Have you ever noticed how food plays a crucial role in many tales, legends, and folklore? For example, take the apple. It's featured in some very familiar stories, even though it's earned a lousy wrap, especially with all that forbidden fruit drama and its poisoning Snow White. With all that aside, food has also played some notably righteous roles in myths and legends, especially in Korea's very own foundation and creation story. And this brings us to the two magical food characters of this post: garlic and mugwort. Mug-what? Mugwort, native to Asia and Europe, is a tall, green, thin bush-like plant that can reach 6 feet (180 cm) in height and is a daisy family member. According to legend, all Koreans can trace their origins to these two ingredients' influential role in their creation. 


The Origin of Korea's National Foundation Day

October 3rd is Korea's National Foundation Day, known as 'Gae-Cheon-Jeol,' which South Korea and the North recognize. It commemorates the legend of a heavenly prince who came down to earth and transformed a bear into a beautiful woman by feeding it garlic and mugwort. This bear-woman would later become the prince's wife, and this legendary couple would give birth to a boy named Dangun, who would become the founder of Korea's first kingdom 'Gojoseon.' 

Do Koreans seriously think the legitimate child of a heavenly-prince and a garlic and mugwort eating bear-woman created Korea? We know it's farfetched, so 'bear with us,' as we unfold this mythological tale that doubles as Korea's first K-drama, and quite possibly is the inspiration behind K-beauty's eccentric product ingredients.

Once upon a time, there was a heavenly sky prince named Hwanung who was the son of Hwanin, the "Lord of Heaven." And for Hwanung, sitting around all day playing divine royalty was becoming quite dull. Instead, he wanted to come down and live out heaven on earth, especially by its valleys and mountains. After many back-and-forth spats with his dad (the king of heaven), Hwanung was finally allowed to depart with 3,000 of his followers (quite an entourage). They all descended from heaven onto a sandalwood tree on Baekdu Mountain, near the northeast border between China and North Korea.

Hwanung descends from heaven to Baekdu Mountain on Earth (illustrations by Korean language learning platform Eggbun Education)

Nearby the sandalwood tree, inside a cave, lived a bear and tiger who would come to the tree every day to worship Hwanung and pray to become transformed into humans. One day, Hwanung gave the bear and tiger 20 bulbs of garlic and some divine mugwort. Hwanung promised that if they ate only his garlic and mugwort and stayed inside the cave and avoided sunlight for 100 days, he would transform them into humans. Side note, this proposition may have also been the first "extreme makeover" challenge in Korean mythological history.

Hwanung sets the extreme makeover challenge 

Ungnyeo, the Bear-woman who became the world's first K-Beauty

The tiger and the bear agreed and went back to the cave, but after 20 days, the tiger started feeling extreme hunger pangs, grew impatient, and bailed out of the challenge. But the bear had remained faithful, so on the 21st day, Hwanung transformed the bear into a gorgeous woman. She took on the name Ungnyeo (Ungh-nyŏ), which fittingly means ‘bear-woman’ and then gratefully honored Hwanung with gifts and offerings. As time passed, Ungnyeo grew depressed and lonely and often prayed that she might have a child one day. Her loneliness so profoundly moved Hwanung that he decided to marry her. Soon after, the couple gave birth to their son, Dangun, who would eventually create the kingdom of Gojoseon, or virtually the first nation of Korea.

The bear stays committed to the challenge and is transformed into a beautiful woman named Ungnyeo

Hwanung and Ungnyeo marry and give birth to Dangun, who goes on to become the founder and creator of Korea

But why did the bear have to eat garlic and mugwort?

Let's unpack this myth for a moment and make some fascinating connections between Eastern and Western mythology, with some modern-day science facts and tidbits.

Garlic, when you think about it, has also been featured in Western tales as a mysterious herb. For instance, in Dracula's legend, garlic was used to drive out bad non-human energy, making vampires deathly allergic to it. In this Korean tale, a bear, or animal, needed the power to become human, so if we borrow this notion of garlic in Western Dracula folklore and connect it to Korean mythology. Then the bear had to eat garlic to purge its animalistic and non-human qualities. Another mythological theme often associated with garlic is that it is a source of life energy and power. Side note, Hwanung thought of garlic as a symbol of masculine power and fertility since it resembled a testicle (his observation, not ours).

Similar Korean garlic and mugwort ideas & themes in other myths and legends (Dracula and the Goddess Artemis)

Coincidentally, the ancient Greeks were on the same wavelength and even considered garlic an aphrodisiac. What's even more impressive is this ancient knowledge is ringing true today. According to a study by researchers at the University of Stirling and Prague's Charles University, eating garlic makes men smell better to women (yes, we're just as surprised as you are to learn that).

In this story, mugwort had magical properties of purification and feminization. And interestingly enough, both the East and West share this idea of its feminine qualities. Just look no further than mugwort's official scientific name, "Artemisia," named after Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the moon, who is associated with childbirth and nature. Also, the origin of the name Artemis is speculated to be related to the Greek word for bear (árktos)! And if that's not an odd enough coincidence, consuming mugwort has been shown in studies to influence, regulate, and affect the female fertility cycle (cue eerie music). 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, explains the significance of garlic and mugwort regarding October 3rd or Korea's 'National Foundation Day.' It's believed that this was when Gojoseon (the first Korean nation) was founded by Dangun in 2333 BC, making him the celebrated founder of ancient Korea.

Special Offers Inspired by the Legend 

We hope you enjoyed this Kmall24 story, and in celebration of the myths and legends that connect us, as well as the role of garlic and mugwort played in Korea's National Foundation Day. We wanted to share this Ungnyeo-inspired special promotions and discounts that feature garlic and mugwort based ingredients for beauty & health.


Further Reading:

Image Source / Credit: