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If you have ophidiophobia look away now.
But if you don’t fear these slithering reptiles carry on reading to learn about what type of snakes you can find in Korea, some folklore about snakes, and which snake poses the most risk.
If you believe in the creation story then Snakes have been around since the dawn of creation. Throughout most western cultures Snakes have had a bad rep. Portrayed as cunning and vindictive in the Christian tradition, they’ve symbolized evil since life began. As you already know, all this stemmed from the time when the serpent deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden. Since then in many western cultures some people have grown up thinking snakes are inherently bad.
However, this is not the case in other parts of the world. In other cultures, people venerate snakes. Take for example, Mucalinda, who guarded and protected Buddha during his enlightenment. And In Hindusim snakes symbolize transformation and healing.
In Korea, there is an interesting folklore called, “Gimnyeongsagul.” It’s a good story to see how snakes are viewed in Korean culture.
The author sets the story near a vast cave called Baemgul on the island of Jeju. It’s a thing of legend, but also deep sadness.
Each year the locals had offered a human sacrifice to the snake. The sacrifice was always a fresh-faced maiden. A youthful woman who predominantly came from a lower social standing. This was because the locals perpetually feared for their livelihoods. They knew that missing one sacrificial offering would end in misery for all the villages. The guile, yet imposing snake would slither out and destroy their yearly crop yields one by one, until there was nothing left. This would be bad for everyone. Great famines would ensure, and that meant certain death.
As months passed into years, it became apparent to the educated elites that this deathly ritual was not rational. It had to end. Seo Ryeon, a respected Judge in a local village, felt like it was his duty to stop this senseless slaughter. He devised a plan. The method would involve sweets and a sword. He would strike the serpent with an enormous wallop and crush the serpents head into a pulp.
As Seo Ryeon concocted his elaborate plan he mentally prepared himself for battle. He new it wouldn’t be as easy as walking up to the cave and striking the snakes head off. He had to be smart. He picked his day and prepared his tactics.
Ryeon and his comrades chalked out a way to deceive the blood thirsty snake. They thought long and hard, and finally came up with an idea that they thought might just work.
So the date was set. And during a hot summers day the wheels began moving. Their plan went like this. First they would drape Korean delicacies across the opening of the cave. They would then dangled a poor maiden down from the cliffs edge, which they had calculated to be just out of reach from the snake as it coiled and sprang. And finally when the snake slithered out from the darkness and into the light they would bring down punishing blows until they butchered it. Simple, yet effective.
With the plan in motion the maiden wiggled and gasped, her terror was accumulated with the pain of being tied up and hanging over the edge of a rocky cliff. Her mind was circulating with thoughts of not knowing when she would meet her fate. So this was the moment, she thought. These 16 years of life on earth had accumulated to being a snakes meal. A sorrowful look radiated from her face. She withered in fear, but to no avail.
With spears and swords at the ready, Seo and his fellow soldiers hid in the long grass. They waited, and as time grew closer they saw the fear on each others face. The soldiers sweat dripped onto their glistening spears with an echoing thud. One by one they gripped their weapons tighter and narrowed their focus into the murk that enveloped the entrance to the cave.
It was a little tremor at first that startled the soldiers, but then the sound grew and the whole ground shook like never before. The snake was slowly appearing. Its vivid yellow eyes showed first. They radiated like the sun from the the darkness of the cave. The soldiers gasped as they saw its gigantic head slowly filling the caves mouth. The snake raspingly slithered out from the deathly darkness and stretched its long forked tongue until it felt the fear and dripping sweat from the young maiden as she still wiggled with fright. With a huge violent thrust the snake sprang forward, and with its mouth wide open it fell directly upon the drinks and sweets. In a split second the soldiers had seen the snake devour everything they offered. It had looked impenetrable. They looked on in disbelief. The snake then looked around and fixed its mesmerizing eyes on the maiden. The men and the snake knew that on this day that the villages had to pay in blood. The merciless serpent smashed its tail down into the soft clay with delight. Its mouth stretched wide open again. Its head cocked back, and its muscles rigidly contracted in anticipation for a deathly strike. The soldiers bodies froze. Their feet were glued to the spot in fright. With no apparent danger in the snakes path it sprang at the girl like a 1000m coil that had been wound and let loose. But just before the snake took a bite Seo jumped off the cliff and struck down with a tremendous blow. He had been waiting.
The snake was dead.
A local Shaman emerged from behind Seo. He warned Seo and his soldiers that they must return to the security of Jeju fortress and never look back. The cohort galloped back to the vicinity of the castle, but just before one of Seo’s soldiers cried out in fear. The sky had now turned a blood red. Surely, the solider thought, the serpent was coming to take its revenge.
Seo looked back with a look of disbelief. He reached out and scorned his solider for telling lies. The serpent was dead he exclaimed. He had felt the scales and bones crack with his mighty blow. His eyes, he thought, didn’t lie.
But to Seo’s amazement the solider was telling the truth. Just as the Shaman had warned not to do, Seo did. He looked back.
In an instant he and his comrades dropped dead. The snake had taken its revenge.
To this day, legend has it that snakes are abundant on Jeju Island from the rain that crashed down that evening.
This story is a myth of legend, but what it shows is that snakes were feared in Korea.
What’s more, a little over 10 years ago in Korea, and maybe still now, it was considered healthy to consume snake in the summer. People believed enhanced one’s virility. Snake poaching and smuggling are now punishable under Korean law, so you are unlikely to see it on a restaurant menu. But I realise that Koreans still revere snake as a superfood as people believe it enhances one’s energy.
Snakes in Korea
With over 3,000 species across the world, one on every continent except a few countries like Ireland, these slithering reptiles are abundant.
In Korea, you can find over 20 species of snakes. I’ve stepped on one while I was hiking. Thankfully, it wasn’t a Mamushi pit viper-the most venomous snake in Korea.
Where to find snakes in Korea
If you are wild enough to go out looking for snakes, you can find them in abundance in the mountains that line Korea. You can also find them in swamps, rocky hillsides, meadows, and open woodland.
Snakes are cold-blooded so you are likely to find them under objects that are excellent conductors of heat such as logs and rocks.
Types of snakes in Korea
Viperidaes are the most poisonous snakes in Korea. Six species of this snake roam the Korean wilderness, including the Mamushi pit viper. This the most poisonous snake in Korea. The pit vipers venom is mostly made up of haemolytic toxins which cause the tissue to liquefy- potentially fatal. Although bites are very rare, it is still it’s good to know what it looks like so you can stay clear of this one. Look at the snake facts website for an accurate description.
The snakes that slither around in Korea usually belong to this species. For example, the Asian Keelback is plentiful in Jeju. Other snakes such as the beauty rat snake and the slender race snake also belong to this species. These snakes pose little danger, as their bite is non venomous. But there is one exception. The Asian Keelback. Like the pit viper, bites from this snake are poisonous but rare.
A few sea snakes belong to this specious such as the annulated sea snake. The snake is venomous but rarely attacks. It mainly feeds on various groups of fish.
Snake bites are very rare in Korea. Unless you go swimming in the tall grass or turn over every rock on a mountainside, you’re unlikely to encounter one. When I nearly stepped on one, it was because I had gone off the beaten path and started scrambling up a hillside.
If you have any pictures or stories of snakes you have seen or encountered in the Korean wilderness, please leave me a comment or email. I would love to share your story and add it to the post.