A tengu is an Asian goblin or Demon who acts as a vampire, poltergeist, and trickster.
Descriptions of the tengu date to the eighth century. The Demon appears in the shape of a man with wings and long, sharp nails on his hands and toes. His nose is either a crow’s beak or red and round, and its size indicates the Demon’s strength. Sometimes, he carries a fan or a stick. The tengu is especially known for kidnapping people in remote, mountainous areas. He is fond of stealing children. Possession by a tengu is not necessarily diabolical. The possessed acquire supernormal skills and knowledge during their occupation by the spirit.
Tengu are spirits of the wilderness, guardians of the forest. They are wary, aggressive, protective tricksters. Often described as mountain goblins, they may be as helpful or dangerous as they please. Tengu are bird spirits who come in two basic forms:
• Karasu Tengu, literally “Crow Tengu,” have crow heads on human torsos covered with feathers. Their hands and feet are tipped with claws, not fingers or toes.
• Yamabushi Tengu, or “Mountain Priest Tengu,” have human form with bright red faces. They usually have exceedingly long beak-like noses.
Tengu are famed shape-shifters and may not appear in their true guise. Tengu are bird spirits even when they no longer look like birds. They can fly. Like the winged monkeys in the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz, Tengu use their flight skills aggressively: they play tricks, make speedy getaways, survey their territory, and swoop down to snatch people away.
Tengu are pranksters, sometimes maliciously so. They start fires, arguments, and divisiveness. They carry off children, returning them somewhat stupefied and worse for the wear. Even their lesser pranks have an edge to them and are potentially harmful: they drop house tiles on people or throw pebbles into windowsat night. Yet, when they wish, they can also be extremely helpful. Historically, Tengu have been invoked to locate lost children. When children went missing, especially in the mountains, Tengu were summoned to search for them.
Their origins are mysterious. Tengu are guardians of Kami, but they are not Kami themselves. Who are these wise, rampaging bird spirits?
• They may be indigenous Japanese spirits.
• According to one myth, Tengu are emanations of Susano’o.
• They may derive from or be related to Chinese T’ien-kou.
• They may derive from or be related to India’s Garuda.
• They may be some or all of the above.
Tengu are beings of immense power, skill, and wisdom. Like Susano’o, they control weather. Their weapons include storms, wind, and whirlwinds.
Regardless of origin, Tengu are pre-Buddhist spirits who aggressively resisted Buddhism. Tengu and Buddhists alike consider them enemies of the Dharma. Tengu became symbolic of indigenous resistance to Buddhism. They allegedly cause fires in Buddhist temples and monasteries and play malicious tricks on Buddhist priests. Tengu transform themselves to resemble Buddhist priests, nuns, and sometimes even Buddhas to fool people, especially real priests. Tengu snatch priests up, carry them off and bind them to the tops of tall trees and towers.
In the twelfth century, the Buddhist concept of the Tengu Road evolved. The Tengu Road was the special punishment reserved for hypocritical, false or corrupt Buddhist priests. After death they become Tengu. (This is a Buddhist concept, not a Shinto one. Traditionally Tengu are spirits, not ghosts or transformed people like Hannya.) Meanwhile, the yamabushi (shamanic mountain priests) made pilgrimages deep into forested mountains seeking to apprentice with the Tengu. The identities of some Tengu and mountain priests blur. Tengu sometimes adopt the guise of yamabushi.
Why would the yamabushi seek Tengu? Tengu are profound magicians, occultists, warriors, martial artists, and repositories of secret esoteric wisdom. They can transfer their powers to those they favor. If they really like someone, they will mentor and tutor them. Tengu are brilliant martial artists, especially associated with kendo (Japanese fencing) and ninjitsu. They are weapon smiths extraordinaire. Many legendary heroes and martial artists claim apprenticeship with Tengu.
Tengu are oracular spirits with powers of healing. They can possess people and speak through them. Spirit mediums channel them. They can also cause illness. They will mercilessly hound those who anger them with nightmares, apparitions, and illusions.
Tengu teach ninjitsu, the martial arts tradition associated with the stealth warriors known as ninjas. Ninjas first emerged in Japan’s mountains to combat samurai overlords. Because of their stealth and mystery, ninjas were rumored to possess supernatural powers courtesy of their sponsors, the Tengu.
• Tengu may be invoked to provide fire safety.
• Tengu are summoned and communicated with via drumming.
• Tengu allegedly loathe mackerel, and so it may be used as an amulet to keep them away.
Favored people: Shamans, hunters, martial artists, ninjas, those they inexplicably like
Manifestation: Tengu often travel in flocks; they are masters of disguise who can take any form. They enjoy playing tricks and surprising people.
Iconography: Tengu are frequently portrayed disguised as yamabushi mountain priests. They wear the yamabushi’s hexagonal hats and carry a shaman’s feather fan (which, in their hands, becomes a profound magical weapon).
Tree: Cryptomeria, pine, cypress
Colors: Black, red
Sacred sites: Tengu are venerated in some mountain shrines. Local festivals are dedicated to them. Their favorite haunts include forested mountains, groves, and in the vicinity of shrines and temples
Offerings: Tengu like and expect offerings. Offerings appease them and encourage good behavior. Woodcutters who fail to make offerings before cutting trees encounter unpleasant accidents. Tengu bless hunters with success if they first promise to share their food. Offerings are traditionally given outside, not too close to buildings. (This may be because of their propensity to start fires.) Tengu like sake and rice cakes, but they’ll have some of whatever you’re having. Their favorite treat is allegedly kuhinmochi, skewered rice balls covered with bean paste and then grilled.
See also: Akiba-Sanjakubo; Amida Buddha; Garuda; Kami; Okame; Sojobo; Susano’o; Tanuki; T’ien-kou
From the Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.