Ten Thousand Devils
[Han Chun-kyom was the son of a provincial secretary. He matriculated in the year 1579 and graduated in 1586. He received the last wishes of King Son-jo, and sat by his side taking notes for seven hours. From 1608 to 1623 he was generalissimo of the army, and later was raised to the rank of Prince.]
A certain Prince Han of Choong-chong Province had a distant relative who was an uncouth countryman living in extreme poverty. This relative came to visit him from time to time. Han pitied his cold and hungry condition, gave him clothes to wear and shared his food, urging him to stay and to prolong his visit often into several months. He felt sorry for him, but disliked his uncouthness and stupidity.
On one of these visits the poor relation suddenly announced his intention to return home, although the New Year’s season was just at hand. Han urged him to remain, saying, “It would be better for you to be comfortably housed at my home, eating cake and soup and enjoying quiet sleep rather than riding through wind and weather at this season of the year.”
He said at first that he would have to go, until his host so insistently urged on him to stay that at last he yielded and gave consent. At New Year’s Eve he remarked to Prince Han, “I am possessor of a peculiar kind of magic, by which I have under my control all manner of evil genii, and New Year is the season at which I call them up, run over their names, and inspect them. If I did not do so I should lose control altogether, and there would follow no end of trouble among mortals. It is a matter of no small moment, and that is why I wished to go. Since, however, you have detained me, I shall have to call them up in your Excellency’s house and look them over. I hope you will not object.”
Han was greatly astonished and alarmed, but gave his consent. The poor relation went on to say further, “This is an extremely important matter, and I would like to have for it your central guest hall.”
Han consented to this also, so that night they washed the floors and scoured them clean. The relation also sat himself with all dignity facing the south, while Prince Han took up his station on the outside prepared to spy. Soon he saw a startling variety of demons crushing in at the door, horrible in appearance and awesome of manner. They lined up one after another, and still another, and another, till they filled the entire court, each bowing as he came before the master, who, at this point, drew out a book, opened it before him, and began calling off the names. Demon guards who stood by the threshold repeated the call and checked off the names just as they do in a government yamen. From the second watch it went on till the fifth of the morning. Han remarked, “It was indeed no lie when he told me ‘ten thousand devils.'”
One late-comer arrived after the marking was over, and still another came climbing over the wall. The man ordered them to be arrested, and inquiry made of them under the paddle. The late arrival said, “I really have had a hard time of it of late to live, and so was obliged, in order to find anything, to inject smallpox into the home of a scholar who lives in Yong-nam. It is a long way off, and so I have arrived too late for the roll-call, a serious fault indeed, I confess.”
The one who climbed the wall, said, “I, too, have known want and hunger, and so had to insert a little typhus into the family of a gentleman who lives in Kyong-keui, but hearing that roll-call was due I came helter-skelter, fearing lest I should arrive too late, and so climbed the wall, which was indeed a sin.”
The man then, in a loud voice, rated them soundly, saying, “These devils have disobeyed my orders, caused disease and sinned grievously. Worse than everything, they have climbed the wall of a high official’s house.” He ordered a hundred blows to be given them with the paddle, the cangue to be put on, and to have them locked fast in prison. Then, calling the others to him, he said, “Do not spread disease! Do you understand?” Three times he ordered it and five times he repeated it. Then they were all dismissed. The crowd of devils lined off before him, taking their departure and crushing out through the gate with no end of noise and confusion. After a long time they had all disappeared.
Prince Han, looking on during this time, saw the man now seated alone in the hall. It was quiet, and all had vanished. The cocks crew and morning came. Han was astonished above measure, and asked as to the law that governed such work as this. The poor relation said in reply, “When I was young I studied in a monastery in the mountains. In that monastery was an old priest who had a most peculiar countenance. A man feeble and ready to die, he seemed. All the priests made sport of him and treated him with contempt. I alone had pity on his age, and often gave him of my food and always treated him kindly. One evening, when the moon was bright, the old priest said to me, ‘There is a cave behind this monastery from which a beautiful view may be had; will you not come with me and share it?’
“I went with him, and when we crossed the ridge of the hills into the stillness of the night he drew a book from his breast and gave it to me, saying, ‘I, who am old and ready to die, have here a great secret, which I have long wished to pass on to some one worthy. I have travelled over the wide length of Korea, and have never found the man till now I meet you, and my heart is satisfied, so please receive it.’
“I opened the book and found it a catalogue list of devils, with magic writing interspersed, and an explanation of the laws that govern the spirit world. The old priest wrote out one magic recipe, and having set fire to it countless devils at once assembled, at which I was greatly alarmed. He then sat with me and called over the names one after the other, and said to the devils, ‘I am an old man now, am going away, and so am about to put you under the care of this young man; obey him and all will be well.’
“I already had the book, and so called them to me, read out the new orders, and dismissed them.
“The old priest and I returned to the Temple and went to sleep. I awoke early next morning and went to call on him, but he was gone. Thus I came into possession of the magic art, and have possessed it for a score of years and more. What the world knows nothing of I have thus made known to your Excellency.”
Han was astonished beyond measure, and asked, “May I not also come into possession of this wonderful gift?”
The man replied, “Your Excellency has great ability, and can do wonderful things; but the possessor of this craft must be one poor and despised, and of no account. For you, a minister, it would never do.”
The next day he left suddenly, and returned no more. Han sent a servant with a message to him. The servant, with great difficulty, at last found him alone among a thousand mountain peaks, living in a little straw hut no bigger than a cockle shell. No neighbours were there, nor any one beside. He called him, but he refused to come. He sent another messenger to invite him, but he had moved away and no trace of him was left.
Prince Han’s children had heard this story from himself, and I, the writer, received it from them.
– Korean Folk Tales, Imps, Ghosts and Faries by Im Bang & Yi Ryuk (Translated by James S. Gale) [Published 1913]