Haenyo ("sea women") of Jeju Island, Korea

Far down at the South Western tip of the Korean Peninsula, little known to the outside world, lies the Island of Jeju. It abounds with countless myths and shamanic epics, with 18,000 gods and goddesses and 346 shrines, where 68% of which are for worshiping goddesses. When one understands the hardship of a Jeju woman’s life, one begins to understand the presence of the countless Jeju myths and goddesses.

Jeju is famous for its “three abundant entities” (samda) - women, wind and rocks. Being a volcanic island, it is covered with rocks above and below the ground, producing extremely dry land. Exposed to the sea on all sides, the island is often shaken and washed by strong winds and storms. Life on the island - the human habitat, the vegetation and economic activities- has been a struggle against the wind. Jeju men who went out to sea for fishing were often drowned, which resulted in an abundance of women and a shortage of men on the island until recently [1]. In sum, the famous “three abundances” of the Island meant that it is women who had to bear the burden of life and cope with the harshness of the environment in the near absence of men. The symbolic representation of such Jeju women is “sea women” or “women divers” (Haenyo), who dive into the sea everyday not knowing if they will come out alive. They are referred to as the women who travel between “this land” and “that land” (the land of death).

The patron goddess of the women divers is the giant goddess called Seolmundae Halmang (grandmother). According to Jeju creation myth, it is Seolmundae Grandmother who created the island. The creation myth has five stories, which tell how the Island was created. These are about the geography of the island, how the goddess tried to connect the island with the mainland, and how she coped with the famine on the island. The struggle of the giant goddess and the largeness of her spirit and courage are rather similar to those of Haenyo.

In present Jeju, caught in a fast pace of modernization and the development of tourism, the population of women divers is rapidly disappearing, as well as the image of the giant goddess. In 2012, only 4702 divers remained, and 90% of them were over 50 years old. In 1969 (almost 50 years ago) there were 20,832 divers. Along with the population of divers, their culture and value systems are also disappearing, quite different from those of the mainland (peninsula). Haenyo culture is an egalitarian and women centred social organization, with a human-nature symbiosis model. It is a great surprise to discover the existence of such a small pocket of an alien culture with a female creation myth and women centred society in Korea, which is deeply entrenched in Confucian ideology and known as a staunch patriarchal society.

It is not surprising, then, that the proponents of the conservation of Jeju culture and identity are alarmed by the present situation. Jeju Stone Park (with a 300 ha of land) has been constructed to commemorate the Seolmundae Halmang creation myth and to remind the younger generation of their female ancestors. Many monuments such as Haenyo Museum and Haenyo Summer School are being built and Haenyo songs are being recorded and archived at the university [2]. Folklorization of Haenyo culture is on the increase. Many books have been published documenting Haenyo’s life. However, all of these records are collections of data with little analysis and they are mostly in the Korean language. Therefore I feel that it is urgent to let the world know of this intangible heritage of women divers of Jeju which is being lost.

The dream of Jeju people is to connect with the outside world directly without the intermediary of the mainland, their position having been always on the periphery and not at the centre. This dream is captured in the slogan hanging at the airport and on the way out from the airport to the city: “The World comes to Jeju, Jeju goes to the World”. Jeju has been named a Special Self-Governing Province since 1946. And with the booming tourism industry, the world is now coming to Jeju. However, as the Jeju born anthropologist Chun (2010) [3] points out, money alone cannot give Jeju the autonomy desired and the recognition of the world. It is important for Jeju people to know (to be able to tell others and themselves) who they are and what their roots are. For that purpose, a database on Jeju is needed to communicate to the world who the Jeju people are (research results should be published in English) [4].

Haenyo and their patron goddess (Seolmundae Halmang) are central symbols of Jeju Island identity. An English publication on Haenyo would be a major contribution to the Jeju people’s dream as well as a way of keeping a record for the world of the disappearing and intangible cultural heritage of the island of Jeju.

In order to produce a manuscript on Jeju Haenyo and their patron goddess - Sulmundae Halmang (Jeju creation myth) (to be published in English and French), I have stated a literature survey (almost all in Korean), an analysis and synthesis in preparing the summer program lectures I have been delivering at Jeju National University since 2011. A three month fieldwork program has been conducted, in a selected divers’ village to verify and confirm the information obtained through the literature analysis.

This fieldwork will have a value of its own, by providing some comparison with my earlier research on the matrilineal Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia. The Minangkabau has attracted much attention from anthropologists due to its matrilineal culture. A popular interpretation of the Minangkabau among anthropologists is “women dominance” in this society. I present a different interpretation in my thesis and a subsequent publication (2006), i.e., neither women nor men are dominant or power is equally shared but genealogies have matrilineal aspects. Jeju has similar features to the Minangkabau. Some Jeju people even call the island a “matrilineal” society. However, no formal analysis has been done prior to this proposal.

Ok-kyung Pak, Ph.D in anthropology, Research Associate, Centre for East Asian Studies, University of Montreal, Quebec, Canada


[1In 1935, the sex ratio of Jeju population was 10:6::W:M. In 2013, the ratio is 1:1.

[2www.jst.re.kr. (Jejustudies Archives, Digital Archive), in Korean language.

[3See the reference in footnote 2.

[4In order to create a database, Jeju has developed many research institutes, such as Tamla Cultrue Research Institute, Jeju Island
Studies, Jeju Development Research Institute, Jeju Studies Institute, Jeju 4.3 Study Institute. Each of them has its own journal publishing on ancient and modern Jeju history, mythology, shamanic epics and rituals, women’s history, women divers and their culture, island ecology, etc…