Tengu (Japanese: 天狗, lit. “Heavenly Dog” or “Heavenly Sentinel”) are a type of ancient, mythical creature found in Japanese folk religion who taught humans martial arts and medicine. Known as keepers of the secrets of swordmanship and guardians of the high mountain forest, their path was one of technique, discipline, chi cultivation, and transformation.
The Tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has often been humanized as an unnaturally long nose, which today is widely considered the tengu’s defining characteristic in the popular imagination.
In Japanese folklore, many stories include mythical creatures and ancient spirits called yokai. And of all the yokai, the tengu is the one that might seem most familiar to a modern Westerner. At first glance, it’s a lot like a superhero: the ability to fly, great physical strength, magical powers, and secret martial arts skills.
TYPES OF TENGU
Though you may be familiar with the red-faced long-nosed tengu, it may surprise you to learn there are two different types. And the one that came first is considered lesser than the newer yokai.
The other type is called kotengu 小天狗 (lesser tengu). Karasu means crow, but these tengu may also take the form of birds of prey, especially the black kite (tobi 鳶). They also wear monk’s robes, but kotengu are much more animal-like both in their appearance and their behavior.
The kotengu is actually the old-school version of the tengu. In other words, originally the bird-like tengu was the only type there was. But as the tengu’s significance changed and developed, they became more human, with the long nose becoming a humanized beak.
But even as the new human-like tengu emerged, the old bird-like image stuck around. So we ended up with two kinds of tengu in the modern era. Even though the kotengu is the original, it’s now secondary. The most interesting stories are about the daitengu.