The tengu is the protective spirit of the mountains in his domain, and of the animals, plants and humans living within it. But he is also an inveterate, quick tempered bully, whose sense of humor disappears when he himself falls victim to practical jokes.
In the mountains of Shimane once lived a loafer who lay in bed all day. Only at night he went out the door, to break in at his neighbors or to rob travelers. One morning he was on his way home through the pine forest when he decided to have a rest at a temple along the way.
Without being aware of the holiness of the place he builds a fire, and just before he wants to lit his pipe, he hears a strange sound. He looked up and thought he sensed a large bird with a long tail in a treetop. He immediately grabbed his rifle and shoots the bird out of the tree, but when he wanted to pick up his loot, the “bird” looks at him furiously. He had hit a tengu demon.
How did he had the nerve, the birdman asked on a high note, to shoot at a ghost? Without heeding his pleas, the tengu touched his assailant with a little twig, upon which he caught fire from crown to toe. His cries carried far in the deep quiet of early morning and the villagers came right away. They found him laying moaning on the ground, irretrievably lost, and he told them about the tengu demon and confessed to all of his crimes. The villagers did what they could, but it was too late.
The oban-sized print above features this well-known rascal in an erotic setting. It is from the series ‘Jikkai no zu‘ by Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) and was issued in 1823.
In this arresting image we are witnessing tengu making love to the Queen of the Island of Women on the clouds in the sky.
Tengu was a popular subject within ukiyo-e as can be seen in the chu-tanzaku ban-e sized print from the series ‘Illustrated Moral Teachings for Young People‘ (mid-1840s) by Kuniyoshi: