TENGU (Japanese Myth)

Tengu = Japanese hiragana pronunciation of TENGU, the Slayer of Vanity Tengu
The Slayer of Vanity

Origins:  India + China + Japan

Tengu 天狗 are mountain and forest goblins with both Shinto and Buddhist attributes. Their supernatural powers include shape-shifting into human or animal forms, the ability to speak to humans without moving their mouth, the magic of moving instantly from place to place without using their wings, and the sorcery to appear uninvited in the dreams of the living.

The patron of martial arts, the bird-like Tengu is a skilled warrior and mischief maker, especially prone to playing tricks on arrogant and vainglorious Buddhist priests, and to punishing those who willfully misuse knowledge and authority to gain fame or position. In bygone days, they also inflicted their punishments on vain and arrogant samurai warriors. They dislike braggarts, and those who corrupt the Dharma (Buddhist Law).

The literal meaning of Tengu is “Heaven 天” and “Dog 狗.” In Chinese mythology, there is a related creature named Tien Kou (Tiangou 天狗), or “celestial hound.” The name is misleading, however, as the crow-like Tengu looks nothing like a dog. One plausible theory is that the Chinese Tien Kou derived its name from a destructive meteor that hit China sometime in the 6th century BC. The tail of the falling body resembled that of a dog, hence the name and its initial association with destructive powers.

Historical Notes. Tengu mythology was probably introduced to Japan in the 6th or 7th century AD, in conjunction with the arrival of Buddhism from Korea and China. These goblins thereafter appear in Japan’s ancient documents (e.g., from around 720 AD), and are closely associated with Mount Kurama in Japan (near Kibune), the abode of the legendary white-haired Sōjōbō (Sojobo)僧正坊, King of Tengu. In Myths and Legends of Japan (1913; by F. Hadland Davis), the Tengu are said to emanate from the primordial Japanese god Susano-o. Tengu lore can be found not just in Buddhist circles, but also among Shinto, Budo, and Ninpo groups. As late as 1860, the Edo Government was posting official notices to the Tengu, asking the goblins to temporarily vacate a certain mountain during a scheduled visit by the Shogun (see Japan and China, by Captain Brinkley).

Karasume (blue) and Tengu (red)
(Left) Karasu Tengu   (Right) Yamabushi Tengu

Lanterns on Festival Float, Dontsuku Festival, Inatori City

Crow Tengu, Late Edo Period Painting by Kaihou Yuutoku

Crow Tengu Riding Boar (Karasu Tengu 烏天狗騎猪)
Color on Silk, Hanging Scroll, H = 43.8 cm, W = 54.9 cm
Late Edo Period Painting by Kaihō Yūtoku, Sairin-ji Temple 西林寺, Kyoto.
Photo from Faith and Syncretism: Saichō and Treasures of Tendai. Kyoto National Museum catalog, 2005.

spacerTop of Page

Modern Tengu Mask (wood and lacquer)
Noh Mask
Yamabushi Tengu
(pride-fallen monk)

Tengu Origins

Literally celestial dog. A bird-like goblin frequently encountered in Japanese folk-beliefs, literature and their pictorial depictions. The Japanese demons derive the name from the Chinese mountain god Tiangou 天狗, but also are related to the winged Buddhist deity Garuda (Jp. = Karura). Furthermore, tengu are seen as transformations (Jp : keshin 化身) of Shinto deities, yama no kami 山の神, mountain guardians often associated with tall trees. Tengu are of two physical types: karasu tengu 烏天狗 identified by a bird’s head and beak; and konoha tengu 木の葉天狗 distinguished by a human physique but with wings and a long nose (also called yamabushi tengu). This type of tengu often carries a feather fan in one hand. Because of its long nose, tengu are associated with the Shinto deity Sarudahiko (Sarutahiko) 猿田彦 who takes on the visage of a monkey, and tengu masks play a prominent role in some religious festivals. Early Japanese popular tales such as those in the KONJAKU MONOGATARI 今昔物語 (early 12c) portray tengu as enemies of Buddhism, setting fires at temples or tricking priests. Priests who attain special powers through religious discipline, but use these powers for their own ends were thought to enter in the next life the transmigratory realm of tengudou 天狗道. The earliest representations of tengu are in Kamakura-period emaki 絵巻, such as the “Tengu zoushi emaki 天狗草紙絵巻” of 1296 (Nezu 根津 Museum), which criticize arrogant priests who end up becoming tengu. According to legend, as a boy the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源義経 (1159-89) trained in magical swordsmanship with the tengu king Soujoubou 僧正坊 near Kuramadera 鞍馬寺 in the mountains north of Kyoto. Tengu frequently are shown in pictures concerning the life of Yoshitsune, including both the Hogen-Heiji 保元平治 battle screens (Metropolitan Museum) and depictions of “Hashi Benkei 橋弁慶” or “Benkei at the Bridge” theme. The Momoyama-period daimyo 大名 Kobayakawa Takakage 小早川隆景 (1532-90) supposedly held dialogues with the tengu king Buzenbou 豊前坊 on Mt. Hiko 彦.

The character of tengu gradually changed over the centuries. For instance, tengu were long thought to abduct children, but by the Edo period they often were enlisted to aid in the search for missing children. Similarly, tengu became temple guardians and sculpted images of them were placed on or around temple buildings. Tengu also are associated with yamabushi 山伏 or “mountain ascetics,” whose form they often assumed. Tengu often are depicted wearing the yamabushi’s distinctive cap and robe. Illustration of tengu increased in popularity and variety during the Edo period, usually reflecting the more positive and even light-hearted conception of the once-ferocious demon. In particular, the long nose of the tengu carried both comic and sexual meaning in ukiyo-e 浮世絵 prints.  <end quote by JAANUS>

Says F. Hadland Davis in his 1913 book Myths and Legends of Japan:
There are other confusing traditions in regard to the word Tengu, for it is said that the Emperor Jomei gave the name to a certain meteor ”which whirled from east to west with a loud detonation.” Then, again, a still more ancient belief informs us that the Tengu were emanations from Susaono-o, the Impetuous Male, and again, that they were female demons with heads of beasts and great ears and noses of such enourmous length that they could carry men on them and fly with their suspended burden for thousands of miles without fatigue, and in addition their teeth were so strong and so sharp that these female demons could bite through swords and spears.

Top of Page


spacerTengu Evolution
The Tengu has evolved in both appearance and purpose over the centuries. Originally portrayed as an evil crow-like creature with a man’s body, a beaked face, a small compact head, feathered wings, and heavy claws, the Tengu has since evolved into a protective bird-like man-goblin with an uncommonly long nose, wearing a small monk hat, and oft-times sporting a red face. Patrons of the martial arts, Tengu are credited with exraordinary skills in sword fighting and weapon smithing. They sometimes serve as mentors in the art of war and strategy to humans they find worthy. Tengu live in colonies under the leadership of a single Tengu, who is served by messenger Tengu (usually Karasu). More mischievous than evil, the Tengu are hatched from eggs like birds.

Karasu Tengu (“Crow” Tengu) 烏天狗
The ancient form of the Tengu was the “karasu” or “crow” Tengu. Portrayed as an evil crow-like creature with the body of a man, it was capable of kidnapping adults and children, starting fires, and ripping apart those who willfully damaged the forest, for the Tengu live in trees. Sometimes, too, the Tengu would abduct human beings, only to release them later, but the “lucky” survivor would return home in a state of dementia (called “Tengu Kakushi, meaning “hidden by a Tengu”).

Yamabushi Tengu (Mountain Monk) 山仏師 天狗.
Over the centuries, the Tengu becomes more human in appearance and takes on a protective role in the affairs of men. The Tengu can transform itself into a man, woman, or child, but its prefered disquise is to appear as a barefooted, wandering, elderly mountain hermit or monk (yamabushi) with an extremely long nose. Both the magical tanuki (badger) and oinari (fox) can also change to human form, and in some Japanese traditions these two creatures are actually considered to be animal manifestations of Tengu.

The Yamabushi Tengu comes in two flavors — the long-nosed goblin with human face or the beak-nosed goblin with human face.

The Buddhist Connection. Why the Long Nose?
Tengu are always portrayed as having a mischievous sense of humor, for they love playing tricks on those they encounter, especially on pretentious and arrogant Buddhist priests and samurai. Indeed, by the late Kamakura Period, the Tengu become a major literary vehicle for criticising both established and nascent Buddhist sects (see RESOURCES below for more).

Yamabushi Tengu, Image from www.mangajin.comspacerThe long nose relates to the Tengu’s hatred of arrogance and prejudice. Priests with no true knowledge, prideful individuals, those attached to fame, and those who willfully mislead or misuse the Buddhist cannons are turned into the long-nosed Yamabushi Tengu (or sent to Tengudo, the realm of the Tengu) after their deaths. Corrupt Buddhist monks and corrupt Buddhist monestaries were in fact a major concern throughout Japan’s middle ages. Tengu are thus seen as protectors of the Dharma (Buddhist law), and punish those who mislead the people. Over time, the folklore of tengu and yamabushi become intertwined, and even the crow tengu (karasu tengu) begin wearing the robes and caps of priests.

Top of Page

Noh Masks, except black metal Karasu face

Tengu Images from Yakuoin Temple, Mt. Takao, by Lisa A. Scheinin

Karasu Tengu Relative size to adult Yamabushi Tengu

Tengu Images from Yakuōin Temple, Mt. Takao
Photos by Lisa A. Scheinin. Click any image to view larger photo.

Karasu Tengu and Yamabushi Tengu, Yakuoin Temple, Mt. Takao, Photos by Lisa A. Scheinin
(L) Karasu Tengu and (R) Yamabushi Tengu
Yakuōin Temple, Mt. Takao, Photos by Lisa A. Scheinin
Mask images (many from TROCADERO web stores)

L to R (Ancient Mask Nara Period, Edo Period, Edo Period)

Tengu Mask

Tengu Noh Mask
from savvycollertor.com online store

Print by Kuniyoshi - Karasu Tengu (got from web)
Karasu Tengu, 2nd Panel in 3-Panel Print by Kuniyoshi
Parody of Tengu, Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1797-1861
Tengu Parody, Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1797-1861

Top of Page


Doryo (Douryou) Daigongen
Made in 1770 by
Daibusshi Tanaka Mondo 大仏師 田中主水
妙覚 道了大権現 尊像
大仏師 田中主水彫造

Dōryō Daigongen (Doryo, Douryou)
In 2005, scholar Duncan Williams published “The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan.” Chapter Four of this book, entitled “The Cult of Doryo Daigongen: Daiyuzan and Soto Prayer Temples” forces us to overcome the traditional boundaries of Buddhist scholarship to examine the emergence of a popular cult and its links with the mountain ascetics and Shinto. The “great avatar Doryo (Douryou)” 道了大権現 had been a mountain ascetic before becoming a Soto Zen monk, and was eventually appointed as head cook and administrator at Daiyūzan Temple 大雄山 (Kanagawa Prefecture). However, upon his death in 1411 AD, he vowed to become the guardian of the monastery and he is believed to have metamorphosed into a TENGU 天狗 (a goblin; this site page). According to legend, “his body was then engulfed in flames as he appeared transformed and stood on a white fox to promise a life free from illness and full of riches for those who sincerely worshipped him (p. 62).” Here, the legendary anecdote leads to a detailed analysis of how since the 17th century this became linked to the mass production and sale of the Doryo (Douryou) talisman. Another related phenomenon is that of pilgrimage to this sacred site (Daiyūzan Temple), highlighted through the concrete evidence provided by stone markers. It allows the author to determine that these pilgrimages “took off from the mid-1860s (p. 69). < Above review from the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 33/1 (2006, pages 176, written by Michel Mohr, Doshisha University. Duncan Williams’ book published by Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-691-11928-7. >  

Top of Page


Doryo (Douryou) Daigongen
1590 AD

Daiyuzan Saijoji (Soto Zen Temple)

Once I entered the monastery gates I was awestruck. What a magnificent place. I had a walkabout to see as much as I could before heading to the sign-in desk for the sesshin. This mountain that the monastery was built on was very famous, as I came to find out, for its Tengu (mountain spirit) named Doriyo (editor here: this is an incorrect English spelling). As the myth goes, a young monk came to settle upon this mountain many centuries ago, he was determined to build a temple there but soon found that he could not do it on his own. This is when he met the long nosed, winged, tengu named Doriyo. After receiving the teachings of the monk, Doriyo was so moved that he vowed to help build Saijoji Temple with his magical feats of strength and energy. Doriyo then lifted a huge boulder and threw it to the center of the clearing stating this will be the foundation. Today if you visit this monastery you will see the boulder wrapped in protective Shinto ropes sitting in the middle of the compound. Nearby there is a well, with water that is said to have miraculous healing powers. People come from all over Japan to fill their plastic jugs with this water, and take it home with them. At the top of the compound there is a shrine for Doriyo where it becomes clear that he has been elevated from Tengu status to that of Bodhisattva (Bosatsu) status. The monks referred to him as Doriyo Bosatsu. Giant Getta (wooden slippers) adorn the outside of the shrine. Some were as big as a golf cart.

Top of Page


Modern Ceiling Painting
Yasaki Inari Jinja(Tokyo)
Same as Above
Face of Sarutahiko
on pillar of bridge over
the Shimakigawa River,
Takahashi City, Okayama.
Similar mask used in
Shinto “Kagura” plays.
Courtesy Hiroaki Sasaki.

spacerSARUTAHIKO 猿田彦, 猿田彦神
Also written SARUTABIKO, SARUTAHIKO-NO-KAMI, SARUDAHIKO. Commonly translated as “monkey man.” The long-nosed Shinto deity of the crossroads who takes on the visage of a monkey; also considered by some to be the ancestor of the long-nosed Tengu mountain goblin.

The celestial Shinto goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto (天宇受売命; the “terrible female of heaven”) was the first to meet the earthly kami named Sarutahiko. She determines that he is not an enemy, after which he guides Ninigi 彦火瓊瓊杵尊 and other Shinto deities on their descent from heaven to earth. She is accorded honors by Ninigi for her encounter with Sarutahiko — she becomes the founder and head of the Sarume Order of sacred Shinto dancers, for she and her lineage are henceforth christened Sarume-no-Kimi (猿女の君 monkey women). Writes W.G. Aston: “The Sarume were primarily women who performed comic dances (saru-mahi, 猿樂, monkey dances) in honor of the Shinto Gods. They are mentioned along with the Nakatomi and Imbe as taking part in the festival of first-fruits and other Shinto ceremonies. These dances were the origin of the Kagura 神楽 and the No performances” <end Aston quote>

Sarutahiko and Sarume-no-Kimi are both personified in medieval kagura 神楽 dances and sarugaku 申楽 shows, and even today appear in popular forms of entertainment. Ame-no-Uzume, moreover, is the same Shinto goddess whose erotic and humorous dance prompted Amaterasu to come out from her cave to bring light back into the world.

Tengu, aka Sarutahiko-no-Mikoto, Mask in Takachiho-cho, for Okagura Theater

Sarutahiko Mask
Okagura Theater
Photo Hiroaki Sasaki

Top of Page


Monkey painting by Japanese Artist Mori Sosen, Edo Era, at the British Museum
Monkey painting by
Japanese artist
Mori Sosen, Edo Era
Photo courtesy
the British Museum


Sarutahiko is an earthly Shinto kami who went out to the “eight crossroads of heaven” to meet and act as guide to the heavenly Ninigi (aka Hiko-ho-no-ninigi no Mikoto 彦火瓊瓊杵尊, the August Grandchild of Heaven) at the time of Ninigi’s descent to earth. Sarutahiko was described as having a fantastic appearance, with a nose seven spans long, a height of over seven feet, and with eyes that glowed red like a mirror. Since the goddess kami Ame no Uzume 天宇受売命 was the first to confront Sarutahiko, Ninigi granted to her the clan title Sarume no Kimi 猿女の君 (monkey woman). After acting as guide to Ninigi, Sarutahiko arrived at the upper reaches of the Isuzu River in Ise, where the Kojiki 古事記 (Records of Ancient Matters; Japan’s oldest surviving text; 712 AD) records that his hand became trapped inside a large clam at Azaka, and he thus drowned. He is considered the ancestor of the Ujitoko clan in Ise, and the central object of worship (saijin) at the Sarutahiko Shrine 猿田彦神社 located in Ise, Mie Prefecture. During the Tokugawa period, he was also adopted as the “ancestor of teaching” in the school of Suika Shinto.

Sarutahiko’s connection with the Koushin 庚申 ritual and three-monkey worship did not occur until the Edo period, which reflects the growing importance of Shinto beliefs during the Edo era. Nonetheless, Sarutahiko appears in earlier legends surrounding SANNOU 山王, the mountain king and central deity of the the Tendai Shinto-Buddhist multiplex at Mt. Hiei, whose avatar is the monkey. In the Scroll of the Monkey (猿の草子), produced sometime around 1570 AD, the longest passage is called the Hiei Engi (比叡縁起), which discusses the origin of Buddhist practice on Mt. Hiei.

First, Shaka (the Historical Buddha), while still living in the Tosotsu-ten (兜率天, Skt: Tusita; Buddhist heaven), creates the land in which he intends to propagate the Buddhist doctrine after his appearance in this world. Second, at the time of Ugaya Fukiaezu no Mikoto (鵜草葺不合尊; the father of Emperor Jinmu 神武), Shaka obtains the land at the foot of Mt. Hiei from an old fisherman at the intervention of Yakushi Nyorai. Shirahige (白髭), the old fisherman, the Shinto kami who has to yield his land to Shaka, is none other than Sarutahiko-no-kami (猿田彦神), who in the myths of the Kojiki古事記 meets Hiko-ho-no-ninigi no Mikoto (彦火瓊瓊杵尊) then on his descent from the heavens) and pledges to guide him on his way. Third, around the year 800 AD, SANNOU is revealed to Saichou 最澄, the founder of the Tendai sect.  <Above paragraph quoted from article entitled Saru no Soshi in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1996 23/1-2. Story by Lone Takeuchi.>

Saru no Soshi
Saru no Soshi (猿の草子 Scroll of the Monkey)
Late 16th Century, One Section of the Japanese Scroll
Photo courtesy of British Museum.

TENGU. Says Hiroaki Sasaki: Over time, the Shinto deity Saruta-biko no Mikoto became the god for good journey and the ancestor of the super beings called ” Tengu,” who live deep in the mountains. The Tengu are considered as agile as “saru” (monkies). There are many legends that the great swordsmen of Japanese history learned their skills in the martial arts from Tengu tutors. Legend says that Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune, when a child, learned martial arts with the king of the Tengu at Mt. Kurama in Kyoto.

Source : http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/tengu.shtml


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s