DOKKAEBI (도깨비): Friends or Foes?


INCHEON, KOREA – Growing up, my grandmother would use ‘dokkaebi’ to scare me into doing (or not doing) things. She’d say things like “Don’t waste food or the dokkaebi will punish you!” She described dokkaebis as evil and sadistic. Some people believed dokkaebis bring fire and contagious disease, whereas others would perform rituals to dokkaebis to bring good fortune and chase away evil spirits. In Korean culture, there are numerous stories that include dokkaebis but they are never really portrayed as the main character, and their origins generally remain unexplained. They are usually used in stories as the force that inflicts rewards or consequences of a character’s actions. (Kristine Luna)

One of the most prolific deities that have appeared in Korean folk legends since the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BC – 668 AD), it is believed that the first visual depiction of dokkaebi was in the Chaessi Hyohaengdo by Heo Ryeon, where the dokkaebi was portrayed as a shadowy creature shorter than the average human holding a lighted torch. Despite the fact that it’s been centuries, dokkaebis are still a huge part of traditional Korean folklore to this day and have even been adapted and used in a more modern storytelling context. For example, in the popular webtoon “The Story of the Photographer”, the main character is actually a more modern version of the dokkaebi. I think the fact that dokkaebi are still used in stories today is what has kept them such a big part of Korean culture, and it’s amazing how much the dokkaebi has evolved and changed through the years.

Dokkaebis have been around for so long and represented by many different shapes and sizes, but one thing has always remained the same: they’re always depicted as fearsome and grotesque. But are these creatures as bad as they’re made out to be? 

Unlike ghosts which come from the dead, dokkaebi are created by the spiritual possession of an inanimate object that had been covered or stained with blood, usually brooms or discarded tools. The dokkaebi’s origins derive from Shamanistic roots that believe there is the human world and spirit world and that spirits inhabit every object on earth. (Kristine Luna) The word ‘dokkaebi’ is commonly translated to ‘goblin’, which is a misconception. In European culture, goblins are malicious, demon-like creatures. This is misleading, in contrast to the generally helpful and merely mischievous nature of dokkaebi. They take pleasure in making humans happy, and only bring misery to the ones that do bad deeds. Much like humans, they enjoy getting together to drink, play music and dance; their intentions are not vile. They have been long worshipped by fishermen for a good catch, or farmers for a good harvest.

In a 2013 Arirang TV video, an old Korean folktale was told by storyteller Lee Gyu-won about how a starving little boy came to riches thanks to the dokkaebi. The dokkaebi were having a feast and dancing but there was a hungry little boy hiding below them. The boy rummaged through his pockets and found a hazelnut which he bit into, creating a loud crack. Startled by the sudden loud noise, the dokkaebis in the house ran out, leaving the food and their magical clubs behind. The hungry boy then came out and ate the food that they left behind, then ran home with one of the magic clubs. With the magic club, he wished for enough wealth for himself and his poor neighbours. He then became a rich man. There was also another story about how a dokkaebi helped a filial son on his way to a memorial ceremony when he was faced with a storm. According to Mr Kim Jong-dae (Professor at Chung-Ang University), his ancestors believed that dokkaebi were god-like creatures that brought them good luck or wealth. He also believes that dokkaebi were created from the need of an creature/spirit that could help people out of the poverty and pains of reality.

During another part of the aforementioned video, a survey was conducted in Myeongdong, Seoul where Koreans were asked to describe what they think a dokkaebi looks like. Majority of the answers were along the lines of “one or two horns”, “colourful faces with bulging eyes”, and “they hold a club and wear a traditional hat” which was in reference to the dokkaebis’ clubs that can transform objects into anything in existence and their magical invisibility-granting hats.

Image from 100 Thimbles in a Box

In hopes of getting a hold of more authentic and personal information, I tracked down a dokkaebi online (with much struggle – they’re not very tech-savvy!) and held a virtual interview with him over Zoom due to restraints caused by the recent global pandemic. The dokkaebi, named Hyuk (혁), seemed rather unfamiliar with using technology which was understandable considering his old age. He definitely had much closer resemblance to a human than to the dramatically gruesome descriptions I’d heard of dokkaebi before the interview. His tousled hair was silver with age, pale skin, and true to the descriptions he was indeed wearing his traditional hat. I didn’t notice any peculiar features.

When asked about the appearances and types of dokkaebi, Hyuk said he was a “Cham dokkaebi (참도깨비), which are the mischievous type of dokkaebi.” According to him,Dokkaebi can come in many different forms, but we generally look just like you normies. Of course there are some oddities like the one-eyed gluttonous dokkaebi known as Oenun dokkaebi (외눈도깨비); those gluttons are merely hungry and just eat a lot. There’s also the Oedari dokkaebi (외다리도깨비) which are the well-known one-legged lovers of wrestling as well as a couple more types of dokkaebi, but the only actually evil dokkaebi is the Gae dokkaebi (개도깨비), the ones the rest of us hate. We don’t associate with them.”

Image from The Originality of the Visualization of the Korean Dokkaebi by Bak, Mikyung

After I told him about humans’ general negative portrayal of dokkaebi and how they demonise dokkaebi and depict their appearance as ugly goblins, Hyuk’s reaction surprised me and definitely made me feel for the dokkaebis. After a long pause, he said, “I mean, we bring good luck to humans with good hearts and only punish those that do harm; if they don’t realise we are fair creatures and not evil, so be it. We don’t do what we do for recognition.” 

In a world where justice often turns into war, these creatures, one of the last true partisans of true equality, are the ones getting demonised by the same humans that claim to want equality for all.


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 Suwalsky, Joan. “Korean Monsters ~ Dokkaebi & Nathwi.” 100 Thimbles in a Box, 3 Feb. 2018,

Victoria Khine Phu Eain (Class of 2024) usually enjoys writing realist fiction. Reportage was a rather experimental module but it turned out to be the work she was most proud of.