Tenjin-sama’s Ox

Tenjin-sama, Sugawara-no-Michizanë, is often described as the kami of scholarship, and for once this is fairly accurate. Strictly speaking, no kami is the “kami of” something abstract, and in many cases that sort of description seriously distorts the image of the kami in Japan. However, the association between Tenjin-sama and scholarship is so strong that, in his case, you can actually say that. He was not always the kami of scholarship, but he is now.

This might make it slightly surprising that his sacred animal is the ox, a beast not normally strongly associated with scholarship. The primary link is through a legend recounted in the January 11th issue of Jinja Shinpō by the chief priest of Dazaifu Tengmangū, Nishitakatsuji Nobuhiro.

Dazaifu Tenmangū is in Dazaifu, a town in northern Kyūshū that was, a thousand years ago, the seat of an important government office, responsible for trade with and defence against the Asian continent (at least in theory; things were more complex in practice). Sugawara-no-Michizanë was exiled there at the beginning of the tenth century, having lost out in political strife in the capital, and died there, still bitter.

Just before he died, he is said to have told his attendants to put his body on a cart drawn by an ox, and then let the ox walk freely, with no-one guiding it. They were to bury him where the ox stopped. After he died, his wishes were followed, and the ox wandered off to the northeast. After a while, however, it lay down, refusing to move. This was taken as a sign, and Sugawara-no-Michizanë was buried there, and what is now the main sanctuary of Dazaifu Tenmangū was built over the grave.

This legend may, in fact, be true. It is recorded very early, and there must have been some reason why he was buried where he was. Further, unlike some of the other myths about him (such as that he magically travelled to China and back), it is not obvious why it would be made up were it not true. An ox set to pull a cart probably would stop somewhere, after all.

In any case, statues of oxen lying down are a common feature of jinja enshrining Tenjin-sama, and people often rub them for luck. You can see me doing that at Yushima Tenjin in Tokyo at the end of the video I made with Life Where I’m From.

At Dazaifu Tenmangū, however, the legend doesn’t end there. The continuation says that, once the cart had been unhitched, the ox stood up and started wandering back down the road along which it had come. After about a kilometre, however, it fell over, dead, as if it were following its master to the next world. It was reverently buried, as a servant of the kami, and a mound of natural stones raised over it. This mound is now in the grounds of a private house, and while it had been the object of some local reverence, when the then owner abandoned the property (not uncommon in rural areas of Japan), people worried what would happen. Fortunately, the new owner has, apparently, cleared the area around the mound and set up a sign, so that people can now pay reverence to the ox more easily.

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3 thoughts on “Tenjin-sama’s Ox”

  1. Andreas Hoeverman

    Hello, I don’t know if my oroginal comment went thriugh but I was wondering where can I find a place to read jinja shinpo?

    1. I didn’t see any other comments, so I guess something went wrong with the first comment.

      You can read greatly shortened versions of some articles in Jinja Shinpō online at https://www.jinja.co.jp, but most of the the contents are only available in print. If you are in Japan, you can subscribe — it’s only about ¥8,000 per year, which is not bad for a weekly paper. You might also be able to find it in libraries, but I suspect it is not that widely distributed outside jinja. If you are outside Japan, it would be very difficult to get hold of. I don’t know whether they even do overseas subscriptions.

      I hope that helps.

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