She couldn’t sleep. It was not for lack of fatigue or a worthy pillow; it was the haunting knowledge of a predator in her midst. As she lay shivering under her sweat-soaked sheets, the agitated groans of a full grown tiger emanated from her bathroom. Inexplicably, she decided she must confront her fear. She pulled her reluctant legs from the tangle of her bed and inched, step by step, toward the open bathroom door. To her surprise, her brother was already there. Smiling pleasantly, he welcomed her closer to the door frame. Now in both confusion and fear she obliged, peering around the corner, seeing first the enormous orange paws of the big cat, then its broad face and its gleaming curved teeth as it groaned again. As the full body of the beast came in sight, she saw that it was not alone. On its back lay a cub, resting comfortably among the fur of its mother. Calmly, her brother reached out to the feline couple, gently hoisting the cub. As he did, the mother looked at her, and their eyes met in a sudden moment of understanding. Her brother lifted the cub over her head and placed it on her back, and all was clear: she was to be a mother.
Eight months later, she gave birth to her first child, a healthy baby boy.
Of course, this story is that of a dream. This was the experience of one of my students. She shared after a discussion about superstition. I had given the students an article from the American Psychological Association that discussed humans’ natural predisposition for superstition. We inherently find patterns in the inexplicable. As Michael Shermer explains in his book The Believing Brain, it was an evolutionary advantage to see patterns even when they weren’t there. Those who were best at it survived and are our ancestors. Though our rational world has developed to the point that we no longer need to predict whether or not a predator is lurking in the tall grass, the wiring of our brains that makes us think that way still exists. As such, superstition has persisted to the modern day. Though my students insisted that they didn’t believe in supernatural events, they all agreed that dreams are a window into the future. Though we might disagree about the definition of supernatural, it got me interested in what exactly Koreans believe that our dreams can tell us about our future. Here are a few things surrounding the culture of dreams in Korea.
The Korean lunar calendar follows that of the Chinese zodiac, utilizing 12 animals rotating on every lunar new year (설날, “Seolnal”), which occurs in late January or early February. The year of the pig is often expected to be a particularly lucky year, especially for having children. The Korean calendar also uses the five elements (fire, water, earth, sun, and sky), which rotate every decade. 2007 was the year of the “fire pig,” but was more commonly known as the Year of the Golden Pig (fire is represented by the colors red and gold), which occurs only once every 600 years. It was expected to be a great year financially and a particularly lucky year to be born. Perhaps they are on to something given that Korea weathered the global economic crisis of that year quite well in comparison to their western counterparts.
In general, though, pigs are seen to be a sign of wealth and health. The Chinese symbol for pig even represents the same word in Korean for money (돈 “don”). Dreaming of pigs is said to lead to financial prosperity and general well-being. It is said that if you dream of a pig, you ought to take a financial risk or play the lottery because you are likely to get lucky.
Dragons have been prevalent throughout Korean mythological history, most likely owing its origins to Chinese culture, in which the dragon is a key figure. However, Korean dragons play a bit of a different role. The story is closer to that of the story of the naga, a cobra-like figure in the mythology surrounding the Buddha (whose teachings nearly a quarter of Koreans follow). The naga was said to have protected the Buddha during a rainstorm and eventually invited him to his underwater palace, where he became the Buddha’s first follower. Today, dragons are often associated with water and rain.
In dreams, seeing a dragon is said to be an omen of future success. Particularly with regard to personal goals and ambitions, dreaming of dragons reassures Koreans that they are on the path to success.
3. Natural Disasters
Although watching our house burn to the ground and then be washed away in a torrential flood would probably be the worst of nightmares in real life, it is a sign of good things to come in a dream. Similar to the Biblical and Mesopotamian flood stories of western culture, Korea has its own flood myth. Namu Doryeong, the son of a laurel tree spirit, saved all the animals in the world during a great flood. As in Western mythology, this is a moment of rebirth for the world.
In dreams, Koreans believe that fire and flood are omens of burning down the troubles in your life or washing away bad luck so that good luck can come. However, seeing the ashes of the burned structure may mean that the troubles will return, and unless the flood waters are clean, they may be bringing more bad luck.
Yes, I do mean poop. As my student also shared, she had a dreamstate experience of rescuing a toddler from fetid waste pit of a traditional toilet (essentially a hole in the floor). In the Western world, it is common practice to use manure from animals to fertilize fields. In Korea, using human excrement was an accepted practice, and if done right, it can yield equally positive results. Though it is unclear how long Koreans have been farming the land, records of rice farming go back nearly 2,000 years. Understandably, a good harvest was essential to the survival of a community, and with the use of human excrement as fertilizer, good poop meant good food.
In dreams, seeing excrement or a toilet can mean a future of good luck. Perhaps playing they lottery or taking a chance on something new ought to be on your to do list after a dream about solid biowaste.
5. Sex of a child
As with my student, the stories of her dreams were connected to the conception of her children. Many Koreans perceive dreams early in a pregnancy to be strong determiners for the future and even the sex of the child. My student dreamed of tigers when she was pregnant with her son. It is also believed that dreaming of snakes or pigs may mean raising a boy in a woman’s future. For those expectant mothers who have dreams of fish, flowers, or jewelry, they should start searching Gmarket (a Korean online marketplace like Amazon.com) for dolls and dresses. These lists are often expanded depending on family tradition, but Korean women insist that dreams they had around the time of conception accurately reflect the sex of the child they would have three seasons later.
These are only a small sample of the omens Koreans believe will impact their future. Although all of these tend to be positive, there are certainly negative futures associated with ghosts, the loss of teeth, and animated dolls.
If you don’t like your omens or if you believe that someone else needs them more, you can indeed sell your dreams. My student’s sister dreamed of dragons not long before my student was to take her college entrance exams. Her mother insisted that she buy the dragon omen from her sister. For a small fee, she did so, and she did quite well on the exam. Whether the high marks were due to the dragons or her relentless studies is for the reader to decide, but the sale of dreams is not uncommon.
Though only about half of Koreans are religious, most of them hold on to mythology from their past. Korea has a rich cultural heritage, and they are very proud of it. And so, I say to you, may all of your dreams be pig dreams, especially ones that involve dragons soaring over burning houses and piles of poop.