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. It makes a noise like thunder and brings war wherever it falls. One 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, but usually 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 star precedes 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.
How the tengu was transformed from a dog-meteor into a bird-man is not clear. Some Japanese scholars have supported the theory that the tengu's image derives from that of 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. The name tengu seems to be written in place of that of the garuda in a Japanese sutra called the Emmyō 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. However, he found little evidence to support this idea.
A later version of the Kujiki, an ancient Japanese historical text, writes the name of Amanozako, a monstrous female deity born from the god Susanoo's spat-out ferocity, with characters meaning tengu deity (天狗神). The book describes Amanozako as a raging creature capable of flight, with the body of a human, the head of a beast, a long nose, long ears, and long teeth that can chew through swords. An 18th century book called the Tengu Meigikō (天狗名義考?) suggests that this goddess may be the true predecessor of the tengu, but the date and authenticity of the Kujiki, and of that edition in particular, remain disputed.
Read more about this topic: Kotengu
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