One eyed demons and ogres

In Japanese yokai folklore, the Hototsume Kozo is a one-eyed boy-ogre/goblin/demon with a glowing eye.  Often depicted in traditional kimono or monk robes, and known as a prankster who likes to scare people by leaping out from shadows or sneaking about people’s homes, knocking things around, stealing candy and such mischievous activities. The folklore figure appears to be well known from Edo tales and karuta playing cards.

According to folk traditions from Shizuoka prefecture, the Hitotsume Kozo descend from the mountains to visit peoples’ homes on December and February 8th. In some regions, baskets or colanders are left out because the eyes in the basket’s weave are thought to frighten the one-eyed ogre/goblin/demon. Residents place the white water residue from rice wash, and holly leaves out which are thought to repel the ogre-goblin since the serrated edges of the leaves present a danger to the eye of the goblin and in some versions of the tale, the holly pokes out the eye of the Hitotsume Kozo.  They also eat sekihan rice which has azuki beans mixed into the steamed rice … beans were widely believed to have demon-repelling powers. And according to folklore, if “a Hitotsume Kozo drops by and sees that a family or resident isn’t eating sekihan, it is said, it marks the address down in a notebook, and the location is cursed with poor health and misfortune that year” (Source: Yokai Attack!).

Although folklorist Kunio Yanagita who gathered yokai tale for his “Tales of Tono” associated the Hitotsume Kozo with Shinto priests who were so devoted that they deliberately poked out a single eye, the better to receive mystic wisdom from the gods”, the origins of the Japanese one-eyed ogre/goblin/demon is obscure, but most likely had continental origins, likely transmitted out of Central Asia via Indo-Iranian-Sakka or other Northern Chinese nomadic peoples. Compare the Japanese folktale with the tales below.


According to the Epic of Manas of the Turks, the one-eyed people lived among the ferocious and innumerable Tyrgauts who later surrender to Manas and his soldiers:

these Kyrgyz reside the Tyrgaut and the castle of the Iron Arrow, of the house of Chingiz, with his metal-armed soldiers. Also, dragon-headed and dog-headed and one-eyed people and wizards and magicians live there. Dragons serve as guards and wolves as messengers.”

From Wikipedia’s entry on Tepegoz, the Turkic epics have a tale of a one-eyed ogre that can only be killed by striking his eye and with a magical sword:

“In Turkic mythology, Tepegoz is a legendary creature who has only one eye on his forehead. He is an ogre that appears in the Book of Dede Korkut, a famous epic story of the Oghuz Turks.

In Turkic languages, tepe means high/hill, and goz means eye. The circular opening at the top of a yurt/ger is also called tepegoz.

In the first chapter of the Book of Dede Korkut, enemy forces attack Oghuz lands (Azerbaijan and Turkish lands). When local Oghuz villagers retreat, the son of Aruz is left behind. A lion finds him and takes care of him. Aruz’s son becomes a wild man, attacks horses and sucks their blood. He is half man and half lion. One day hunters catch him and give him to Aruz (the father) in order to let him raise his son. After some time, his son comes to understand that he is human. Dede Korkut gives him an honourable name – Basat (Bas means to devour, to crush. At means horse.).

Years later a herdsman of the Oghuz saw a nymph who gave birth days later. The herdsman finds the monstrous infant, a fleshly thing. He is scared and runs away. Bayandur khan (one of the Oghuz Khans) finds the infant, and while gazing on it, a crack appeares in the pile of flesh. Inside of it appeares a one eyed boy. Aruz says to Bayandur khan, “Let me raise up this strange boy.” Bayandur takes him in. Later it turns out to be the biggest mistake of his life. When the one eyed boy grows up he bites off a neighborhood child’s nose and ear. His father scorns him, driving him away from the village. Tepegoz kills one more man and the khans of the Oghuz people decide to banish him forever. Years later Tepegoz grows stronger and destroys everything in his path. Nobody is able to kill him. The sword can not cut him. The arrow can not kill him. Tepegoz’s skin is very hard. Half of all Oghuz heroes die trying to kill Tepegoz.”

Just one man is able to kill him, his half blood brother Basat. He uses his brain more than his power. He killed horrible Tepegoz by striking his eye. Then he cut off Tepegoz’s head with a magical sword and thus he saved not only himself but also his nation from the terror of Tepegoz.

The warriors of the Oghuz and battles described are likely grounded in the conflicts between the Pechenegs and Kipchaks. The story elements bear resemblance to the encounter with the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey and is believed to have been influenced by the Greek epic or to have one common ancestral root.”

Further back in antiquity, the Arimaspi or Arimaspoi, were a legendary people of northern Scythia, said to have  lived in the foothills of the Riphean Mountains, identified with the Ural Mountains or the Carpathians, allegedly had a single eye in the centre of the forehead. All tales of their struggles with the gold-guarding griffins in the Hyperborean lands near the cave of Boreas, the North Wind (Geskleithron), had their origin in a lost work, an archaic poem by Aristeas of Proconnesus, according to Herodotus.  Proconnesus is a small island in the Sea of Marmora near the mouth of the Black Sea, well situated for hearing travellers’ tales of regions far north of the Black Sea. Aristeas narrates in the course of his poem that he was “wrapt in Bacchic fury” when he travelled to the north and saw the Arimaspians, (according to Herodotus):

This Aristeas, possessed by Phoibos, visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspoi, beyond whom are the Grypes that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreoi, whose territory reaches to the sea. Except for the Hyperboreoi, all these nations (and first the Arimaspoi) are always at war with their neighbors

The poem attributed to Aristeas, called the Arimaspea, thus gives an account of travels in the far North. There in Arimaspea, Aristeas encountered a tribe called the Issedones, who told him of still more fantastic and northerly peoples: the one-eyed Arimaspi who battle gold-guarding griffins, and the Hyperboreans among whom Apollo lives during the winter. The Issedones (Ἰσσηδόνες) were an ancient people of Central Asia at the end of the trade route leading north-east from Scythia and are placed by scholars in locations in the vicintiy of Western Siberia, the Altai mountains, Chinese Turkestan, in the Tarim Basin or identified by Chinese with the Wusun people. Modern historians speculate on historical identities that may be selectively extracted from the brief account of “Arimaspi”. Herodotus recorded a detail recalled from Arimaspea that may have a core in fact: “the Issedones were pushed from their lands by the Arimaspoi, and the Scythians by the Issedones” (iv.13.1). The “sp” in the name suggests that it was mediated through Iranian sources to Greek, indeed in Early Iranian Arimaspi combines Ariama (love) and Aspa (horses)[4]—a designation that fits very well any steppe people of riders. 

Talk of griffins in the north however squarely places the “gold-guarding peoples” as those of the Eurasian nomadic Saka-Scythians, see Exploring griffin and dragon connections in prehistoric times  and Near Eastern and Scythian Animal Style Gold.

This explicit reference by Herodotus pointing to the origins of the one-eyed peoples in the Saka-Scythian peoples spanning the Altai mountain-Turkestan-Tarim basin region suggests that both the Greek and Japanese one-eyed ogre/goblin (as well as other oni demon-ogres and masked dances) may have come from the same Saka-Scythian sources. Saka-Scythian influences as marked and pronounced upon the Kofun elite burial mound culture of Japan.


Later, as the one-eyed monster myths traveled to the Mediterranean and Hellenistic world, the one-eyed monster-like beings such as Cyclops became entrenched in Western literature as the Greek and Roman mythical Cyclops. From the Wikipedia:

A cyclops (pron.: /ˈsaɪklɒps/; Greek: Κύκλωψ, Kuklōps; plural cyclopes /saɪˈkloʊpiːz/; Greek: Κύκλωπες, Kuklōpes), in Greek mythology and later Roman mythology, was a member of a primordial race of giants, each with a single eye in the middle of his forehead.[1] The name is widely thought to mean “circle-eyed”.[2]

Hesiod described one group of cyclopes and the epic poet Homer described another, though other accounts have also been written by the playwright Euripides, poet Theocritus and Roman epic poet Virgil. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus releases three Cyclopes, the sons of Uranus and Gaia, from the dark pit of Tartarus. They provide Zeus’ thunderbolt, Hades’ helmet of invisibility, and Poseidon’s trident, and the gods use these weapons to defeat the Titans. In a famous episode of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus encounters the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon and Thoosa (a nereid), who lives with his fellow Cyclopes in a distant country. The connection between the two groups has been debated in antiquity and by modern scholars.”

The cylops is said to be progeny of the sea deities Poseidon and Thoosa, the earliest source of the former deity having been traced in archaeological digs to the Bulgarian Black Sea coastal origins from where the deity’s worship is said to have spread to Mycenaen-Greece (where Cyclopean culture is seen) and the Hellenic world. Thus the Black Sea area may have been an interim place for the transmission of the Saka-Iranic-Scythian one-eyed beings, said to be associated with their metal smiths.

In the article, Indo-Iranian mythologies by Robert Bedrosian, he traces the interaction sphere for the metal-smithing and one-eyed monster tales to the area stretching from west of Lake Van to the Black Sea and Arax River to areas south of the Caspian Sea, see excerpt below:

“Eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus were familiar in varying degrees to the Greeks, Mesopotamians, and Indo-Iranians. The Greeks were familiar with the southeastern corner of the Black Sea and the area to the west of Lake Van; the Mesopotamians with the Diarbekir-Van-Urmia region and perhaps with the Ararat area to the north; the Indo-Iranians with the valley of the Arax river, and the areas around Urmia and south of the Caspian. Not only is there familiarity with these areas, but the images defined by them have striking similarities. All three traditions associate the area with metals and metallurgy, the entrance to the underworld or other world, and hybrid monsters. It was a place of origin and/or salvation of humanity; a place where the Mother Goddess had special sway; where certain non-patriarchal forms of social organization and inheritance obtained; and a place associated with magic potions, medicines, and people knowledgeable in their preparation. Concomitant with the association with metallurgy is an association with its finished products: mechanical marvels and magically forged weapons. An association with horse and chariot appears in the details of all three traditions. Areas south of the Armenian highlands also associate the area with timber, precious stones, and craftsmen, all of which, historically, were obtained from there.

In addition to the similarity of images, there is a deeper similarity which is thematic. Prometheus (son of Iapetus), Noah (son of Japeth), and Hoshang are all civilizing culture-heroes who bring the blessings (or secrets) of the gods down to humanity in this special area. [31] The theme of the almost successful destruction of humanity by the gods and its rebirth here is shared by Greek, Mesopotamian, and Iranian mythology. Odysseus, Heracles, and Gilgamesh, adventurers turned seekers-after-immortality, all visit here. Such similarities have led some to suggest that we are not dealing with independent traditions but with certain great or memorable events in the early history of humanity—interpreted differently— some of which entered sacred tradition while others remained part of classical mythology. 

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that in addition to reflecting foreign images of eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus, some of the myths reviewed above actually derive from the area. The one-eyed cyclops of Greek mythology, and the demon Humbaba of Mesopotamian mythology may descend from the one-eyed T’ork, whose worship was known from areas to the west and southwest of Lake Van. Another deity and his gestes, the culture-hero Prometheus may derive from the Vahakn-Ardavazd-Amiram figures known from Armenian and Georgian mythology. Tales of dragons and rock-born gods are also known from eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus. It is reasonable to suppose that along with the natural resources and finished products that were exported from this area, the stories themselves travelled. This is even more likely if the merchants, traders, and warriors were migrants from the area. If so, then these myths, which currently are the earliest literary monuments of humanity, simultaneously become reflections of the earliest native traditions, valuable for the study of eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus, and extending references to this area back to the dawn of writing.”

The Chinese conception of ogres, curiously appears to hail from a different geographical tradition or source – in the Kingdom of Ogres, the protagonist hero who sails away and meets ogres, is described as coming from Annam (Southeast Asia, central Vietnam).  The Chinese folkloric demons that inhabit the Chinese hell (Di Yu) is a place that is populated by various demonic spawns, however, appear to originate from the same Indian rakshasa or yaksha tradition and therefore bear some similarity with the Japanese oni.  The Chinese hui jing fox spirit may also bear some resemblance to the Japanese fox spirit messenger of the Inari deity and show deep Iranian or Western Asian derivation (see my article “Descended from Wolves: Wolf Symbolism around the World” citing D. Guizzo’s, Blessed and Cursed: Wolf’s Totemism and Tabooisation between Caucasus and Iran pp 107-11;  NATURE IN SHORT / Foxes play spiritual, shape-shifting roles in Japanese society).

Marebito (Mare or Mara deity) and the Namuci are two other kinds of demon ogres found in Japanese folk culture and festivals, are to be found in the Namahage (sounds like the Himalayan Namuci) ogres of eastern Japan resemble Indo-Vedic Imra/Mara or Latvian Mara deities or demons, as well as the Balkan, East European types of ogres, and are probably of Eurasian origin.

The idea of ogres in Japanese culture changes and is transformed over time somewhat, the later yokai demons of Japanese art, are obviously Chinese in origin, as yōkai is known to be a loanword from Chinese yaoguai. However, these are entirely creatures from the Black Sea type of Cycloplean ogre found in Japan. These evolving transformations over time are detailed in Noriko Reider’s “Transformation of the Oni: From the Frightening and Diabolical to the Cute and Sexy“Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 62,2003: 133-157:

In Japan’s ancient past, Origuchi Shinobu infers that there may have been no demarcation between a Japanese oni and a Japanese kami神 (deity). Both were “awesome” beings (ORIGUCHI 1975,47). Similarly, Tsuchihashi Yu taka asserts that many types of kami possessing powerful spiritual forces existed in ancient Japan. Among kami, those harmful to humans were quite similar to the mono,or evil spirits. Both beings were invisible, however the kami were the oD】ect of awe and respect while the mono were universally feared, but not respected. Tsuchihashi further notes that the oni were spiri­tual beings very much like the mono. Despite this, however, there exist no definitive examples of the term oni in the ancient literature (TSUCHIHASHI 1990,94—95).
Ishibashi Lraha finds the origin of the Japanese oni in yomotsushi\ome 豫母都志許買(lit. fearful creature [s] of the nether land), who appear in the creation myth of the Kojif^i 古 事 記 (“Record of Ancient Matters,” 712 CE; ISHIBASHI 1998,4). Yomotsushi^ome^ the precursors of oni, were sent from the underworld to avenge the shame of Izanami,the divine female creator of Japan. Izanagi,her brother and male counterpart broke his promise not to look at her, causing her undying shame. While Japanese can identify with the primordial form of oni in Yomotsushif^ome,Ishibashi attributes the appel­lation oni to Chinese thought (ISHIBASHI 1998,104).
Ancient Japanese literature has assigned a number of different Chinese characters to express the term oni. Among them, the character used now is [134]

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