Okay, so maybe I’m going a bit gaga with this whole “Top 10” thing here, but it seems like a quick way to sift through a lot of information and hit a few key points in just a post or two. In keeping with a method tried and true, here’s my personal top 10 list of the most important Shilla Dynasty Kings and Queens. With over 56 to choose from, I’m sure I’ll be skipping some key players in the scheme of things. But here, in chronological order, are some of the most legendary, powerful, innovative and eventually corrupt and tragic figures that made the millennium of the Shilla Dynasty what it was.
1. King Hyeokgeose (박혁거세 거서간, r. 57 B.C.E. – 4 C.E.): Founding monarch of the Shilla Dynasty and progenitor of the Kim clan, legend holds that Hyeokgeose was born from a giant red egg, laid by a white horse that descended from heaven at Naejeong Well. At the age of 13 he was elected to be the first ruler of the newly united six villages of the Seorebol nation. Upon taking the throne, he married Lady Alyeong, who (oddly enough) had herself sprung from the left rib of a dragon-like chicken on the same day Hyeokgeose had hatched from his egg. After 6 decades of rule, Hyeokgeose passed away and his body miraculously ascended into Heaven. For some reason, Heaven decided to spit his body back out seven days later in five different pieces. Each piece was buried in its own tomb (presently O-reung Tombs Park just south of town).
2. King Talhae (탈해 이사금, r. 57 – 80 C.E.): Fourth ruler of the Shilla Dynasty and founding father of the Sok Clan, King Talhae also happened to be of mythical birth. Talhae was born of a king and queen of a small kingdom north of Japan…. as an egg (Notice a theme here?). For some odd reason, his father judged this to be an ill omen. Not wanting to actually kill his own offspring, he instead placed the egg in a wooden casket and set it out to sea. After drifting for seven years, it wound up on the shores of the East Seashore of Korea where Talhae was found by a kindly fisherwoman as a child inside the casket! After over two decades of rule, Talhae passed away after decreeing that a giant image of his likeness be made out of bones of the side of Mt. Tonggaksan, where his deceased spirit then took up residence as a god.
3. King Nulji (눌지마립간, r. 417 – 458 C.E.): King Nulji’s rise to power is a tale worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. Born of high royal blood, Nulji was married to the daughter of the reigning King Silseong. Yet, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his high birth and family ties, things were not well between Nulji and his father-in-aw. After exiling his two younger brothers as royal hostages to the Goguryeo kingdom to the north and the Wa kingdom of Japan, Silseong began plotting to have his son-in-law murdered. After discovering the betrayal, Nulji overthrew and killed his father-in-law and seized the throne (with a little help from the Goguryeo Dynasty). He went on to rule the Shilla Dynasty for over 40 years.
4. King Beopheung (법흥왕, r. 514 – 540 C. E.): After much resistance from the nobility, King Beophung was the monarch responsible for converting the Shilla Dynasty to Buddhism, an act which ushered in a veritable Renaissance of temple construction and Buddhist art. He managed this politically difficult feat through the legendary and miraculous martyrdom of his nephew, Ichadon (which involved flying heads, jets of white blood and flowers falling from heaven). Inspired by his Buddhist convictions, Beopheung made an official decree prohibiting the killing any living animal in the whole of the kingdom (much to the dismay of the butchers and fishermen) thereby converting the entire country vegetarianism. Beopheung willingly abdicated the throne in 540 C.E., shaved his head, joined a Buddhist monastery and spent the remainder of his days in meditative seclusion.
5. Queen Seondeok (선덕여왕 r. 634 – 647 C.E.): The first of three Queens of the Shilla Dynasty, Queen Seondeok was renowned for her wisdom and insight (attested to by several curious legends, like the story of Yeokkgungol Valley) and her rule was considered a golden age of scientific innovation cultural development. In fact, Seondeok was responsible for the construction of Cheomseongdae Astronomical Observatory as well as the nine story stone pagoda of Bunhwangsa Temple. Yet, much like Queen Elizabeth I of England, Seondeok was constantly dogged by being a powerful woman in a political world dominated by men and had to quell several violent rebellions during her reign. Recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Queen Seondeok as last year saw the broadcast of a 62 hour miniseries on MBC based on Seondeok’s rise to the throne (which I’m dying to see if anyone has a copy with subtitles).