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Posts Tagged ‘kitsune’

Damn, it’s been a busy week.  I had a convention this weekend, made and put up some new jewelry, even did two days of heavy editing before submitting to a publisher briefly open to unrequested manuscripts.   Finally, it’s Wednesday, a day when I don’t have to do a damn thing. A rest before I go back to my day job on Bourbon Street Thursday.  Maybe I’ll take a nice long bubble bath.

 

… Shite, I’m forgetting about the blog again aren’t I?

 

All right!  First blog, then bubbles.   Wouldn’t want things to slither on by me, so today I’m going to just play for scale.  Today I’m going to talk about a creature both fearsome, and sacred.   Let’s look at the naga.

 

From Indian mythology, naga are often depicted as female, but the male versions definitely exist.  At essence, they are snake people, cobra people most traditionally.  Shapeshifters who can be human formed, snake formed, or anything in between.  I mean anything.  Giant snakes, little snakes, lots of snakes.  Snakes with just human heads, humans with snake bottom halves done mermaid style.  In some of the more Eastern varieties (Naga will show up in Cambodia and the Philippines and many other places where Hinduism is spread) they take the form of a great serpent with multiple heads, hydra style.  Pretty much you name it, this lot can do it, and unlike a lot of more western creatures, the variants are not seen as separate monsters or species, just the naga trying on new forms.

 

Why such versatility?  Because in most texts the naga are semi-divine beings.  They are often considered immortal.  True immortal too, not Greek god immortal where you can still one with a sword.  They are outside of the Wheel, and have connections to the many gods and often step into the role of priests or intermediaries between humans and the divine. Besides their immortality, they can heal wounds and poisons, predict the future, and kill with venom or just a powerful glare. In some tales they are just a step less powerful than the devata and right on par with the apsara.

 

The exception comes with Garuda, the big eagle-god of the son.  Big surprise, eagles and snakes don’t get along.  In Garuda oriented texts, the naga get all the negative attributes of snakes.  Venomous, untrustworthy, preying on the week and helpless.  They are still useful and powerful, with naga able to do everything from control the whether to bring fertility to lands and women.  But damn it, don’t you side with those lousy snakes or eagle will claw your eyes out!

 

As usual, I’m highly biased.   Both sides probably have lots of ass holes to choose from, and the occasional good ones.  That is true for Every damn critter on my blog.  The proportion of good ones to ass-hats is one of my qualifiers for if I like a beastie.

 

Traditionally naga are often represented with a jewel or pearl for their bindi or third eye.  This is a symbol of their power, and yes there are a few stories of people hunting them for the pearl.  It’s a great tool for divination and may be their source of immortality.  Of course, you’ve got to overcome a literal den of vipers, will probably piss off a few gods, and there is always the karmic backlash on the next turn of the wheel.  But hey, if you really manage immortality, you don’t have to worry about that last one do you?

 

Like many creatures, there are similar beings in most cultures.  There is a particularly nasty legend in China of a snake with a woman’s head, and it is both an old story and a modern urban legend, which yells immortal to me.  There are snake people of the Amazon, and of course a host of medieval demons associated with snakes that have that half-and-half look of the naga.  Not to mention Greek variants like the lamia.

 

Most of those stories lean a lot more to the nightmare version than anything define.   Often it depends on how a particular culture views snakes, some seeing them as deadly and dangerous, some seeing them as a source of wisdom. The (insert name) of South America are just like any other tribe, keep out of their way and respect the customs and you should be fine.   Screw up and it’s fangs for the memories.

 

I’m also seeing a shift over time as cultures blend.  A Chinese concept seems to be filtering West to India, in which new naga are made by snakes getting curious and turning themselves human.  This shows up with a lot of animal types in Asia, including kitsune and tanuki in Japan.  I’m not sure how much traditional roots the concept has, but it’s actually a fun idea to play with.  The original naga were obviously just their own species, but big surprise, not many mythologies out there on exactly how they go about breeding. If they leave their clutches out in the wild like a lot of snakes, maybe it takes the wee little buggers some time to grow intelligent and ‘curious’ enough to sprout legs.

 

Of course, the young, curious sorts are bound to cause trouble.  Young curious sorts always do.

 

Writing Prompts

No… I won’t suggest naga breeding programs.   I will however suggest a story where a snake and eagle are in marriage counseling.

 

So want an Indiana Jones story where his current girl is actually a naga, but we’ll never get the rights.

 

Am I the only one who wants a pair of naga skin boots?  Hey, they’re immortal, they’ll heal won’t they?

 

 

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Okay, last week I got caught up in other creative projects (blogging to come soon!) and by the time I thought of Monster Monday it was already two in the morning Tuesday.  My bad.  Hey, I almost made ten whole installments before my absentminded puckity mind got distracted.  Be amazed, I know I am.

To make up for it, this week I’m going to do a request for one of my friends and readers.  Appropriately I’m going to talk about a monster whose lore is about as consistent as you can expect from something that is sometimes thought to be flesh, sometimes a ghost, and has the brain of a not too bright bird.   It’s time to hop to an island with almost as much crazy folk belief as Ireland.  Let’s go to the land of the rising sun, catch some sushi, and talk about tengu.

Tengu come from Japan and actually are one of the creatures that show up a lot in popular culture, both in the East and the West.  However, the name tengu gets a little slippery sometimes, for reasons I’ll go into. Some of it is down to actual cultural evolution.   It doesn’t help that we are talking Japanese, with fundamentally different structures and concepts than English when it comes to the things that go bump in the night. Let’s face it, the difference between a kami and a yokai is often just the viewpoint of the human using the word.  Tengu also sounds damn close to a dog faced demon from China, and the words may have root origins in common.  But I’m getting way off the point as that absent minded brain of mine goes into lecture mode.

So, Tengu.   Originally they started as kite-like creatures, who were spirits in flesh, an odd concept for some.  They weren’t demons, as they weren’t evil, nor where they ghosts or elementals or spirits of a place or object.  No they were their own separate class of creature, their own separate race or species if you will, with the common abilities of shape-shifting to various degrees and later on the ghost-like powers of possession.

I should say straight off that when I say kite-like, I don’t mean that they are made of paper and flown on strings by eager children.  The kite is a type of bird of prey, somewhat more graceful than a hawk.  It has broad wings made for gliding, and in the earliest depictions the ‘human form’ of the tengu was little more than the critters growing man-sized, folding their wings up to resemble robes, and their very bird-like head staying just the same but speaking human words.  As birds of prey, the early tengu could be quite militaristic, had a proper warrior spirit, and had no problem killing someone who offended them.  They did collect knowledge and had a tendency to strike at abusers of power, but for the most part their actions were inscrutable to most men, and the best way to deal with one was with a quick sword, or a healthy healthy amount of respect.

Whether the early tengu were good or bad depended largely on your perspective.  They seemed to very much enjoy attacking priests and monks.   The early Buddhists didn’t like stories of bird creatures snatching their high priests up and then dropping them off cliffs, go figure.  They spoke of the tengu as demons and ghosts who hated Buddha and would distract the unfaithful with lies and false images, leading people on the ‘tengu way’ and away from Heaven. This was the first concept of tengu as tempters, not tricksters but tempters.  The monks tried to discredit thinking of tengu as physical creatures, and pushed stories of the tengu possessing people and driving them to madness. Then there were a few stories of a priest and young boy getting abducted by tengu, with the boy wandering back traumatized and the priest ending up tied up high in a tree.

Considering modern politics, my twisted and disturbed mind wonders if the tengu abducted them both, or if the priest (not the catholic variety but still) and the boy were off in the woods for other purposes that the tengu then disapproved of.

The folklore from less organized religious viewpoints, you know the kind that can actually respect the various monsters and creatures of Japan, tends to indicate that the tengu only attacked those who got too full of themselves and/or tried to put Buddha symbols into older holy places without asking permission.  It didn’t help that people who wanted to mock the priests would use the tengu imagery, drawing caricatures of current political figures with long beaks or feathers coming out of their back.  Both sides agree that the tengu could be extremely dangerous.  Attacking with sharp beaks and talons, or if you really pissed them off using a fan made of magic feathers to control the wind and weather.  Then the tengu, and this was only in a few stories, could devastate whole valleys with floods and winds, wiping out temples and communities alike.

If one were to find a middle ground, you’d pretty much have to assume that tengu range in attitude and personality just like any group of people.  None of them liked priests much originally, but most wouldn’t do anything too drastic unless that priest did something really irritating.  Usually the worst punishments were reserved for the most powerful priests, and the ones with the most power to abuse.  One has to wonder what the supposed holy sorts did to deserve the attention.

The idea of tengu as protectors of holy places shows up very sporadically early on, and really is a more modern development. Since about the 17th century you get a concentration of stories about tengu fiercely defending certain forests, often without anyone quite knowing why that particular bit of wood got a guardian.  It seems like they are territorial more than anything else, causing problems for the pious and the impious alike if they wander into the wrong forest.  Always forest and mountain locations too, lakes and river holy places were protected by a different class of critter entirely.

Now, anyone who has watched a bit of anime or played too many video games is going to be fidgeting by now, because I haven’t once used the words crow or raven.  The more popular modern renditions of the tengu makes the birds more crow-like, and the human form much more human.  Often tengu get depicted as old men with black wings and long noses, or as monks with raven heads.  The interesting thing is that this style of tengu does have its roots in the old concept, but the crow/ raven variety (no one quite agrees which black bird they really are supposed to turn into though crow seems to be the more accurate interpretation) was a lesser subspecies of the tengu race.

Yep, that’s right.  If the tengu had a high school, the kites would be the jocks and popular kids, and the crows would be stuck in A.V. club and forced to do the other tengus’ homework.   The crow tengu were the underlings of the other tengu, and often got stuck with scribe work and record keeping.  When the crow tengu went out and indulged in a bit of trickery, they would normally target lowly monks and minor officials who abused their power.  It was the more deadly bird of prey variety that went after the big evil doers and other demons.  Still, the fact that they are remembered and the kites have faded some is a pure example of geek power baby.  So I’ll throw a little affection to the little black feathers even if they don’t often seem to be all that bright.

The whole concept of the tengu as tricksters is also a more modern idea than really shows up in most of the historical stuff.  Or I should say, the concept of them as effective, clever tricksters is a modern thing.  They always enjoyed punishing people, and at least with the crow variety the punishments tended to be more frustrating than harmful. They even had a sense of humor, or at least a sense of ironical justice, but they weren’t the big pranksters like the kitsune or tanuki.  In fact, in most stories where the crow tengu thinks it is being clever it quickly gets outwitted by the simplest peasant, or a child.  It’s got to be embarrassing to get pranked by a kid or tricked into throwing gold at a gambler because your birdy brain thinks the gambler is afraid of money. Vicious and fierce we can give the tengu, and they sure thought they were clever sometimes, but that was often a whole lot of pride talking. Pride that was seriously out of tune with reality.

Kinda like the very priests the poor birdies targeted.

One more note on the language thing.  Much like shen gets more and more overused in China, tengu is starting to become a fall back general term for minor spirit creatures that aren’t good or bad.  Usually with a qualifier word, like crow tengu for what we’ve been talking about, but I’ve heard of lawn tengu and foliage tengu which seem to be other beasts entirely.  A mask with a long nose has been used to represent the bird tengu for the last couple of hundred years, the nose being a symbol for the beak.   In fact in many stories even the most human shaped tengu had a long nose, couldn’t seem to get rid of it.  Now the long nose mask is getting used more and more for any impish or obnoxious spirit, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the avian concept either fade, or go back to an older name to keep it separate from the generalities.

Yes, I know I normally just end on a joke, but I find the whole evolution of language and mythology fascinating, and this is something that can be actually tracked in our time.

Oh all right, so a tengu flies into a bar…

No, never mind.

 

Writing Prompts

Tengu high school

What if the priests dealing with tengu had been the Catholics, not the Buddhists?

What is in the forests that the tengu are so fierce about protecting?  Nesting sites perhaps?

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