Living Mermaids? Archetypal Mothers? Asian Amazons? Sea Goddesses? Diving Grannies?
Jeju Island, South Korea, is home to the world’s famed breathhold- or free-diving women. Many may know of the ama pearl divers of Japan; in the past decade, however, Jeju haenyeo (a term that literally translates as ‘sea-girl’) have been gaining global recognition.
But who are they, really? How do we separate fact from fiction?
Read 10 international newspaper accounts, and you’ll get 11 versions of the story. Watch films and videos made about these women, and you’ll witness an all-too-frequently sensationalized mix of details meant to describe them. Are they really so mysterious?
Remarkable, without a doubt. Unique, yes, in their own way, and surely in regard to their greater cultural milieu, including both a tradition of shamanism stretching back millennia and a system of collective economics that remains relevant today. But they are not superhuman — though their prowess, professional skills, and knowledge of the marine ecosystem may indicate otherwise.
Alongside those impressive skills is an equally fascinating culture. Shamans, goddesses, a dragon god of the sea, mystical islands of afterlife, labor songs of longing, indigenous women’s cultural space, foods that tell stories, and a dialect unintelligible to the mainlanders — these are the ingredients of the rich and picturesque milieu in which the diving women of Jeju are situated. While Japan’s ama or the sama-bajau of various Southeast Asian countries also free-dive for marine products, it is the cultural features of Jeju haenyeo which render them truly distinct. UNESCO, in fact, agrees.
This is social cohesion at its finest: common purpose found in shared labor and collective economics, direct democracy by consensus, mutual aid and social inclusion, social enterprise through community engagement, animistic spiritual traditions that bind them to their land and sea, matrifocal mythology rich in strong goddess imagery, women’s cultural space in which to share work and daily life, and an insider language. These are the bonds that do not break — except, perhaps, in the face of mass trauma. For the island has also had its share of tragedy.
A living tradition even today, their lifestyle is all too soon destined to drift into the mists of time. Many of today’s haenyeo are indeed grannies of the sea, with almost none under the age of 50 and a large percentage in their 70s and beyond. After centuries of this practice, intergenerational transmission has all but ceased, and the remaining population is rapidly dwindling. Many preservation efforts have been initiated, but the young women seek higher education and corresponding employment at their diving mothers’ encouragement, and it is possible that the time is soon coming for this noble profession to be gently laid to its rest.
These women, and their countless antecedents, deserve to be honored and memorialized — and, perhaps in some new, 21st century form, for their work to continue. Come — meet these sea women, the Jeju haenyeo. Once you have, you will never forget them.
—excerpted from Introduction to Sisters at Sea: Jeju Haenyeo, author Anne Hilty, ©2023