A Bird in the Hand: The Tengu

Article by Rebecca
Image by Will Hobbs (www.sirwilliamwesley.com)

Like all truly kick butt creatures of legend the tengu has a huge list of stories and associations, but unfortunately, one may never truly learn the fact from fiction about this complex creature. Most believe the tengu began its existence in China as the t’ienkou or tianguo, an entire class of demons who are remarkably similar to the Japanese tengu. So how did the Chinese tianguo end up in Japan as the tengu? The very people the tengu enjoyed tormenting carried it there.

Some say there are two types of tengu, a higher and lower class. Others imply that they are an entire race with several classes, varying in appearances, abilities, and temperaments. Here are some things that most sources agree upon. Tengu generally have a humanoid appearance but carry birdlike features, with the lesser-evolved ones looking more like birds and less like humans. Their skin, hair, or clothing is red. All tengu have long beak-like noses and are feathered or carry a feathered fan. They have claw-like hands and many times carry a staff with rings on the top. Tengu are known to sometimes shape shift, but when they do, they usually keep some vestige of their true self, such as a long nose or casting a shadow of a bird while in human form.

Depending on the legend, tengu run the gambit of being malicious demons to benevolent creatures. Stories abound of them setting fires in front of temples, kidnapping monks and children, and trying to prevent prayer. In fact, their favored victim is the Buddhist monk, and it was those monks that left China to help spread Buddhism in Japan that are believed to be responsible for the introduction of the tengu to Japan. Tengu are generally considered proud creatures, protecting their trees and mountaintops with superior martial arts abilities. Many believe that if a tengu looks favorably upon you he will impart his knowledge of martial arts and battle tactics to you, if not in person then through your dreams.

If you believe you are in a forest inhabited by tengu, be sure to seek their permission before cutting down any of their trees for wood. Many woodcutters who live and work in tengu forests appease the tengu with rice cakes. If the tengu becomes displeased, they will torment the woodcutters with little things like the ax head falling off the handle or big things such as starting avalanches.

Here’s a popular little tengu story for you. One day a hunter was in the mountains when he happened to see a snake kill a bird. Quite suddenly, a boar showed up and began to devour the snake. The hunter considered killing the boar, he is a hunter after all, but then he thought, maybe he did not want to be part of this chain. He did not want to inadvertently cause his own death by setting himself up for the next predator to come along. Later that day a voice called to him from the trees. It was a tengu. The tengu told the hunter how fortunate he was, for if the hunter had killed the boar, the tengu would have killed him. Why, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s just the tengu’s nature. The story concludes with the hunter taking up residence in a cave and vowing to never kill another creature again.

So, is the tengu an evil demon, tormenting monks, stealing babies, and killing hunters to provide object lessons? Is the tengu a benevolent creature, imparting wisdom and guidance to humanity? Unless you have a personal encounter, I would say pick the one you like. Personally, I like to imagine them as some sort of combination of everything, with heavy emphasis on the martial arts. Tengu doing martial arts creates a cool mental image. However, maybe that’s just me!