Ogres and their maces: Images of Oni from Onmyodo doctrines and medieval traditions


Oni in pilgrim’s clothing. Tokugawa period. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. 59.2 cm x 22.1 cm

Excerpt from Nobiko T. Rider’s “Onmyōji: Sex, Pathos, and Grotesquery in Yumemakura Baku’s Oni“, Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 66, 2007: 107–124

“About oni

Before examining the oni characters in Onmyōji, the historical concept of oni could use some brief explanation.

Ancient Japanese literature has assigned a number of different written characters, such as 鬼, 魑魅, and 鬼魅 to express oni (Tsuchihashi 1990, 95). The character used now is 鬼, which in Chinese means invisible soul/spirit of the dead, whether ancestral or evil. According to Wamyō ruijushō 倭名類聚抄 (ca. 930s), the first Japanese language dictionary, oni is explained as a corruption of the reading of the character on 隠 (hiding), “hiding behind things, not wishing to appear…. It is a soul/spirit of the dead.”

Apparently the concept of oni in Wamyō ruijushō is based upon the Chinese concept (Takahashi 1992, 41). Tsuchihashi Yutaka writes that the term oni came from the pronunciation of on 隠 (hiding) plus “i” (1990, 95).

In popular Japanese thought, “oni” conjures up an image of a hideous creature emerging from hell’s abyss to terrify wicked mortals. An oni is customarily portrayed with one or more horns protruding from its scalp. It sometimes has a third eye in the center of its forehead, and its skin most commonly is black, red, blue, or yellow. It often has a large mouth with conspicuous canine teeth.

The folkloric origin of this creature is obscure. According to some scholars, the Japanese oni is a purely Buddhist creation, but the oni did not remain unique to the Buddhist cosmos. Others note that the term oni was used in Onmyōdō to describe any evil spirit that harms humans. In early Onmyōdō doctrine, the word “oni” referred specifically to invisible evil spirits that caused human infirmity (Komatsu 1999). While the visual image of oni is predominantly male, there also are examples of female oni in Japanese lore, the prototype Japanese oni being a female named Yomotsu-shikome (lit., ugly woman of the other world) (Ishibashi 1998, 4), born from a female deity who felt shamed by her husband.

The shape-shifting powers of all oni make it possible for them to assume human form, but their typically gruesome appearance often reflects their evil dispositions. Indeed, oni are known for their appetite for human flesh. Still, close examination of treatment of oni in diverse contexts reveals less dreadful monster images. For instance, oni can be harbingers of prosperity to humans.

Metaphorically oni can symbolize the anti-establishment vis-à-vis the central government. Anti-establishment elements are often depicted as oni by mainstream society as a way of disparaging those who are different. Indeed, there are many instances in which creatures of different customs, or the marginalized other, are called 鬼. As early as Nihongi (ca. 719) non-Japanese have been labeled
by native Japanese as 鬼.

Contemporary authors often capture this side of oni—a creature oppressed by mainstream society rather than an outright evil creature bent on performing malevolent acts—and take a sympathetic attitude toward oni. Yumemakura is no exception. His oni may be viciously violent but they are simultaneously replete with sorrows and human weakness.

The world of Onmyōji is frequently that of Konjaku monogatari shū 今昔 物語集 (Tales of Times Now Past, ca. 1212), Noh plays such as “Kanawa” 鐵輪 (The Iron Tripod), Ugetsu monogatari 雨月物語 (Tales of Moonlight and Rain, 1776), and other classical literature. Yumemakura’s approach to the classical text is simple and direct. Yumemakura fills in the contexts and explanations left out in the original stories so that the readers do not have to read between the lines.

Filling in the gaps, Yumemakura presents the oni’s perspective. This important feature differs from classical literature, in which the oni’s stance is ignored by the authors/compilers or readers. Yumemakura often portrays oni in a sympathetic light, enabling readers to identify with these marginalized creatures. At the same time, Yumemakura peppers the plots of these old stories with a mixture of sex, pathos, and grotesque imagery involving oni and their emotional resonance. As we will presently see, many of his oni are the marginalized spirits of humans trapped in the world of the living by the overpowering urgings of unrequited love. a biwa called genjō is stolen by an oni One example of how Yumemakura portrays oni in his own way can be seen in his retelling of “Genjō to iu biwa oni ni toraruru koto” 玄象という琵琶鬼にとらるる こと (A biwa [pipa] called Genjō is stolen by an oni).

The original story, found under the same title in Konjaku monogatari shū, is a straightforward narrative: A prized biwa called Genjō disappears from the Imperial Palace. While the emperor deeply laments its loss, an enchanting melody being played on the biwa
is heard from the direction of Rashō Gate. Minamoto no Hiromasa, an excellent musician, follows the tune and discovers an oni at the gate playing the missing biwa. (The reader is never quite sure who this oni is, let alone why the oni steals Genjō and is playing it at Rashō Gate.) Hiromasa asks the oni to return the biwa, an imperial treasure, and the oni obeys. Ever after the biwa acts like a living being—it plays whenever it feels like it …”


The Encyclopedia of Shinto’s exposition on “Oni” is as follows:

“A misshapen supernatural demon or devil visiting this world from the other world, bringing with it disaster or blessing. Due to their fearful spiritual power, oni were considered ambivalent beings possessing the power of both good and evil, and were thus the objects of both worship and avoidance. While the character for oni was read in China as gui and referred to the soul of a deceased person, it was read in Japan variously as oni (demon), mono (an indwelling spirit), or kami.

Based on the salient characteristics of beliefs about oni, the concept of oni can be classified into three main types: (1) wicked spirits or evil kami, (2) oni as foreigners or strangers, and (3) oni as good kami. The first type bring disaster, death, and plague, and initially were considered invisible beings, but later came to have visible forms. The Nihongi notes the practice of using peaches to ward off oni, a reflection of Chinese beliefs that peaches possessed the power to control noxious spirits and demons. Other expressions found include ashikimono (“evil spirits”) and matsurowanukami (“unruly kami”), terms which are believed to refer to evil kami or the tutelaries of people who opposed kingly authority in ancient times.

In contrast, the Nihon ryōiki relate incidents of demons (mono) which caused insanity, and the “evil spirit of a slave” (ashiki yatsu no reiki) which caused death. In short, such expressions referred to departed spirits which had become oni and brought curses upon those still living. Such oni were believed to be the spirits of persons who carried resentments or malice during their lifetime; the spirits or ghosts of malicious or jealous women were thought to be particularly capable of becoming the female demons called hannya. Other demons included denziens of hell, the bull-headed gozu and the horse-headed mezu.

According to Zeami’s Fushikaden, oni appearing in Noh drama are either vengeful spirits (onryō) who possess human beings, or demons of hell. As the visible forms of oni were represented as misshapen and weird beings, popular iconography of oni was influenced by graphic portrayals of hell demons and “hungry ghosts,” as well as by the four-eyed Chinese zhuīnuó (Jp. tsuina) masks worn by the demon exorcists called fangxiàng (Jp. hōsōshi).

Such rites of “demon exorcism” or tsuina were incorporated into the Buddhist rites of Shushōe and Shunie (Omizutori) held early in the New Year; these rites featured exorcisms of demons using the power of Buddhist tutelaries such as Bishamon and heavenly bodhisattvas (hiten). These rites became popular observances on the last day of winter (setsubun), and resulted in the formation of stereotypical demon images such as Shutendōji.

A second type of oni is represented by marginalized persons, including foreigners, rebellious indigenous peoples, people drifting ashore in Japan, itinerant performers, religious thaumaturges, rebels, pirates, and mountain dwellers. According to the Nihongi, people thought to have been members of a northern people and called mishihase (or shukushin) were feared as “demons” (oni), and engaged in trade with the Yamato army through a form of Chinese “wordless exchange” which was called kishi (lit., “demon market”).

The Kokoncho monjū (ca. 1254) relates a tale of naked imigrants who came ashore at the island of Okushima in the Izu area, describing them as “demons” with wild hair, round-eyes and tall, dark red bodies. Practitioners of Onmyōdō (Chinese Yin-Yang divination) were likewise viewed as “demon-like” beings since they were believed to control familiar spirits (shikigami) and cast spells.

A third type of demon can be seen in present-day observances of the aforementioned rites of Shushōue and Shunie, and popular rites around the New Year. For example, the “Flower Festival” (Hanamatsuri) held in Shidara, Aichi Prefecture features dancers called “Sakaki-oni” which invoke blessings by stamping the ground and chasing away evil spirits. Another example would be the visiting kami called namahage in Akita, represented by costumed performers wearing demon masks.”

-Kawamura Kunimitsu


Related to Kunimitsu’s second category of oni-demons and given the Japanese history of Silk Route trading and Dunhuang contacts, it is possible that oni concept has a Central Asian or Ugric-Onoghur provenance. One cannot help noticing that although the written character “oni” in Japanese is the same as the Chinese character for ghost or soul which is read as “gui” in Chinese, its entirely different-sounding “Oni” is closer to the Central Asian words: Turkic “On”, Onogur (Ugrian-Bulgar), Uighur.

Historically,  around Lake Maeotis and the Lower Don river the Magna Bulgaria kingdom was established by the Onoghur-Bulgars. The name Onogur (Ugrian, and the origin of the word ogre), has a Turkish equivalent, which is “On” or Van (Vanir – where the Don River emptied out into the Black Sea, the sea around it was called Home of the Vanir” and the region between the Don River and the Sea of Azov was, according to Norse tradition, recognized as the “residence of the gods”. (Sources: Pritsak, Omeljan The Origins of Rus Vol. 1  p. 198, umezil, European nation” Dumezil, Georges Gods of the Ancient Northmen). These people were not Slavs, but of Hunnic and Turkic origin”.  Much of the Kofun Period culture is thought to display art and craft of Hunnic-Xiongnu or West Eurasian (Uighur) or Aryan-European elements. It is also during this period of incipient statehood formation, that the  folklore of various regions, including those mentioning of “oni”, became compiled into the imperial chronicles Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the two oldest extant historical records of Japan. Most of the traditional “oni” demon masks of the earliest arts, appear to bear an appearance that resembles West Eurasian features. (Source: Pritsak, Omeljan The Origins of Rus Vol. 1 Harvard U. Press Cambridge, Mass. 1981 p. 243 Between 635-665 A.D.)

In addition, the iconography of the Oni frequently depicted in Japan holding a mace  – the mace being in archaeological evidence a mostly alien implement for the Japanese islands, but are obvious weapon with long usage in the West.  A limited number of phallic-shaped mace-like stone ritual objects (Barnes, p. 46) were found in connection with low stone platforms at Yosukeone, in Nagano Prefecture, a satellite site of a major Middle Jomon settlement, contained several such altars, often behind the fireplace along the wall of pithouses. In two other instances at Yosukeone they were found in a corner behind a roof support pillar(Aikens, p. 146-7). Mace-like ritual objects were found in Rokutsu Village, Chiba Prefecture, Chubu Region. The ritual “maces” were prevalent only in the Chubu mountains and Kanto plain and especially during the Middle Jomon Period (See U. of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology).

Around the same time as the Jomon production of stone maces, stone mace heads were similarly produced in Mesopotamia. Before the end of the 4th millennia BC, polished stone mace use had spread through the Middle East – from Jordan to Mesopotamia. The earliest club-like maces are known from Palaeolithic Europe, but maces the first known implements designed purposely as offensive weapons were maces dating from the Chalcolithic Period or early Bronze Age – widely known from Egypt to Mesopotamia to India.   Stone mace heads have been found in the Luristan/Iran area (2500-1000 BC) and in Asia Minor (1300 BC) (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica).

According to Shawn M Caza’s “Maces of the Ancient World“:

“In 2001 more than a dozen round and piriform stone mace heads dating from 3000-1000 BC were found in at Gansu, Shaanxi, and Xinjiang in Northwest China. This is thought to be a case of Egyptian technology spreading slowly eastwards through Mesopotamia and Central Asia into China.”

Bronze Age mace  head 2,000 B.C.(Liveauctioneers)

There are old texts that mention the existence of such maces in the ancient period. They were widely used by the Celts and other North African tribes. While initially, stones were used for the production of maces, but gradually, the blacksmiths started to use copper and bronze, and improving the quality of maces as weapons. The Greeks were one of the first people to have produced top quality maces of this kind. Dorians were said to be the first people who used maces in Europe. The Dorians had a proud military tradition and dominated Crete and southern Greece. The warriors hailing from Sardinia used similar maces when fighting for Rameses II against the Hittites. (Source: History of Weapons)

“The Mace was a favourite weapon of the Middle Ages, assuming various forms depending on the fancy of its craftsman or owner. It has been described as the successor of the baston of the eleventh century, which was an iron tipped staff or simply wooden bludgeon. It was not a bloodletting weapon, but could be used most effectively to smash through the helmet or armour of an opponent. As a weapon it has been most closely associated with the martial bishops of the mediaeval period.” — “The History of the Maces of the British and Canadian Parliaments” by John McDonough”

Chinese chui mace (source: Dynasty armory)

While the Jomon polished stone mace was probably of West Asian origin, or Volga-Ugric or Indo-European type, the Oni’s weapon of the medieval age (as well as the Japanese tetsubo martial arts weapon see photo below) resemble the more slender types of Turkic mace or Chinese rather than the Indian-Persian ones or the Tibetan ritualistic ones.

Japanese tsetsubo

From the Wikipedia article “Oni“:

A statue of a red oni wielding a kanabō. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“…oni were originally invisible spirits or gods which caused disasters, disease, and other unpleasant things. These nebulous beings could also take on a variety of forms to deceive (and often devour) humans. Thus the Chinese character 鬼 (Mandarin Pinyin: kuí; Jyutping: gwai) meaning “ghost” came to be used for these formless creatures.

The invisible oni eventually became anthropomorphized and took on its modern, ogre-like form, partly via syncretism with creatures imported by Buddhism, such as the Indian rakshasa and yaksha, the hungry ghosts called gaki, and the devilish underlings of Enma-Ō who punish sinners in Jigoku (Hell). They share many similarities with the Arabian Jinn”… and carry rather Mesopotamian-looking weapons.

Some villages hold yearly ceremonies to drive away oni, particularly at the beginning of Spring. During the Setsubun festival, people throw soybeans outside their homes and shout “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“鬼は外!福は内!”?, ” Oni go out! Blessings come in!”). Monkey statues are also thought to guard against oni, since the Japanese word for monkey, saru, is a homophone for the word for “leaving”. Folklore has it that holly can be used to guard against Oni In Japanese versions of the game tag, the player who is “it” is instead called the “oni”.

In more recent times, oni have lost some of their original wickedness and sometimes take on a more protective function. Men in oni costumes often lead Japanese parades to ward off any bad luck, for example. Japanese buildings sometimes include oni-faced roof tiles called onigawara (鬼瓦?), which are thought to ward away bad luck, much like gargoyles in Western tradition”

Last but not least, in the evolution of the oni, the ogre-demon figure seems to often go hand-in-hand with the cultural or conquering hero figure, usually a larger-than-life folkloric adventurer with Taro attached to his name, see  Klaus Antoni’s “Momotarō (The Peach Boy) and the Spirit of Japan: Concerning the Function of a Fairy Tale in Japanese Nationalism of the Early Shōwa Age”(Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 50,1991:155-188). Fairytales with conquering hero archetypes such as Momo Taro or Tametomo often follow a narrative where the hero goes to some foreign barbaric “Devil’s Island” or foreign land where he must subdue the human-heating demon inhabitants. These beloved tales of old were unfortunately prone to being hijacked as propaganda material during WWII.


Further related reading:

Cultural heroes named Taro/Taru and agricultural gods in elderly garb.

Origins of the Onigawara tiles


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