Patrons of Japanese restaurants often encounter fierce red masks depicting the sausage-nosed face of the tengu
, a strange and unpredictable creature said to make its home deep in the mountains. Many believe that this bizarre combination of man and bird still haunts remote forests, its unreal wings conveying it great distances in a heartbeat, and its fearsome eyes shining with the mischief it still perpetrates upon unwary humans.
They are said to enjoy spreading chaos and confusion in the human world, punishing the vain, annoying the powerful and rewarding the humble folk who can join in their nocturnal merrymaking without fear. Sometimes they kidnap people and leave them wandering through the woods in a state of dementia called tengu-kakushi
, but sometimes they are called upon to help lost children find their way home.
Being shape-shifters, tengu are capable of assuming a variety of forms or casting various illusions to deceive humans, but their primoridal nature is definitely avian. They hatch from enormous eggs (despite almost always being male), and make their homes in the sugi (Cryptomeria) trees that make up much of Japan's forests. Although today they are often associated with crows, ravens, and the like (karasu can refer to any member of genus Corvus), the first bird they were identified with was apparently the black-eared kite, Milvus lineatus, a gregarious raptor Lafcadio Hearn noted for its insolent and brash behavior around humans.
In traditional art tengu are portrayed as human-like creatures with a bird's beak or a long and beak-like nose, wings and tailfeathers on their backs, and claws on their fingers and toes. Some of the more monstrous depictions give them scaled digits or lips, pointed ears, mouths full of sharp teeth, three-toed bird's feet, or somewhat bat-like webbed flight feathers. Like many demons, they are often associated with the color red.
Perhaps via confusion with the similarly-long-nosed Shinto deity Sarutahiko, tengu are also sometimes portrayed with a red face and sans any bird features. This image is particularly common in folk art, like the famous tengu masks that can be found in many Japanese restaurants.
Sometimes this is said to be the image of the dai-tengu or ō-tengu (great tengu), who is served by flocks of common tengu called as ko-tengu or karasu-tengu (little or crow tengu).
Closely associated with the tengu are the yamabushi or shugenja, a sect of ascetic warrior-monks who sought power and enlightenment by living in the harsh, unforgiving, and supernaturally-auspicious environment of the mountains. Sharing the tengu's remote home and bad reputation, the yamabushi inevitably became associated with the bird-goblins, and often hold their image sacred. So universal was this correlation that tengu are almost always depicted wearing the mountain-ascetic's small black cap and pom-pommed sash.
Other items tengu sometimes have on their person include a Buddhist monk's ringed staff (shakujō); feathered or straw cloaks that grant their wearers invisibility; tall, awkward-looking one-toothed geta sandals (nicknamed tengu geta); and feathered magic fans or a the leaf of the Aralia japonica plant, both of which are called ha-uchiwa. The hauchiwa is used either as a device to alter the length of the tengu's nose (making him less obviously inhuman), or to produce a ferocious, hurricane-like wind. The latter use is not surprising, as tengu were supposedly descended from the furious storm god Susano-o-No-Mikoto.
The origins of the tengu are somewhat obscured. They may be ultimately descended from ancient native bird
dieties, but they have most likely had some foreign influence as well. The name tengu is derived from the Chinese tian-gou, and both are written with the same characters. The tian-gou was also a mischievous, mountain-dwelling entity, and while tian-gou means "heavenly dog" (apparently a reference to the fiery tail of a certain meteor), its physical descriptions are various. How much the tengu take from their Chinese namesake is not entirely clear, but at least one source describes a tian-gou with a bird's beak and wings and tangled hair. The tengu's shape may have also been influenced by the Hindu/Buddhist eagle deity Garuda, or the owl-like Chinese thunder god Lei Gong, both of whom it also resembles.
To Japanese Buddhists tengu were evil beings at first, fond of carrying off and devouring children and bent on leading Buddhist monks down the path to Hell. Numerous stories and picture scrolls told of priests
defeating the bird-faced goblins and undoing their deceptive illusions. Sometimes the tengu were
destroyed, reverting back to the form of a kite or a kestrel in death, but sometimes they were themselves converted to Buddhism.
Later Buddhism and Shintoism resolved their differences, resulting in syncretism between the native gods and the imported Indian ones. Perhaps via association with the protective deity Karura (Garuda's Japanese name), the tengu's destructive behavior was downgraded to mere mischief, and they were even reputed to protect shrines and temples and help families find their lost offspring. The comically suggestive connotations of the bird-man's long nose may also have taken the edge off the creatures.
Tengu could still be very dangerous to those who threatened their homes or insulted them - as they were extremely arrogant beings by nature. In some traditions, tengu were the reincarnations of haughty priests or samurai who had misused their power, and in their current life they particularly detested pomposity and pretentiousness in humans. Long noses are still a symbol of conceit in Japan, just as similar anatomy in the West represents Pinnochio-esque untruthfulness, and tengu ni naru (turning into a tengu) is an expression indicating someone has become too full of themselves.
These goblins may deserve their high opinions of themselves, however, as tengu are credited with a vast array of supernatural powers. Along with shape-shifting, tengu are said to be capable of teleporting instantly from one place to another, and of speaking telepathically to humans without moving their mouths or beaks. They are also famed for their skills in martial arts, and are said to have trained the ninja, taught
samurai, schooled famous heroes in kendō and possessed the founder of aikidō.
The tengu are still feared and revered by many people even today. Their wild-eyed faces can be found everywhere in Japan, and numerous montane shrines and temples are guarded by their sword-wielding images, embodying the human desire to stay on the good side of the mighty and unpredictable spirit of the mountains.