Hawaii Karate Seinenkai

The following article appeared in Issue #2, Summer-Fall 1994 of Furyu: The Budo Journal. Photographs have been omitted. Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.


Tengu: The Legendary
Mountain Goblins of Japan

By Charles C. Goodin

When Wayne Muromoto handed me the inaugural issue of Furyu, I immediately noticed the name and logo of his publishing company, Tengu Press Hawaii, which is shown at the bottom center of the front cover.

I have always been interested in Japanese mythology and had recently been researching the subject of tengu, which means "heavenly dogs", for an upcoming novel.

There are actually two forms of tengu. The first and more ancient type, karasu or "crow" tengu, has the beak, claws, and wings of a bird but the body of a man. The logo for Tengu Press Hawaii depicts the head of a bird tengu wearing a small round priest's cap. Yamabushi or "mountain priest" tengu are probably more well known. They take the form of barefooted elderly mountain priests with extremely long noses. Wooden masks of both types of tengu are popular. In English, the term tengu merely translates as "goblin" without distinction as to the two forms.

The Heavenly Dogs of China

So what does the term "heavenly dogs" have to do with birdmen or long nosed priests? The Chinese have a legend about mountain demons called t'ien-kou, the written characters for which mean heavenly or celestial dog. Those same characters are pronounced "tengu" in Japanese. I was at first surprised to learn that the Chinese t'ien-kou derived their names from comets or meteors-heavenly bodies falling to earth, the trails of which resemble the tails of dogs or foxes. In other words, they are starry, or "astral," beings. This piqued my curiosity because I am also very interested in astral projection or out of the body travel.

T'ien-kou legends found their way to Japan in the sixth and seventh centuries. Early tengu, like the t'ien-kou, were evil birdlike demons which did many foul deeds such as kidnapping and eating children, starting fires, and misleading priests. They could also transform themselves into the form of men, women or children.

Since they lived in the mountains, tengu often took the form of the eccentric yamabushi (mountain priests) who also lived there. Many yamabushi were thought to possess magical powers derived from their ascetic practices and the sacredness of the mountains themselves. Over time, the folklore of tengu and yamabushi became intertwined. The yamabushi form of tengu became most popular and even the bird tengu were shown wearing the short robes and caps of priests. Tengu were also portrayed as being more mischievous than evil and were often depicted helping people.

The characteristics of tengu are diverse and depend largely on historical perspective. Remember that tengu originated as evil demons which evolved over the centuries into mischievous, but often helpful, mountain spirits taking either birdmen or mountain priest forms. The following is a brief sampling.

Tengu Tales

Tengu are born from giant eggs and live in the mountains. Bird tengu congregate in high trees. In their last incarnation as humans, tengu were arrogant samurai or priests-that is why they have beaks or long noses. The expression tengu ni naru is thus an admonition to avoid being arrogant. If they do good deeds, however, tengu can be reborn as humans.

Tengu, unlike obake (ghosts), are always shown with feet. Yamabushi tengu usually have extremely wrinkled feet to show their old age.

The wings of bird tengu are usually shown with ordinary feathers. However, some authorities describe the wings as shimmering, like those of a hummingbird. This would be in keeping with their heavenly origin.

As mentioned earlier, tengu can take human form, usually to trick people. Tanuki (badgers) and kitsune (foxes) have the same power but their true forms are revealed by their shadows or reflections. Thus, a kitsune which has taken the form of a beautiful woman will often be depicted casting the long nosed shadow of a fox. I suspect that the true forms of tengu would be similarly revealed. If a tengu is struck down by magic or a powerful martial artist, it will often transform into a wounded blackbird.

Tengu speak without moving their mouths, as if by telepathy. They can also possess and speak directlythrough people as well as appear to them in dreams.

Tengu apparently have a hierarchy. Long nosed tengu are generally in charge of bird tengu. The king of all tengu is Sojobo, an elderly, white-haired yamabushi tengu. Sojobo is famous for teaching martial arts and strategy to Minamoto Yoshitsune on Mt. Kurama, north of Kyoto.

Tengu In Art

Much of what we know about the appearance of tengu comes to us from the Japanese ukiyoe (woodblock print) artists. They often depicted famous Japanese legends and stories, many of which involved tengu. I personally am very fond of the artist Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892) and his teacher Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1797-1861). Both depicted many martial arts scenes with stunning realism, including the training of Yoshitsune by Sojobo, and Yoshitsune's famous fight with the monk Benkei on the Gojo Bridge in Kyoto. In both instances, Sojobo is shown teaching or aiding his pupil, assisted by several bird tengu.

Although Yoshitsune's encounter with tengu is probably the most well known folktale, other interesting depictions also exist. In my personal collection, I had a woodblock showing a fight between Tsukahara Bokuden and the yamabushi tengu Hinamaru Enkai. The print is from a series published in 1867 entitled Tales of the Floating World on Eastern Brocade (Azuma No Nishiki Ukiyo Kodan).

In the print, the tengu towers over his adversary wielding an octagonal bo (staff). In a stylized manner, he is shown with an elongated nose and the garb of a mountain priest including bare feet and a small black cap which can also serve as a drinking cup. Martial artists will recognize the poses, hand positions and stances.

What might be difficult to recognize is the light colored vertical shape to the right rear of the tengu. Similar designs are sometimes shown in prints depicting obake (ghosts) and other mythological creatures such as oni (demons), tanuki (badgers) and kitsune (foxes). Tanuki and kitsune, like tengu, can transform into human form. Given the white trail behind the tengu, I suspect that he might have just descended upon his human opponent.

In another print by Yoshitoshi from the series entitled New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts which was published just before the artist' s death, the Tengu of Mt. Hiko appears out of the mist to Kobayakawa Takakage (1532-97) on the island of Kyushu. The print is reprinted below with permission from the San Francisco Graphic Society from the book Yoshitoshi's Thirty-Six Ghosts by John Stevenson.

What I found most interesting was that the scene was shown from the tengu's perspective, that is, from his side of the mist. Through breaks in the mist, Kobayakawa can be seen sitting composed ready to receive the tengu's message while his men recoil in fear. The tengu is standing with bare feet wearing garb similar to that shown in the earlier print.

Tengu and Esoteric Beliefs

This is where my interest in astral projection ties in. I asked my mother (who is from Fukuoka) to discuss the issue of tengu with her friend, an elderly and well-educated woman from Japan. She confirmed many of the things I had previously read about tengu, and then added that tengu do not fly from place to place. Instead, they disappear at one location and instantly appear at another. I suppose that is one reason they are barefoot-they have no need for shoes.

Winged creatures that fly, long nosed priests that magically materialize, it all sounds familiar, doesn't it? Tengu legends have many parallels or similarities to other world myths and legends. Angels have wings to fly between heaven and earth, as did the Greek god Hermes (Mercury), although his wings were on his sandals and cap. In Hawaiian, Egyptian and many other religions, man's spirit is depicted as a bird. The image of a bird perched on a staff is often associated with leaving the body. The list is practically endless.

Anyone who has practiced meditation will have experienced the sensation of floating "out," or at least will have heard about it from friends or teachers. In viewing Yoshitoshi's print of the Tengu of Mt. Hiko, I am certa in that he knew how it felt to be in the mist-the gray atmosphere sometimes passed through when out of the body. He must have personally experienced the supernatural to have depicted the mythology of the day in such novel and creative ways.

In fact, Yoshitoshi suffered from mental illness during the last few years of his life. It was during this period that he designed the Thirty-Six Ghosts series. He died three weeks after being discharged from a mental hospital at the age of 53.

The value of myth is not so much in the folksy details but in what the myth represents. I find many correlations between Japanese mythological beings/creatures and subjects such as astral projection. Whether tengu appear on wooden masks, in woodblock prints, in your dreams, or out of the mist, they are an intriguing part of Japanese mythology.

Note: The author welcomes your comments and stories on the general subject, especially as it relates to budo.

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Contact Charles C. Goodin
Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.