Visitors to Korea often have a chance to see sotdae, poles or pillars which are topped with carved animals, especially birds. A sotdae serves several functions in Korean society, acting as an object of worship and as a conduit to the heavens. These objects are most commonly seen in rural Korea, where people retain traditional folk beliefs and customs, and they are typically found around the outskirts of a village.
Placing a sotdae or a group of these objects at the boundary of a village is meant to ward evil spirits off from the inside of the village, while also expressing a collective desire for good luck and good fortune. Sotdae also serve a lesser function as boundary markers, making it easy to distinguish the official beginning of a village. These tall poles are meant to bring the wishes and hopes of the villagers closer to the heavens, so that they can be heard by the gods.
People also construct sotdae to commemorate major life events, especially graduations, in which case the sotdae may be topped with a dragon or another mythical beast, and painted in bright colors. Commemorative sotdae are usually placed in people's yards, so that the whole community knows who is celebrating and why.
The origins of the sotdae appear to be ancient. Evidence suggests that crude forms of these interesting markers have been constructed as far back as the Bronze Age in Northern Asia. A typical sotdae is very tall, and either carved from wood or built from several blocks of stone stacked on top of each other. The topper is most classically a carved duck, although other birds and animals may be used as well, and sometimes multiple birds crown a single sotdae.
The level of artistry involved is also quite varied. In some cases, the carvings are very ornate and precise, with a high level of detail and visual interest. In other instances, a sotdae is more crude, with a vague shape representing the bird or animal; sometimes a simple V of wood may crown the pole.
A related concept, the jangseung, consists of a staff topped with a carving of a wooden face. These human effigies are erected for much the same reasons that sotdae are, but they can also act as stand-ins for gods, and they may be placed around tombs and graveyards to keep evil spirits away from the dead.