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East Asia

Japanese demons. In Shinto, the Oni are associated with disease, calamity, and misfortune. These interfering spirits are basically human in appearance, but possess three eyes, a wide mouth, horns, and three sharp talons on both hands and feet. Oni can fly, often swooping down to seize the soul of a wicked man who is about to die. The Oni-yarahi, ‘demon-expelling’ ceremony, takes the form of an annual drama, performed on the last day of the year, in which personified diseases, ill-luck, and disasters are forcibly expelled.

Buddhist monks are thought to be scourges of the Oni, and the Nichiren sect actually holds periodical retreats for driving out evil spirits of all kinds. Nichiren (1222–82) founded his school of Buddhism, according to its own historians, when ‘all was dark in Japan … Mongol invasions … earthquakes, epidemics, famines followed each other, as did our own errors, of we Japanese who had established the capital at Kamakura, where reigned a military dictatorship embroiled in fratricidal struggles.’ He saw the Oni at work everywhere, calling the Zen sect ‘an invention of the devil’.

Other demonic spirits are the Tengu, notable for their fury and threatening behaviour. One kind are semi-human with the wings and claws of giant eagles, while a second variety are entirely bird-like. Inspiration for the Tengu may have been the Garuda of Hindu legend, though Japanese tradition has explained them as reincarnations of proud and arrogant people, especially priests and soldiers. Tengu-possession, however, is not accompanied by mischief equal to that of the Oni.

Subjects: Religion.

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