Animal Symbolism in South Korea

By Brianna Giles

Throughout many countries from the dawn of time, animals have been seen as omens, good or bad. Each culture has their own unique description and beliefs for what an animal symbolizes. For example, in U.S. or European culture, black cats are considered bad luck. But in Egyptian culture, cats (black cats included) are considered good luck, and are held to royal standards. In Korean culture, there are many animals that represent the good and bad, ranging from insects to mammals and mythological creatures. Here are just a few of those animals that happen to be important to Korean culture.

  • Bats

Bats represent good fortune, despite many people being frightened by these winged creatures. They became symbols for good luck because the Chinese ideogram for "bat" is pronounced the same as the Korean ideogram for "good fortune." Bats have since been used for embroidery on fabrics, such as pillows, and even put into Korean palaces. As it was believed they were supposed to live up to 1,000 years, bats also represent longevity.

  • Butterflies

Butterflies are symbols of pleasure, a life of prosperity, and joy. In traditional Korean art, butterflies are often seen with flowers. When shown together, they have a slightly different meaning. Together, they represent a state of contentment and prosperity. They also symbolize harmony among a husband and wife and the entire family. The peony and butterflies are often the focal point for many designs ranging from lockets, hair pins, and even funeral biers. 

  • Tigers

Tigers are depicted throughout Korean culture, especially in folklore and paintings. Tigers represent resilience, strength, and wisdom. They also offer protection as guardians from evil spirits and bad luck. Tigers can be found throughout paintings, sculptures, clothing items, and even jewelry. 

  • Red-Crested White Cranes

Red-crested white cranes are considered holy and spiritual. It was believed that people who lived their lives full of great solitude would become cranes when they passed away. They can also be found in clothing, architecture, and many other objects.  

  • Turtles

Turtles are considered to be the ruler over all insects because dragons rule over all animals. Since they live longer than other animals, longevity is associated with them along with knowledge of the future. Three thousand years ago, it was once believed that turtles could predict the future because often times, their shells would aid in seeing the future. Because of this, turtles can be seen throughout Buddhist Temples and monuments.   

  • Roosters

Roosters symbolize intelligence, patience, trust, and bravery. They are considered good omens in Korean culture. It also has been said that when they crow, evil spirits vanish. They can be found on historic buildings and paintings. During the year of the rooster of  Lunar New Year, roosters can be found on a variety of things throughout South Korea that celebrate this particular animal.  

  • Dragons

Korean mythology states that dragons were born from a mating ritual between a phoenix and a crane. This lead to the dragon to become a creature who harnessed mythical power and intelligence. Dragons ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. They can be found on paintings hanging on the walls of homes, on historic buildings, statues, and more. 

  • Haetae

Another Korean mythical creature is the haetae, a creature similar to that of the Chinese culture known as xiezhi.  Haetae are known to have very distinct characteristics from different animals that are easy to identify. These characteristics come from a lion, a sheep, and a unicorn. These creatures also possess scales and feathers on their bodies and can even have a horn or two. This creature is believed to protect against fire. Statues of the haetae are put in front of buildings that are made of wood or important buildings such as Gwanghwamun Plaza. Some people will put these statues in front of their homes seeking protection by the mythical creature.

These unique-looking creatures have also become popular images for tattoos to both Korean and non-Korean individuals!

Animals are a big part of different cultures and will continue to be years from now. Now that you have read about eight different animals who represent an attribute in Korean culture, read and discover more animal symbolism throughout Korea. Be encouraged to even look into your own culture for animal symbolism. Let us know in the comments below what animal(s) you discover!

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Written by Brianna Giles

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