Keeping the dead in their place

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Keeping the dead in their place

The essence of Korean philosophy is the taegeuk, the spiraling duality that anchors the nation's flag. In Korea, there are two sides to everything: yang and eum, light and dark. So with reverence to ancestors.

Korean culture is famous for it. Much care is taken with tombs. Departed kin are treated with such respect that some Christian missionaries viewed it as idolatry.

Now for the rest of the story. Let's visit a royal tomb -- say, Seolleung, in Gangnam -- and examine the dark side.

As we approach, note the path to the tomb bends 90 degrees. Jeongneung, nearby, has a straight path; but it ends in the middle of a grassy lawn.

Why? Because evil spirits are stupid. They travel in straight lines. They come to a bend and think the path has ended. They are blocked from proceeding into the world.

Now walk to the rear of the shrine house. From the rear a small stone bridge leads toward the tomb mound. No mortal can reach it: This is the spirit bridge. It lets the ghost in the tomb join the ceremonies. And, potentially, walk down the spirit path.

Something coming from the tomb here is feared by the living. A benevolent ancestor can help his surviving family. A malevolent ancestor can do harm. And not all families are happy. Remember Oedipus. Much apparent reverence may be placation.

To the right, near the base of the mound, note a tablet house, with a stele praising the accomplishments of the ancestor, supported by a stone turtle.

These are two blocks. How is the heavy stone tablet raised on the turtle's back?

First, carve the turtle. Then bury it. Erect the stele; and clear the earth away.

Clever engineering; but the operation is also symbolic. The turtle, buried and risen, with his immortal shell, is an image of essence that survives death: the soul, shouldering the deeds of its life.

And, it is said, the turtle is not there to support the stele. The stele is there to hold the turtle fast. We don't want souls wandering. The turtle is reminded its life is done and fixed in stone.

On the tomb mound, note four guardian figures. Two are military, swords bared; two are scholars. They are supposedly courtiers, honoring the dead. But at court, civil courtiers stand to one side, military to the other. Here the swordsmen straddle the tomb, facing inward. Their swords point down, toward what is below. Whom are they guarding? From what?

Ghosts. To ancient Koreans, as to the Greeks and the Egyptians, man had several souls. One passes into the afterlife. One stays with the name tablet. One stays with the body; the animal soul.

This ghost lacks reason and the finer emotions. It is all instinct and desire. It is easily tricked, and easily angered. A king's soul is especially feared. A king's desires are great, and he expects them satisfied.

In China, orifices were sealed with jade; some corpses were sheathed in jade. Jade seals in this reptilian spirit, as lead blocks radioactivity.

Money and gifts are burned for the ghost. Reverence? Or bribe? The money is fake, Monopoly money. It seems a trick, to mollify childlike greed.

Now note the stone table, the sangsok, before the tomb mound. It has no known use; sacrifices are in the spirit house below. What is it for?

Perhaps human sacrifice. The supports are carved human heads. Perhaps the heads of victims; tricking the ghost into believing that others are beheaded in his honor. Evidence from Gaya suggests that servants were once buried alive with their masters.

All this is speculation. Nobody knows. Or perhaps it's safer not to think about it. To name a ghost is to summon it: Speak only good of the dead.

To visit Seolleung, take subway line No. 2 to Seolleung Station. Walk north.

by Stephen K. Roney

Steve Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada.
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