Japanese Traditions – The Story of the Monster Tengu (天狗)

Tengu is an imaginary being, a type of monster that lives deep in the mountains. It has an appearance similar to that of a human being, but it has a red face with a strange, big nose. Tengu have Jintsuriki (supernatural powers), as well as wings which allow them to fly the sky. In the beginning, the term Tengu referred to comets, but gradually people’s worship of mountains, together with their feeling of awe towards nature, came to be placed on the image of the Tengu. The expression “tengu ni natteiru” is used to refer to people who are being conceited, and also those who are getting too excited.



The first written records which refer to Tengu can be found in the 8th century, meaning that Tengu is already over 1200 years old, and also meaning that they have been causing mischief for a long time. In the Konjaku Monogatari we can find some of the early exploits of the Tengu including robbing, seducing holy men in the form of women, and other malicious behaviour. Their connection with the concept of taking the form of women to seduce holy men developed further so that by the 13th century it was believed that they could possess girls. It is unfortunately a common fault of men around the world to blame women for their own weaknesses, or declare them to be possessed, for example in the West women were accused of being witches or possessed by Satan, in the East it was Tengu.



“Tengu ni natteiru” also came from the 13th century, it came to be believed that the Tengu were the spirits of heretical priests and arrogant people with a strong negative connation against pride, so as well as these spirits being able to possess people they also continued to target priests. Which makes one wonder if 13th century Japanese priests were seen as being particularly prideful or conceited, and thusly needed to be targetted. At any rate, regardless of whether it was because the Tengu were the ghosts of arrogant people, or their targets the priests were seen as conceited, the phrase “tengu ni natteiru” appeared.



So what does a Tengu really look like? One image which stands out is that of a red mask with big black eyebrows, yellow eyes and a very long nose. When you think of the nose it might be helpful to think of Usopp from One Piece. Personally for me it is interesting to consider how in the West we have the idea that people with long noses tell lies, and yet with no connection with the West the Tengu had long noses and were deceptive! While early ideas of the Tengu were associated with comets, and a little with foxes, the Tengu developed a more birdlike form with the ability to fly and a red face. An interesting thought it whether the physical properties of the Tengu has any connection with the Japanese crane which have a long wingspan, a red crown and of course a long beak. The Tengu’s long nose could be a humanization of a bird’s beak.

It seems every country has its own tales of mischevious spirits and Japan is not an exception!


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