Tengu (天狗 "heavenly dogs") are a class of supernatural creatures found in Japanese folklore, art, theater, literature and religious mythology. They are one of the best known classes of yōkai (monster-spirits), though this classification does not prevent their occasional worship as Shinto kami (revered spirits or gods). Although the term tengu was derived from the Chinese designation for a type of dog-like demons (天狗 (tian gou)), the Japanese spirits were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, such that they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. In the earliest sources, tengu were actually pictured with beaks, but, in later depictions, these features have often been anthropomorphized into unnaturally long noses. In the modern imagination (and especially in artistic works), this single characteristic (the expansive proboscis) is the most definitive aspect of the tengu.
Though the term used to describe these beings is of Chinese origin, their particular characterization is distinctively Japanese. Indeed, the precise origin of these crafty (oftentimes dangerous) bird-men is unknown, implying that the understanding of them developed through a process of importing myths from China (and, indirectly, from India), and then localizing them through overt syncretism and reinterpretations in popular folklore (see below). In this context, Japanese Buddhists long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war (much like their Chinese prototypes). In their malevolent and disruptive behaviors, the tengu shared similarities with European goblins. Over time, this overtly negative evaluation was softened somewhat, as the Buddhists came to acknowledge the popular conception of these spirits as morally-ambivalent protectors of the mountains and forests, who were as likely to bring windfalls as calamities to humans intruding upon their domains.
The tengu, due to their professed affinity with the natural world, are associated with the ascetic practices known as Shugendō (a path of nature-based mysticism), and, in the visual arts, are often depicted in the distinctive garb of its followers, the yamabushi.
In Japanese art, the tengu is portrayed in a wide array of forms, though they usually can be placed somewhere on a continuum between large, monstrous birds and wholly anthropomorphized humanoids, the latter of which are often depicted with a red face and an unusually long nose. Early images of the tengu show them as kite-like beings that can take a human-like form, often retaining avian wings, head or beak. The tengu's long nose seems to have been conceived sometime in the fourteenth century, likely as a humanization of the original bird's bill. Indeed, the two depictions are seen as sufficiently discrete that each is referred to by a separate term, with "karasu tengu" (烏天狗) used to describe the avian tengu and "konoha tengu" (木の葉天狗) the humanoid form.
Some of the earliest representations of tengu appear in Japanese picture scrolls, such as the Tenguzōshi Emaki (天狗草子絵巻), painted ca. 1296, which parodies high-ranking priests by endowing them the hawk-like beaks of tengu demons. Indeed, tengu are often pictured taking the shape of priests. Most specifically, as of the beginning in the thirteenth century, tengu came to be associated in particular with the yamabushi, the mountain ascetics who practice Shugendō. The association soon found its way into Japanese art, where tengu are most frequently depicted in the yamabushi's distinctive costume, which includes a small black cap (頭襟 tokin) and a pom-pommed sash (結袈裟 yuigesa). Further, just as the image of the tengu was used to critique the ecclesiastical elites in the picture scroll described above, it was also used as a visual analogy representing the dangerous influence of the (long-nosed) foreigners who began to interact with Japan in the Edo period. In one instance, the British Commodore Perry was caricaturized in just such a fashion:
In Japanese culture, a long nose signifies the alien, foreign, mysterious and sometimes frightening Other, who has foreign knowledge and superhuman power. … The Tengu-type portrait of Commodore Perry utilises such an image to represent the way Japanese perceived him (and the power behind him) at the end of the Edo era.
Tengu are commonly depicted holding magical hauchiwa (羽団扇) fans made of feathers. In folk tales, these fans sometimes have the ability to grow or shrink a person's nose, but usually they are attributed the power to stir up great winds. Various other strange accessories may be associated with tengu, such as a type of tall, one-toothed geta sandal often called tengu-geta.
In addition to their frequent depictions in visual arts, tales of the tengu are common in both literature and folk tales (described below).
The term tengu and the characters used to write it are borrowed from the name of a fierce demon from Chinese folklore called tiāngoǔ. Chinese literature assigns this creature a variety of descriptions, but most often it is a fierce and anthropophagous canine monster that resembles a shooting star or comet. In mythic accounts, they are described making noises like thunder and bringing war wherever they fall. Though a later account from the Shù Yì Jì (述異記, "A Collection of Bizarre Stories"), written in 1791, describes a dog-like tiāngoǔ with a sharp beak and an upright posture, usually the continental tiāngoǔ bear little resemblance to their Japanese counterparts.
The 23rd chapter of the Nihon Shoki, written in 720, is generally held to contain the first recorded mention of tengu in Japan. In this account, a large shooting star appears and is identified by a Buddhist priest as a "heavenly dog," and much like the tiāngoǔ of China, the vision of this celestial body preceded (and was thought to presage) a military uprising. Although the Chinese characters for tengu are used in the text, accompanying phonetic furigana characters give the reading as amatsukitsune (heavenly fox). M.W. de Visser speculated that the early Japanese tengu may represent a conglomeration of two Chinese spirits: the tiāngoǔ and the fox spirits called huli jing. However, it is equally likely that that even this early occurrence represented a synthesis between the Chinese demon and the indigenous Japanese fox spirit (kitsune).
The process by which the tengu was transformed from a dog-meteor into a bird-man is not entirely clear. Some Japanese scholars have supported the theory that the tengu's image derives from the Hindu eagle deity Garuda, who was pluralized in Buddhist scripture as one of the major races of non-human beings. Like the tengu, the garuda are often portrayed in a human-like form with wings and a bird's beak. Further, the name tengu seems to be written in place of garuda in a Japanese sutra called the Enmyō Jizō Kyō (延命地蔵経), but this was likely written in the Edo period, long after the tengu's image was established. At least one early story in the Konjaku Monogatari describes a tengu carrying off a dragon, which is reminiscent of the garuda's feud with the nāga serpents. In other respects, however, the tengu's original behavior differs markedly from that of the garuda, which is generally friendly towards Buddhism. De Visser has speculated that the tengu may be descended from an ancient Shinto bird-demon which was syncretized with both the garuda and the tiāngoǔ when Buddhism arrived in Japan.
The Konjaku Monogatari, a collection of stories published sometime during the late Heian Period (ca. twelfth century C.E.), contains some of the earliest tales of the tengu, already characterized as they would be for centuries to come. These creatures are the troublesome opponents of Buddhism, who rob temples, mislead the pious with false images of Buddha, carry off monks and drop them in remote places, possess women in an attempt to seduce holy men (or devout laity), and endow those who worship them with unholy power. They were often thought to disguise themselves as priests or nuns, but their true form seemed to be that of a kite (or other bird-like creature). From a theological perspective, the tengu were seen to be manifestations of ma (Sanskrit: mara), creatures of disorder and illusion whose sole purpose was to confound those on the quest for enlightenment. Intriguingly, though many of the tales and tropes described above created concrete spiritual opponents for Buddhism to define itself against, the image of the tengu was also be used to critique religious leaders, as in the Tenguzōshi Emaki (天狗草子絵巻) (ca. 1296), which depicted the Buddhist elites themselves transforming into the winged demons (as discussed above).
Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, an increasing number of accounts were produced that described the various types of trouble that the tengu caused in the world. In many of these cases, they were now established as the ghosts of angry, vain, or heretical priests who had fallen on the "tengu-road" (天狗道, tengudō). They began to possess people, especially women and girls, and speak through their mouths. In addition to their offenses against the general public, the demons described in the folktales of this period also turned their attention to the royal family. The Kojidan tells of an Empress who was possessed, and the Ōkagami reports that Emperor Sanjō was made blind by a tengu, the ghost of a priest who resented the throne.  Further, one notorious tengu from the 12th century was himself understood to be the ghost of an emperor. The Tale of Hōgen tells the story of Emperor Sutoku, who was forced by his father to abandon the throne. When he later raised the Hōgen Rebellion to take back the country from Emperor Go-Shirakawa, he was defeated and exiled to Sanuki Province on Shikoku. According to legend, he died in torment, having sworn to haunt the nation of Japan as a great demon, and thus became a fearsome tengu with long nails and eyes like a kite's. 
In stories from the 13th century onward, the tengu were now understood to be interested in kidnapping children and young adults—especially those who trespassed (whether knowingly or not) into their sanctuaries. The children (typically boys) were often returned, while the priests would be found tied to the tops of trees or in other high places. All of the tengu's victims, however, would come back in a state of near death or madness, sometimes after having been tricked into eating animal dung. 
The tengu of this period were often conceived of as the ghosts the arrogant, and as a result the creatures have became strongly associated with vanity and pride. Today the Japanese expression tengu ni naru, literally, "he is turning into a tengu," is still used to describe a conceited person.
In the Genpei Jōsuiki, written in the late Kamakura period (ca. 1300 C.E.), a god appears to Go-Shirakawa and gives a detailed account of tengu ghosts. He says that they fall onto the tengu road because, as Buddhists, they cannot go to Hell, yet as people with bad principles, they also cannot go to Heaven. He describes the appearance of different types of tengu: the ghosts of priests, nuns, ordinary men, and ordinary women, all of whom in life possessed excessive pride. The god introduces the notion that not all tengu are equal; knowledgeable men become daitengu (大天狗, big tengu), but ignorant ones become kotengu (小天狗, small tengu).
The philosopher Hayashi Razan (1583–1657) lists the greatest of these daitengu as Sōjōbō of Kurama, Tarōbō of Atago, and Jirōbō of Hira. The demons of Kurama and Atago are among the most famous tengu. It is notable that, despite Razan's writing in the culturally-advanced Tokugawa period, it was still seen as entirely appropriate for an intelligent, government-employed Confucian scholar to write a credulous account of these spiritual beings.
A section of the Tengu Meigikō, later quoted by Inoue Enryō, lists the daitengu in this order:
Daitengu are often pictured in a more human-like form than their underlings, and due to their long noses, they may also called hanatakatengu (鼻高天狗, tall-nosed tengu). Kotengu may conversely be depicted as more bird-like. They are sometimes called karasu-tengu (烏天狗, crow tengu), or koppa- orkonoha-tengu (木葉天狗, 木の葉天狗foliage tengu). Inoue Enryō described two kinds of tengu in his Tenguron: the great daitengu, and the small, bird-like konoha-tengu who live in Cryptomeria trees. The konoha-tengu are noted in a book from 1746 called the Shokoku Rijin Dan (諸国里人談), as bird-like creatures with wings two meters across which were seen catching fish in the Ōi River, but this name rarely appears in literature otherwise.
Despite this fairly clear dichotomy, some creatures that do not fit either of the classic images (the bird-like or yamabushitypes) are still sometimes referred to as tengu. For example, tengu in the guise of wood-spirits may be called guhin (occasionally written kuhin) (狗賓 dog guests), but this word can also refer to tengu with canine mouths or other features. The people of Kōchi Prefecture on Shikoku believe in a creature called shibaten or shibatengu (シバテン, 芝天狗, lawn tengu), but this is a small child-like being who loves sumō wrestling and sometimes dwells in the water, and is generally considered one of the many kinds of kappa. Another water-dwelling tengu is the kawatengu (川天狗, river tengu) of the Greater Tokyo Area. This creature is rarely seen, but it is believed to create strange fireballs and to be a nuisance to fishermen. 
As suggested above, the singularly negative characterization of the tengu began to dissolve with the production of folktales and religious texts that described the origins and types of these beings. The Shasekishū, a book of Buddhist parables from the Kamakura period (1185–1333 C.E.), makes a point of distinguishing between good and bad tengu. The book explains that the former are in command of the latter and are the protectors, not opponents, of Buddhism. It also states that, although the flaw of pride or ambition had caused the tengu to fall onto the demon road, they remained the same basically good, dharma-abiding persons that they had been in life.
The tengu's unpleasant image continued to erode in the seventeenth century. At this time, some stories emerged that presented them in a fairly positive light, protecting and blessing Buddhist institutions rather than menacing them or setting them on fire. According to a legend in the eighteenth-century Kaidan Toshiotoko (怪談登志男), a tengu took the form of a yamabushi and faithfully served the abbot of a Zen monastery until the man guessed his attendant's true form. The tengu's wings and huge nose then reappeared. The tengu requested a piece of wisdom from his master and left, but he continued, unseen, to provide the monastery with miraculous aid. This trend of positive representations was further bolstered by Hirata Atsutane (平田篤胤) (1776-1843), a well-respected Japanese scholar who wrote Kokon yomiko, a treatise describing the supernatural world. An additional subset of this scholar's output (on supernatural issues) consisted of interviews with Torakichi, a young man who claimed to have been raised by the tengu on a remote mountain—conversations that were recorded in a text entitled Senkyo Ibun. Instead of harming the boy, the spirits were thought to have instructed him in various magical abilities and esoteric arts.
Describing the composition of these two texts, Haga Noboru, a renowned Atsutane scholar, notes:
Atsutane worked feverishly on this project and he recorded several large volumes devoted to the personal stories of thirty-four historical, eminent Buddhist priests [considered to be tengu]; however, there are also several sections of the work based on fantastic tales from popular sources. … This work was strongly influenced by Hayashi Razan’s Jinjako, and there are also more than a few instances of Atsutane parroting those earlier ideas; however, the fact is that he had a stronger belief in the existence of tengu than Razan. Yet, Atsutane’s belief in tengu was not very different from that of the common person of his day.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tengu came to be feared as the vigilant protectors of certain forests. In the Sanshu Kidan (三州奇談), a collection of strange stories first circulated in 1764, one finds the tale a man who wanders into a deep valley while gathering leaves, only to be faced with a sudden and ferocious hailstorm. A group of peasants later tell him that he was in the valley where the tengu live, and that anyone who takes a single leaf from that place will surely die. In the Sōzan Chomon Kishū (想山著聞奇集), written in 1849, the author describes the customs of the wood-cutters of Mino Province, who used a sort of rice cake called kuhin-mochi to placate the tengu, who would otherwise perpetrate all sorts of mischief. In other provinces a special kind of fish called okoze was offered to the tengu by woodsmen and hunters, in exchange for a successful day's work. The people of Ishikawa Prefecture have until recently believed that the tengu loathe mackerel, and have used this fish as a charm against kidnappings and hauntings by the mischievous spirits.
In addition to their role as guardians or protectors of nature, tengu are worshipped as beneficial kami (gods or revered spirits) in various Japanese religious cults. For example, the tengu named Saburō of (Mt.) Izuna is worshipped on that mountain and various others as Izuna Gongen (飯綱権現, incarnation of Izuna), one of the primary deities in the Izuna Shugen cult. Izuna Gongen is depicted as a beaked, winged figure with snakes wrapped around his limbs, surrounded by a halo of flame, riding on the back of a fox and brandishing a sword. Worshippers of tengu on other sacred mountains have adopted similar images for their deities, such as Sanjakubō (三尺坊) or Akiba Gongen (秋葉権現) of Akiba and Dōryō Gongen (道了権現) of Saijō-ji Temple in Odawara.
In another tengu-centered religious practice, participants in the akutai matsuri (cursing festival) at Ibaragi prefecture begin by hurling insults at each other, in preparation for a contest of abuse with a priest dressed as a tengu at Mt. Atago's mountaintop shrine. "If one wins this exchange, it is believed that they will receive good fortune in the coming year."
Tengu appear frequently in the orally-transmitted tales collected by Japanese folklorists. As these stories are often humorous, they tend to portray tengu in one of two ways: either as ridiculous creatures who are easily tricked or confused by humans, or as punitive moralists who bestow (sometimes harsh) punishments on the immoral. Some common folk tales in which tengu appear include:
In addition to their frequent presence in Japanese folklore, the tengu were also frequently featured in classical literature. Specifically, stories of the supernatural (including kami, ghosts, demons, and, of course, the tengu) became increasingly popular throughout Japanese history, until, during the Edo Period (1600-1867), they became recognized as a discrete literary literary form, the kaidan-shu ("tales of the strange and mysterious"). In fact, the composition and recitation of these tales was a popular activity for all classes during this period. These supernatural topics have remained frequent subjects of Japanese art and literature up to the present day.
Profoundly entrenched in the Japanese imagination for centuries, tengu continue to be popular subjects in modern fiction, both in Japan and (increasingly) in other countries. They often appear among the many characters and creatures featured in Japanese cinema, animation, comics, and video games.
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