Princess Bari (Bari Gongju): From being the abandoned to being a heroin

Antonio J. Doménech del Río, University of Málaga

 

One of the most important and famous myths in the Korean shamanism is the one of Princess Bari (Bari Gongju), also known as the Abandoned Princess. This is the story of the seventh and last child of a king who had no sons. The myth focuses on the life of this shamanic goddess, Princess Bari, who was abandoned at birth by their parents because of her sex, but her journey to the underworld in search of the elixir of life, makes her reborn. After successfully completing her mission, the princess is transformed into a goddess who is able to help the souls of the dead pass from this world to the other. A powerful goddess, who accompanies the spirits of the dead on their journey from this world to the heaven of the afterlife.

Shamanic myth of Princess Bari, recited in the gut dedicated to accompany the spirit of the deceased in their passage to the other world has touched for centuries the hearts of many Korean women, who like Bari, have suffered in their own lives their parents mistakes and have had to sacrifice their lives for the sake of filial piety. This filial piety has been considered for centuries the greatest virtue in Korean society and Princess Bari became an heroin and was installed as an ethical role model to be followed by women. It is an epic poem that presents the figure of Princess Bari as the ideal of Korean women. She embodies the virtues of Confucian female model: devotion, courage, and endurance¹.

In addition, at a level beyond the family boundaries, Princess Bari also became a national hero who saves the king and, therefore, an example of filial piety for the country. She is a woman who is capable to offer her own life for the sake of the king

And there is a third level at which the Princess Bari became a model for women, the religious. She is a woman who despite having been abandoned by their parents is able to sacrifice for them. But is this ability to sacrifice and all the dangers and difficulties that she is forced to undergo what makes her overcome her earthly nature to become the shamanic goddess that accompanies the spirits of the dead. She is recognized for her bravery and capabilities as a woman. The great role that she fulfills as a woman is the key to the story that makes her go beyond human nature to be transformed it into divine². In her divine nature as a model, especially for shaman women, she is considered the first among all mudang and the mother of all.

But the myth of Princess Bari goes beyond simply presenting a model for Korean women to conform to social conventions, it also gives voice to the protests of women in a patriarchal society. Princess Bari takes a critical function within the scatological rituals of Korean shamanism. The shaman song, muga, becomes a commentary and a critic of the prevailing value in Korean society that supports the superiority of men over women. The story of Bari Gongju is relevant both to those in charge of transmitting and dramatizing it, the mudang, and for the audience consisting mainly of women who had to suffer in their own flesh gender discrimination as well.

The creators of this story are able to present n the narrative a protagonist who does not accept the secular world and is able to transcend the offers from this world. Princess Bari is able to look beyond the immediate rewards offered by this world to choose the sacred rewards beyond it, and the rigid Confucian system. She presents a female model that goes beyond the one offered by the Confucian society, where a woman's worth is measured by her role as a virtuous wife, obedient daughter, and caste widow³. But Princess Bari offers a model that goes beyond these limits that are so narrow. She who is abandoned by her parents, lived an exemplary life as an adopted daughter, married without parental permission, heals her parents by choice and filial love, refuses to follow the footsteps of her father in the kingdom and choose her own way, all these are elements that are shown to women that assist to shamanic rites and hear the story, that it is possible to follow another path and make their own decisions, beyond the expectations that the dominant society has on women. She knows how to adapt to the reality in where she have to develop her lives, but without being overwhelmed by it and without giving up her struggle to obtain recognition of her dignity and womanhood.

Footnotes:

1 Seo, Dae-Seok (1999), "The Legend of Princess Paritegi", Koreana 13: 2 (Summer 1999), p. 95.
2 Hong, Tae-Han. (2003), “Hanguk musoksinhwae natanan yeoseong juingongui seonggyeok – Barigongjureul jungsimeuro-” (El carácter de las protagonistas femeninas que aparecen en los mitos chamánicos – centrado en la figura de la Princesa Bari-), en DONGASIAGODAEHAKHOE(ed.), Dongasia Yeoseongsinhwa (Mitos femeninos de Asia Oriental), Seúl: Jimoondang, p. 294.
3 Pettid, Michael J. (2000), “Late-Choseon Society as Reflected in a Shamanistic Narrative: An Analysis of the Pari kongju muga”, Korean Studies 24, p. 122.