Tales of Jeju: The legend of Snake Cave

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Tales of Jeju: The legend of Snake Cave

Dustin at Sa Gul Cave with the descendant of Seo-ryeon in October 1971.

By Robert Neff

Whenever I visited Fred Dustin at his home on Jeju Island, we would sit by the fire at night eating popcorn and drinking grape juice while he regaled me with tales from the past.

Dustin's home was quite isolated and surrounded by trees. It could be pretty spooky there at night ― especially when I had to stumble 30 to 40 meters out into the dark forest trying to find a signal for my phone.

Dustin professed to me a couple of times that he felt uneasy in the dark, that the region near his home was surrounded with sadness due to some evil acts of the past. Differences of ideologies led to deaths and the unappeased spirits haunted the shadows seeking redress for the wrongs.

These little confessions of his, along with the sudden and strange barking sounds of the deer, never failed to give me the shivers ― which entertained him to no end.

Dustin enjoyed telling me about the Sa Gul Cave (Snake Cave) nearby ― too near.

Dustin paying his respects to the brave officer in October 1971.

According to legend, a great serpent dwelt in a dark and mysterious cave and demanded an annual sacrifice of a virgin. Failure to do so would bring calamity upon the community in the form of droughts, powerful winds and disease among the horses and villagers.

The villagers, without fail, provided the evil creature with its victim but even then the serpent was not content and, according to one variation, claimed the life of the island's chief magistrate every three years.

It is said that in the 18th century, a father, whose daughter had been chosen that year as the sacrifice, somehow lured the great serpent from its lair and slew it with his ax. He chopped it into pieces and placed them into a large kimchi urn. Although the serpent's mortal body had been slain, its spiritual form terrorized the villagers of Gimnyoung in their dreams ― begging them to release it from the urn.

Dustin and others witnessing the dedication of the monument in October 1971.

Eventually the villagers opened the urn and dumped the contents onto the ground. They were shocked to discover that the corpse's pieces had transformed into live snakes and quickly slithered away into the underbrush. It is for this reason that Jeju is plagued with snakes.

Another variation of the tale ― and one that was very popular with Dustin ― claims that the serpent was killed in 1735 by Seo-ryeon, a young officer. Unwilling to allow the people to suffer its predation any longer, he cut it to pieces when it came out to claim its sacrificial victim.

A monument was erected near the entrance of the cave so that this great feat would be remembered forever. While the feat was remembered in the tales of the villagers, the stone disappeared under the onslaught of the elements and the passage of time.

The unveiling of the monument in October 1971.

In October 1971, Dustin was working near his land when he noticed a commotion. It was one of Seo-ryeon's descendants who had come to erect a new stone monument in honor of his ancestor. Dustin was invited to take part in the event and that is how he came to know the tale.

The cave and the monument still exist but are, for the most part, relatively unknown and unvisited. Forgotten except in the tales of the past.

The monument in 2015.

The entrance to the serpent's cave in 2015.



Dustin at Sa Gul Cave with the descendant of Seo-ryeon in October 1971.

By Robert Neff

Whenever I visited Fred Dustin at his home on Jeju Island, we would sit by the fire at night eating popcorn and drinking grape juice while he regaled me with tales from the past.

Dustin's home was quite isolated and surrounded by trees. It could be pretty spooky there at night ― especially when I had to stumble 30 to 40 meters out into the dark forest trying to find a signal for my phone.

Dustin professed to me a couple of times that he felt uneasy in the dark, that the region near his home was surrounded with sadness due to some evil acts of the past. Differences of ideologies led to deaths and the unappeased spirits haunted the shadows seeking redress for the wrongs.

These little confessions of his, along with the sudden and strange barking sounds of the deer, never failed to give me the shivers ― which entertained him to no end.

Dustin enjoyed telling me about the Sa Gul Cave (Snake Cave) nearby ― too near.

Dustin paying his respects to the brave officer in October 1971.

According to legend, a great serpent dwelt in a dark and mysterious cave and demanded an annual sacrifice of a virgin. Failure to do so would bring calamity upon the community in the form of droughts, powerful winds and disease among the horses and villagers.

The villagers, without fail, provided the evil creature with its victim but even then the serpent was not content and, according to one variation, claimed the life of the island's chief magistrate every three years.

It is said that in the 18th century, a father, whose daughter had been chosen that year as the sacrifice, somehow lured the great serpent from its lair and slew it with his ax. He chopped it into pieces and placed them into a large kimchi urn. Although the serpent's mortal body had been slain, its spiritual form terrorized the villagers of Gimnyoung in their dreams ― begging them to release it from the urn.

Dustin and others witnessing the dedication of the monument in October 1971.

Eventually the villagers opened the urn and dumped the contents onto the ground. They were shocked to discover that the corpse's pieces had transformed into live snakes and quickly slithered away into the underbrush. It is for this reason that Jeju is plagued with snakes.

Another variation of the tale ― and one that was very popular with Dustin ― claims that the serpent was killed in 1735 by Seo-ryeon, a young officer. Unwilling to allow the people to suffer its predation any longer, he cut it to pieces when it came out to claim its sacrificial victim.

A monument was erected near the entrance of the cave so that this great feat would be remembered forever. While the feat was remembered in the tales of the villagers, the stone disappeared under the onslaught of the elements and the passage of time.

The unveiling of the monument in October 1971.

In October 1971, Dustin was working near his land when he noticed a commotion. It was one of Seo-ryeon's descendants who had come to erect a new stone monument in honor of his ancestor. Dustin was invited to take part in the event and that is how he came to know the tale.

The cave and the monument still exist but are, for the most part, relatively unknown and unvisited. Forgotten except in the tales of the past.

The monument in 2015.

The entrance to the serpent's cave in 2015.





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