Tennyo (天女)

For the 3rd post in the Women in the Wild series, we’ll look at the the Tennyo (天女 = heaven + women).

I recently watched the Irish/Canadian animated film”Song of the Sea” featuring selkies, and was reminded of the tennyo stories in Japan. I assume many other people have noted the similarities between selkies and tennyo. Actually, this is not the only highly similar story between Japanese and Celtic folklore. If you are familiar with “The Two Hunchbacks” story in Ireland, the Japanese have a similar story, except with Oni and dancing rather than faeries and singing.  The Japanese story is called “Kobu-tori Jii-san,” and I quite enjoyed this simple English retelling, but I will include the Japanese Wikipedia page in case there are any enthusiasts reading.

Of course it is very common to find similar themes in folklore around the world. I even heard an interpretation once that the Momotaro story may actually be the garbled remnants of Jason and the Argonauts passed in a game of telephone from Greece to Japan.

But anyways, coming back to tennyo, they are essentially women who come from the sky wrapped in hagoromo (feathered robes), or in some tellings, as birds. If a man steals her robe, she cannot return to the sky and usually becomes his wife.

The earliest written record of tennyo stories in Japan seems to have been put down a little later than the Kojiki. Only secondary sources remain though, so it’s a little foggy (probably around 700 AD). Suffice to say the stories themselves told orally are certainly well over 1200 years old. The earliest tennyo story recorded is generally agreed to be in Oumi no Kuni Fudoki (近江国風土記), unfortunately a lost text, but scholars have pieced together the content from later writings.

The story is written in classical Japanese, but I found some modern Japanese versions to supplement what I couldn’t piece together. Please enjoy the translation below^^

The Hagoromo Legend of Lake Yogo

According to the elders, there was a small bay to the south of the Oumi area called Ikago no Oe. Eight women from the sky changed into white birds and flew down to bathe in the bay.

A man named Ikatomi was in the west mountains and could see the birds fly down from far away. He thought it was a strange site and that they may be supernatural beings. He went to see them and they were supernatural beings.

Ikatomi fell in love at once and did not want them to leave. He secretly sent a white dog to steal the robe of one of the women and he hid it. Seven of the eight women flew back to the sky, but one woman remained. She could not fly back to the sky and so she joined the village people.

Ikatomi started a family with her and they lived together. They had two sons and two daughters. The older son was named Omishiru and the younger son was named Nashitomi. The older daughter was named Isesri-hime and the younger daughter was named Naseri-hime. These are the ancestors of the villagers of Ika.

Later, the woman found her hagoromo (robe of feathers) and returned to the sky. Ikatomi kept an empty bed and his grief never ceased.

A few themes of note is the use of white animals and the hidden skin that is later found. Like the selkie, the tennyo never stays with her human family when she finds her skin/robe. Modern readers tend to find child abandonment distasteful. But I have met many children, and it seems reasonable to me.

I have collected a representative sampling of tennyo stories below.

The Hagoromo Legend of Miho
A popular tale from Shizuoka. They have a festival every year in October to commemorate the story.

The Legend of the Birth of Michizane
A kind of bizarre tale that ends up linking to Buddhism and Tenjin-sama. But I like it because the child finds the skin, much like the selkie stories.

Hagoromo Legend from Jikkoku (Ibaraki)
This is probably the most recent of the 4 stories. It is representative of the childless elderly couple trope.

I also found some more modern-style tales. One of which seemed to be based loosely on Hamaguri-Nyoubou (the clam wife), which I will summarize briefly below.

  1. Fisherman nets a giant clam. Feels amazed that it has lived to be so big and lets it go.
  2. A beautiful woman appears at his door and becomes his wife.
  3. She makes really great soup. But she forbids him to watch her make it.
  4. He looks anyways and sees her peeing into the soup pot.
  5. Fisherman kicks woman out of his house. She cries and turns back into a clam.

In the tennyo retelling I read, a man lives alone with his elderly mother. He catches a clam, but it grows large and young girl jumps out. She makes him some cloth and he sells it in town for a lot of money. She says she is a tennyo sent by Kanon-sama (Guanyin) to reward the man for being such a good son and returns to the heavens. It’s a kind of fun remix of stories if you have free time, but I am relatively sure it is not very old at all, so I skipped it.

I also read one about a man who goes to heaven to get back his wife, but men going up to heaven is actually a more common theme. So I would like to look at it in more detail later.

In a lot of stories about animals/elements that change into women in Japan, there are two general story lines. One is that the woman marries a man and then must leave him someday (Crane Wife (Tsuru Nyoubou), Snow Wife, etc…). And the other is that a childless couple is blessed with a daughter (the Crane’s Gift (Tsuru no Ongaeshi), Snow Daughter).

The stories are almost exactly the same, but the supernatural wife tales seem to be older. I’m not exactly sure why the stories were revised later on. It may be that the animal marriage/child abandonment story line became unpalatable for later audiences. If you have any insights, please feel free to comment below^^

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