Mythic Morals

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Are Myths Just Entertainment?

Not all myths are just stories--many teach lessons. Characters in myths sometimes lead by example, reminding people how they should behave. Other times, mythic characters lie, cheat or steal, and are then scolded or punished for their bad behavior. In Japan, people tell stories of tengu, goblinlike creatures that live in the forests, mocking and punishing prideful people. The common Japanese expression "tengu ni naru" even warns people not to become arrogant.


Long ago, a man wandering through a forest in Japan came upon a long-nosed, magical goblin called a tengu. Eventually, the tengu agreed to teach the man ninjitsu, a kind of magic. Using ninjitsu, the man could now turn invisible, swim underwater for hours or run as fast as a horse--just by uttering a few words. But the man was arrogant and soon began abusing his powers, using them to steal from travelers and sometimes even to kill them. One day as he was passing through the mountains, the man came upon a farmer walking slowly along the path. The man was impatient and would not wait for the farmer to move out of his way. He drew his sword and swung at the farmer's neck. But his sword never found its mark. Looking down, the man saw that his sword was broken. Looking up, he saw the farmer sitting in a tree laughing. The farmer was actually a tengu in disguise. Try as he might, the man could never perform ninjitsu again and was soon caught and punished.

--Adapted from a story told by Masaaki Miyazaki about his distant ancestor. Recorded by American folklorist Richard Dorson in 1957.

Tengu netsuke: Mid-18th-century netsuke (a small and often intricately carved toggle used to fasten a small container to a kimono sash) portrays a tengu (a Japanese mythological bird) emerging from a giant egg.
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Mischievous Mountain Goblins

People in Japan tell stories of magical part-bird, part-human creatures called tengu that lurk in the mountains. Tengu are skilled swordsmen known to play tricks on arrogant Buddhist priests and to punish people who misuse knowledge or authority. According to some stories, people who are prideful or overconfident are reincarnated as tengu; only after a lifetime of good deeds can they be reborn as humans. Tengu were likely introduced to Japan from Korea and China between about AD 500 and 600 and were at first considered to be disruptive demons and omens of war. Over time, however, their image softened into one of mischievous mountain goblins.

At a Glance: Tengu

As late as 1860, the Japanese government posted official notices to tengu, asking the goblins to temporarily vacate a certain mountain during scheduled visits by the Shogun.

Tengu have supernatural abilities, including:

  • Shape-shifting into human or animal forms.
  • Speaking without moving their mouths.
  • Moving instantly from place to place.
  • Appearing uninvited in people's dreams.

The earliest tengu had bird beaks, wings and claws. Later tengu appear more humanlike but with long noses.

In many stories, tengu wings are described as "shimmering."

Tengulike creatures are frequent characters in Japanese anime, a kind of cartoon.

Japanese Yamabushi priest wearing cabin robe and pillbox hat
Credit: Sylvain Grandadam/AGE Fotostock

Mountain Priests

Tengu are shape-shifters and can take many forms. But in legends, tengu are often described as having a human's body with wings and a long nose. And since the 1200s, humanlike tengu are often shown wearing the distinctive cap and robe of a group of mountain-dwelling priests called yamabushi.

Sword Guard

Not all tengu are created equal. Wise and powerful tengu are often shown in humanlike forms, while less powerful tengu appear more like birds.


Netsuke, a small toggle or fastener used to attach containers to clothing, is carved in the shape of a tengu. Such birdlike tengu are often said to be born from giant eggs and to live in high trees in the mountains.

Woodblock Print

The famous Japanese warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189) was known for his fantastic sword play, and, according to legend, he may have owed his skills to a tengu. The story depicted in a print tells of how the tengu king Sojobo trained Yoshitsune in leaping sword fighting near Mount Kurama, north of Kyoto.