tengu (天狗) (genre )



"THE TENGU is the most widely feared of traditional superhuman monsters. It is known to abduct young women, kidnap little children and do other mischief but at the same time, much power in punishing the bad and helping the good is attributed to it.

In common traditional belief, literature and pictures, the tengu is generally classified into two types, dai-tengu (big tengu), and sho-tengu (small tengu). The tengu is a semi-human, semi-bird monster. It has big wings and is able to fly freely at a terrible speed. It has long and sharp claws on its hands and feet. The face of the big tengu is red and has a very prominent nose. It is dressed in a costume similar to that worn by yamabushi or mountain priests, carring a kongo stick and a sword. Usually it also holds a big fan made of feathers. The small tengu has a pointed bill like a bird, but its nose is not so high as that of the big tengu.

All tengu live in high wooded mountains, far from villages. Occasionally they descend to the plains and inflict harm upon innocent villagers. The people have so long been in fear of tengu that many parents still mentions its name to make children behave. In many mountain regions, children still fear tengu, and believe that it will attack and carry them away, if they go out alone or do something bad.

The origin of the traditional tengu is very vague. It is now generally believed that it is a creation from three different things, the features of which are combined to make tengu.

The first of these three element is the spirit of the mountain, which rules the mountain and of which the people were in great fear in the past, as they believed that lightning, thunder, storms and many things that happen in great mountains were the doings of spirit of the mountain. The spirit of the mountain forms the basic characteristics of tengu, also giving it the bird-like features.

The second are yamabushi or Buddhist priests who underwent austere training in the mountains. They lived in great mountains far from human influence to train their minds and bodies. Some of them are reputed to have not only gained high Buddhist knowledge, but also superhuman power.

Foreigners, probably Caucasians, are the third element that formed tengu. In the ancient Konjaku-Monogatari it is written that the tengu came from Tenjiku (India) and went to the Omi lake (Lake Biwako). The red-faced, tall Caucasians, with his high nose, must have greatly surprised the people, if he did come to the country at that time. They feared the stranger, and seeing him so different from themselves, regarded him as superhuman. This stranger gave tengu the red face and high nose.

It is also said to be originally a satiric figure representing a proud and boastful person, and is still commonly used in that sense. In the picture scroll named Tengu-zoshi first printed in the Enbun era (1356-1361), many high leaders and priests who were known for their proud attitude are satirically represented as tengu with a long nose. Yasha (Yaksha) mentioned in Buddhist sutras as a she-demon of supernatural power also came to be called tengu. Thus the original meaning of the boastful and the Buddhist Yasha came to be mixed to produce the popular idea of tengu.

Strangely it was the upper class of people who adopted Buddhism who first believed in the story of tengu.

In Azuma-kagami, it is mentioned that during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), a tengu appeared in Kyoto and caused a big commotion among the residents. As the people became afraid of this creature, some priests utilized it for their interests. They staged a show with a tengu figure, and called it Tengu Matsuri or demon festival. They showed tricks before the gathered people, and made them offer coins to tengu.

As the idea of the tengu spread, powerful mountain men with exceptional physical strength came to be regarded as such. They would come down to villages and their demands for sake were eagerly met by those in dread of their power."

Quoted from: Mock Joya's Things Japanese, p. 449-450.