Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tengu, The trainer of Ninjas

From murderous monsters that carried people off and jammed them into rocks to die, to protectors of villages, the tengu like all magical beings tengu exhibited a confusing array of traits, personalities, and emotions.

Tengu were at times believed to be
 the teachers of stealth, combat, and
 the magic which ninjas used.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the tengu was as a teacher. There are many tales of tengu who teach humans, give them magical gifts, including straw cloaks of invisibility. They taught humans about magic, and about the art of stealth, the art of ninja.

Tengu were nature spirits which originally took the
form of humanoids with crow like features.


In the folk tale "The Tengu and the Boy" a tengu snatches a boy away from his family, but treats him well, bringing him on a journey across Japan, so that he could teach the boy about the world. After a number of years, when the boy was still twelve he returned him to his fathers home. This young boy became famous for his knowledge, just as another young boy, who'd been trained by the Tengu became famous as a defender of Japanese culture during the Meiji era.

During the Meiji era in Japan a Nativist Philosopher found a boy who had been raised by a mountain kami, a boy who could receive messages and magical gifts by being possessed by a Tengu. The Natavist was able to use this boys powers of divination to try to prove that Native Shinto beliefs were superior to all external ideas, such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Western Science.

In another tale a young boy is taken by the tengu and trained as a marksmen, when he returns three years later he has a magical gun which never misses a shot.

In addition to magical and metaphysical knowledge, the Tengu also taught people to be skilled warriors. In one case a tengu possesses a clumsy girl (see shamanism in Japan to understand more about this positive form of possession) giving her martial skills and powers so that she can train a samurai.

This possession of girls by the tengu is a common theme in their stories. They possess girls to give messages, to seduce Buddhist priests, etc. Such possession indicates that they were likely related to the previous deities of Japan which would possess shamanesses. However, as Buddhism and Imperial Shintoism became the dominant religions in Japan such shamanism was outlawed, turning the girls who were possessed in this way into witches, and the tengu into demons.

Ninja's had a lot of mythology surrounding them.
In lore they could turn into rats, turn invisible, etc.
To do these things they needed a mystical teacher.

Enemies of the Buddhists

Tengu had a serious enmity against the Buddhists of Japan, with each attacking the other whenever they could. There are two important reasons for this enmity. The first is that all spirits in Japan were believed to have multiple natures, souls, personalities, etc. So they were all both creative and destructive. Perhaps most importantly the Buddhists in early writing set out to discredit local deities, creating folk tales about how wicked local spirits were, how weak they were, etc. The Buddhists were later joined by the Imperial Shinto religion in this effort, which means many local beliefs were subverted and twisted.

Thanks to their Chinese name many have argued that the Tengu come from the Buddhist idea of Meteor Dogs, however, because they are depicted as bird men, not dogs I believe it's more likely that the Buddhist's used ideas that were familiar familiar to them to describe Japanese ideas. Just as today we translate tengu as goblin, even though the tengu is clearly not a goblin.

I believe it's likely that at least in some 
regions of Japan tengu were some of the 
original multi-souled kami, viewed as 
both creative and destructive. 


Tengu Magic

In one tale a hermit pretending to be a Buddhist priest lives in the isolated mountains. Here he has power over wild animals. When the Emperor Enyu (969-984) grows deathly ill he's called in to cure him. Because he's able to cure the Emperor so quickly the Buddhist priests grow suspicious of him and begin to beat him until he admits to worshiping the tengu, at which point he's driven away.

Those who worshiped the tengu had more magical powers than the Buddhists, but were still derided by them, again indicating that the nature of the tengu might not have been as negative as the Buddhists claimed.

In another tale a tengu worshiper is able to turn sandals and clogs into dogs, he can cause foes to leap from his bosom, he can pass through horses. At last a young man asks to learn these arts, so the sorcerer has the young man perform ablutions with cold water and fasting, just as any shaman about to meet their spirit guide had to in Japan. They then take some rice, a clean bucket, and despite his teachers warning not to, the young man also takes a sword hidden under his clothes.

The sorcerer then leads the young man into the mountains to meet a mysterious hermit who is forced to flee when the young man grows afraid of the hermit and attacks him with his sword. The hermit as it turns out had been a tengu.

Tengu for their part it seems sought to be worshiped, they would possess people in order to have temples erected to them, in order to gain followers, etc. One tengu possessed two women and pretended to be a former Emperor in order to get temple's erected to him. The Buddhist Priest of Ji-En wrote that  tengu since the beginnings of Japan sought to be worshiped in order to throw the world into chaos.

Often as enemies of Buddhism tengu were believed to be the spirits of the suffering dead. An indication perhaps that they were previously some form of ancestral spirit, though given that only the Buddhists were writing at this time it's hard to be certain what this means.


Nature Spirits

Tengu perched in pine trees, especially those that didn't end in a point, but which had nest like branches at the top, or large branches which stuck far out from the others on which the tengu could perch. As with all sacred trees it was dangerous for woodsmen to cut these down, as doing so would anger the tengu.

Like many other nature spirits the tengu were extremely mischievous and delighted in playing pranks on people and leading them astray. Nature, after all is capricious, as the forest provides food and wood, but is also the place in which people loose their way.

In other words, while the Buddhist claims about the evil of Tengu might not be true, they may not be entirely wrong either. Nature spirits in general are dual natured, they give life and bring death, just as nature does.

Further, as with other shamanistic nature spirits, the tengu were also a symbol of both freedom and bondage. For to become possessed was to loose ones place in society. Those possessed by spirits often went wild and became violently ill for a time before they finally managed to work with the spirit which had possessed them. But forever after they were in the service of the spirit, so they might end up in poverty fighting for the spirits cause. In the case of the tengu this cause often appears to have been to bring chaos to Japan through war and rebellion. Such rebellions might have been the act of angry or mischievous tengu, but they could also have justified as a means of trying to overthrow a corrupt and tyrannical government.




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