The Folktale of Bari-degi (바리데기)

Reading the Bari-degi story by the mudang Park Kyongjae (Gyeonggi Province) brought forth a sense of honor and vulnerability because of my own uncertainty with how to read the material. The poem was orated in the 1930s by Park and translated in 1996 from Korean to English. Two lines of thought: 1) whether there are other recorded variations or oral histories of this story in English and 2) that additional sociological research is needed to understand the historical context for a proper gender analysis. 

The root story is the myth of the first mudang, the originating God and shaman figure of folk religion (“muism”) in Korea, often dressed up as and invoked in ritual. An avatar, a performance, carried over generations, Bari-degi offers the transmission of feminist values as an anti-authoritarian practice. The story is one of hybridity, the mudang itself being a figure of ethnic identity shaped by Chinese and Inner Asian mythologies as well as those indigenous to the peninsula. The mudang marks also somewhat of an epistemological split; like Buddha, she denounces her right to the Palace to walk a spiritual path (Bari-degi repeatedly chants, “Homage to buddha amitabha” in her travels between worlds), albeit with a uniquely gendered politic about family redemption. 

 Much, however, is still unknown. The more I read the story, the less my initial interpretative narrative– Bari as an empowered legend– holds ground. For instance, why did the macrostructure of the story require a marriage metaphor and the delivery of 7 sons – namely, from a Demon who holds the elixir (power) needed by the King – in order for Bari to reclaim the lives of her parents? Is this contract with the Demon a labor of familial love, a “bride price,” or sacrificial weight, of sorts, bonded to a patriarchal logic? Or rather, could the 7 sons be a sort of “clap back” to her parents– ha, fools who only were able to bear mere daughters, look at me now with my seven demonic sons? Somewhat of a “Fuck you,” but one that perpetuates the trauma of birth and self-hatred?

It was, after all, because her parents were so angry that she was born as a girl that she was abandoned at birth from the Palace to begin with. True to the name they gave her, “Pari-dŏgi,” meaning, “the throwaway,” The King and Queen, placed the child in a jade box with a golden turtle lock and cast her away into the sea. When an old woman and old man find and open the jade box, “red ants fill her eyes” and “worms and snakes coil around her waist,” as Sakyamuni Buddha and one of his disciples Maudgalyayana, urge the old couple to raise her out of virtue. They do, and later in her life, the King and Queen grow sick, perhaps from the sin of having abandoned their child, and have the girl sought out. While all the other daughters residing in the Palace refuse the dangerous task of acquiring their medicine (“How can I go where three thousand court ladies cannot go?”) Bari offers herself to the task. “I have no debt to this country,” she says, “But I am grateful to my mother who bore me for ten months. I shall go for my mother’s sake.” With a generous notion of justice, Bari specifically honors her mother’s bodily labor for her existence as reason for her act of filial piety irrespective of how she is treated. Dressed in men’s clothes (coverage as protection), she embarks her journey, but ultimately is found out as a woman. In exchange for the elixir that would save her parents, she must marry the “Peerless Transcendent,” a gatekeeper of the Underworld and bear with him seven sons and bring them back to the mortal world. Spending years fulfilling this hellish duty, Bari complies. Then, after revitalizing the King and Queen, she is bestowed Palace gifts which she ultimately refuses (“Had I once held the kingdom, I’d now desire it”) and instead, becomes a spiritual leader between worlds. 

To think this narrative was originally performed with anti-Buddhist, anti-Confucian sensibility makes me wonder how it would be situated in a subversive political context. I see the version I read as a legend evolved and shaped by time. While tragic, the narrative is also cathartic. Bari’s suffering and the abusive treatment she experienced resonates with the history of sexual labor of women throughout modernity, from migrant women labor and Korean war brides as first-generation immigrants to the sexual slavery of young, impoverished girls during colonialism and war. What’s damaging is that the culture of seeing sexual labor as somewhat of a necessary service for the greater good (such as during war or marriage) or sexual violence as an inevitable risk in the pursuit for change continues to be ingrained in the cultural psyche as a pervasive trope. It is wrong, it is unjust, and as Bari’s story shows, wildly grotesque. We should not be saddened and fall for this trick, of sympathy or helplessness, but rather be critical and enraged by how the story is told.

What’s interesting in the Bari-degi story is that it’s remarkable as one of transformation and the development of a spiritual ethos separate from her family. The epistemological break has to do with the metaphysics of the world and what makes it move. That is why Bari can bend its logic, journeying through the phantasmagoric space of male ego and projections, shifting its system of values. The story ends with Bari’s repeated chants and the birth of seven half-human, half-demon children and reign over the realm of Death. This space is one of sickness, old age, desperation, suffering, and poverty. The mudang’s fate is never as much a glorious one as a tragic one of responsibility. 

Still, the way I choose to read the situation is this. No amount of honor can go toward those who have seen Hell, healed from it, and can save others from that range of human experience than such beyond-human figures deserving of memorialization. That is why Bari is so remarkable. No one was able to do what she had done. No one can see what she has seen. And no one can protect what only she knows must be protected. Perhaps even the King and Queen, who only wanted their own lives to be saved, never came to understand the system of values Bari was carrying. So, she is a God, a spinstress of metaphysics who needs no regard, but shifts the world you are living as you are living it. Society needs more role models and visions for the true range of compassion, empathy, and strength that a human can have. Have you felt this type of love? Been so convicted in the integrity of your truth that you can absorb the vitriol, judgment, and shame others project onto you, and instead transform it into a vision for peace they can find in themselves? That is the power of being in the presence of a deity. It inspires, it is beyond human ego, what the carnal, mortal body bound by its own illnesses cannot see unless themselves upon which a light shines. 

While Somu’s story is one of human agency, optimism, and the manifestation of creative possibility, Bari’s story is one that establishes the weight of cultural memory. Mago, on the other hand, is a story of even greater beyond-human drive— sheer rage, dynamic flux, and capacity for destruction, violent synthesis, and regeneration. Bari reaches the depths of Mago’s cosmological wavelength when she is drowning at sea. That contact with Mago is where she acquires her powers and unique abilities that make her into a warrior. Somu, is also a character who, like Bari, follows a spiritual path from an encounter with Mago, later in dialogue with Bari’s spirit in her navigation of modern conflicts in the central narrative of my story.