Tengu: the mountain spirits

© Grigoris A. Miliaresis

Blood-red faces with angry eyes, abnormally long noses, long and disheveled white hair, moustaches and beards, clothes like those of the yamabushi (山伏) monks-ascetics-shamans of the Shugendo (修験道) school, tall geta clogs with only one vertical “tooth” making walking (and balance) an acrobatic feat, bird wings (and occasionally the head of a crow), unpredictable temperament and attitude and a deep knowledge of swordsmanship and other martial arts: among all creatures living in the abode of Japanese folk fantasy, there is perhaps no one more characteristic than the tengu (天狗), the forest dwelling demon living (still, according to some) in almost all mountains of Japan, Fuji itself not excluded. And at the same time there isn’t any one more controversial both in regard to its origin and to its intentions: teachers to exponents of several martial arts, personifications of evil to some priests, soldiers of Buddhism and enemies of corrupt clergymen to other.

The origins of the tengu is one more study in the syncretic procedure that has formed pretty much everything in Japanese folk tradition: Chinese myths (from which the very name “tengu” comes from) connected to Japanese and astronomical/cosmological phenomena, references from “Nihon Shoki” to characters from the myth of the sun deity Amaterasu Omikami (Ame no Uzume no Mikoto and her spouse, Sarutahiko Okami with an undeniably tengu-like appearance), animistic beliefs centered on the ubiquitous and fascinating in several ways, crow, some doses of xenophobia (the appearance and the behavior of the tengu could very well point to a non-Japanese), superstitions and fantasies; all these and many more have created what present-day Japanese understand as “tengu”.

In the history of the martial art I study there are no tengu and I have to admit that I feel somewhat bad about that. Perhaps this I the reason that even now, every time I find myself in one of the mountains that are believed to be their habitat, I have the irrational hope that that at some point one of them will jump out behind a tree and will convey its knowledge of the sword arts in the same way that Sojobo did with Minamoto no Yoshitsune in the Kurama mountain in Kyoto 900 years ago, thus starting the legendary relationship between the tengu and swordsmanship.  Until now nothing of the sort has happened so I settle with observing how the Japanese (be they martial artists or not) react to them: with a familiarity comprised of equal doses of awe, fear and affinity and an acceptance of the supernatural rather unexpected for a developed country. On the other hand, just as the tengu is not any other supernatural creature, Japan is not any other developed country…


Γρηγόρης Μηλιαρέσης
Γρηγόρης Μηλιαρέσης
Δημοσιογράφος και μεταφραστής. Έχει συνεργαστεί με πλειάδα εφημερίδων, περιοδικών (τόσο του γενικού όσο και του ειδικού τύπου) και εκδοτικών οίκων και με ειδίκευση στο Ίντερνετ, τις πολεμικές τέχνες και την Ιαπωνία όπου και ζει τα τελευταία χρόνια. Από το 2012 μέχρι το 2016 έγραφε την εβδομαδιαία στήλη στο GreeceJapan.com "Γράμματα από έναν αιωρούμενο κόσμο" και το 2020 κυκλοφόρησε το ομότιτλο βιβλίο του. Περισσότερα στη συνέντευξη που είχε δώσει στο GreeceJapan.com.

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