The Legend of Yatagarasu and its possible origins

Emperor Jimmu led by Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow to victory

The bird with three legs (i.e., tripedal) is a mythical creature that turns up in many traditional legends from Central Asia, East Asia, Egypt and North Africa.

In Japan, though there is no description stating that the Yatagarasu was specifically three-legged, the word Yata-garasu has been translated as “eight-span crow” (i.e. large crow) or deemed to mean Supreme (or Perfect) Divine Crow (the number ‘eight’ in Japanese numerology having the meanings of ‘many’ or ‘a multitude’, or ‘perfect’ or ‘supreme’).

The bird has been depicted as such at various shrine locations, including the Yatagarasu Jinja (official shrine webpage) in Nara,  the Abeno Oji Shrine on the Kumano Road where Yatagarasu is enshrined, and on Mt Takao.

The Legend of Yatagarasu

According to ancient Japanese Kojiki and Nihonshoki chronicles and Shinto canon, this great crow was sent from heaven as a guide for Emperor Jimmu on his initial journey from the region which would become Kumano to what would become Yamato. Based on this account, the appearance of the great bird has traditionally been interpreted by the Japanese as evidence of the divine intervention in human affairs.

Tracing the locations and origins of the story, we can fathom from the Kojiki and Nihonshoki that Jimmu’s brothers were originally born in Takachiho, the southern part of Miyazaki prefecture, Kyūshū (we may note that the theme of descent upon Mt. Takachiho being a Korean custom of declaring sacral or divine authority).

As they decided to move eastward, as they found their location inappropriate for reigning over the entire country. Jimmu’s older brother Itsuse no Mikoto originally led the migration, and they move eastward through the Seto Inland Sea with the assistance of local chieftain Sao Netsuhiko. As they reached Naniwa (modern day Ōsaka), they encountered another local chieftain Nagasunehiko (lit. the long-legged man”), and Itsuse was killed in the ensuing battle. Jimmu realized that they had been defeated because they battled eastward against the Sun, so he decided to land on the east side of Kii Peninsula and battle westward. They reached Kumano, and with the guidance of a three-legged bird, Yatagarasu (lit. eight-span crow), moved to Yamato. There they once again battled Nagasunehiko and were victorious. (In Yamato, Nigihayahi no Mikoto, who also claims to be a descendant of the Takamagahara gods, was protected by Nagasunehiko. However, when Nigihayahi met Jimmu, he accepted Jimmu’s legitimacy, and Jimmu ascended to the throne becoming the first mythical Emperor of Japan.)

The Nachi Taisha in the Kumano mountains has its own version of Jimmu Tenno’s encounter with Yatagarasu:

“Legend has it that Jimmu Tenno, the first emperor and acting “grandson” of the sun kami Amaterasu, saw a light glowing on the mountain while he was sailing off the coast of Kumano and when he investigated, he discovered the waterfall and its light-filled water. He consecrated the site to Ohnamuchi no mikoto, the lord of the land, also known as Okuninushi no mikoto. Then the 12 Kumano Kami, including Fusumi no kami, were consecrated in the waterfall where they resided until the permanent, man-made shrines were constructed. Ascetics practiced at Nachi waterfall long before the shrine existed. Another version of story says that Jimmu Tenno was traveling with his army in the Kumano mountains and got lost. The Yatagarasu, the sacred crow with three legs, led him to a rock, now labled “bird rock” and part of the inner shrine area of Nachi Taisha. Jimmu Tenno thankfully dedicated the spot by building the shrine.” (Izanami-no-kami, the female of the primordial pair of kami from whom the islands and the other kami of Japan came, and who descended to the Underworld, is also consecrated at Nachi with her tomb said to be located in the area.) 

Location of Yatagarasu’s sighting and connection with local peoples

The location Kumano of the sighting of the Yatagarasu is significant. Yatagarasu is historically considered the ancestor of the Kamo clan, the high priests of the Kamo-wake-ikazuchi-jinja. Among this kami’s other human descendants, the Nihongi and the Kogoshui also mention the Agata-nushi of Katsurano and the Tonomori Be.

According to Kamo Mioya Jinja Shrine sources:

“The Kamomioya Shrine is situated downstream the Kamo gama River and therefore it is called popularly Shimogamo Jinja Shrine, or “Downstream Shrine of Kamo.”

There is another shrine called “Kami gamo Jinja” or the upstream( upper ) Shrine of Kamo. The two sanctuaries. Both of them are called “Kamo sha” (Shrines of Kamo). They are closely related. The procession of “Aoi Matsuru”
(festival ) starts from the former Imperial Palace in Kyoto, enters the Shimogamo Sancgtuary, and the Kamogamo ( upper Kamo Shrine) Sanctuary. In the Main sanctuary of the west, Taketsumemi-no-mikoto is enshrined. In the Main Sanctuary of the east, Tamayori-hime-no-mikoto is enshrined in the Main Sanctuary of the east.

The origin of the Shrine is not known for certain but it is said that in ancient times, there was a modest shrine dedicated to the patron god of the Kamo clan.

It is also said that the Kamo clan people are the incarnations of “Yatagarasu”, or three-legged crows which guided the first emperor Jinmu in the Kumano Mountains to go to Kashihara, where the emperor settled down and declared the foundation of the Japanese Nation 660 years before the Common Era.

After the capital was moved Kyoto, this shrine together with Kami gamo Jinja Shrine became the patron god shrine of the capital.

Kamo no agatanushi family served as priests for the Shrine and the Imperial House worshipped the gods of the shrines since after the foundation of the capital city of Kyoto and sent one of the imperial princesses ( a daughter of emperor)to serve the gods. After princess Uchiko of emperor Saga served the gods, this system lasted during 400
hundred years during 35 generations.”

Several other important and key festivals (matsuri) in honour of Yatagarasu are held in the Kumano temples and shrines.

From The Encyclopedia of Shinto, Kokugakuin University, the eight-span-ness characteristic of the crow is of more note than the three-leggedness in this temple shrine:

“This rite takes place in the evening of January 7 at the main shrine (honmiya ) of Kumano Taisha in Hongū Town, Higashimuro County, Wakayama Prefecture. On that night, the treasure seal (hōin) is stamped on the amulets (shinpu) of Goō of Kumano. Also called Hōin shinji. The hōin is made from the trunk of the pine tree that was used for the New Year’s decorations. After reciting a prayer (norito), a paper printed with the pattern of crows with a wingspan of eight spans (yatakarasu) is offered at the altar (shinzen). After being purified by fire, the hōinis stamped three times on the pillar on the left side of the shinzen. The hōin is then offered to the chief priest (gūji) and he stamps it onto some Japanese paper (washi) three times. The other Shinto priests (shinshoku) also stamp onshinpu. Afterwards each clan (ujiko) representative receives the paper that was stamped with the hōin. It is believed that this rite is based on the tale that, at the time of Emperor Jinmu’s Eastern expedition, a large eight-span crow guided him to victory. ”

The following details are taken from Jean Herbert’s “Shinto: At the Fountainhead of Japan

Kumano Hongu Shrine and Yatagarasu banner, Source: Wikipedia

In the haiden of the Hongu-taisha, on Jan 7th according to the lunar calendar, is the Hoinshinji. A picture of Yatagarasu, called go-o-no-shimpu (popularly gyu-o), of which both sides have been purified by a pine torch lighted with pure fire and held over a tub of pure water, is presented to the shrine by a priest; subsequent impressions of that picture are distributed to the devotees all over the country.

It is widely believed that if a person burns a gyu-o and swallows the ashes, the statement he or she makes must be true, as otherwise they would vomit blood or even die.”

The above practice is similar to taoist practices of China.

“In the Nachi-jinja, on Jan 1st, early in the morning , water is brought from the casade, by a priest wearing a yatagarasu-bo, a black cap representing a very schematized crow. One of the norito chanted during the ceremony before the shrine is ‘strictly esoteric…intoned in a low voice, and is known only ot the priests’. The shimpu made on this occasion are ‘used as charms for safe delivery in childbirth, or stuck in the rice-fields to prevent damage to the crops by insects, but in the old days they were largely used for writing contracts, no witness being considered necessary for a contract written on the back of a shimpu.

Given Kumano’s importance as a centre for the development of Japanese religion, Yatagarasu is thus at the centre of an important esoteric cult. Some religious schools regard him as a ‘great master in nothing to fear’.

There is a tradition of visitors to the Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine in Wakayama, buying crow amulets or charms to be placed in home shrines to protect the family from evil.”Crow amulet at Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine 熊野那智大社 (Wakayama). According to Cate Kodo Juno: “The characters saying “Nachi-hoin-musubi 那智宝印結び“ are written here in the form of 72 crows. The 3-Legged Crow was considered to be the messenger of the kami of the Kumano Sanzan. This talisman signifies the binding promise made between the kami and human beings, but also between people themselves and this was used for recording formal oaths in times past. According to legend, if someone broke their promise one crow would die at the Kumano Sanzan.

Other historical references or evidence

According to Nihongi, during the reign of Kotoku-tenno in AD 650, envoys sent to China brought back a dead crow with three legs (Nihongi, XXV. 47).

“Yatagarasu is also worshipped in a few temples under his own name: the Tobe-sha, a massha of the Kamo-mi-oya-jinja.

He is worshipped very extensively under the name of Kamo-no-taketsu-numi-no-mikoto. The Yatagarasu-jinja (a subsidiary of the Kumano-Hongu-taisha) the Kakehiko-jinja (a massha near the Nishi-go-honden of the Kumano Nachi-jinja, which was probably founded in the fourth century), three other Yatagarasu-jinja in Yamato, the central shrine of the Mitsui-no-yashiro (a sessha of the Kamo-mi-oya-jinja) and with Tama-yori-hime) the Mikage-jinja, another sessha of the same temple.

In the Kashiwara-jingu, Yatagarasu is the messenger(otsukai お使い), or avatar of Jimmu-tenno.” — Source: Shinto, the Fountainhead of Japan.

Parallel mythical accounts elsewhere

The three-legged crow is known in Korea as Samjokgo ( 三足烏) where it is a symbol of power, in China the three-legged bird is called Sanzuniao, is usually represented in red and is associated with the sun.

The Samjok-o is found in Korean mythology, it is particularly associated with the Koguryo Kingdom because it is depicted in Koguryo period tomb wall murals. The Samjok-o crow is given central prominence, flanked by the phoenix and dragon. Clearly symbolic of kingly power and superior to both the dragon and the phoenix in Korea. The Koreans may have adopted the myth and emblem as it absorbed Chinese classics, among the many other things they learned from the Han commanderies in Korea.

Three-legged crow painting on Koguryo wall murals: Wikipedia

Sun crow in Chinese mythology

The Chinese have several versions of crow tales. But the most popular depiction and myth of the sun crow is that of theYangwu or Jinwu or “golden crow”. Even though it is described as a crow or raven, it is usually colored red instead of black.

Some Yatagarasu pictures actually depict ten crows perched on a tree, which appear to be the Chinese myth of ten crows perched on a mulberry-tree, recounted as follows.

In Chinese mythology, Xīhe is a Chinese sun goddess and the wife of Emperor Jun. According to legend, she was once the ‘mother’ of ten ‘child-suns’. The child-suns slept in the lower branches of the tree. Every morning Xihe bathed one of her children in the river and then let him/her fly on the back a crow to the top of the mulberry tree. Then the child-sun would fly up into the sky, and be the sun for the day. Each of the child-suns took turns doing this so that there would be light everyday. They and the mulberry tree are said to reside somewhere in the eastern sea named called Fusang. Everyday, one of the ten sun birds would travel around the world on a carriage driven by Xihe. (Some versions have it that one of the suns travels in the Underworld.)

Folklore also held that, at around 2,170 BC, all ten sun birds emerged and ascended the sky on the same day, causing the world to scorch and the Earth to drought. The emperor Yao asked Di Jun, the father of the ten suns, to persuade his children to appear one at a time. But since would not listen Di Jun sent the archer Houyi (or Yi) who saved the day by shooting down all but one of the suns (which escaped because it happened to be traveling the Underworld at the time). The three-legged crow is said to be residing inside of the last sun today.

The image above is a sketch based on an early stone-rubbing showing one of the ten Chinese suns crossing the heavens (Source: Ten Chinese Suns). (See Mid-Autumn Festival#Stories of the Mid-Autumn Festival for variations upon this legend.)

However, the most popular depiction of the Chinese sanzuwu is as Yangwu, a golden crow identified with the sun, who was first described in words by the poet Kui Yen in 314 BCE – Source: Three-legged animals in Mythology and Folklore(See this crane-like three-legged sunbird).

A third crow tale is to be found in a  collection of Taoist lore entitled Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liao Chai Chih I), written in the latter part of the seventeenth century. It tells of…

“a young man from Hunan named Yü Jung who had failed his examinations and was, in consequence, unable to find employment. Desperate and hungry, Yü Jung stopped at the shrine of Wu Wang, the guardian of crows, and prayed. After a while, the attendant of the temple approached and offered him a position in the Order of the Black Robes. Delighted to have found a way to earn his living, Yü Jung accepted. The attendant gave him a black garment. Putting it on, he was transformed into a crow. Soon he married a young crow named Chu Ch’ing, who taught him corvid ways. Unfortunately, he proved too impetuous, and a mariner shot him. The other crows churned up the waters and made the mariner’s boat capsize, but Yü Jung suddenly found himself once again in human form, lying near death on the temple floor. At first he thought the whole adventure had been a dream, but he could not forget the joys he had known as a crow. Eventually he recovered, passed his exams, and became prosperous, but Yü Jung continued to visit the temple of Wu Wang and made offerings to the crows. Finally, when he sacrificed a sheep, Chu Ch’ing came to him and returned his black robe, and Yü Jung again took on a corvid form” — Raven, crow and corvids in myth folklore and religion.

Western scholars tend to view Yatagarasu as originating from the Chinese three-legged crow version. A number of sources trace the early development of the three-legged crow motif to the beginnings of Chinese civilization.

The Sanzuwu motif appears as one of the Twelve Medallions that are used in the decoration of formal imperial garments in ancient China. Said to have been use as early as the Zhou dynasty (11th-3rd century BC), the twelve Chinese symbols of sovereignty were seen on the sacrificial robes of the Son of Heaven… with the three-legged crow having been one of them. In 1759 the twelve symbols were reserved exclusively for the robes of the Son of Heaven. As a symbolic interpretation of the universe, these symbols of imperial authority assumed a cosmic significance and represented the emperor as the ruler of the universe.

A silk painting from the Western Han excavated at the Mawangdui archaeological site also depicts a Sanzuwu perched on a tree.

Western Han painting on silk was found draped over the coffin in the grave of Lady Dai (c. 168 BC) at Mawangdui near Changsha in Hunan province.

Another Chinese legend, Xi Wangmu (Queen Mother of the West) is also said to have three green birds (qingniao in Chinese) that gathered food for her and in Han-period religious art they were depicted has having three-legs. In the Yongtai Tomb dating to the Tang Dynasty Era, when the Cult of Xi Wangmu flourished, the birds are also shown as being three-legged. The Fenghuang is commonly depicted as being two legged but there are some instances in art in which it has a three legged appearance.

The greatest diversity in three-legged crow tales are found in Chinese folklore. The  domicile or origin of the SanZuNiao/三足鸟 even today is attributed by the Chinese to be in Shandong.  A representation of the Chinese three-legged crow (sanzuwu) has been found on Neolithic pottery from the Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BCE).

Mural from the Han Dynasty period found in Henan province depicting a three-legged crow: Wikipedia

The legendary three-legged bird called is said to have lived in Shandong.  A representation of the Chinese three-legged crow (sanzuwu) has been found on Neolithic pottery from the Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BCE). Early Yangshao bird and frog images are found on painted pottery from 7,000 years ago. The use of bird and frog motifs continued for well over 3,000 years until the bird image changed into a golden crow and the frog image, into a toad with three legs – a portrayal which research says is the primitive Chinese belief that the bird was the soul of the sun and the frog, the soul of the moon.

The earliest representation of sanzuwu was found on Yangshao pottery

Sarah Allen in her book , “The shape of the turtle: myth, art and cosmos in early China ” traces the development of the three-legged crow story through the ages, and contends that the three-legged crow solar motif and ten suns originated with the Shang people and that proliferated in several populations including those in the south Fujian provinces, though becoming lost over the following dynasties under suppression from competing Confucius concepts and morphing over time into a single crow sun story.

Central Asian, Siberian and Native American crow/raven traditions:

The raven was of utmost importance in Central Asia’s mythology and folklore. The Earth Diver Myth of the Kolyma Peninsula in East Siberia and the Magyar or Hungarian Republic have a crow version of the “Earth Bird-Diver Myth” that is widely distributed throughout Eurasia, from northern Asia and southeastern Europe to the extremities of Slavonic Germany. The pattern of distribution suggests a common origin in the eastern Asiatic region, spreading as people migrated west into Siberia and eastwards to North America. Here’s the most relevant version:

“The old man and woman of the tundra mound lived surrounded by primeval waters. After 3 dover-birds tried to bring up mud from the waters, the earth around their mound begins to grow around them. They send out a white raven to determine the size of their mound On the first and second day, the raven returns after a brief while, but on the third day, the bird doesn’t return until late in the evening. So much has the earth mound grown. But the raven has turned black because it has eaten a corpse.” — Earth Diver Myth of the Kolyma Peninsula in East Siberia and the Magyar (Birds in Mythology)

It also featured centrally in the mysterious masked tsam ritual dances of Mongolia and Tibet – animistic dances that symbolized the battle of the gods against the enemies and their cults of the dead meant to bring humans and nature into balance.

“It was a holy bird of solar character, a prophet-like bird which served as a kind of messenger for the highest god. By means of his voice, will and wish of the god were conveyed and transmitted.

In the tsam, the raven tries to steal the sacrifice (sor), and for this reason, the skull masks drive the brid away by beating and bashing it. The mask of the raven is even more common in Mongolia than it is in Tibet” — Tsam, Mask Raven

The Khanty’s ex-capital Surgut is named after that god of dream-ravens, Surgat (although one tradition says Sur-gut means “fish-gut”.)

Like the Middle Eastern and Biblical versions, the raven, crow and rook all appear in the flood tale of Siberian myth, not one of them returning to the ark, as they were far too busy eating carcasses of drowned animals. For this they were cursed, as the dove was blessed for bringing back a twig, although it seems obvious that there had to be land somewhere if there were carcasses lying around. The Russian Lapps tell tales of the Seide, which are invisible spirits that have the power, like the dead, of appearing in the form of birds. They relate how a Seide often flew up out of a chasm in the mountains in the shape of a raven.

In Tibet, the raven is seen as a most auspicious bird and designated sacred bird at the Benchen Monastery for the Protector deity Mahakala Bernaken. Like the Tibetan tradition, the Indian tradition follows the Central Asian tradition with the crow also a bird sacred to Shiva and Kali. Brahma appears as a raven in one of his incarnations. On the other hand, the two-headed deva Shani is depicted seated on a crow, bringing the crow in check and protecting people against thievery, a quality the crow is well associated with. The Tibetan goddess of the dawn, Marichi in one painting is depicted with a sun marked with a three-legged rooster, sometimes crow (see source). (The Indian Buddhist Nyingma protector deity Rahula deity of the eclipse, also has a crow or raven at the very top of the nine stacked heads.)

The raven is to Native Americans, the guardian of ceremonial magic and healing circles.  The colour black is symbolic of magical power, of the Black Hole in space that draws energy in and releases it in new forms. The raven is a messenger spirit that Native American shamans use to project their magic over great distances.

The Cherokee Indians have a tradition that their most feared of wizards or witches is the dreaded Raven Mocker (Kâ’lanû Ahkyeli’skï), the one that robs the dying man of life. They are androgynous, and usually look withered and old, because they have added so many lives to their own. “At night, when some one is sick or dying in the settlement, the Raven Mocker goes to the place to take the life. He flies through the air in fiery shape, with arms outstretched like wings, and sparks trailing behind, and a rushing sound like the noise of a strong wind. Every little while as he flies he makes a cry like the cry of a raven when it “dives” in the air–not like the common raven cry–and those who hear are afraid, because they know that some man’s life will soon go out. When the Raven Mocker comes to the house he finds others of his kind waiting there, and unless there is a doctor on guard who knows bow to drive them away they go inside, all invisible, and frighten and torment the sick man until they kill him.” — The Raven Mocker (from the Native American Legends website)

The raven is often the creator or trickster deity in Siberian, Alaskan and Pacific Northwest oral traditions. Similarly, the Tlingit hat is adorned with a raven, an important mythological character for many Native Americans of Alaska. The Eskimos also have the raven as their creator god. According to their creation myths, God-Raven (the bird) made all things, creating light out of mica flakes and human beings out of rock.

Considered both a hero and a trickster, the raven presented many gifts to humans including light, names for plants, and formations of the earth. In the legends of the Northwest Indians and told on the Queen Charlotte Islands, Gray Eagle was guardian of the sun, moon, and stars in the days when the world had neither fire nor water and people lived in darkness. Raven fell in love with Gray Eagle’s daughter.  Now, Raven was a handsome young man who changed himself into snow-white bird to please Gray Eagle’s daughter. But he stole from Gray Eagle’s lodge, the sun, moon, stars, a firebrand and fresh water. Then flying off, he hung the sun in the sky, then the moon and the stars, and while flying off, he dropped the fresh water which became the lakes of the world, and the smoke from the firebrand turned his feathers black. And that was how Raven became a black bird.

The Haida Indians on the northwestern coast of Canada the crow will steal the sun from the Sky’s Master and give it to the Earth people.

This motif of the raven stealing fire out of Australia is intriguing as it suggests that the idea of the crow as a sacred bird may have diffused originally from very ancient migratory lineages from south of Asia. The story exists with in Australian Aborigine mythology, where Raven tried to steal fire from seven sisters (the Pleides), and was charred black in the unsuccessful attempt.

A tale from the Bisayas, the central island region of the Philippines has it that:

“…the flood took place as a result of a quarrel between the supreme god Bathala and the sea god Dumagat. Bathala’s subjects, the crow and the dove, were stealing fish which were subjects of Dumagat. The upshot was that Dumagat opened the big world waterpipe and flooded Earth, the dominion of Bathala, until nearly all people were drowned.”

In Myanmar, there is an interesting version of the “Why the crow is black” story involving a red blood gem:

One day the Sun decided to send the princess a blood-red ruby as a token of his love for her. He put the gem in a silken bag, and calling a crow that was flying past, asked the bird to deliver the gem to his beloved. Crows had milky white feathers in those days and it was considered auspicious if a crow came anywhere near you. So the Sun was pleased that he had found a crow to deliver the gem.

As the crow sped through the sky with the silken bag, the smell of a wedding feast distracted it and it alighted on a tree nearby to find some food. While the crow was feasting, a merchant passing by saw the bag on the tree. Knocking it down with a pole, he opened the bag and quickly pocketed the ruby, refilling the bag with dry cow dung that was lying around. Then he deftly returned the bag to the branch. Not noticing anything amiss, the crow after having had its fill of food, continued on its way till it reached the princess.

When the crow gave her the bag, she took it eagerly, knowing that it was from the Sun. But when she saw its contents she reeled back in shock and anger. Believing that it was the Sun’s way of telling her that he did not care for her, she flung the bag away, rushed to her palace, and never came out again. When the Sun learnt of what had happened he was furious. So great was his anger that when he turned his scorching gaze on the crow, its feathers were burned black. The stolen gem however fell out of the pocket of the thief and was never recovered. — Abridged version from Why crows are black (This detail of the crow holding a gem is interesting because the Japanese crow is sometimes depicted as holding a red gem or orb, hence its adoption as the logo of the Japanese Football Association.)

With the crow as thief motif out of oral traditions from ancient tribes in the south (Australia and Island South East Asia), this motif appears to originate in from Austronesia moving northwards into continental Southeast Asia.

European and Middle Eastern traditions:

There exists two separate traditions in this sphere.

The Greeks’ view of the raven was similar to the Central Asian one, i.e. that Raven is the messenger of the Sun Gods (to both Helios and Apollo, and there are also associations with Athene, Hera, Cronos and Aesculapius).

In Norse mythology, the pair of Huginn and Muninn ravens are the avatars (like the otsukai messengers of Japanese solar deities) that fly all over the world, Midgard, and bring the god Odin information.

In the Heimskringla book Ynglinga saga, there is an account of Odin having had two ravens, upon whom he bestowed the gift of speech. These ravens flew all over the land and brought him information, causing Odin to become “very wise in his lore.” Prose Edda describes the ravens who were Odin’s constant battlefield companions, as a bird sometimes at the ear of the human or at the ear of the horse. The Prose Edda explains that Odin is referred to as “raven-god” due to his association with Huginn and Muninn. One of Odin’s many titles is Hrafna-Gud, the God of the Ravens.  Odin’s daughters, the warlike Valkyres, were sometimes said to take the shape of ravens.

In the Prose Edda and the Third Grammatical Treatise, the two ravens are described as perching on Odin’s shoulders. In the Third Grammatical Treatise an anonymous verse is recorded that mentions the ravens flying from Odin’s shoulders; Huginn seeking hanged men, and Muninn slain bodies. Huginn and Muninn’s role as Odin’s messengers, the general raven symbolism among the Germanic peoples and the Norse raven banner, suggest a link to Central Asian shamanic practices and call to mind the Yatagarasu shrine banner of Kumano Hongu Shrine.

Vendel era helmet plates (from the 6th or 7th century) found in grave in Sweden depict a helmeted figure holding a spear and a shield while riding a horse, flanked by two birds. The depiction has been interpreted as Odin accompanied by his two ravens. A similar interpretation has also been given to a pair of identical Germanic Iron Age bird-shaped shoulder brooches from Bejsebakke in northern Denmark.   The back of each bird feature a mask-motif, and the feet of the birds are shaped like the heads of animals. The feathers of the birds are also composed of animal-heads. Together, the animal-heads on the feathers form a mask on the back of the raven-like bird. The masks recall the tsam mask dances of Central Asia.

A plate from a Vendel era helmet featuring a figure riding a horse, holding a spear and shield, and confronted by a serpent Source: Wikipedia

Archaeologist Peter Vang Petersen comments that while the symbolism of the brooches is open to debate, the shape of the beaks and tail feathers confirms the brooch depictions are ravens. Petersen says that Odin is associated with disguise and that the masks on the ravens may be portraits of Odin (reminiscent of the tsam masks of Siberia/Mongolia).

Scots Gaelic proverbs meaning “There is wisdom in a raven’s head.”    To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish proverb meaning to have a seer’s supernatural powers.  Raven is considered one of the oldest and wisest of animals.

Scottish Highlanders associate ravens with the second sight.  As a bird of wisdom and prophecy, Raven was the totem of the Welsh God, Bran the Blessed, the giant protector of the Britain, the Isle of the Mighty. Bran was god of the sailors as well, and sailors would have crows on their boats. They would release the crows at sea and it seems that the crows would fly in the direction of land (this recalls the Biblical tale of Noah releasing first the crow to search for land after the floods).

After the battle with Ireland, Bran was decapitated, and his head became an oracle.  Bran’s head is said to be buried in what is now Tower Hill in London to protect Britain from invasion and Bran’s Ravens are kept there to this day, as protection against invasion.

The Welsh Owein had a magical army of ravens.  In the Welsh Mabinogi, ravens are beneficent Otherworld creatures associated with Rhiannon.” (Green, p. 1986, 174) and the Welsh unsurprisingly have a superstition where the raven is also an omen of death. If the raven makes a choking sound, it is a portent of the death rattle.  A crying raven on a church steeple will “overlook” the next house where death will occur.

During World War II, Tower Hill was bombed, and the ravens were lost.  Winston Churchill, knowing full well the ancient legends (and how this was likely to be regarded as an ill omen), ordered the immediate replacement of ravens, and they were brought to Tower Hill from Celtic lands – the Welsh hills and Scottish Highlands.

In Gaelic Cornish folklore, as in England, King Arthur is said to live on in the form of a raven, and it is unlucky to shoot one.  The raven is totemic for some Celtic clans that claim descent from the raven. Examples are the ancient clan called the Brannovices, the Raven Folk, that once existed in Britain and the raven heraldic arms of the Glengarry MacDonalds of Scotland.

To Irish and Scots, ravens were also an omen of death and banshees (Bean Sidhes) could take the shape of ravens as they cried perched on a roof, portending death for the household below. In England, tombstones are sometimes called “ravenstones”.

In the Hebrides, giving a child his first drink from the skull of a raven is thought to bestow powers of prophecy and wisdom upon the child.

Raven is also the sacred symbol of the pan-Celtic Sorceress/Goddess Morgan le Fay, who was also called the Queen of Faeries.  In some tales, she is Queen of the Dubh Sidhe, or Dark Faeries, who were a race of tricksters who often took the form of ravens.

Among the Irish Celts, Raven was associated with the Triple Goddess, the Morrigan, who took the shape of Raven over battlefields as Chooser of the Slain – she was a protector of warriors, such as Chuhulian and Fionn MacCual. Also according to the Celtic tradition, the Raven called Morrigan, was the favorite bird of the solar deity, Lugh, the Celtic God of Arts and Crafts (who is also regarded as a triplet deity). It is pertinent to point out here that the triplicity or triplet form apparent in much of Celtic religion and art, symbolizes power and mastery of all arts (source: Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia ) calls to mind the symbolism of the three-leggedness for Korean kings as sons of the sun or of heaven. We may surmise that the “power of three” has a common origin.

In the Lugh and Morrigan account “Two Deities of the Fair Folk: Lugh and Morrigan“, the raven, is (as in the Central Asian and Middle Eastern traditions), associated with the underworld and with incarnation and is said to:

“…come from some dark chaos that preceded these gods, but is not a god in itself.

The major form in which she is seen is her old woman form, wrapped in a cape of black raven feathers. Sometimes she takes the form of the death raven announcing death, or the banshee predicting it with shrieks. She is the thunderhead that descends at death, and the soul which is torn from the body rises through it like lightning. Her body becomes the conduit of death, the stormy pathway of the soul.

This is not for all people but it is the way she appears to our people. Because she is the pathway, the vast network of reincarnation compressed into a cloudy mirror, she can guide the soul as she chooses. She needs only to change the pathways. Usually she is a subtle mist, but on the battlefield, she is storm clouds and thunder, the hag screaming for the dead, and the black death-horse which gallops through the sky carrying its newly deceased rider.

She is also, in secret, the goddess of incarnation. People do not like to believe that incarnations are guided. They prefer to believe that souls are generated at birth, or that some great god has chosen their fate. That the dark death goddess carries the soul in her black wings to rebirth is a frightening idea. Perhaps if the soul were brought by the stork, it would be more acceptable to the modern imagination…”

In another account, the Greek god of light, Apollo took the form of a crow or hawk when he fled to Egypt to escape the serpent Typhon. The crow remained sacred to Apollo, but the relationship between the god and corvids was not without ambivalence. As Ovid tells the story in Fasti, Phoebus (Apollo) was preparing a solemn feast for Jupiter and told a raven to bring some water from a stream. The raven flew off with a golden bowl but was distracted by the sight of a fig tree. Finding the fruits unfit to eat, the raven sat beneath the tree and waited for them to ripen. He then returned with a water snake that he claimed had blocked the water, but the god saw through this lie. As punishment for lateness and for deceit, the god later decreed that the raven from that time on could not drink of any spring until figs had ripened on their trees. A constellation of depicting a raven, a snake, and a bowl was placed in the sky, and the voice of the raven is still harsh from thirst in the spring. The call of the raven was often said to be “cras,” Latin for “tomorrow,” [and which sounds incredibly similar to the Japanese word “karasu“] and through the Renaissance the raven often symbolized the procrastinator. (These last two tales hint of the serpent motif and primordial watery creation and floods motif to be found in Hebrew and Biblical accounts.)

In the classical world (noted by this source), ravens were prophetic messengers that foretold the deaths of Plato, Tiberius and Cicero among others — this has been known as “Ravens’ knowledge”.

The Sumerians of the ancient Near East believed that the dead existed as birds in the underworld (echoing the Siberian shamanic cosmic worldview in which shamans, priests could be transformed into birds during their journeys to the Underworld).  The god Ninshubur takes the raven as one of its forms in Sumerian and Semitic tales. What’s intriguing is a possible connection between the Sumerian versions and Japanese concepts of the Underworld from another legend Izanami and Izanagi. Ninshubur accompanied Inanna (Queen of the Underworld) as a vassal and friend throughout Inanna’s many exploits. She helped Inanna fight Enki’s demons after Inanna’s theft of the sacred me. Later, when Inanna became trapped in the Underworld, it was Ninshubur who pleaded with Enki for her mistress’s release. Though described as an unmarried virgin, in a few accounts Ninshubur is said to be one of Inanna’s lovers. Innana’s descent to the Underworld is said to be a close parallel to the Japanese Izanami and Izanagi myth. In happier times when Inanna chooses Dumuzi to be her bridegroom, it was Ninshubur who led Dumuzi to Inanna (source: Sukkal).

The raven is sacred to Adad, the god of rain and storm. The raven rises as the summer dry season comes to an end and the storm clouds of autumn start to gather (Source: A Brief Guide to Babylonian Constellations)

The Egyptians depicted the soul of the deceased called Ba to be a bird or human-headed bird. The Egyptians believed that after death, there would be a final union between souls and their bodies. Since Ba was the soul, it visited its old body in the tomb. Ba was the soul, spirit, and mind of a mummy and could roam freely over the earth, providing its mummy with substances that were necessary for the afterlife.

The Akkadian god Anzu was a raven (also variously known as “Sky-Wisdom”; with parallels in the Imdugud; Assyrian Pazuzu; Greek Zeus) and a giant storm bird. Lugalbanda meets one after being left in the Zagros mountains. Another one steals the Tablets of Destiny from Enlil; Enlil’s son Ninurta finds him and slays him, returning the tablets to his father.

In the Hebrew/Islamic/Christian worldviews, ravens were considered unclean, representing impurity, mortification, destruction, deceit, and desolation.

In the Talmud, the raven is described as having been only one of three beings on Noah’s Ark that copulated during the flood and so was punished. The Quran mentions the raven only once, describing the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam where the Raven teaches men how to bury dead bodies. {Surah 5:27-31} which harkens back to pre-Islamic Persian Zoroastrian teachings on funeral rites.

The Arabs call it Abu Zajir which means “Father of Omens.  Black birds such as crows and raven thus tend to be linked with death and impurity may have been derived from the Middle Eastern or Persian traditions:

…“the beneficent aspect of the raven appears in Zoroastrianism, where it is a ‘pure’ bird since it removes pollution. This is carried over to Mithraism, where the first grade of initiation is the Raven, the servant of the sun.– “Translating the Raven“.  The crow was entrusted by the sun god, Sol with the task of telling Mithra to sacrifice the bull. In the Mithraic cult, the crow can also dispel evil spirits.

Semitic/Christian religions appear to combine a number of raven types. In the Biblical account[Gen 8:7], ravens were cursed by Noah and he became a blackened bird and condemned to eat carrion for their failure to return to the ark with news of the receding of the flood (afterwhich doves were sent out to accomplish the mission). However, the Bible also regards ravens as protectors of the prophets  The raven has long been a symbol of divine providence. [Psa 147:9; Job 38:41] ; they fed Elijah and Paul the Hermit in the wilderness.   The raven is a symbol for solitude and an attribute of several saints whom ravens fed, including St. Bernard, St. Cuthbert, St. Anthony Abbot, St. Paul the Hermit, and St. Benedict.

In other European tradition, carrion-eating birds such as vultures, crows, and ravens, for example, were connected with disaster and war. Celtic and Irish war goddesses (Badb and Morrígan) often appeared in the form of crows and ravens—perhaps because crows and ravens were known to gather over battlefields and to feast on the flesh of fallen warriors. It was said that if one of these goddesses appeared before an army going into battle, the army would be defeated. ” In Ireland it was once domesticated for use in divination practices and the term “Raven’s Knowledge” was applied to the human gift of second sight. Welsh mythology features Bran the Blessed, whose name means “raven” or “crow”. He is depicted as giant and the King of the Britons in tale known as the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.

Ravens deserting their nests were very bad omens and popular superstition declared that if the ravens ever fled the Tower of London, the monarchy would fall. In many areas of the ancient world, the sight of a raven flying to the right was a good omen, whilst a raven flying to the left was an evil one.”– Raven, crows and blackbirds: Omens of Death and Divine Providence.

Probably telling of the strong links between the two peoples, the Romans also considered the raven to portend death. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that as a carrion bird, the raven (like the coyote) obtained mythic status because it was a mediator animal between life and death.

Elsewhere and other motifs and their related crow/raven symbolism

In Mexico, there is a story of the Cora Indians of how the crow got its black colour…(the Mexican crow is connected to the judge of the dead (Lord of the Underworld) and disaster).

” In very remote times … God …sen(t) a great punishment to man … a great internal war took away the lives of many … a river overflowed its banks and took the lives of many more. The judge of the dead Aropayang … sent out the crow and the dove to examine and count the dead. The dove came back and gave a faithful account of the disaster. The crow, who came back and gave a faithful account of the disaster. The crow, who came back and gave a faithful account of the disaster. The crow, who came back much later, could not do so much because it forgot to count the dead inits eagerness to peck at the eyes of the dead. Furious, Aropayang hurled a bottle of ink at the bird and thus stained the feather of the crow for ever, and he cursed it to be lame on one foot where it was hit by the inkwell.”

The Sioux Indians too have a story of a white raven that warned a group of buffaloes about approaching hunters. As a punishment, the white raven was caught and cast into the fire, giving it its black charred color.

According to Ukrainian legends, ravens used to have many beautifully colored feathers and a lovely song but after the Fall they started eating carrion. This habit destroyed their voices and blackened their plumage. Their former loveliness is expected to be returned to them when Paradise is restored.

Why the dichotomy between the Chinese red (gold) coloured crow and the Korean black crow?

The colours of the feathers of the crow or raven bird may be significant in ascertaining the origin of the crow tales.

The crow tales in the geographical range spanning East Asia to Central Asia and the Middle East where the crow or raven may once have been an other-coloured bird, either white, or yellow or golden or multi-coloured (or where red colour was prominent as the crow was contained inside the red sun), but was turned black upon some fault or failing.

In the Central Asian spiritual scheme of things:

“There are two kinds of mountain spirits, yellow and black. Yellow represents the light powers, more inclined to do good; and the black, the dark and dangerous”. — Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia

While the black crow (as in black raven of European thought) is thought to portend death, the Chinese and Japanese crow appear to signify divine direction and providence in both archer Yi and Emperor Jimmu’s cases.

The colour may also point to the approximate origin of the tales. In Turkic Siberia and the Altai region, the sun goddesses and other spirit figures have yellow hair. The sun goddess and protector spirit of Mt Irt have yellow hair.

Given the proximity of Shandong to the Korean peninsula, the adoption of Shantong three-legged crow motif by the Manchus of the medallion symbol for the “Son of Heaven” imperial clothes during the Zhou Dynasty, as well as the establishment Han commanderies in Korea, it is not surprising that the motif diffused to the Korean kingdoms and eventually becoming adopted by Koguryo as the sacred emblem of its “sons of heaven”.

The Crow Tribes in the (Western) Rocky Mountains have a tale “Three Legged Rabbit” which is an intriguing counterpoint variation to the archer Yi shooting the three-legged crow-in-the-sun story (genetic research points to South Siberia and the Altai region as the possible origins of the Native American lineages):

“A three legged rabbit made himself a fourth leg from wood. The rabbit thought the Sun was too hot for comfort so he went to see what could be done. He went east at night to the place where the Sun would rise. When the Sun was half way up the Rabbit shot it with an arrow. As the Sun lay wounded on the ground the Rabbit took the white of the Suns eyes and made the clouds. He made the black part of the eyes into the sky, the kidneys into stars, and the liver into the Moon, and the heart into the night. “There!” said the Rabbit, “You will never be too hot again.” — American Indian Starlore and other stories about the Sky

From the above mythical connections, we could hypothesize the following:

– The oldest concepts are the ones where the crow is a creator stealing thief, with the starry association of the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. The crow as thief motif as an oral tradition appears to originate from ancient tribes in the south (Australia and Island South East Asia), i.e. from Austronesia.

– The idea of the crow or raven as guardian, carrion-cleaner as well as protector/provider spirit occurs in the region spanning the Persia-to Near East-Indo-Scythian and where the Central Asian crow or raven as messenger or guide to the Underworld. In Laos, water soiled by the crow cannot be used for ritual purification purposes (this seems to combine the bird as thief (stealing water) and ritual purification ideas from the Near East.

– These Crow messengers, guides, guardian protectors or portents of the Underworld then become fused with the Siberian cosmology and concepts of bird shamanic spirits on journeys to the world of the dead to become the Shang-Zhou-Han  Chinese, Mongol, Manchurian, Korean and Japanese stories of the archer shooting the Crow Sun(s).

Ten suns or two? Was archer Yi, Chinese, Altaic, Mongolic or Korean?

– According to Chinese accounts, the archer Yi or Hou Yi hailed from the Yi zu (or Yi clan) in the Yellow River area or was the leader of the Dongyi on the eastern border of the Shang people. He is also said to be the chief of the Youqiong Tribe (有窮氏) during the reign of King Tai Kang of Xia Dynasty. His wife, Chang’e, as the legend goes, was a moon deity. Some 3,500 years ago, there existed a shamanistic archery cult in China. The shamans and rulers performed archery rituals to pray for rain, reduce floods and keep barbarians from Chinese lands. Renowned among the shamans, was the clan called ‘Yi’, whose founder, according to Chinese folklore, shot from the sky nine suns which appeared causing a drought and famine. While the Chinese legends of the crow, ten suns and archer show more variation and are more diverse suggesting that the composite myth came from Shang China, we must also consider the possibility that the early Chinese civilization (perhaps Zhou) may have absorbed some of the Mongolic archer tribes from the north, or formed some kind of alliance with the chieftian(s) of Yi clan powerful ally against the Shang (and therefore the archer myth may have diffused from the “eastern tribes”). The Yi-tribe are known to have been causing trouble along the Eastern borders of the Shang, although the Shang had subdued the revolts.

– The clue as to the riddle of where the sun-and-archer motif was borrowed from … might come from this Altai-Ural legend of the Bashkirs:

“Once upon a time there were two suns in the sky. And these two suns were shining continuously and tirelessly lighting up the race of the Earth. And this caused people great sufferings. Unable to sleep because of incessant light, said one bai: “The one who will be able to hit down one of the two suns, will marry my daughter and besides my daughter, I shall give him half of my riches.”

 … the best archers were coming to the bai’s nomad’s camp. Many good shots made attempts to hit the sky but they could not cause any damage to the suns. And the bai sent every unsuccessful shot back home, saying: “Who needs such marksmanship of yours?” One of the last coming was a batyr Ural by name to test his skill. He took his bow made of horn, placed an arrow of diamond against a bow-string of tarred sinews – everything around started twanging and droning. From this sound mountains fell down and rivers stopped flowing. And meanwhile the diamond arrow was flying upwards and upwards, and finally shot one of the suns through, breaking it into two parts, and flew further. «Ai! Ah!» – exclaimed all the people below in the bai’s nomad camp.

One half of the sun remained in the sky, and the other dropped down to the ground, and later it turned into a big mountain filled with various treasures. Having been cut in two, the sun lost its brilliance. Thereafter people got used to sleeping in the dark at night and working in daylight. As people on the Earth, watching the sun break in two were shouting “Ai!”, one half of the broken sun got the name “ai”, which means the moon, and the mountain made of the second half got the name of “Ural-tau” in honour of the wonderful marksman” — How the moon and the Urals came into being

– Another intriguing possibility and clue is Stephen Oppenheimer’s suggestion that the myth of a hunter shooting the sun has an even earlier provenance from the ancient tribal people of North Borneo (Island Southeast Asia) who have a story of two suns and an Earth that was so hot that an Iban hunter shot one sun because he found his wife was roasted and dead because of the sun.

– The Miao version has six suns, more than the Ural version and less than the Shang-Zhou ten sunversion (some versions have twelve suns), but the Miao version interesting does not have the crow motif, instead it has a cock that was brought into entice the frightened or sulking sixth sun out into the world again. The different versions including and omitting certain motifs suggest that the belt of interaction between the Shang people who were in contact with the Altai-South Siberian, Central Asian steppe nomads and proto-Koreans, may have been the region that syncretized the motifs into the currently most widely known ten sun/crow version of the myth.

– The archer motif is thus likely to have diffused to China from contact with the steppe nomads, given their legendary prowess with the bow and arrow. The Ural-Bashkir archer legend is said to be of archaic character, and the details are said to be similar to those of Asian and East Asian, particularly the Mongol and Turkic legends of god-like marksmen,  such as the story of Oguz Khagan. Jumong, the first Taewang of the Goguryeo kingdom of the Three Kingdoms of Korea is another example of a culture that has claimed the archer Yi motif as its own. However, the fact that genetic studies show the Bashkirs to be characterized by prevalence of R1b3 and R1a lineages (West Eurasian) and N3 (Finno-Ugric), suggests a more northern or westerly origin (perhaps Persian-Scythian) for the archer-sun elements than the Yellow River.

– African tales of crows may have been the earliest ones carried out of Africa but the tale from Kilimanjaro only has a sacrificial motif:  “Dwarves that live on the slopes of Kilimanjaro  are supposed to lay out bits of meat in banana-groves when sacrificing to their ancestors, and these bits of meat roll down the slopes and turn into white-necked ravens.” — From Ravens in Mythology. This suggests that the “Out of Africa” contribution to crow cosmogony  relates to the sacrifice to ancestor motif.

Finally, what needs much greater scrutiny is the relationship of the Yatagarasu to and the origin of Tengu Karasu (literally, from the Chinese tian-gou “celestial dog”). The Tengu Karasu is a giant crow-like demon encountered often in Japanese folk-beliefs, art and shrine dances or performances.

The Japanese creature is thought to be related to the winged Buddhist deity Garuda.  Some Japanese scholars have supported the theory that the tengu’s image derives from that of the Hindu eagle deity Garuda, who according to Buddhist scripture as one of the major races of non-human beings.

However, others feel Tengu are earlier indigenous transformations of Shinto mountain guardian deities given their association with tall trees and with yamabushi mountain ascetics. Tengu are of two physical types: karasu tengu 烏天狗 identified by a bird’s head and beak; and konoha tengu 木の葉天狗 distinguished by a human physique but with wings and a long nose (also called yamabushi tengu).  It is also thought that since the form of Tengu gigaku dance masks from the Nara Shosoin collection tell of a Central Asian origin suggest the mythical character may have arrived in Japan with entertaining musical and tsam masked troupes.


Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia by Kira van Deusen

Shinto: At the Fountainhead of Japan by Jean Herbert

Chinese Myths

Kamo Mioya Jinja Shrine webpage

Kumano Sanzan (Centers of Consecration: Japan)

Richard E. Strassberg (2002). A Chinese bestiary: strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas. University of California Press. p. 195. ISBN 0520218442, 9780520218444.

Xi Wangmu Summary


Ten Chinese Suns

Raven in Mythology

Creation myths of the world: an encyclopedia, Volume 1 by David Adams Leeming, p. 346)

Raven, crow and corvids in myth, folklore and religion/

Raven in Mythology

Birds in Mythology – Myth Encyclopedia

Ravens, crows, blackbirds: Omen of Death and Divine Providence

The Trickster/The Raven by M. Roe

Raven Part 1: Corvidology by Susan Morgan Black

Petersen, Peter Vang (1990). “Odin’s Ravens” as collected in Oldtidens Ansigt: Faces of the Past. Det kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab. ISBN 87-7468-274-1

Three legged bird Yatagarasu Omamori at Fukagawa Fudoson Temple

Three-legged animals in Mythology and Folklore by Graham Lloyd (Lloyd states that “there are grounds for believing the Asian three-legged birds have a Western origin”.  He is of the opinion that the Celtic triskele motif  and the Asia Minor coins of Lycia and Pamphyllia which are disks with three legs radiating from the disk are the origin of the eagles or cocks superimposed upon with the triskele motif (the latter seen in Sicily and Isle of Man designs).  Lloyd also cites this webpagefor the source on an Egyptian three-legged bird found on wall murals. Note: I do not subscribe to this view, given the extraordinarily clear details of the East Asian versions of stories.

Chinese dress in the Qing Dynasty

The Three-Legged Crow:  A Japanese legends tells of how, long ago a monster was about to devour the sun. To prevent this, the rulers of heaven created the first crow, who flew into the monster’s mouth and choked him (I assume this crow had three legs, since the “crow in the sun” is supposed to have three legs, representing dawn, noon and dusk). Another story tells of how the first Japanese soccer emblemEmperor of Japan was travelling through the mountains and became lost. The sun-goddess sent a three-legged crow to guide him, and from that day on, the three-legged crow became an emblem of Japanese imperial rule (and the Japanese National soccer team).

The shape of the turtle: myth, art and cosmos in early China by Sarah Allen: Myth, Art and Cosmos in early Chinese art

Shugendo (Onmark Productions) also notes the Chinese connection with the three-legged crow:

” Why the three legs and why the black crow inside a sun disk? The most plausible reasons involve Chinese mythology and Japan’s own creation legends. First, a black 3-legged crow known in China as Sānzúwū 三足烏 (lit. = three-legged bird) appears in Chinese art dated to the Yǎngsháo 仰韶 period (5000-3000 BC). In Chinese mythology and ancient texts, this bird is intimately related to the sun. According to the Huáinánzǐ 淮南子(2nd century BC Chinese text), this bird has three legs because three is the emblem of Yang— and the supreme essence of Yang is the sun.

Second, in Japan, various deities are associated with the 3-legged black crow, including Myōken (the deification of the Pole Star and Big Dipper), Nikkō Bosatsu (Sunlight Bodhisattva),…

[In Japan, Nikkō Bodhisattva (the Sunlight Bosatsu who serves the Medicine Buddha known as Yakushi Buddha) as well as Myōken 妙見 (the deification of the Pole Star and Big Dipper, whose name can be literally translated as “wonderous sight”) are associated with the three-legged crow. Myōken is a major star deity at sacred Mt. Haguro, and possesses the power to cure eye diseases. People with eye disease or poor eye sight in Japan can purchase talismans or icons called Nissei Manishu日精摩尼手, which show the crow inside the sun disc. Making proper pleas and prayers to the icon is said to cure one’s eye problems.]

Third, site contributor Cate Kodo Juno offers another asute observation: “It is most likely that the story of Haguro Shugendō founder Nōjo Taishi emulates the story of Emperor Jimmu, as often happens in hagiographies, in order to provide added legitimacy and authority to Nōjo’s lineage.”

Three Legged Bird 三足鸟 (

Painted patterns on Yangshao pottery

Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia

Why the crow is black

The symbolism and spiritual significance of the number three

The trinity secret, the power of three and the code of creation by Marie D. Jones, Larry Flaxman and Marie D. Jones’interview with Big 3 News in which she said: “When people hear the title they automatically think it’s about the trinity that we all know, the Catholic Trinity and it’s not. It takes a look at the same trinity and shows how in every religion and in mythology all over the world – in folklore, fairytales, in science & psychology, in studies of the brain, in studies of human consciousness – there is the same concept of there being like three levels, a triune nature of reality. It always intrigued us that the number three turns up so often in so many different areas of life. So the book, it is controversial because people who have only heard of the trinity in that one context are going to think that we’re taking a holy concept and turning it into something metaphysical but the truth is that the trinity has been around long before Catholicism found it. It’s far more ancient than that.”

Reclaiming the Raven chapter 6 of John Peter Luke Saunders’ Masters Thesis on Irish Oral History

Raven and Crow (Khandro.Net) on Tibetan and Indian crow/raven traditions.

A Negative Bird/Symbol of the Crow / Guide and Messenger of the Gods

Inanna, Queen of Heavens | The goddess Inanna

A Brief Guide to Babylonian Constellations

Bear Ceremonialism American AnthropologistVolume 28, Issue 1, Article first published online: 28 OCT 2009

Tengu: The Shamanic and Esoteric Origins of Japanese Martial Arts by Roald Knutsen

Tengu (JAANUS archives) | Tengu – The Slayer of Vanity

Bashkir legends about the Earth, heavenly bodies and natural phenomena | Treasury of Historical Mentality (Bashkir folk-tales and legends)  | Y chromosome analysis in subpopulations of Bashkirs from Russia A.S. Lobov et al.

Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia by Stephen Oppenheimer at p. 314

Different versions of Chinese archer Yi types  中外射日英雄神話淺論中外神话体系一览之中国神话人教版中国上古神话中神族谱系探源_雨柳堂_百度空间

Age Mythology Stories: The Grand Archer Yi

Archer Yi And The Ten Wild Suns  A Chinese legend transcribed by Denise Kaisler

Houyi – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Ho Yi the Archer and Other Classic Chinese Tales

Hou Yi and the noble art of archery – All about China |

Archer Yi and the Ten Wild Suns – Hamilton Amateur Astronomers

How the Rooster Got His Crow by Amy Lowry; “How the Cock Got His Red Crow” from Favorite Children’s Stories from China and Tibet ) These books have the Miao tale of the archer shooting sun motif


Note: This article has also simultaneously been published online at the Japanese Mythology & Folklore blog.

4 thoughts on “The Legend of Yatagarasu and its possible origins

  1. Fyre Shaman says:

    There are certainly depictions of Garuda with a nose like that of a proboscis monkey rather than a beak, so similar to a form of Tengu in that way.

    • Yes, but as Garuda has been introduced and is present in Japanese culture and religion in the original recognizable forms, I think the Tengu is more likely crow/raven than Garuda, on account of the closer imagery of the Indo-Sakka and Xiongnu-Wusun crow totems and oral traditions, and possibily due to the diffusion of the Central Asian Indo-Iranic Mitraic mystery religious beliefs.

      • Fyre Shaman says:

        Yes, that would make sense for the Tengu.

        I have Garuda amulets from Tibet and Nepal with the bulbous nose/beak, which may be a separate derivation.

  2. Good blog post. I certainly appreciate this website.
    Keep writing!

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