Tengu are legendary kami (gods) in Japanese mythology with deep roots in the folklore surrounding the mysticism of Ninjutsu’s inception. The actual translation of the word tengu means “heavenly dog,” though they are never depicted with any dog-like characteristics in Japanese culture.
Their name is based on a Chinese mountain god called the Tien Kou or Tiangou 天狗, to which it actually bears little resemblance if any aside from its areal characteristics. The tiangou is often described as a comet or shooting star the hit China around 6th century BC. The human-bird character of the tengu is portrayed a number of ways in Japanese folk-religion. Buddhism historically consider them to be demons, forebearers of war, messengers of dieties and even Buddhas to punish evildoers and protect the righteous. Many are seen carrying a hauchiwa (Japanese feather fan), to fan away misfortune and bring in the good. They live in secluded colonies with one tengu as their leader served by messenger tengu.
Tengu are known by two identifiable physical types, Kotengu or Karasu Tengu (烏天狗) and Daitengu or Yamabushi Tengu (山仏師天狗). The Karasu (crow) Tengu are known by their human bodies with crow heads and short beaks. They were tasked with carrying out orders of starting fires, kidnapping and protecting the forests from those who destroyed it. Occasionally, they would kidnap someone and later return them having taught them tengu mysteries or thoroughly terrorizing them into a state of dementia. This was portrayed in the box office hit 47 Ronin where Keanu Reeves played the Tengu Kakushi or the one hidden by tengu. The Yamabushi tengu more often took the form of an elderly long nosed mountain hermit wandering about but also appeared with short beaks. They are known to be able to change forms between men, women and children. Instead of carrying out mischievous deeds, these tengu often stood as protectors.
Though still considered dangerous, they are now more commonly seen as mischievous warrior spirits of the mountains and forests and this is where their paths collide with the Shinobi.
Tengu Shinobi Legends[auto_column columns=”2″ responsive=”true”]Tengu have the reputation of being skilled martial artists and master swordsmen. Legend tells that one who gains the favor of the Tengu may be granted knowledge of their combat skills. Some Japanese folklore proclaims that the inception of the Ninja came from a samurai warrior who narrowly escaped death in a battle lost on or near Mount Kurama. He was found by the Kurama Tengu who healed him and taught him their martial ways.
Other myths claim that the famous general, Minamoto no Yoshitsune was trained by tengu. The two tales may be one and the same as Yoshitsune’s father and two oldest brothers were killed in the Hiji Rebellion of 1159. His life was spared and he was placed under the care of the Kurama Temple. Yoshitsune was said to have learned the skills of the ninja warrior from tengu while under this care or while visiting the Iga province. This would have been one of the earliest recountings of Ninjutsu and of tengu in Japanese culture. In his book “Book of Eight Styles of Kurama,” Yoshitsune emphasizes the art of flying (jumping). This is a skill he is expected to have learned from the winged tengu, even though many stories of tengu stated that they don’t fly around but just appear from location to location.
This story is further detailed in that the “eight schools of Kyoto” or “Kyo-ryu,” which were schools of swordsmanship, said to be founded on the teachings of eight monks. These monks had been taught by masters from the sacred mountain of Kurama and they themselves are often assumed to have been tengu. Legend has it that Kiichi Hogen, who was a master of the esoteric study of yin and yang was exposed to the secrets of swordsmanship through a book he obtained about the art. It was he who shared this knowledge with the monks/tengu, of whom he may or may not have been himself. Minamoto no Yoshitusune is rumored to have gained access to the book by seducing Hogen’s daughter long enough to memorize the contents of the book for his personal use. Either way, his swordsmanship and martial knowledge is credited to the tengu of Mount Kurama.
Another legend states that the tengu were catalysts in the instruction of the first man to start a peasant uprising in feudal Japan. They are said to have given this man the knowledge to turn peasants into ninja rebels, equipped with the secrets to fighting the shogunate.
Tengu are said to reside primarily in the forests of Mount Kurama, which is a mountain to the north-west of the Japanese City of Kyoto. Their king is known to be a minor deity named Sōjōbō 僧正坊, which literally means “high Buddhist priest.” He is often depicted carrying a fan made of seven feathers, which symbolizes his position at the top of tengu hierarchy. Legend claims that he has 1,000 times the strength of a normal tengu.
There are a number of depictions of the tengu, the most common presenting them with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest versions of tengu were pictured as female demons with beaks and wings. Modern variations may show an adaptation of the beak, which has been humanized into an unnaturally long nose. The short beak tengu were said to be still in training while the long nosed tengu were experienced masters or yamabushi (mountain ascetics) tengu. This image of the tengu began to arise in the 14th century, but some of the earliest depictions of the original tengu in Japanese culture appear in scrolls painted in 1296 called the Tengu zoshi Emaki 天狗草紙絵巻, which is a satirical portrait of Japanese high priest by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.[/auto_column]
Tengu in Other Cultures
Though not always considered a positive one, there is a link between the religion of Buddhism and the tengu. As is common in many religious sects, there is some cross-over of similar characters found in other cultures.
Garuda is the favored servants of Lord Vishnu, a high-powered gods in the Hindu religion. Garuda bears strong semblance to a tengu, though instead of a beak, he typically has an emphasized Indian nose. The human-bird creature was gifted immortality for his bravery according to Hindu legend.
A number of Egyptian gods, who pre-date Japanese culture in excess of 5,000 years, have many similarities to Tengu. The god of knowledge, wisdom and logic named “Tehuti” or “Thoth” is often depicted with a long beak, though not usually with wings.
There are a number of avian gods in Native American cultures such a Kwekwaz’we who is a raven spirit recognized by Northwestern tribes. He is often seen as a gatekeeper to the realm of magic. Angwusi is a crow “kachina,” meaning a spirit of nature, recognized by the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi tribes. The figure is depicted standing upright with both human and crow characteristics.
Harpies are similar to the tengu in that they are not represented by a singular demi-god figure, but are many. They are typically seen as birds in form with human faces, mostly female. Harpies were mischievous agents of punishment who often stole food, causing their enemies to go hungry.
Whether or not the tengu actually existed as the mythical beings we know cannot be confirmed but on thing is certain; they are a validity part of Japanese folklore. Years of cultural integration within Japanese culture has given life to the philosophies and practice of these beautifully oracular beings. The truth of any myth or legend resides in the belief of he who believes.