We continue with the discussion on the legendary tales from Tenmangū. Since we were able to achieve an understanding behind these shrines through the history of Sugawara no Michizane in part 1, we will now proceed with those tales and get an idea how they have deep ties with the yearly ox Zodiac sign theme. Note that many of these stories were made long ago in Japan’s past, during a time where superstition was prevalent, and natural phenomenons were believed to have been caused by one of many gods. Whether they are believable or not, they do play a big role in the development of both culture and society.
BIRTH & DEATH
Sugawara no Michizane was elevated to the level of a divine being after his death due to his contributions while he was alive. This isn’t so unusual, as there are plenty of examples of this happening not only in Japan, but in other countries as well. Interestingly, one could say that this was already predetermined on the day of his birth. A tale that is told at the Tenmangū shrines is that his birth was an auspicious one, and truly denotes his connection with the ox Zodiac sign, which is considered beyond normal. In this particular tale, Michizane’s birth is recorded to not only been in the year of the ox, but was also on the day of the ox, and at the time of the ox¹. What does this mean?
The Zodiac signs have a multitude of purposes, some utilitarian, others mystical. In the past, they were used to denote years, days, and time, which was key for fortune telling. Depending on the period and the tasks that are at hand, a person may believe they will see benefits, or will heed caution and refrain from doing anything important. In Michizane’s case, this repeated occurrence with the ox sign in his birth is pretty auspicious, and viewed as beyond normal. On top of this, Michizane is said to have died on the day of the ox. Such a repetition of a Zodiac sign may point to him as being divine, like a deity who took the form of a human. As for the ox reference, one could interpret it that the ox brought him into the world, as well as returned him to his true realm, since the ox is naturally a vehicle of the gods. More on this point later.
VENGEFUL SPIRIT, WRATHFUL GOD
This tale can almost be seen as a continuation to part 1, based on how it’s told in the visual records of the Kitanō Tenmangū shrine called “Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki” (北野天神縁起絵巻). In 908, just 3 years after Michizane’s death, a member of the Fujiwara clan would die suddenly from disease. One year later, Fujiwara no Tokihira, the main antagonist in Michizane’s misfortune, also dies from disease. In 913, new Minister of the Right Minamoto no Hikaru would tragically die through drowning while out on a hunting expedition. As the Fujiwara clan gained a stronger hold of both the Imperial palace and Imperial family, more tragedy befell upon them. Such can be seen in the 930 incident where a lightning storm would strike down upon a building on the Imperial grounds where many members of the Fujiwara family were, resulting in a few of them dying on the spot, or later passing away due to suffering from lightning burns. The final tragedy befell on 60th Emperor Daigō, who is believed to have been the main target of the lightning storm. After the incident, Emperor Daigō’s health deteriorated, until finally dying 3 months later. The cause of this is viewed to be linked to his agreement with the validity of the accusations made by Tokihira and others, and Michizane being exiled from Heian Kyō.
This entire story is seen as an act of revenge by Michizane’s spirit that took its course over the course of almost 30 years. Initially, as these events were unfolding, the consensus within the Imperial palace was that Michizane’s vengeful spirit was cursing the Fujiwara clan. There were different attempts to try and “appease” him, such as bestowing upon him different titles including Minister of the Right, which was taken away from him through slander while he was still living. The lightning storm was the most severe, which happened later after the Fujiwara clan were able to become part of the Imperial family through one of the women conceiving a child for then Emperor Daigō, making him a prince. As a result, A Fujiwara member was sent to Anrakuji, where Michizane was buried at, to build an enshrinement. This enshrinement was then named Tenmangū. A few centuries later the Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki was created, which retells this story.
While there were those who described him as a vengeful spirit, Tenmangū instead envisions him as a wrathful god punishing wrongdoers in an act of justice. As a result, Michizane is called by several other names, including “Raijin” (雷神), which means “Thunder God”. According to old beliefs, a thunder god is generally depicted having the guise of an oni (鬼) with horns². According to the Zodiac signs, the combination of the Ox and Tiger signs refer to demons, both metaphorically (i.e. they point towards the unlucky north-east direction on the typical Zodiac chart) and visually (demons are usually illustrated having ox-like horns and wearing tiger fur loincloth). This goes back to Michizane being born in the year of the ox, which contributes to this image.
PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH OXEN
There is a legend that Michizane had encounters with an ox, which may have been his guardian spirit in disguise. During his youth, Michizane found a baby ox wandering alone in a wooded area. Appearing to be lost or abandoned, he took it into his residence, where he nurtured it until it grew into an adult. At some point, just as it suddenly appeared in his life, this ox suddenly disappeared without a trace. While he wanted to set out to search for it, in the end he let the matter go. Fast forward to when he was exiled to live his life in Dazaifu in the south, Michizane would one day travel west to Dōmyōji (道明寺, Dōmyō Temple) in Osaka to visit a relative³. After parting ways, he set out to head back home when he was unexpectedly attacked by an assailant. Before harm could befall on him, a large ox suddenly appeared and drove the assailant away, saving Michizane’s life. Just as quickly as it appeared, this ox would disappear from sight in the same way.
One of the ways to interpret this story is that the baby ox was a spirit. Since Michizane showed kindness and helped raise it, this ox spirit in return acted as a guardian spirit. In a way, it is not so different from many other Japanese fabled tales of similar nature. Although it is just a legend, this contributes to Michizane’s ever-persistent connection with the ox Zodiac sign. On another note, while in this version of the story the color of the ox is not mentioned, I’ve heard another one, although very brief, where Michizane was rescued by a white ox. While I’m not sure if this is a variation of the story mentioned above, there is significance in the white ox to the Buddhist god Shiva, which the Tenjin of Tenmangū is loosely based off of.
AN OX’S STUBBORNNESS AS FATE
Another story is directly related what took place after Michizane’s death and the decision with what to do with his remains. In his final days, Michizane wrote a poem as part of his will that states “people should allow themselves to be pulled along in a wagon by an ox, letting it take us where ever it may desire, and to eventually be buried in the spot where it stops at”⁴. Following this as his last wish, those sent to bury his remains put it in an ox-drawn wagon, and had intended to carry it all the way to Heian Kyō (present-day Kyōto) in the west in a procession. During the journey, the ox suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, laid down, and wouldn’t move. They didn’t make it far, as they were still in the southern part of Japan. Despite efforts to get it to stand up and proceed again, the ox wouldn’t budge. With no other choice, They took Michizane’s remains to a near by temple called Anrakuji, and had it buried there.
At Tenmangū shrines, the underlining point of this story is that everything happened based on fate. Michizane was destined to be laid to rest in the south, and the ox was like a divine messenger to show where the burial spot should be. Interestingly, this is where Michizane was enshrined in the 1st Tenmangū shrine, thus being deified. Again we see the significance of the ox, whether we choose to view this as chance or by fate.
OX AS A SERVANT OF THE GODS
If we look at some of the stories mentioned above, we see the ox had a close role in the life of Sugawara no Michizane, as well as after his death. At the Tenmangū, the ox is often described as a “shinshi” (神使), which can stand for being a servant or messenger of the gods. According to Shinto beliefs, there are spiritual creatures who, acting on the will of the god(s) they serve, come down to earth to handle tasks they were assigned to. At times, humans may also view these spiritual creatures as gods themselves. They would take the guise of earthly creatures such as foxes, monkeys, birds, snakes, and centipedes. In the Tenjin faith of Tenmangū, the ox is the main servant.
From another perspective, the ox can also be viewed as a vehicle for the gods. In Eastern religions and beliefs, gods are depicted as coming down to Earth on the back of a divine creature. These creatures include boars, horses, and oxen. There are artwork that feature Michizane sitting on the back of an ox, although in these he is in his humanly form, as if to say he did this while he was alive. Since Michizane is deified and now recognized as the Tenjin, this is fitting.
These are the majority of legendary tales from the Tenmangū. Bearing a lot of references to the ox, one can get an idea how important their underlining messages are especially when the ox Zodiac years come around. This here brings the 2-part series to a close. I hope readers enjoy this piece of history, and get an understanding about how intricately enwoven the Zodiac signs were with Japanese culture.
1) This is commonly written as “丑の年の丑の日の丑の刻”, which reads “ushi no toshi no ushi no hi no ushi no koku”
2) This is more in the vein of a divine demon, who is a guardian of Buddhism. Another way to describe this would be “onigami” (鬼神), or “demon god”.
3) This relative is stated to be an oba (叔母), which could mean aunt.
4) Although written in modernized Japanese, this is an interpretation of the poem:
“Kuruma wo ushi ni hikasete, ushi no yuku mama ni makase, ushi no tomatta tokoro ni hōmuttekure”
Note that during the Heian period, ox-drawn wagons were popular among the populous, which may have had an influence with him writing this.