The Seven Stars – Chilseong (칠성)


A look inside Bukgeukjeon Hall at Anyangam Hermitage that  houses the shaman deity The Seven Stars, Chilseong.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Another member of the Korean shaman “Holy Trinity,” besides Dokseong (The Recluse) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), is Chilseong (The Seven Stars). He most commonly appears alongside Sanshin and Dokseong in a shrine hall. So who is this shaman deity, what does he look like, and why does he have such a prominent role in Korean Buddhism?

The exact origins of Chilseong (The Seven Stars) are largely unknown; however, what is known is that Chilseong comes from the Ursa Major (Big Dipper) constellation, which consists of seven stars. According to the indigenous Korean shamanism, which dates back to ancient Korea, these seven stars shine the brightest on Korea. With this in mind, Koreans have come to believe that these stars favour the Korean people; and as a result, these stars protect Koreans from misfortune.


The very vibrant painting of Chilseong at Songnimsa Temple.

Historically, the worship of Chilseong in Korea is date-able to murals found inside a Goryeo tomb which dates back to between 427 to 450 A.D. Inside this tomb are a set of Chilseong (Ursa Major) paintings together with the sun and moon Bodhisattvas. Also, and of interest, the famous general, General Kim Yu-shin, was believed to have been born with the an image of Chilseong engraved on his back.

Chilseong is a prominent deity in Korean shamanism, but he is also represented in Daoism and Buddhism, as well.  Chilseong is noted for the magnificence of light that pours forth from every part of his body. Much like Yongwang and Sanshin, and through the millennia, Chilseong was absorbed into Korean Buddhism. So while Chilseong was a shaman deity first, he’s now a prominent member of the Korean Buddhist pantheon.


An amazing rendering of Chilseong at Gyemyeongam Hermitage.

Alongside Dokseong, Chilseong is considered a Heavenly deity in Korean shamanism. These deities are responsible for long life and general good fortune. And specifically, Chilseong is responsible for childcare. In Korean shamanism, the deities’ hierarchy varies according to an individual shaman; however, it is customary that several deities occupy the highest rank together. These deities are: Hwanin, Cheseok, Hanamin, and Chilseong.

So what exactly does Chilseong look like? Even though Chilseong is treated as one deity, he appears as seven individual figures. And since these seven figures almost never appear separately (perhaps with Anyangam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple being the exception), they are considered as one entity: Chilseong. How Chilseong is depicted can vary depending on whether it’s a Buddhist, shaman, or Daoist style rendering of the deity.


The unique wood etching of Chilseong found at Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan.

In traditional Chilseong Daenghwa painting, there is usually a set standard that the painting will adhere to. A traditional Chilseong Daenghwa painting will usually have seven figures in the centre that represent Chilseong. On the left is usually Ilgwang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Sun) and on the right is Wolgwang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Moon). In the upper portion of this painting, on either side of the seven Chilseong figures, are the Chil Yeorae, which are the Seven Buddhas. And on the lower portion of the paintings are the Chilseong Seong-gun, which are the Seven Star Princes.


In this painting of Chilseong at Dongrimsa Temple, you can see the seven Chilseong figures in the middle with the seven Chil Yeorae on the bottom. Additionally, you can see both Ilgwang-bosal and Wolgwang-bosal on either side of the central Buddha.

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A better look at Ilgwang-bosal (The Sun Bodhisattva) and Wolgwang (The Moon Bodhisattva) beautifully adorning the lattice work at  Cheonbulsa Temple.

If the Chilseong Daenghwa is Confucian in style, Chilseong is always a male and never female. And although they are similar in appearance, they are not the same. In addition to these figures, it is common for one of the seven Chilseong figures to be an “elder brother” that is situated in the centre and larger in size than the other six figures. This “elder brother” is easy to identify because not only is he larger in size, but he also possesses a book that is symbolic of all knowledge. This style of Confucian painting is in accordance with the Confucian doctrine of “honoured men and lowly women,” the cosmic hierarchy, and the superiority of knowledge.


A rare Confucian-style painting of Chilseong at Sajaam Hermitage.

Conversely, in Buddhist and Daoist paintings, Chilseong is often depicted as a male, and are sometimes a mixture of male and female figures. Also, they are nearly identical in their features and size.


An elaborate Chilseong painting found at Unmunsa Temple.

Chilseong is usually found in one of two places. The first place that he’s commonly found is in the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. Inside this shrine hall is a painted mural (and sometimes a statue) of Chilseong. Chilseong almost exclusively sits in the centre of the Samseong-gak shrine hall. And on his left is Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and to his right is Dokseong (The Recluse). However, like a Seokbulsa Temple in Busan, Chilseong can have a shrine hall dedicated solely to himself. This is also the case for the beautiful shrine hall called Bukgeukjeon at Anyangam Hermitage. Uniquely, and unlike any other renderings of Chilseong I have seen, each of the seven Chilseong have their own individual paintings inside the shrine hall at Anyangam Hermitage.

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The two-storied structure to the far right, next to the main hall, is the hall that houses the shrine to Chilseong at Seokbulsa Temple.


A look inside the shrine hall at Seokbulsa Temple at the mural of Chilseong.

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The Bukgeukjeon shrine hall dedicated solely to Chilseong at Anyangam Hermitage.

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A look inside the Bukgeukjeon shrine hall at Anyangam Hermitage. To the right are four of the individually painted Chilseong. This is unique because the seven are almost always painted together in one mural.

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And a look to the left at the three remaining Chilseong inside Bukgeukjeon shrine hall at Anyangam Hermitage.

In addition to this shrine hall, but sometimes exclusively, Chiseong will appear in the popular Shinjung Daenghwa. In the centre is Daesaji-bosal (The Bodhisattva that Protects the Buddha’s Teachings), and Chilseong appears as one of the flanking shaman deities. This painting is the most shamanistic thing inside the Buddhist temple grounds because it features numerous indigenous Korean shaman deities. It’s interesting looking at these paintings and attempting to identify the Korean shaman deity like Yongwang, Chilseong, San shin, and Dokseong. Also, Chilseong can appear inside the main hall, upon the altar, close to statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In fact, Chilseong can be manifested as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva king upon the main hall altar.

Because Chilseong is one of the more prominent Korean shaman deities, it’s a lot easier to find him than perhaps other shaman deities inside a Buddhist temple. So the next time you visit a Korean temple, have a look for Chilseong (The Seven Stars).


A glorious golden Chilseong sculpture found at Geumjeongam Hermitage.