Their red-faced masks with the phallic noses can be found everywhere in Japan, from souvenir shops to festival stalls to cheap izakaya pub-restaurants (one chain is even named after them) to packets of beef jerky. But who exactly are … the Tengu? And should we fear them – or respect them?
There are two distinct species of Tengu. The Ko-tengu or Karasu-tengu are bipedal in shape, with two arms, legs and a large pair of wings spouting from the shoulders, but have birdlike features, with two eyes above a vicious-looking beak, topped with a mane of feathers.
The Oo-tengu or Hanataka-tengu are the more humanoid species, possessing the familiar red face and long nose seen in the ever-popular masks. They wear clothing similar to Edo-period samurai and usually wear a small pillbox shape hat atop their heads. They also have wings sprouting from their shoulders, through holes in their tunics.
Both species of Tengu are highly civilized races, with their own traditions of poetry, conduct, and warfare. They are accomplished warriors, and have taught their form of swordsmanship to selected humans throughout history. They are also accomplished sorcerers, can cast a variety of magic spells, and can command winds and air currents through the ha-uchiwa (paper or feather fans) they carry.
It is believed that the Tengu originated in Chinese mythology (the name comes from the Chinese Tiangou, meaning ‘dogs of heaven’). Their first mention is in the twenty-third chapter of the Nihon Shoki, and their first visual depiction appears in the Tenguzoshi Emaki picture scrolls, painted in 1296.
The Konjaku Monogatari, a collection of stories published during the late Heian Period (794 – 1185), describes the Tengu as having human origins; they are the ghosts of misguided Buddhist priests who became arrogant and uncaring. From this, we get the modern saying Tengu ni naru – to become a tengu, meaning to be boastful and arrogant. The saying is accompanied by the gesture of placing a closed fist on top of your nose, imitating the Tengu’s distinctive feature.
ABOVE: The Karasu-Tengu (artist unknown).
The Shasekishu is a book of Buddhist parables from the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333) that states there are good and bad Tengu. The good are those who have redeeming features, despite their flaws of arrogance, and so have the roles of beneficial demons, serving to protect the truths of Buddhism and strike fear into the hearts of the wicked.
Haruko Wakabayashi, in “The Seven Scrolls Tengu”, records that in the Heian period Tengu were widely associated with natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and epidemics. The priests of the Shingon Buddhist order reported an instance of their leader, Shinzei, transforming into a Tengu after his death and possessing the Empress Somedono. They could, however, be forces for good, depending on their motivation; there are tales of them manifesting as the Buddha himself, and one tale exists of Tengu curing a sick Emperor when death seemed inevitable.
Following the Kamakura period, however, there came a general shift of opinion away from this, and a tendency to regard Tengu not as demons, but as a separate warrior race that could exist side by side with humans. The main inspiration came from this came from the real-life figure of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159 – 1189) – and his education at the hands of Sojobo, King of the Tengu.
ABOVE: Yoshitsune and Sojobo, King of the Tengu. Painting by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune was a general of the Minamoto clan of Japan in the late Heian period, a skillful warrior and swordsman who took part in the massive conflict between the Heike and Tiara clans. The legend states that he petitioned the Tengu for help, on a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain near Kyoto – and the Tengu granted his wish, teaching him swordsmanship as well as certain magical spells. Sojobo, the King of the Tengu himself, served as Yoshitsune’s tutor. The Kanji of ‘Sojobo’ mean ‘high Buddhist priest’, and he was reported to have the strength of a hundred lesser Tengu.
Throughout Japan today, there are special offerings to appease Tengu and ask for their protection; Mino province has the kuhin-mochi rice cake, and other areas the fish called ozoke. Sacred mountains such as Mount Takao have many shrines dedicated to the Tengu as ‘mountain guardians’.
But could they exist?
Could we ever live in a world where two species of winged humanoids were physical possibilities?
For the next passage, I am indebted to passages from James Kakalios’s excellent book, “The Science of Superheroes”, which helped me with the research.
Newton’s third law says that for every action there must be a reaction. When birds flap their wings, they push air downward. That force of the wing against the air is matched by an upward force by the air on the wing. The greater the wingspan, the larger the volume of air displaced, and the greater the corresponding upward force.
Let’s say an average Tengu weighs 68 kilos (150 pounds). In that case, his wings must provide a downward force of at least 150 pounds, to lift off from the ground and balance his weight and keep him above the ground. To accelerate, and to fly instead of only gliding, the wings must provide excess force.
So if a winged humanoid was able to fly, it must have adaptations similar to birds. One suggestion is for two extremely large chest muscles, the supercorocoiderus and pectoralis, that birds use for beating their wings, which is why they have so much breast meat. If the Tengu has a wingspan of 16 feet and weighs 150 pounds, it has a weight-to-wingspan ratio of 9 pounds per foot, and must provide lift using only chest and back muscles, making it an extremely muscle-bound character.
To reduce their weight, birds have a bone structure not exactly hollow, but a complex honeycomb which is extremely porous but still very tough and not fragile. In addition, birds have very efficient respiratory systems. When human beings breathe, we only exchange 10% of the oxygen in our lungs. Birds can exchange 50% in one breath. If the Tengu’s breast muscles are keeping it aloft, it will need to rapidly refresh its air supply …
… Hence the characteristic long nose!
If we assume that it is theoretically possible for Tengu to exist, there are passages in the folktales that now take on added meaning. F. Hadland Davis, in Chapter 19 of “Myths and Legends of Japan”, state that the Tengu have a mischievous sense of humor, and “mysteriously hide human beings, and when finally they (the humans) return to their homes they do so in a demented condition. This strange occurrence is known as Tengukakushi, or hidden by a Tengu”.
One example of this is the Edo period (1603 – 1868) tale of the retainer Kiuchi Heizayemon. The story recounts how the man’s family and friends went searching for him after he had failed to return from an errand, and found his wooden clogs, his sword (bent almost in double), and his girdle torn into three pieces. Later that night, the village was woken up by shouting from a nearby temple; the neighbors woke and found it was Heizayemon, half-naked and deranged, on the roof of the local temple. This was what he said to the villagers, according to Davis:
“… I was forced to seat myself on a round tray. In a moment I was whirled into the air, and the tray carried me with great speed to many regions. When it appeared to me that I had traveled through space for ten days, I prayed to the Lord Buddha, and found myself on what appeared to be the summit of a mountain, but in reality it was the roof of the temple whence you, my comrades, rescued me.”
Doesn’t this seem to be uncannily similar to the late 20th Century accounts of alien abductions, UFOS and flying saucers?
For more information and possible answers to that question, you can visit this amazing detailed PDF on mysterious abductions in Japanese folklore, written by Carmen Blacker, here.
Also the popular, trendy neighborhood of Shimo-Kitazawa holds a Tengu festival every year in February, that coincides with the spring-welcoming ceremony of Setsebun. The parade starts at Shinryuji temple, not far from Shimokitazawa Station, where legend says the guardian deity Doryosatta became a Tengu to protect this temple. You can take a look at a video recording of it here.
The Tengu turn up in two releases from Excalibur Books, that can be found here … but are they companions … or deadly enemies?
If you find anything inaccurate in this article … please leave a comment below, and we’ll fix it!