Korea has a long and ancient history and many of their customs and traditions go back a long way into the past. The twelve animal deities, called Sibijisin, who make up the Korean zodiac that we see today once played a much more active role in the daily lives of Koreans.
Korea is land built through ages of time on multiple beliefs and traditions. Many of these came from China, but some of the oldest probably came from Mongolia. Animism is the belief that all natural objects are inhabited by individual spirits. This can be seen in modern stories and movies from all over the world as tree ‘sprites’, ‘nymphs’ etc. In Korea even the mountains have spirits, strong spirits which made them holy or even gods. Shamanism also believes in a world of spirits and supernatural beings. With these two ancient beliefs it is easy to see why people felt the need for help against the world around them. To ask for help from your ancestors and the powerful spirits such as those found in mountains would be a natural thing to do. Shamans acted as a messenger to and from the gods trying to ensure that bad luck did not fall on the people.
But more familiar help was needed and the Sibijisin, or guardian animals seem to have fulfilled that purpose. These 12 animals are the same ones that make up the Korean ‘zodiac’. They are rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. These were originally strong representations of each animal, animals able to guard Royal Tombs as well villager’s homes, not the cutesy ones represented nowadays.
Each animal had traits and characteristics that would help them guard even in the darkest times of the night. The rat for example is quick witted and resourceful, while the ox is diligent and steadfast, the sheep has great tenacity and is slow to anger, while the monkey is intelligent and crafty.
Each day was divided up into 12 two hour periods of time, and each guardian animal was meant to watch over their block of time. So the rat/mouse would be on watch from 11pm until 1 am etc. So not only did they determine your horoscope the Sibijisin also were near you in your everyday life.
Sometimes in Korean and Chinese historical dramas you can hear characters use this old system. (For official time keeping such as that used by officials a more accurate method was used.)
But at some point their everyday importance diminished and now it is almost impossible to find out more about them. But once a year at New Year’s the same stories of their creation are brought forth. The first is that Buddha invited all the animals in the world to come and visit him, but only 12 showed up. He decided to honor them by placing them in the zodiac in the order in which they arrived.
The other popular story is that the 12 animals challenged each other to a race across a river. The Ox would have won, but secretly the rat had climbed up on his head, and just as the Ox was about to reach the other side the rat leaped to shore first thereby winning. But neither of these stories explain why or really how they became guardian or zodiac figures. The Buddha one comes closest to an answer, but why aren’t these animals in the Indian zodiac in that case? I think there’s something missing to their story. House guardians must have played an integral part of people’s lives. If anyone knows more, please feel free to comment below.
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All photo credits to original owners. Featured image National Museum of Korea, as is last image. Shaman photo by 대한민국 정부 문화체육관광부 문화재청 – 대한민국 정부 문화체육관광부 문화재청, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37068271 Ram photo E Marzec. All others Pinterest.
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