The Five-headed dragon of Enoshima the Benzaiten goddess

Enoshima Jinja (image source: "Enoshima and Kamakura", Divinity blog

Enoshima Jinja (image source: “Enoshima and Kamakura”, Divinity blog

“Enoshima has the myth of a five-headed dragon. The dragon was responsible for the hardships in the surrounding area, and the benevolent goddess Benzaiten eventually came from above to soothe the dragon’s rage. Along with her coming, she raised a large landmass from the ocean to serve as her dwelling. The dragon, wooed by Benzaiten’s beauty and benevolence, fell in love with her, but she rejected his proposal as punishment for the adversity he had brought to the humble fishing communities. The dragon, in repentance, then became a dormant part of Enoshima island where it still remains today (an area called “Dragon Hill” on Enoshima.) The Enoshima land of Goddess has a Enoshima shrine, which is famous for a god of match-making”.
– excerpted from’s “Enoshima is a legendary power spot”

The caves at Enoshima

The second (east) cave, which is linked to the first one (dedicated to the Benzaiten goddess) is dedicated to the dragon deity that has long been believed to be the guardian deity for fishermen. In the far end is the statue of a fierce-looking dragon, colored green. From time to time, the artificial sound of thunder surprises visitors.

Legend asserts that this dragon (some say it was a large serpent as long as 60 meters residing in the cave) deity came into view when Tokimasa Hojo (1138-1215), father-in-law of Yoritomo and the First Hojo Regent, visited here and prayed for the prosperity of his offspring. The dragon promised that Tokimasa’s wishes be answered, leaving behind three scales, which are the origin of the Hojo crest, or Three Scales.



Enoshima is the name of an islet, 4 kilometers in circumference, linked to the mainland shore of Fujisawa city by two 600-meter bridges. Three shrines stand on this islet, each sacred to a mythological goddess. Legend asserts that 29th Emperor Kinmei (510-571) built a small shrine inside the cave in the southern bluff, wherein enshrined were trio goddesses. They were Tagitsuhime, Ichikishimahime and Tagirihime, all of which appear in the Ancient Chronicle, or Kojiki. (the trio’s names are slightly different from those in the Chronicles of Japan or, Nihon Shoki). The mother shrine for the trio is in Fukuoka Prefecture and called Munakata Shrine. Hence the name of Munakata Trio Goddesses.

Japanese Buddhism, in the meantime, was first introduced in the 6th century from China by way of Korea when Emperor Kinmei was in power, and later, the cave here became the favorite spot for Buddhist priests to practice asceticism. Among them were Priest Kukai (774-835), the founder of the Shingon Sect, Priest En-nin, the third chief priest of Enryakuji near Kyoto (mecca of the Tendai Sect), Priest Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of the Nichiren Sect, and Priest Ippen (1239-1289), the founder of Ji Sect. A harmonious fusion of Shinto and Buddhism was already in progress in the eighth century.

As the cave was often awash by waves, enshrining the goddesses in a safer site was long thought necessary. In 853, Priest En-nin, commonly known by his religious name Jikaku Daishi, erected a shrine atop the islet, which is the origin of today’s Nakatsu-no-miya, one of the trio shrines.

Enshrined at the Okutsu-no-miya shrine is Tagirihime. In the tradition of one of the many appearing and disappearing deities of Japan(reminiscent of Hittite weather and seasonal solstice deities), legend holds that the goddess usually stays in the cave down the cliff during winter coming up here on the first Serpent Day of April and going back to the cave on the first Boar Day of October on lunar calendar. The shrine is a typical irimoya (hipped-gabled roof) style of architecture, though not old. It was rebuilt in 1842.

On the ceiling of the oratory, the well-known ‘A Turtle Glaring at Eight Directions’, painted by Hogetsu Sakai (1761-1829).

On the south side bluff of Enoshima, there are two caves.
The first (west) cave is 13 meters wide at the entrance and pierce to the length of 45 meters. Roughly 100 meters ahead stands a statue of Priest Kukai and then the cave branches into two. The right-hand one, 39 meters long, is called Kongo (Diamond or Vajradhatu in Skt.) cave and the left one, 20 meters long, is Taizo (Womb or Garbhakosa in Skt.) cave, based on Shingon Sect’s doctrines of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana in Skt.). Being an amalgam of Buddhism and Shinto, the cave also houses Shinto deities: The trio goddesses are still enshrined in the innermost recess of the right-hand cave and Amaterasu Sun Goddess (see Shinto) in the left. However, the cave is filled with a number of stone-statues mostly associated with Shingon sect Buddhism…
Enoshima Jinja Shrine

It was Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, who invited the Benten (also referred to as Benzaiten. Sarasvati in Sanskrit) goddess here for the first time, and named it Kinki-zan Yoganji, a Shingon sect Buddhist temple, since the Benten was apparently of Buddhist element. It was founded as a sub-temple of Nin-nah-ji in Kyoto. To the newly enshrined Benten, he prayed for victory over the Fujiwara Clan, that was then powerful and grew near to rivalling the Minamoto up in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture in the northern part of Honshu.

Originating in Veda of Hinduism, Benten* is known as the goddess of fortune and closely associated with water or snake. (For further details, see Zeniarai Benten).

* She is one of the Three Great Bentens in Japan including the one here at Enoshima. The others are Miyajima (Itsukushima) Shrine in Hiroshima and Chikubushima Shrine in Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture, all located near water and venerated basically as the guardian deity of voyage.

Three women on a shore on Enoshima, a Utagawa Sadatora yukiyo-e painting

Three women on a shore on Enoshima, a Utagawa Sadatora yukiyo-e painting

Image source: Divinity blog

More info is found at Onmark Productions’ “Benzaitgen, Benten”:

“The water goddess Benzaiten (Benten for short) is one of Japan’s most complex syncretic deities, having long ago been conflated and associated with other divinities from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Japanese pantheons. Her worship in Japan is widespread in esoteric Buddhist camps, Shintō circles, and Shugendō enclaves. Her many forms range from a two-armed beauty playing music to an eight-armed martial deity holding weapons to a monstrous three-headed snake to a divine representation of Amaterasu (the supreme Shintō sun goddess). Dragons and serpents are her messengers and avatars. Like Benzaiten, each creature is closely associated with water and the sacred wish-granting jewel. Today Benzaiten is one of Japan’s most popular deities. She continues to serve as the preeminent muse of Japanese artists, an unrivaled agricultural deity invoked for ample rain and bountiful harvests, and the sole female among Japan’s wealth-bringing Seven Gods of Good Fortune. Originally a Hindu river goddess named Sarasvatī, she was introduced to Japan (via China) in the mid-7th century CE as a multi-armed defender of Buddhism and the state. But in later times, she was “reconnected” with water and appropriated by Japan’s indigenous island cults and kami cults to become, essentially, a native “Shintōized” deity of wealth and good fortune. Until only recently, scholars of Japanese religions have generally ignored this phenomenon and instead focused on the “Buddhazation” of Japan’s myriad kami. In many ways, Benzaiten also exemplifies a unique form of “Japanese Hinduism,” making it more fruitful to explore her within a Deva-Buddha-Kami (Hindu-Buddhist-Shintō) matrix rather than within a binary Buddha-Kami (Honji Suijaku 本地垂迹) model. See Honji Suijaku popup note. This illustrated guide traces the evolution of Benzaiten iconography in Japanese artwork and explores her role as a beacon of Japan’s combinatory Deva-Buddha-Kami religious matrix. To a lesser degree, this article also examines the ritualistic context of her worship – how her art was employed in religious rites, state functions, Shintō ceremonies, and folk practices. A special side page presents presents mini case studies of Benzaiten’s main sanctuaries in both old and modern Japan. The Benzaiten page is presented in approximate chronological order and can be read as a whole or sectionally. To improve readability, information is sometimes repeated. It aims to augment the efforts of students, teachers, art historians, and scholars of Benzaiten lore and art by exploring iconographic dictionaries, sculptures, mandalas, paintings, talismans, and other religious art, both old and new. It draws from pre-modern and modern texts by monks, scholars, and art historians in Japan, Asian, Europe, and America. This handbook does not cover Benzaiten’s earlier evolution in India or China in great detail. For more on that topic, click here (popup note).

ORIGIN & EVOLUTION. The Sanskrit term Sarasvatī refers to both a goddess and an ancient sacred river in India’s Vedic mythology. As the personification of this sacred river and of water in general, Sarasvatī came to represent everything that flows (e.g., music, poetry, writing, learning, eloquence, wisdom, performing arts). In the Rig Veda (a monumental Hindu text composed centuries before Buddhism’s emergence in India in the 5th century BCE), she is described as the best of goddesses, the “inciter of all pleasant songs, inspirer of all gracious thought.” In India, she was invoked in Vedic rites as the deity of music and poetry well before her introduction to China around the 4th century CE.

Jump to 8-armed Happi Benzaiten Section Jump to Biwa-Playing Benzaiten Section
L = 8-armed Form. Details Here►
R = Mandala Form. Details Here►

She eventually entered Japan sometime in the 7th-8th century, where she was adopted into Japan’s Buddhist pantheon as an eight-armed weapon-wielding defender of the nation owing to her martial description in the Sutra of Golden Light. The oldest extant Japanese statue of Benzaiten is an eight-armed clay version dated to 754 CE (photos below). However, the formal introduction of Mikkyō 密教 (Esoteric Buddhism) to Japan in the early 9th century stressed instead her role as a goddess of music and portrayed her in the esoteric Taizōkai Mandala as a two-armed beauty playing a lute.

Prior to the 12th century, Benzaiten’s Hindu origins as a water goddess were largely ignored in Japan. But sometime during the 11th-12th centuries, the goddess was conflated with Ugajin (the snake-bodied, human-headed Japanese kami of water, agriculture, and good fortune). Once this occurred — once Benzaiten was “reconnected” with water — the level of her popularity changed from a trickle into a flood. By the 12th-13th centuries, she became the object of independent worship and esoteric Buddhist rites (see popup note). Over time her warrior image (favored by samurai praying for battlefield success) was eclipsed by her heavenly mandala representation — even today, the two-armed biwa-playing form is the most widespread iconic depiction of Benzaiten and her standard form as one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. Once reconnected with water, she rose to great popularity as the patroness of “all things that flow” — music, art, literature, poetry, discourse, performing arts — and was also called upon to end droughts or deluges and thereby ensure bountiful harvests. Her sanctuaries are nearly always in the neighborhood of water — the sea, a river, a lake, or a pond — while her messengers and avatars are serpents and dragons. In fact, the creatures who rule the waters are all intimately associated with Benzaiten in Japan. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) she was sculpted in the nude, but such statues are rare and dressed in robes when used in ceremonies. In the Muromachi period (1392-1573), the spelling of her name was changed, with the character zai 才 (meaning talent) replaced with its homonym zai 財 (meaning wealth) and she subsequently became one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. With the addition of wealth and fortune to Benzaiten’s earlier roles, her popularity skyrocketed and she eventually supplanted Kichijōten (Skt. = Lakṣmī), the traditional Buddhist goddess of wealth and beauty. The two, even today, are confused and conflated.”

5 thoughts on “The Five-headed dragon of Enoshima the Benzaiten goddess

  1. wildinjapan says:

    I’ve read theories that the dragon represents rivers which frequently flooded (thus “devouring” people).

    Do you happen to know why the Enoshima Benzaiten is naked?

    • The nude sculptures were an innovation of the Kamakura period, which is when a tradition among sculptors began, where they carved nude statues of Jizo and Benzaiten, which were then dressed in real clothing. Google “Heian and Kamakura period sculptures” by Saylor, and onmark productions page on “Japanese Busshi”

  2. Based on Enoshima Engi records, See Robert Juhl’s “The Destructive Dragon”: Introduction‎ > ‎
    The Dragon
    III. The Dragon

    The Dragon in Japan
    In Japan, the dragon (and snake) is associated with water and rivers. This association is so close that it is still preserved in everyday speech, in which a waterspout or tornado is tatsumaki (竜巻, “dragon-coils”) and a water faucet (from which water issues) is jaguchi (蛇口, “snake-mouth”).

    M. W. DeVisser, in The Dragon in China and Japan, writes: “Their dragons [the dragons of the ancient Japanese] were kami, gods, who lived in rivers and seas, valleys and mountains (in rivulets, lakes and ponds), bestowing rain on their worshipers. That those river gods could also cause wind we learn from the above quoted passage of the Nihongi, where the god of the Northern river is said to have made a whirlwind arise in order to submerge the calabashes. So the three kinds of dragons, to be found in Japan, original Japanese, Chinese, and Indian, all have one feature in common, i.e., the faculty of causing rain; while the winds belong to the domain of the former two.” (Dragon in China and Japan, pg. 154).
    The Dragon in the Enoshima Engi

    At the time of most of the events related in the Enoshima Engi (the Kofun era, roughly 300-710 AD), the inhabitants of the area around Enoshima lived mainly on the sides of low hills, as indicated by the two maps below.

    KofunSiteMap.jpg KofunRemainsFujisawa.gif
    Distribution of Kofun-era sites in the Kamakura-Fujisawa area from History of Kamakura City: Archeology ( 鎌倉市史 考古編, pg. 52)
    Distribution of Kofun-era sites in Fujisawa from History of Fujisawa City, Volume 4 (archeology) (藤沢市史、第4巻, pg. 29)

    From the crests of most of these hills, an observer could see the winding course of the Kashio River below. It is a meandering river, snaking its way through the drowned valley of what previously was the Ofuna estuary (大船入江), shown in this map of prehistoric Jomon times. As a matter of fact, the Japanese term dako (蛇行, winding snake-like, i.e., meandering) is used to describe the river in geography textbooks.

    Below is a detail from a set of illustrations of the Tokaido Road that was completed in 1806 (東海道分間延絵図, from 柏尾川物語, pg. 30). The detail shows the upper reaches of the Kashio River around present-day Totsuka. Note the broad flood-plain and the way the river snakes through it (1).


    The point is that to ancient observers on the hills, the Kashio River would have looked like a snake or dragon lying below (1b). Another instance of a dragon-shaped waterway in Japan being regarded as the home of a dragon is here at Inbanuma.

    In the Enoshima Engi, the lake is described as the abode of a five-headed dragon:

    The lake was the lair of a fierce, evil dragon, a dragon-king with five heads on one body (see translation).

    From their vantage point on the hills, these same ancient observers would have seen the main tributaries of the Kashio River. At present, the river has four main tributaries from present-day Ofuna southward: they are the Sunaoshi (砂押川), Kobukuroya (小袋谷川), Shin (新川), and Otsuka (大塚川) rivers (see this page on Kamakura’s rivers, for example). One major characteristic of the Kashio River is that all of its main tributaries are on the east or southeast side of the river. To observers on the hills, these four tributaries would have looked like heads on the body of a sinuous dragon, especially if the tributaries had their sources in a lake or pond, with the head formed by Sagami Bay, which reached as far as present-day Fujisawa in earlier times. Now we can surmise why Kokei described the destructive dragon, whose lair was in the lake, as having five heads.

    Below is a diagram of my conception of the dragon-like shape that the ancient observer may have seen from a location between Kawana, which is approximately where the Kashio River entered Sagami Bay at the time covered in the Enoshima Engi, and present-day Ofuna during the late Jomon and Yayoi eras. In this view, the mouth of the dragon corresponds to the mouth of the Kashio River. The diagram is based on the page referenced above with my addition of a portion of Sagami Bay corresponding to the main head of the dragon (2). Note that all of the tributaries, which correspond to the subsidiary heads of the dragon, are on one side. Nowadays, of course, the area has been changed so much by engineering works that some of the tributaries no longer are recognizable from the hills.


    Depictions of Snakes/Dragons on Pottery
    Judging from depictions on pottery, the snake appears to have gained a prominent role in the middle Jomon era. Professor Hiroshi Arakawa (荒川紘), author of 龍の起原 (The Origin of the Dragon), states that around 1000 BC, pottery underwent a substantial change, with the quantity of pottery increasing sharply, especially in Japan’s Chubu, Kanto, and Hokuriku regions. Decorations tended to be abstract and seem to have had a magic-related significance. Snake motifs predominated in the cateogy of non-abstract decorations (龍の起原, pgs. 134-5); for example, this figurine with a snake attached to its head (from 龍の起原, pg. 135).

    If the snake had great significance in middle Jomon culture, an individual would not need much imagination to stand on a hill overlooking the Ofuna Estuary (precursor of the Kashio River) and liken the course of the water to the body of a snake, its mouth to the mouth of the snake, and its tributaries to multiple heads on the snake.

    According to Professor Arakawa, the snake motif disappears with the advent of the rice-farming-based Yayoi culture, which appears to have its origin in China, south of the Yangtse River (龍の起原, pgs. 141-3). Japan’s first depictions of dragons appear on late Yayoi pottery (roughly 100-300 AD) (龍の起原, pg. 143). These examples are from western Japan. Associated Chinese ideas, such as amagoi, or praying to the dragon-deity for rain (雨乞い), probably accompanied the dragon concept. Such ideas, which probably played important roles in a rice-farming-based culture like the Yayoi, assume that the water-associated dragon-deity has control over natural phenomena such as rain, the lack of rain, hail, and so on.

    To sum up the above section, there is no evidence (apart from the Enoshima Engi) that the inhabitants of the vicinity in the middle Jomon and late Yayoi periods identified the Kashio River as a snake or dragon. However, it would have been entirely natural for them to have done so (3).

    Destruction Caused by the Dragon
    The dragon’s destructive activities may be summarized as follows:

    For a roughly seven-hundred-year period from 660 BC to around 70 AD (4),

    “the evil dragon, accompanied by the spirit of the wind, demons, mountain spirits, and other spirits, wreaked calamities throughout the land. Hills crumbled, releasing floods and causing damage resulting in plagues and revolts” (see translation).

    For a sixty-year span around the turn of the first century AD, the evil dragon constantly made fire (or heavy rains, the text is not clear here) and rain descend on the region, forcing the inhabitants to seek shelter in caverns.

    At the beginning of the sixth century, the dragon invaded villages in the locality, swallowing children and forcing the villagers to move to a safer place.The people even offered a human sacrifice to the dragon-god, but the offering was in vain.

    The dragon’s physical appearance is described as follows.

    The dragon’s “eyes emitted piercing rays like the sun at daybreak, and its torso was surrounded by black clouds” (see translation).

    It is obvious that much of the physical appearance of the dragon (the black cloud surrounding its torso and the lightning-like rays emitted by its eyes) and most of the destruction caused by it (the storms and floods it caused) are related to water in the broadest sense.
    Textual Evidence

    Now let us return to the texts. The Chinese version of the Enoshima Engi states:

    The evil dragon then spread out through the villages, swallowing and devouring children. Terrified, the villagers forsook their homes to move elsewhere. The people of that time named the new location Koshigoe (translation). (2b)

    The corresponding passage in the Japanese version reads 龍邑里にみちて(満ちて)人をのむ事やまず (literally, “the dragon filled the villages, constantly swallowing people.”

    Obviously, a dragon can not fill a village. The term みちて has a semantic range much like “filled” in English, and the passage is not comprehensible, unless the dragon was amorphous (i.e., like flood waters).

    The Chinese version of the Enoshima Engi contains a story about a village elder whose 16 children were swallowed by the dragon. A slightly different version of the story about the elder from an Edo-era work composed in 1754 entitled Enoshima Ozoshi (江島大草紙), quoted in 江島考, pg. 43, reads:

    時ニ長者アリ十六人ノ子ヲ育フ、皆悪龍ノ為ニ呑レヌ。長者愁ニ咽テ宅ヲ西ノ里ニ移シ彼 屍ヲ茲ニ埋ム、是ヲ長者ガ塚ト云。

    At the time, there was a village elder with 16 children, all of whom were swallowed by the dragon. Choked with grief, the elder moved his household to a settlement in the west where he interred their corpses. It then was called “Elder’s Mound.”

    If the dragon had eaten the children, there would be no bodies left to bury. Obviously, they were victims of something else, i.e., flood waters, in this case.

    The Dragon = Water

    By now it should be clear that the dragon can be viewed as a deification of water, which was the environmental factor that was the biggest threat and benefit to the lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants of the locality.

    To make this point clear to western readers, I suggest the following experiment: read the translation again, substituting the phrase “Old Man River” every time the “dragon” directly impacts the lives of the villagers. A passage such as:

    The evil dragon then turned up everywhere in the villages, swallowing children

    then becomes:

    Old Man River then turned up everywhere in the villages, swallowing children

    It is likely that the villagers were threatened by raging flood waters of some sort (refer also to this note and footnote 5 below).

    These observations lead to the conclusion below.
    Conclusion regarding the Dragon
    The correlations between the characteristics of the dragon, a god of rivers, and the flooding and other environmental conditions related to the violent rivers of the locality are clear. This website argues that the dragon described in the Enoshima Engi was an embodiment of the waters of the Kashio and Sakai Rivers, which were the greatest threat to the lives and livelihoods of the people in the locality. Flooding in these rivers caused widespread devastation in the past, including damage from floodwaters and landslides, as well as disease in the wake of floods. The dragon-god of the river waters also governed rain (too much of which also causes landslides), lack of rain (drought), hail, and other things that fell from the heavens.

    In other words, the destructive dragon in the Enoshima Engi was the embodiment in the popular mind of the overwhelming threat posed by water to the lives and livelihoods of the people in the locality. In their minds, water (and the lack of water) was governed by the capricious and destructive dragon-god, who ruled over river waters, rain, and other things that fell from the skies.

    Now that we have determined the basic nature of the dragon, we can return to identifying more locations and the prevailing conditions in the area.

    Go to IV. Conditions Prior to the Sixth Century

    (1) At present the Kashio River and the lower reaches of the Sakai (Katase) River no longer snake; their banks were encased in concrete during the postwar period. Nonetheless, the Kashio River is still violent. From 1999 to 2004, I lived on a bank of the Kashio-Sakai River, within walking distance of the events described in the Enoshima Engi, and I can testify to the power the river still commands. Whenever there is heavy rain into the river’s catchment basin, as when a typhoon passes in the vicinity, which occurs several times annually, the river rises drastically within a few hours, and often there is flooding somewhere along its course.

    (1b) Note that both the Puyang River of China and the ancient Sarasvati River of India showed the same winding, snaking course in their lower reaches. Part of the lower reaches of the Sarasvati were known as “Nara,” which comes from “Naga” (snake). See The Relationship between the Puyang River in China and the Kashio River. New (This paragraph added in April 2006.)

    (2) If the extent of Sagami Bay (in ancient times) is regarded as corresponding to the mouth of a dragon, then Enoshima Island would correspond to the jewel that dragons are often pictured as trying to catch. For this observation, I am indebted to Mr. Kurobe (personal message).

    (2b) (See A Possible Relationship between the Puyang River in China and the Kashio River) New (as of February 2006). This section points out similarities between the Kashio River and the Puyang River south of Hangzhou, China. The Puyang River frequently experienced heavy rains in its hilly catchment area, swelling the river. The heavy volume of water rushing down its channel would rush up against the incoming tide, causing serious flooding. A similar situation may have existed around the Kashio River.

    (3) Note that in Asia it is not uncommon for dragon to be a metaphor for river. The Mekong in its delta, which has nine channels, is known for example as the “Nine Dragons River.”

    (4) The dates here are traditional, unconfirmed dates according to the time-scheme used by Kokei, which was based in part on the reign-eras of legendary emperors.”

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