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Origin and Meaning of Japanese Tengu

Payal Kanjwani
Tengu, a Japanese mystic deity, has Chinese origins. It has the capability to make a difference between good and evil. It gives the meaning and symbolism of Japanese Tengu.

Did You Know?

Being arrogant and chesty is one of the characteristics of Tengu. There is this expression 'Tengu-ni-naru' used to request someone not to be as arrogant as a Tengu.
Of the many legends that surround Japanese folklore, the Tengu is one of the most familiar ones. The Tengu mask is influenced by the Japanese God of storms, Susanoo. This mask is featured in most places where sword fighting and weapon smithing is taught.
This goblin has an unusual sense of humor, hates braggarts, plays pranks with Dharma deceivers, and yet is known for its evil conduct. Tengu is also believed to have supernatural powers of moving from a place to another, without taking a fight, appearing in dreams uninvited, and so on.
Let's look at the origin and significance of this fantastically frightful goblin that has Shinto and Buddhist associations.

Origin of Tengu

◆ Tengu has originated from the Chinese folklore where it was called 'Tiangou' meaning 'Sky dog'. The legend of this celestial creature went on to Japan in the late 6th or early 7th century.
◆ The Chinese folk-beliefs and stories associate Tengu to a number description, but for the most part, it is a ferocious canine monster having anthropophagous characteristics that give the reminiscence of a comet.
◆ Japanese bookmen also support the theory of Tengu's image being originated from winged Buddhist deity 'Garuda'. This Hindu eagle (garuda) is characterized as being one of the leading races of non-human beings (much above than humans) in Buddhist scriptures.

◆ However, the evolution of being a bird-man from a dog-meteoroid is not clear.
◆ Some legends also categorize Tengu into two physical types―Karasa tengu and Konaha tengu (the common ones). Karasa tengu, a.k.a., crow tengue, is recognized by a bird's (here: crow) head and beak, while Konaha tengu, a.k.a. long-nosed tengu, are forest dwellers, and are believed to be bigger humans with wings and a beak.
◆ Tengu masks are often hung in temples in the mountainous regions of Japan along with Sōjōbō, the Lord of mountain spirits and the king of Tengu.

Meaning and Significance

◆ Long-nosed Tengus or their masks are often found in many Matsuri festivals that have a phallic significance. This is revelatory of fertility and good harvest.

◆ Tengu are patrons of the martial arts; they excel in sword fighting making them great swordsmen, and they sometimes also mentor humans, teaching them war strategies.
◆ They are often pictured as creatures with a notorious sense of humor, who like playing tricks on pretentious Buddhist priests and others who corrupt Dharma.

◆ They are also known to communicate with telepathy as they tend to talk without moving their lips.
◆ Some Japanese tales also present Tengu as the antithesis of Buddhism. It is evil that withstands religion, attacks faux practitioners, and typifies those who cannot take rebirth in the Pure Land.

◆ They are also believed to have the wizardly ability to grow or shrink a person's nose, to stir up winds, and likewise.

The Tengu Image

◆ Over time, Tengu has undergone evolution in both appearance and purpose.

◆ Earlier portrayed as a half bird-half man creature with heavy claws and giant wings, it has now evolved into a goblin with a red face, featuring a long nose.
◆ In art, Tengue has been portrayed in a number of forms―sometimes a kite-like being, to a monstrous human-like creature holding magical fans of feathers.

◆ But most frequently, Tengu is depicted in Yamabushi get-up―a pom-pommed sash and a black cap.

Some of the Many Tengu Legends

◆ The Tengu and the Woodcutter: This is the legend that supports Tengu's supernatural ability of guessing what humans think. He was found chafing a woodcutter on his way to woods, by guessing everything that the woodcutter was thinking.
The woodcutter gets furious and swings his axe, which then hits Tengu on the nose. The Tengu gets frightened and flees away, outcrying that humans think zero about things and their aftereffects, and hence, are dangerous creatures.
◆ The Tengu's Fan: Another interesting story portraying magical abilities of Tengu's fan, which can grow or shrink noses. A cad happens to find this magical fan, which he uses monstrously to extend a rich person's daughter's nose. He promises to shrink it again in exchange for her hand in marriage.
However, later when asleep, he accidentally fans himself and grows his nose so long that it reaches heaven. This resulted in creating an unfortunate situation for him.
◆ The Old Man's Lump Removed: An old man happens to encounter a band of Tengu, which were in festive moods, dancing with glee. This old man had a tumor or a lump on his face. He enchants the Tengu band so much that they offer him to join the celebration the next night. They also decided to gift him.
They take the lump off his face, thinking he'll want it back, and hence, will join them the following night. An infuriating neighbor hears the old man's fortune story and attempts to replicate it. This neighbor also had a lump, and so had intentions to steal the gift.
However, the Tengu were grossed out with his bad dancing and doings, and hence, ended up giving him an additional lump of the old man.
So you see, we cannot call Tengu to be evil. They say, Evil and Good are one only for those who recognize evil as evil, and sincerely undertake reform. In fact, they are even addressed as Buddhas regardless of how evil they are. It is also said that a Tengu can be reborn as a human if he's done good enough.