I’ve been inspired recently to share some posts about the magic of certain, special places in the world.
My recent trip to Asia reminded me of my visit to Jeju Island years ago. And I’ve been inspired to start my string of location-based posts with this unique, wild place…
The first time I went to Jeju Island, it was when I was living in Seoul, Korea teaching English. I went to the island with my boyfriend to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and we stayed there with an old friend of my mother’s, named Soonja.
As soon as we were greeted by her at the airport, I was struck by her serene air. I felt she was a magical woman, and I thought to myself how I’d like to be like her when I get older.
She wore “natural” looking clothing, with earthy colors that I admired. I later learned it was a traditional Jeju style of naturally dyed clothing called “galot”. Soonja is a fashion designer with her own line of galot clothing, and she uses this traditional technique of dying clothes using plants- mainly unripe persimmons. Many Buddhist monks were her customers, and she had many interesting friends- including other artists like herself.
She met my mother in New York, where she’d lived for many years before returning to her hometown Jeju permanently. She expressed how much better she felt after going back to Jeju. “I believe that where we live has a strong influence on us”, she’d said.
She shared that when she lived in New York, she experienced a lot of mental anxiety and hardship. She was even diagnosed with a brain tumor, and claims that when she returned to her hometown Jeju, the tumor miraculously went away. I could hardly believe the story, though I found it curious, Could that be possible, I wondered? I still wonder about it today.
And at the time, I thought it was also a curious idea that places (and our personal relationship to them) can have such an effect on the conditions of our lives-but I wasn’t sure if I agreed. Now, after having had more of my own experiences.. I think she may be right.
Have you ever heard of Jeju Island?
It is a large, semi-tropical volcanic island located off the mainland of Korea, and it is truly a place unique to the rest of Korea, as well as lots of other places in the world.
The Land of Three:
Jeju is sometimes referred to as “Samdado Island”, which means “Three Many”. This wild land is known for having an abundance of three things: Stones, Wind and Women.
And it is also known as the land of “Sammu”, which means three things lacking. They lack thieves, gates and beggars. Being a society that has helped each other out communally, there was little need to steal, beg, or put up protective gates.
We see the theme of the number three again in the origin myth of Jeju. According to their story, three divine men emerged from a hole in the ground and founded society on the island.
The number three has much esoteric significance to it. It represents the trinity- mind/body/spirit, conscious/ subconscious/superconscious…we could go on and on. It is also a goddess number, and includes the trinity of the maiden/mother/crone. It is also said that mermaids love the number three, and love to gather in threes.
Haenyeo- The Sea Women of Jeju:
And speaking of goddesses and mermaids…there are also the Haenyeo- the sea women of Jeju.
In contrast to the rest of Korea (as well as many other patriarchal societies in the world), girls born to a family on this island are considered an asset. They have an expression: “Have a baby girl, and we will throw a pork barbecue party; have a baby boy, and we will kick his ass”.
That is because for centuries, there have been women sea divers in Jeju, who were the valuable breadwinners in their society. Gender roles were even reversed, with the haenyeo going out to work, and then men looking after the children at home.
With very basic equipment and no oxygen tanks, they hold their breath for long periods of time and go into the depths of the water to find shellfish and seaweed from the crevices of the seafloor.
Not only is the job risky, but the work is very strenuous. These tough ladies harvest for hours each day. And they have been known to work even while pregnant. And the work does not stop for them with diving. In the past, many women divers also farmed everyday. Nowadays, you can find them selling their fresh finds at the market.
They have been called the “Amazons of Asia”, and the “Mermaids of Jeju”. And like mermaids, they are known for making “song”. They make cries and whistling sounds when they emerge from the water. This is an old technique of expelling carbon dioxide from the lungs, to let fresh oxygen in. Korean shamans have claimed that this sound is also a call to the spirits for their help and safety. Since their work is so dangerous, they are said to believe that their lives are in the spirits’ hands, and that they are in close connection with them.
The Haenyeo appeal to the goddess of the winds for their safety, so that they may be able to hold their breath under water. Annually, in February, they hold a ritual across Jeju in her honour. It’s also been said that they worship the goddess of the sea.
This current generation of Haenyeo may be the last, as not many modern women of Jeju are interested in this difficult career. Most of the Haenyeo are older women, some as old as in their 90’s. The average age of these modern day Haenyeo is about 60.
They are respected for their work, and celebrated in the community for their anti-Japanese campaign efforts during the colonial period, as well as for their support of preserving ocean life.
Here are some wonderful videos for more about the Haenyeo:
But all this feminine prominence is balanced by another dominant figure in Jeju- that of the “Stone Grandfather”. Carved from volcanic stone, this figure can be seen all over Jeju. He is seen as a bringer of protection and fertility. And I’d never noticed it until recently, but he is rather shaped like a phallic symbol! It is believed that if you touch his nose, your next child will be a boy. If you touch his ears, the child will be a girl. There is also speculation that he may be linked to a magic mushroom shamanic culture.
So that’s Jeju Island! What other places do you believe have magical significance? I’d love to hear about them. I’d even love to feature some guest posts on them, so don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you’d be interested!