When not in human form, the tengu generally resembled a monstrous four-limbed hybrid of bird and man. This sketch is from the Hokusai Manga, by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). It is so old as to be in the public domain.

The tengu shapeshifters of Japanese legend were not as troublesome or mischievous as the kitsune or tanuki. Although some pranksters were found among them, they are more often seen as wise and respected teachers. However, portrayals changed through time, with the personality and purpose of the tengu being quite different in different eras.

Unlike the chaotic behavior associated with kitsune and tanuki shapeshifters, the tengu shapeshifters often had a moral purpose if they played pranks or spread destruction. They taught patience to the impatient, they taught manners to thieves, and they avenged themselves on murderers.

It was said that the best martial arts teachers in the world were all tengu shapeshifters. Students climbed the mountains searching for tengu, hoping to learn magic or advanced martial arts. Ninja magic was especially associated with the tengu, but honorable techniques could also be learned, and some respected warriors have reported that they learned their skills from a tengu master.

The origin of the tengu is also more mysterious. Sometimes they were humans who had become tengu, such as Buddhist priests who were cursed by their peers for some failing. Other times, tengu were portrayed as demigods, demons, or a race of monsters entirely separate from humans. The legends that favored this view often spoke of tengu nests, hidden with great care high in the mountains and filled with enormous eggs. Female tengu are rarely mentioned, and are sometimes thought to look so different from the males that the two could easily be mistaken for entirely separate species.

Tengu had a place, not just in folklore, but in religious mythology as well. Worship at tengu shrines was once common, as was the practice of wearing a tengu mask while going on a religious pilgrimage. In the Buddhist scheme of things, sometimes the tengu was thought to be a demon. As a Buddhist demon, the tengu was a rather simple-minded fellow who only had one purpose: turn the faithful from their path.

The tengu shapeshifters had a bunch of different forms that they could turn into:

(1) A normal human

(2) A human with a nose too long to be natural

(3) A human with wings on the back and/or a bird's beak

(4) A bird/human hybrid with clawed hands and feet

(5) A real bird (this is rare, as I've only found it in three legends)

(6) Various hybrid forms ranging between 1-5 above

This corner of a traditional print from the 19th century shows a typical tengu. The artist is Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). The illustration is old enough to be in the public domain.

Go to the Library
You can find out more about the tengu of Japanese folklore by reading pages 47-53 of the book Japanese Tales by Royall Tyler and pages 103-112 of the book Japanese Ghosts and Demons by Stephen Addiss.
For a taste of traditional Japan, read the tengu fantasy novels Little Sister and The Heavenward Path by Kara Dalkey.

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