperity, good fortune, and the harmony between humans and nature, serving as a tool to educate children about kindness and respect for all life forms.
The women divers of Jeju head to the sea early in the morning and dive for five to six hours every day. They search for octopus, sea urchins, seaweed and abalone – delicacies in Asian food markets. The divers’ work is dangerous and tiring. Their ears often pop because of the pressure under the water and their muscles hurt at the end of the day. If the water becomes rough, the divers may drown. Sharks lurk nearby.
Diving is a dying art in Korea. Most of the divers are between 50 and 70 years old. Younger women have opportunities for other jobs. They can go to the mainland and study at a university. They can go into business or become doctors or teachers. Jeju has become a popular tourist attraction. Young women can get a job in the tourist industry. It’s good that women can choose what they want to do, but it’s also sad that the Korean tradition of diving is disappearing.
Fun Facts About Korean Mermaids
- The divers take nets and floating coolers to hold their catch until they can return to land or a boat.
- Divers wear weights to help them sink. They also wear masks and fins.
- Girls started diving when they were as young as 10 or 12.
- The women divers work all day and then do farm chores in the evening.
- Many divers work together. They meet during the day for lunch and to chat. They share the money they earn selling fish. Some have even opened restaurants together.
- The Haenyo divers were active opponents of the Japanese occupation. They’ve also fought hard to conserve the sea’s resources. A special memorial and museum honors them.
Korean Mermaids Vocabulary
- Sea urchin: a spiny fish
- Delicacy: a food considered delicious and special
- University: college
- Tourist: someone visiting from another place
All About Korean Mermaids Video for Kids
Here’s the best kids Haenyos video you can watch right now to learn more about Korean Mermaids
Korean Mermaids Q&A
Question: Do the divers earn a good living diving?
Answer: Until recently, women had few choices when it came to earning a living. The divers earned enough money to buy simple houses and send their children to school – something other women in Korea could not do.