The Legend of Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow and its possible origins

Emperor Jimmu led by Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow to victory

The bird with three legs (i.e., tripedal) is a mythical creature that turns up in many traditional legends from Central Asia, East Asia, Egypt and North Africa.

In Japan, although there is no description in the ancient historical chronicles stating that the Yatagarasu was specifically three-legged,  the crow has been depicted as such at various shrine locations, including the Yatagarasu Jinja (official shrine webpage) in Nara,  the Abeno Oji Shrine on the Kumano Road where Yatagarasu is enshrined, and on Mt Takao’s Yakuoin Yukiiji Temple (since 733) near the Tokyo capital. Shrine or temple traditions clearly state the crow is three-legged.

The word Yatagarasu has been translated as “eight-span crow” (i.e. giant crow) or and deemed to mean Supreme (or Perfect) Divine Crow (the number ‘eight’ in Japanese numerology having the meanings of ‘many’ or ‘a multitude’, or ‘perfect’ or ‘supreme’) or just “large crow”.

The Legend of Yatagarasu

According to ancient Japanese Kojiki and Nihonshoki chronicles and Shinto canon, this great crow was sent from heaven as a guide for Emperor Jimmu on his initial journey from the region which would become Kumano to what would become Yamato. Based on this account, the appearance of the great bird has traditionally been interpreted by the Japanese as evidence of the divine intervention in human affairs.

Tracing the locations and origins of the story, we can fathom from the Kojiki and Nihonshoki that Jimmu’s brothers were originally born in Takachiho, the southern part of Miyazaki prefecture, Kyūshū (we may note that the theme of descent upon Mt. Takachiho calls to mind the Korean custom of declaring sacral or divine authority, thus suggesting possible connections to the continent).

As they decided to move eastward, as they found their location inappropriate for reigning over the entire country. Jimmu’s older brother Itsuse no Mikoto originally led the migration, and they move eastward through the Seto Inland Sea with the assistance of local chieftain Sao Netsuhiko. As they reached Naniwa (modern day Ōsaka), they encountered another local chieftain Nagasunehiko (lit. the long-legged man”), and Itsuse was killed in the ensuing battle.

Jimmu realized that they had been defeated because they battled eastward against the Sun, so he decided to land on the east side of Kii Peninsula and battle westward. They reached Kumano, and with the guidance of a three-legged bird, Yatagarasu (lit. eight-span crow), moved to Yamato. There they once again battled Nagasunehiko and were victorious. (In Yamato, Nigihayahi no Mikoto, who also claims to be a descendant of the Takamagahara gods, was protected by Nagasunehiko. However, when Nigihayahi met Jimmu, he accepted Jimmu’s legitimacy, and Jimmu ascended to the throne becoming the first mythical Emperor of Japan.)

Location of Yatagarasu’s sighting and connection with local peoples

The location Kumano of the sighting of the Yatagarasu is significant. Yatagarasu is historically considered the ancestor of the Kamo clan, the high priests of the Kamo-wake-ikazuchi-jinja. Among this kami’s other human descendants, the Nihongi and the Kogoshui also mention the Agata-nushi of Katsurano and the Tonomori Be.

According to Kamo Mioya Jinja Shrine sources:

“The Kamomioya Shrine is situated downstream the Kamo gama River and therefore it is called popularly Shimogamo Jinja Shrine, or “Downstream Shrine of Kamo.”

There is another shrine called “Kami gamo Jinja” or the Upstream (upper) Shrine of Kamo. The two sanctuaries. Both of them are called “Kamo sha” (Shrines of Kamo). They are closely related. The procession of “Aoi Matsuru” (festival ) starts from the former Imperial Palace in Kyoto, enters the Shimogamo Sanctuary, and the Kamogamo ( upper Kamo Shrine) Sanctuary. In the Main sanctuary of the west, Taketsumemi-no-mikoto is enshrined. In the Main Sanctuary of the east, Tamayori-hime-no-mikoto is enshrined in the Main Sanctuary of the east.

The origin of the Shrine is not known for certain but it is said that in ancient times, there was a modest shrine dedicated to the patron god of the Kamo clan.

It is also said that the Kamo clan people are the incarnations of “Yatagarasu”, or three-legged crows which guided the first emperor Jinmu in the Kumano Mountains to go to Kashihara, where the emperor settled down and declared the foundation of the Japanese Nation 660 years before the Common Era.

After the capital was moved Kyoto, this shrine together with Kami gamo Jinja Shrine became the patron god shrine of the capital.

Kamo no agatanushi family served as priests for the Shrine and the Imperial House worshipped the gods of the shrines since after the foundation of the capital city of Kyoto and sent one of the imperial princesses (a daughter of emperor) to serve the gods. After princess Uchiko of emperor Saga served the gods, this system lasted during 400 hundred years during 35 generations.”

Several other important and key festivals (matsuri) in honour of Yatagarasu are held in the Kumano temples and shrines.

From The Encyclopedia of Shinto, Kokugakuin University, the eight-span-ness characteristic of the crow is noted more than its three-leggedness in this temple shrine:

“This rite takes place in the evening of January 7 at the main shrine (honmiya ) of Kumano Taisha in Hongū Town, Higashimuro County, Wakayama Prefecture. On that night, the treasure seal (hōin) is stamped on the amulets (shinpu) of Goō of Kumano. Also called Hōin shinji. The hōin is made from the trunk of the pine tree that was used for the New Year’s decorations. After reciting a prayer (norito), a paper printed with the pattern of crows with a wingspan of eight spans (yatakarasu) is offered at the altar (shinzen). After being purified by fire, the hōinis stamped three times on the pillar on the left side of the shinzen. The hōin is then offered to the chief priest (gūji) and he stamps it onto some Japanese paper (washi) three times. The other Shinto priests (shinshoku) also stamp onshinpu. Afterwards each clan (ujiko) representative receives the paper that was stamped with the hōin. It is believed that this rite is based on the tale that, at the time of Emperor Jinmu’s Eastern expedition, a large eight-span crow guided him to victory. ”

Kumano Hongu Shrine and Yatagarasu banner, Source: Wikipedia

The following details are taken from Jean Herbert’s “Shinto: At the Fountainhead of Japan

In the haiden of the Hongu-taisha, on Jan 7th according to the lunar calendar, is the Hoinshinji. A picture of Yatagarasu, called go-o-no-shimpu (popularly gyu-o), of which both sides have been purified by a pine torch lighted with pure fire and held over a tub of pure water, is presented to the shrine by a priest; subsequent impressions of that picture are distributed to the devotees all over the country.

It is widely believed that if a person burns a gyu-o and swallows the ashes, the statement he or she makes must be true, as otherwise they would vomit blood or even die.”

The above cited practice of burning a gyu-o is similar to taoist practices of China and which are still widely practised in overseas Chinese communities outside China.

“In the Nachi-jinja, on Jan 1st, early in the morning , water is brought from the casade, by a priest wearing a yatagarasu-bo, a black cap representing a very schematized crow. One of the norito chanted during the ceremony before the shrine is ‘strictly esoteric…intoned in a low voice, and is known only ot the priests’. The shimpu made on this occasion are ‘used as charms for safe delivery in childbirth, or stuck in the rice-fields to prevent damage to the crops by insects, but in the old days they were largely used for writing contracts, no witness being considered necessary for a contract written on the back of a shimpu.

Given Kumano’s historical importance as a centre for the development of Japanese religion, Yatagarasu’s emergence in the Kumano area attests to its centrality in and influence upon the esoteric shugendo sect and the yamabushi mountain cult. Some religious schools equate the Yatagarasu with the Tengu-karasu and regard him as a ‘great master in nothing to fear’.  The most celebrated mountain “sage” was En no Gyoja — called the Father of Shugendo, was of the Kamo clan. The fourth section of the Shozan engi text (Origins of Various Mountains) is purported to be the diary that records En no Gyoja’s travels through Kumano (Japanese Mandalas: Representations of Sacred Geography, 166, by Elizabeth Ten Grotenhuis).

Other historical references or evidence

According to Nihongi, during the reign of Kotoku-tenno in A.D. 650, envoys sent to China brought back a dead crow with three legs (Nihongi, XXV. 47).

“Yatagarasu is also worshipped in a few temples under his own name: the Tobe-sha, a massha of the Kamo-mi-oya-jinja.

He is worshipped very extensively under the name of Kamo-no-taketsu-numi-no-mikoto. The Yatagarasu-jinja (a subsidiary of the Kumano-Hongu-taisha) the Kakehiko-jinja (a massha near the Nishi-go-honden of the Kumano Nachi-jinja, which was probably founded in the fourth century), three other Yatagarasu-jinja in Yamato, the central shrine of the Mitsui-no-yashiro (a sessha of the Kamo-mi-oya-jinja) and with Tama-yori-hime) the Mikage-jinja, another sessha of the same temple.

In the Kashiwara-jingu, Yatagarasu is the messenger(otsukai お使い), or avatar of Jimmu-tenno.” — Source: Shinto, the Fountainhead of Japan by Jean Herbert.

Parallel mythical accounts outside Japan

The three-legged crow is known in Korea as Samjokgo ( 三足烏) where it is a symbol of power, in China the three-legged bird is called Sanzuniao, is usually represented in red and is associated with the sun.

The Samjok-o is found in Korean mythology, it is particularly associated with the Koguryo Kingdom because it is depicted in Koguryo period tomb wall murals. The Samjok-o crow is given central prominence, flanked by the phoenix and dragon. Clearly symbolic of kingly power and superior to both the dragon and the phoenix in Korea. The Koreans may have adopted the myth and emblem as it absorbed Chinese classics, among the many other things they learned from the Han commanderies in Korea.

Three-legged crow painting on Koguryo wall murals: Wikipedia

Sun crow in Chinese mythology

Evidence of the earliest bird-sun motif or totemic articles excavated around 5000 BC from the lower Yangtze River delta area. This bird-sun totem heritage was observed in later Yangshao and Longshan Cultures (Source: “Prehistory”

The Chinese have several versions of crow and crow-sun tales. But the most popular depiction and myth of the sun crow is that of theYangwu or Jinwu or “golden crow”. Even though it is described as a crow or raven, it is usually colored red instead of black.

The origin of Yatagarasu is widely attributed to the Chinese myth of ten crows perched on a mulberry-tree, recounted as follows.

In Chinese mythology, Xīhe is a Chinese sun goddess and the wife of Emperor Jun. According to legend, she was once the ‘mother’ of ten ‘child-suns’. The child-suns slept in the lower branches of the tree. Every morning Xihe bathed one of her children in the river and then let him/her fly on the back a crow to the top of the mulberry tree. Then the child-sun would fly up into the sky, and be the sun for the day. Each of the child-suns took turns doing this so that there would be light everyday. The child-suns and the mulberry tree are said to reside somewhere in the eastern sea named called Fusang. Everyday, one of the ten sun birds would travel around the world on a carriage driven by Xihe. (Some interpretations are that the nine suns reside in the Underworld and the tenth in the world of the living above.)

Folklore also held that, at around 2,170 BC, all ten sun-birds emerged and ascended the sky on the same day, causing the world to scorch and the Earth to drought. The emperor Yao asked Di Jun, the father of the ten suns, to persuade his children to appear one at a time. But since would not listen Di Jun sent the archer Houyi (or Yi) who saved the day by shooting down all but one of the suns (which escaped because it happened to be traveling the Underworld at the time). The three-legged crow is said to be residing inside of the last sun today. (See Stories of the Mid-Autumn Festival for variations upon this legend.)

The image above is a sketch based on an early stone-rubbing showing one of the ten Chinese suns crossing the heavens (Source: Ten Chinese Suns) which has the same sun-and-chariot association that is seen across both Central Asia and Europe.

However, the most popular depiction of the Chinese sanzuwu is as Yangwu, a golden crow identified with the sun, who was first described in words by the poet Kui Yen in 314 BCE – Source: Three-legged animals in Mythology and Folklore. There is also a crane-like three-legged sunbird.

A third crow tale is to be found in a collection of Taoist lore entitled Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liao Chai Chih I), written in the latter part of the seventeenth century. It tells of…

“a young man from Hunan named Yü Jung who had failed his examinations and was, in consequence, unable to find employment. Desperate and hungry, Yü Jung stopped at the shrine of Wu Wang, the guardian of crows, and prayed. After a while, the attendant of the temple approached and offered him a position in the Order of the Black Robes. Delighted to have found a way to earn his living, Yü Jung accepted. The attendant gave him a black garment. Putting it on, he was transformed into a crow. Soon he married a young crow named Chu Ch’ing, who taught him corvid ways. Unfortunately, he proved too impetuous, and a mariner shot him. The other crows churned up the waters and made the mariner’s boat capsize, but Yü Jung suddenly found himself once again in human form, lying near death on the temple floor. At first he thought the whole adventure had been a dream, but he could not forget the joys he had known as a crow. Eventually he recovered, passed his exams, and became prosperous, but Yü Jung continued to visit the temple of Wu Wang and made offerings to the crows. Finally, when he sacrificed a sheep, Chu Ch’ing came to him and returned his black robe, and Yü Jung again took on a corvid form” — Raven, crow and corvids in myth folklore and religion.

Western scholars tend to view Yatagarasu as originating from the Chinese three-legged crow version. We review below the evidence for the early development of the three-legged crow motif and myth to the beginnings of Chinese civilization.

The Sanzuwu motif appears as one of the Twelve Medallions that are used in the decoration of formal imperial garments in ancient China. Said to have been use as early as the Zhou dynasty (11th-3rd century BC), the twelve Chinese symbols of sovereignty were seen on the sacrificial robes of the Son of Heaven… with the three-legged crow having been one of them. In 1759 the twelve symbols were reserved exclusively for the robes of the Son of Heaven. As a symbolic interpretation of the universe, these symbols of imperial authority assumed a cosmic significance and represented the emperor as the ruler of the universe.

A silk painting from the Western Han excavated at the Mawangdui archaeological site also depicts a Sanzuwu perched on a tree.

Western Han painting on silk was found draped over the coffin in the grave of Lady Dai (c. 168 BC) at Mawangdui near Changsha in Hunan province.

Another Chinese legend, Xi Wangmu (Queen Mother of the West) is also said to have three green birds (qingniao in Chinese) that gathered food for her and in Han-period religious art they were depicted has having three-legs. In the Yongtai Tomb dating to the Tang Dynasty Era, when the Cult of Xi Wangmu flourished, the birds are also shown as being three-legged. The Fenghuang is commonly depicted as being two legged but there are some instances in art in which it has a three legged appearance.

The greatest diversity in three-legged crow tales is to be found in Chinese folklore. The  domicile or origin of the SanZuNiao/三足鸟 even today is attributed by the Chinese to be in Shandong.   A representation of the Chinese three-legged crow (sanzuwu) has been found on Neolithic pottery from the Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BCE). Excavations from Quanhu-chun Village, Liuzi-zhen Town, Hua-xian County, Shenxi Province produced colored pottery depicting a bird totem with the sun in the wing. Early Yangshao bird and frog images are found on painted pottery from 7,000 years ago. The use of bird and frog motifs continued for well over 3,000 years until the bird image changed into a golden crow and the frog image, into a toad with three legs – a portrayal which research says is the primitive Chinese belief that the bird was the soul of the sun and the frog, the soul of the moon.

Mural from the Han Dynasty period found in Henan province depicting a three-legged crow: Wikipedia

Sarah Allen in her book , “The shape of the turtle: myth, art and cosmos in early China ” traces the development of the three-legged crow story through the early Chinese civilization, and contends that the three-legged crow solar motif and ten suns originated with the Shang people (whose creator myth says they originated from the egg of the black bird) and that the myth proliferated to the south and to Fujian province:

“There appears to be an association between the ten-sun tradition and southern China. It might be argued that this was not a Shang tradition retained in the south during the Zhou, but one which originated in the state of Chu – a number of Shang sites in the Chu region and the connection between Shang and Chu culture has been confirmed by archaeological excavation. The most extensive finds were from Tianhu in Luoshan County, just south of the Huai River in southern Henan Province well connected to the south.  The Zhou ruler claimed this title “wang” or king exclusively for the son of heaven tianzi  history, in the Shang Dynasty, the rulers of many states used this title and were recognized by the Shang ruler who was also called king (wang).”

Allen also contends that the myth of the ten suns morphed over time into a single crow sun story becoming lost under denial and suppression from competing Confucius concepts:

“”When the Zhou, who believed in one sun, conquered the Shang, the myth lost its earlier meaning and the system its integrity, but the motifs were transformed and continued to occur in other contexts. ..In the Zhou Dynasty, the tradition that there was only one sun was so widely accepted that Mencius quoted Confucius as saying, “Heaven does not have two suns; the people do not have two kings”. …

“At the popular level, people continued to believe in ten suns which rose in sequence from the branches of the Mulberry Tree in outlying regions. In the central states, this tradition was known but the ten suns were confined to the mythical past by the story that one day all of them came out at once and nine were shot by Archer Yi. The Shang continued to be associated with many of the motifs of this tradition and the myth of the origin of their tribe from the egg of a black bird is a transformation of the myth of the birth of the ten suns which rose from the Mulberry Tree, but the belief in ten suns had been lost….  Myth though it was, and although it did not leave any trace upon the history of Chinese astronomy, the belief in ten alternating suns was a strongly competing tradition in ancient China, so much that in the first century A.D. Wang Chong launched a spirited denial of the possibility of ten suns perching on the branches of a tree without burning it to cinders. (Wang Chong’s account is drawn from two earlier texts, the Shanhaijing a corpus of mythological geographies drawn together in the Han Dynasty from a variety of sources of different date and origin, and the Huainanzi, a syncretic philo text compiled at the court o Liu An, prince of Huaninan ..and presented to Han emperor Wu Di in 139 BC. .. (Although this section is no older than the author Qu Yuan who lived in the 3rd century B.C., it draws upon a more ancient oral tradition.)”

Allen elaborates in great detail on the development and transformation of the crow myth, its association with various characters, and ventures to describe its connection to the sacred and spiritual landscape of the Underworld through the ages. The excerpts from Allen’s book below highlight some of the key elements of the myth developed through the different Chinese dynasties:

  • “…the crow is the symbol of the Shang kings of the Shang dynasty. The Shang believed that people continued to exist and therefore needed food after death was evident in the pottery vessels filled with grain and buried with the Shang dead.  The spirits were important as they related to the living. In Shang times, the ‘high ancestors’ gao zu were distinguished from immediate ancestors. … “the Shang had a myth of ten suns and that the Shang ruling group was organized in a totemic relationship to these suns. This myth was specific to the Shang and integrally associated with their rule.”
  • According to the Shuowen the Fu Sang is a “spirit tree”, that from which the sun(s) go out. The mulberry with its red or white berries, depicted in oracle bone script as a tree with many mouths among its branches provides an apt metaphor for this tree on the branches of which many suns perched. Fu is usually interpreted as the name of the mulberry tree and it is simply sometimes called the Fu Tree (Fu mu). The tree is sometimes written with the character whcih means support – the support of the tree for the suns or that two trees supported one another.  The Mulberry Tree is a tradition that is consistent in the Shanhaijing, Huainanzi and Chuci. …The most explicit descriptions of the tree are those in Shanhaijing: were branches of the Yellow Springs. The Mencius, Xunzi an d Huainanzi also record the belief that worms “eat soil and drink from the Yellow Springs”. Wang Chong observed in the Lun heng that people do not like to work in mines because they are “next to the Yellow Springs”.
  • Thus water ran beneath the earth, just as the sky surmounted it. This dualism is sometimes made explicit, as for example, in the Zhuangzi which speaks of “treading the Yellow Springs and climbing to the great sky”. The great flood was a problem of controlling these waters when they threatened to rise up to the sky and the Xia ancestors are regularly associated with the Ruo River, the color yellow, and the netherworld. The oracle bones inscriptions name a number of different springs and even today there are many natural springs bubbling up from the yellow loess in the Anyang region. Thus a belief that water ran everywhere beneath the earth would have been a natural assumption in thsi region. The Ruo Tree in the West was the place where the suns set and entered this watery underworld, that is the Ruo River, or , alternatively, the Yellow Springs, for yellow was the color of earth. Yellow or bright (huang) and black or dark (xuan) are a natural primitive color system and they are the colors used for the animals sacrificed in the oracle bones inscriptions. …These suns, which bathed in a pool of water and dwelt on the branches of the Mulberry Tree, were thought to be birds, as these motifs suggest.”
  • In a passage from the Shanhaijing, the suns were described as being inside the suns: “Inside the suns(s), there are jun raven(s); in the moon(s) toads. “
  • “Similarly, in Han dynasty tomb art, the sun is frequently depicted iwth a bird inside it and the moon with a toad or a hard and cassia tree. …Han tomb murals most frequently include one sun and one moon , but there are some examples in which the Mulberry Tree and its many suns are depicted. One example, is the funerary pendant excavated in 1972 from the Han tomb number one at Mawangdui, near Changsha in Hunan Province–formerly within the boundaries of the state of Chu. The tomb dates to the early Western Han Dynasty. Here, nine suns are depicted on the branches of a tree, the twisting trunk of which is consistent with the form of a mulberry. Eight of the suns are simple orange discs but that at the top of the tree in the left-hand corner of the pendant contains a black bird, possibly a raven, standing on two legs. A moon in the opposite corner contains a toad. The absence of tenth sun has caused puzzlement, but since this is a depiction of the deceased journeying to the world of the dead, I suspect the tenth sun is travelling across the sky of the human world above….
  • “The earliest depiction of a three legged bird is on neolithic pottery of the Miaogdigou (Yangshao) culture in Henan Province. In Han Tomb art, however, sun-birds are depicted with either two legs, as in the Mawangdui pendant, or three. Izushi and M. Loewe have related the number of legs of the sun-bird to the development of yin-yang and five element the theory in the early Han dynasty in which three was yang number and so that of the sun. Although the three legs of the sun-bird have been understood in this manner in the Han dynasty, there is another reason for linking the suns with the number three–the ten suns appear three times a month. The ten-day week and thirty-day month were the basic calendric units from Shang times on.”
  • The T-shaped silk funeral banner in the tomb of the Marquise (tomb no. 1) is called the “name banner” with the written name of the deceased replaced with their portrait. We know the name because the tomb’s original inventory is still intact, and this is what it is called on the inventory. The Marquise was buried in four coffins, the silk banner drapes the innermost of the coffins…. On the T-shaped painted silk garment, the uppermost horizontal section of the T represents heaven. The bottom of the vertical section of the T represents the underworld. The middle (the top of the vertical) represents earth. In heaven we can see Chinese deities such as Nuwa and Chang’e, as well as Daoist symbols such as cranes (representing immortality). Between heaven and earth we can see heavenly messengers sent to bring Lady Dai to heaven. Underneath this are Lady Dai’s family offering sacrifices to help her journey to heaven. Underneath them is the underworld – two giant sea serpents intertwined.”
  • In Han mural art, the Mulberry Tree is most often depicted as part of a scene which includes Archer Yi about to shoot at the sun-birds. The suns are depicted simply as birds, but the archer’s drawn bow identifies the scene. Where the bird carries the sun, is in the sun, or is the sun is thus ill-defined because the relationship is a mythical one. Mythically, the suns and birds are the same . …the Huainanzi passsage quoted above, the bird in the sun was called a jun-raven. According to the Eastern Han commentator, Gao You, the jun-raven was three -legged and Wang Chong, writing in the first century A.D. substitutes ‘three-legged’ for jun. Gao You’s annotation is based on an identification of the name of the bird with the character meaning ‘to crouch’. I suspect, however, that the name of the bird is related to that of Ji Jun, the husband of Xihe in this same tradition and so, presumably, the father of the sun-birds. Thus we may suppose the origin of both was jun.
  • “Every morning when the sun-bird which was to fly that day across the sky arose in Sun Valley, it was bathed by its mother Xihe in the pool of water there:  “Beyond the South-eastern Sea amidst the Sweet Waters is the Tribe of Xihe. There is a woman named Xihe who regularly bathes the suns in the Sweet Springs. Xihe is the wife of Di Jun. It is she who gave birth to the tens suns.” “The Shanhaijing commentator Guo Pu quotes a similar passage from the Guizang. “Behold their ascent to the sky! A time of brightness, then a time of darkness, as the sons of Xihe go out from Sun Valley.” …
  • Besides Xihe, the Shanhaijing names two other women as wives of Di Jun. One is Chang Xi, the western counterpart of Xihe. She gave birth to the twelve moons whom she bathes in a pool of water in the West, just as Xihe bathes her sun-children in the East. The cult of Chang Xi is much less developed than that of Xihe, just as that of the Ruo Tree is less developed than that of the Mulberry Tree. However she has been also been identified with Chang E (or Heng E) the goddess who fled to the moon after having stolen the elixir of immortality from Archer Yi and Chang Yi, the second wife of Di Ku. Since Xi (xia), E (nga) and Yi (gnia) are closely related phonetically (the same word family in Karlgreen’s reconstruction) and their roles are similar, these figures are probably variants of the same original moon goddess. …
  • The other wife, E Huang, is more directly connected with the human world for she gave birth to the ‘Tribe of Three-bodied People’ (the number recalls the three legs of the ravens). They in turn bore Yi Jun in a similar vein: ” I broke a branch from the Ruo Tree with which to screen the light”. …
  • “In the “Summoning of the soul” song Zhao hun which presumably derives from a rite for the dead, a reference to the ten suns of the Mulberry Tree tradition is used to signify a region beyond that where men–or even the souls of the dead–may dwell: “Oh Soul, come back! In the East, you cannot dwell….From there the ten suns go out alternately. They melt metal and dissolve stone.””
  • Most intriguing of all, Sarah Allen discerns that the myth of Archer Yi shooting the nine sun-birds from the Mulberry Tree, is a composite amalgamation and transformation of different mythical traditions, all from the Shang people:  she identifies from the earliest texts the clear forms of the myths of story of the Mulberry Tree (of the lady You Xin who had found Yi Yin in the Hollow Mulberry. Apparently, Yi Yin was born of a pregnant woman who had been told by the spirits when picking mulberries by the Yi River that  “when the mortar emits water, go east and do not look back” which she disobeyed of course, and looking back, the city behind her was completely flooded (echoes of the great Biblical flood). Consequently her body was changed in to a Hollow Mulberry Tree. Yi Yin is Tang’s minister and the above account from Lushi chunqiu suggests a cosmogonic birth for Yi Yin. It is the earliest text to give a full account of the Mulberry Tree Myth. (More on this here)

An interesting interpretation of origin of the Fusang Mulberry Tree is found in Xihe-Glossary (Quests of the Dragon and Bird Clan), it is suggested that the the location of the Fusang Tree was probably “Black Teeth Country” Japan (Japanese women were known to have kept their custom of blackening their teeth through to modern times):

“According to the Shanhaijing, attributed to Yu (3rd millennium BCE) and definitely not later than the Han Dynasty, the Fusang Tree was located near and north of the “Black Teeth Country.” The History of the Eastern Barbarians, dating to the Eastern Han Dynasty, locates this country southeast of Japan, the journey taking one year by ship.

Sung Dynasty ethnographer Ma Tuan-lin mentions in connection with these countries an archipelago of 2,000 kingdoms called Tong ti-jin(Eastern Fish People) located beyond the Sea of Kwei-ki, which is another name for the Southeastern Sea extending from the mouth of the Yangtze to the Strait of Formosa. He relates that this was the same area where explorers searched for the fabled Penglai.

Although he gives conflicting accounts, in one instance he suggests the Black Teeth Kingdom and Naked People Kingdom are located 4,000 leagues (li) to the south of Japan. …”– Xihe–Glossary

Below, we explore further the various elements of the three-legged crow and archer myth that are also seen in other regions surrounding Japan, Korea and China.

Central Asian, Siberian and Native American traditions:

The raven was of utmost importance in Central Asia’s mythology and folklore and featured centrally in the mysterious masked tsam ritual dances of Mongolia and Tibet – animistic dances that symbolized the battle of the gods against the enemies and their cults of the dead meant to bring humans and nature into balance.

“It was a holy bird of solar character, a prophet-like bird which served as a kind of messenger for the highest god. By means of his voice, will and wish of the god were conveyed and transmitted.

In the tsam, the raven tries to steal the sacrifice (sor), and for this reason, the skull masks drive the brid away by beating and bashing it. The mask of the raven is even more common in Mongolia than it is in Tibet” — Tsam, Mask Raven

The Khanty’s ex-capital Surgut is named after that god of dream-ravens, Surgat (although one tradition says Sur-gut means “fish-gut”.)

Like the Middle Eastern and Biblical versions, the raven, crow and rook all appear in the flood tale of Siberian myth, not one of them returning to the ark, as they were far too busy eating carcasses of drowned animals. For this they were cursed, as the dove was blessed for bringing back a twig, although it seems obvious that there had to be land somewhere if there were carcasses lying around. The Russian Lapps tell tales of the Seide, which are invisible spirits that have the power, like the dead, of appearing in the form of birds. They relate how a Seide often flew up out of a chasm in the mountains in the shape of a raven.

In Tibet, the raven is seen as a most auspicious bird and designated sacred bird at the Benchen Monastery for the Protector deity Mahakala Bernaken. Like the Tibetan tradition, the Indian tradition follows the Central Asian tradition with the crow also regarded as a bird sacred to Shiva and Kali. Brahma appears as a raven in one of his incarnations. On the other hand, the two-headed deva Shani is depicted seated on a crow, bringing the crow in check and protecting people against thievery, a quality the crow is well associated with.

The raven is to Native Americans, the guardian of ceremonial magic and healing circles.  The colour black is symbolic of magical power, of the Black Hole in space that draws energy in and releases it in new forms. The raven is a messenger spirit that Native American shamans use to project their magic over great distances.

The Cherokee Indians have a tradition that their most feared of wizards or witches is the dreaded Raven Mocker (Kâ’lanû Ahkyeli’skï), the one that robs the dying man of life. They are androgynous, and usually look withered and old, because they have added so many lives to their own. “At night, when some one is sick or dying in the settlement, the Raven Mocker goes to the place to take the life. He flies through the air in fiery shape, with arms outstretched like wings, and sparks trailing behind, and a rushing sound like the noise of a strong wind. Every little while as he flies he makes a cry like the cry of a raven when it “dives” in the air–not like the common raven cry–and those who hear are afraid, because they know that some man’s life will soon go out. When the Raven Mocker comes to the house he finds others of his kind waiting there, and unless there is a doctor on guard who knows bow to drive them away they go inside, all invisible, and frighten and torment the sick man until they kill him.” — The Raven Mocker (from the Native American Legends website)

The raven is often the creator or trickster deity in Siberian, Alaskan and Pacific Northwest oral traditions. Similarly, the Tlingit hat is adorned with a raven, an important mythological character for many Native Americans of Alaska. The Eskimos also have the raven as their creator god. According to their creation myths, God-Raven (the bird) made all things, creating light out of mica flakes and human beings out of rock.

Considered both a hero and a trickster, the raven presented many gifts to humans including light, names for plants, and formations of the earth. In the legends of the Northwest Indians and told on the Queen Charlotte Islands, Gray Eagle was guardian of the sun, moon, and stars in the days when the world had neither fire nor water and people lived in darkness. Raven fell in love with Gray Eagle’s daughter.  Now, Raven was a handsome young man who changed himself into snow-white bird to please Gray Eagle’s daughter. But he stole from Gray Eagle’s lodge, the sun, moon, stars, a firebrand and fresh water. Then flying off, he hung the sun in the sky, then the moon and the stars, and while flying off, he dropped the fresh water which became the lakes of the world, and the smoke from the firebrand turned his feathers black. And that was how Raven became a black bird.

The Haida Indians on the northwestern coast of Canada the crow will steal the sun from the Sky’s Master and give it to the Earth people.

This motif of the raven stealing fire out of Australia is intriguing as it suggests that the idea of the crow as a sacred bird may have diffused originally from very ancient migratory lineages from south of Asia. The story exists with in Australian Aborigine mythology, where Raven tried to steal fire from seven sisters (the Pleides), and was charred black in the unsuccessful attempt.

A tale from the Bisayas, the central island region of the Philippines has it that:

“…the flood took place as a result of a quarrle between the supreme god Bathala and the sea god Dumagat. Bathala’s subjects, the crow and the dove, were stealing fish which were subjects of Dumagat. The upshot was that Dumagat opened the big world waterpipe and flooded Earth, the dominion of Bathala, until nearly all people were drowned.”

With the crow as thief motif out of oral traditions from ancient tribes in the south (Australia and Island South East Asia), this motif appears to originate in from Austronesia.

European and Middle Eastern traditions:

There exists two separate traditions in this sphere.

The Greeks’ view of the raven was similar to the Central Asian one, i.e. that Raven is the messenger of the Sun Gods (to both Helios and Apollo, and there are also associations with Athene, Hera, Cronos and Aesculapius).

In Norse mythology, the pair of Huginn and Muninn ravens are the avatars (like the otsukai messengers of Japanese solar deities) that fly all over the world, Midgard, and bring the god Odin information.

In the Heimskringla book Ynglinga saga, there is an account of Odin having had two ravens, upon whom he bestowed the gift of speech. These ravens flew all over the land and brought him information, causing Odin to become “very wise in his lore.” Prose Edda describes the ravens who were Odin’s constant battlefield companions, as a bird sometimes at the ear of the human or at the ear of the horse. The Prose Edda explains that Odin is referred to as “raven-god” due to his association with Huginn and Muninn. One of Odin’s many titles is Hrafna-Gud, the God of the Ravens.  Odin’s daughters, the warlike Valkyres, were sometimes said to take the shape of ravens.

In the Prose Edda and the Third Grammatical Treatise, the two ravens are described as perching on Odin’s shoulders. In the Third Grammatical Treatise an anonymous verse is recorded that mentions the ravens flying from Odin’s shoulders; Huginn seeking hanged men, and Muninn slain bodies. Huginn and Muninn’s role as Odin’s messengers, the general raven symbolism among the Germanic peoples and the Norse raven banner, suggest a link to Central Asian shamanic practices and call to mind the Yatagarasu shrine banner of Kumano Hongu Shrine.

Vendel era helmet plates (from the 6th or 7th century) found in grave in Sweden depict a helmeted figure holding a spear and a shield while riding a horse, flanked by two birds. The depiction has been interpreted as Odin accompanied by his two ravens. A similar interpretation has also been given to a pair of identical Germanic Iron Age bird-shaped shoulder brooches from Bejsebakke in northern Denmark.   The back of each bird feature a mask-motif, and the feet of the birds are shaped like the heads of animals. The feathers of the birds are also composed of animal-heads. Together, the animal-heads on the feathers form a mask on the back of the raven-like bird. The masks recall the tsam mask dances of Central Asia.

A plate from a Vendel era helmet featuring a figure riding a horse, holding a spear and shield, and confronted by a serpent Source: Wikipedia

Archaeologist Peter Vang Petersen comments that while the symbolism of the brooches is open to debate, the shape of the beaks and tail feathers confirms the brooch depictions are ravens. Petersen says that Odin is associated with disguise and that the masks on the ravens may be portraits of Odin (reminiscent of the tsam masks of Siberia/Mongolia).

Scots Gaelic proverbs meaning “There is wisdom in a raven’s head.”    To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish proverb meaning to have a seer’s supernatural powers.  Raven is considered one of the oldest and wisest of animals.

Scottish Highlanders associate ravens with the second sight.  As a bird of wisdom and prophecy, Raven was the totem of the Welsh God, Bran the Blessed, the giant protector of the Britain, the Isle of the Mighty. Bran was god of the sailors as well, and sailors would have crows on their boats. They would release the crows at sea and it seems that the crows would fly in the direction of land (this recalls the Biblical tale of Noah releasing first the crow to search for land after the floods).

After the battle with Ireland, Bran was decapitated, and his head became an oracle.  Bran’s head is said to be buried in what is now Tower Hill in London to protect Britain from invasion and Bran’s Ravens are kept there to this day, as protection against invasion.

The Welsh Owein had a magical army of ravens.  In the Welsh Mabinogi, ravens are beneficent Otherworld creatures associated with Rhiannon.” (Green, p. 1986, 174) and the Welsh unsurprisingly have a superstition where the raven is also an omen of death. If the raven makes a choking sound, it is a portent of the death rattle.  A crying raven on a church steeple will “overlook” the next house where death will occur.

During World War II, Tower Hill was bombed, and the ravens were lost.  Winston Churchill, knowing full well the ancient legends (and how this was likely to be regarded as an ill omen), ordered the immediate replacement of ravens, and they were brought to Tower Hill from Celtic lands – the Welsh hills and Scottish Highlands.

In Gaelic Cornish folklore, as in England, King Arthur is said to live on in the form of a raven, and it is unlucky to shoot one.  The raven is totemic for some Celtic clans that claim descent from the raven. Examples are the ancient clan called the Brannovices, the Raven Folk, that once existed in Britain and the raven heraldic arms of the Glengarry MacDonalds of Scotland.

To Irish and Scots, ravens were also an omen of death and banshees (Bean Sidhes) could take the shape of ravens as they cried perched on a roof, portending death for the household below. In England, tombstones are sometimes called “ravenstones”.

In the Hebrides, giving a child his first drink from the skull of a raven is thought to bestow powers of prophecy and wisdom upon the child.

Raven is also the sacred symbol of the pan-Celtic Sorceress/Goddess Morgan le Fay, who was also called the Queen of Faeries.  In some tales, she is Queen of the Dubh Sidhe, or Dark Faeries, who were a race of tricksters who often took the form of ravens.

Among the Irish Celts, Raven was associated with the Triple Goddess, the Morrigan, who took the shape of Raven over battlefields as Chooser of the Slain – she was a protector of warriors, such as Chuhulian and Fionn MacCual. Also according to the Celtic tradition, the Raven called Morrigan, was the favorite bird of the solar deity, Lugh, the Celtic God of Arts and Crafts (who is also regarded as a triplet deity). It is pertinent to point out here that the triplicity or triplet form apparent in much of Celtic religion and art, symbolizes power and mastery of all arts (source: Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia ) calls to mind the symbolism of the three-leggedness for Korean kings as sons of the sun or of heaven. We may surmise that the “power of three” has a common origin.

In the Lugh and Morrigan account “Two Deities of the Fair Folk: Lugh and Morrigan“, the raven, is (as in the Central Asian and Middle Eastern traditions), associated with the underworld and with incarnation and is said to:

“…come from some dark chaos that preceded these gods, but is not a god in itself.

The major form in which she is seen is her old woman form, wrapped in a cape of black raven feathers. Sometimes she takes the form of the death raven announcing death, or the banshee predicting it with shrieks. She is the thunderhead that descends at death, and the soul which is torn from the body rises through it like lightning. Her body becomes the conduit of death, the stormy pathway of the soul.

This is not for all people but it is the way she appears to our people. Because she is the pathway, the vast network of reincarnation compressed into a cloudy mirror, she can guide the soul as she chooses. She needs only to change the pathways. Usually she is a subtle mist, but on the battlefield, she is storm clouds and thunder, the hag screaming for the dead, and the black death-horse which gallops through the sky carrying its newly deceased rider.

She is also, in secret, the goddess of incarnation. People do not like to believe that incarnations are guided. They prefer to believe that souls are generated at birth, or that some great god has chosen their fate. That the dark death goddess carries the soul in her black wings to rebirth is a frightening idea. Perhaps if the soul were brought by the stork, it would be more acceptable to the modern imagination…”

In another account, the Greek god of light, Apollo took the form of a crow or hawk when he fled to Egypt to escape the serpent Typhon. The crow remained sacred to Apollo, but the relationship between the god and corvids was not without ambivalence. As Ovid tells the story in Fasti, Phoebus (Apollo) was preparing a solemn feast for Jupiter and told a raven to bring some water from a stream. The raven flew off with a golden bowl but was distracted by the sight of a fig tree. Finding the fruits unfit to eat, the raven sat beneath the tree and waited for them to ripen. He then returned with a water snake that he claimed had blocked the water, but the god saw through this lie. As punishment for lateness and for deceit, the god later decreed that the raven from that time on could not drink of any spring until figs had ripened on their trees. A constellation of depicting a raven, a snake, and a bowl was placed in the sky, and the voice of the raven is still harsh from thirst in the spring. The call of the raven was often said to be “cras,” Latin for “tomorrow,” [and which sounds incredibly similar to the Japanese word “karasu“] and through the Renaissance the raven often symbolized the procrastinator. (These last two tales hint of the serpent motif and primordial watery creation and floods motif to be found in Hebrew and Biblical accounts.)

In the classical world (noted by this source), ravens were prophetic messengers that foretold the deaths of Plato, Tiberius and Cicero among others — this has been known as “Ravens’ knowledge”.

The Sumerians of the ancient Near East believed that the dead existed as birds in the underworld (echoing the Siberian shamanic cosmic worldview in which shamans, priests could be transformed into birds during their journeys to the Underworld).  The god Ninshubur takes the raven as one of its forms in Sumerian and Semitic tales. What’s intriguing is a possible connection between the Sumerian versions and Japanese concepts of the Underworld from another legend Izanami and Izanagi. Ninshubur accompanied Inanna (Queen of the Underworld) as a vassal and friend throughout Inanna’s many exploits. She helped Inanna fight Enki’s demons after Inanna’s theft of the sacred me. Later, when Inanna became trapped in the Underworld, it was Ninshubur who pleaded with Enki for her mistress’s release. Though described as an unmarried virgin, in a few accounts Ninshubur is said to be one of Inanna’s lovers. Innana’s descent to the Underworld is said to be a close parallel to the Japanese Izanami and Izanagi myth. In happier times when Inanna chooses Dumuzi to be her bridegroom, it was Ninshubur who led Dumuzi to Inanna (source: Sukkal).

The raven is sacred to Adad, the god of rain and storm. The raven rises as the summer dry season comes to an end and the storm clouds of autumn start to gather (Source: A Brief Guide to Babylonian Constellations)

The Egyptians depicted the soul of the deceased called Ba to be a bird or human-headed bird. The Egyptians believed that after death, there would be a final union between souls and their bodies. Since Ba was the soul, it visited its old body in the tomb. Ba was the soul, spirit, and mind of a mummy and could roam freely over the earth, providing its mummy with substances that were necessary for the afterlife.

The Akkadian god Anzu was a raven (also variously known as “Sky-Wisdom”; with parallels in the Imdugud; Assyrian Pazuzu; Greek Zeus) and a giant storm bird. Lugalbanda meets one after being left in the Zagros mountains. Another one steals the Tablets of Destiny from Enlil; Enlil’s son Ninurta finds him and slays him, returning the tablets to his father.

In the Hebrew/Islamic/Christian worldviews, ravens were considered unclean, representing impurity, mortification, destruction, deceit, and desolation.

In the Talmud, the raven is described as having been only one of three beings on Noah’s Ark that copulated during the flood and so was punished. The Quran mentions the raven only once, describing the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam where the Raven teaches men how to bury dead bodies. {Surah 5:27-31} which harkens back to pre-Islamic Persian Zoroastrian teachings on funeral rites.

The Arabs call it Abu Zajir which means “Father of Omens.  Black birds such as crows and raven thus tend to be linked with death and impurity may have been derived from the Middle Eastern or Persian traditions:

…“the beneficent aspect of the raven appears in Zoroastrianism, where it is a ‘pure’ bird since it removes pollution. This is carried over to Mithraism, where the first grade of initiation is the Raven, the servant of the sun.– “Translating the Raven“.  The crow was entrusted by the sun god, Sol with the task of telling Mithra to sacrifice the bull. In the Mithraic cult, the crow can also dispel evil spirits.

Semitic/Christian religions appear to combine a number of raven types. In the Biblical account[Gen 8:7], ravens were cursed by Noah and he became a blackened bird and condemned to eat carrion for their failure to return to the ark with news of the receding of the flood (afterwhich doves were sent out to accomplish the mission). However, the Bible also regards ravens as protectors of the prophets  The raven has long been a symbol of divine providence. [Psa 147:9; Job 38:41] ; they fed Elijah and Paul the Hermit in the wilderness.   The raven is a symbol for solitude and an attribute of several saints whom ravens fed, including St. Bernard, St. Cuthbert, St. Anthony Abbot, St. Paul the Hermit, and St. Benedict.

In other European tradition, carrion-eating birds such as vultures, crows, and ravens, for example, were connected with disaster and war. Celtic and Irish war goddesses (Badb and Morrígan) often appeared in the form of crows and ravens—perhaps because crows and ravens were known to gather over battlefields and to feast on the flesh of fallen warriors. It was said that if one of these goddesses appeared before an army going into battle, the army would be defeated. ” In Ireland it was once domesticated for use in divination practices and the term “Raven’s Knowledge” was applied to the human gift of second sight. Welsh mythology features Bran the Blessed, whose name means “raven” or “crow”. He is depicted as giant and the King of the Britons in tale known as the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.

Ravens deserting their nests were very bad omens and popular superstition declared that if the ravens ever fled the Tower of London, the monarchy would fall. In many areas of the ancient world, the sight of a raven flying to the right was a good omen, whilst a raven flying to the left was an evil one.”– Raven, crows and blackbirds: Omens of Death and Divine Providence.

Probably telling of the strong links between the two peoples, the Romans also considered the raven to portend death. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that as a carrion bird, the raven (like the coyote) obtained mythic status because it was a mediator animal between life and death.

Elsewhere and other motifs and their related crow/raven symbolism

In Mexico, there is a story of the Cora Indians of how the crow got its black colour…(the Mexican crow is connected to the judge of the dead (Lord of the Underworld) and disaster).

” In very remote times … God …sen(t) a great punishment to man … a great internal war took away the lives of many … a river overflowed its banks and took the lives of many more. The judge of the dead Aropayang … sent out the crow and the dove to examine and count the dead. The dove came back and gave a faithful account of the disaster. The crow, who came back and gave a faithful account of the disaster. The crow, who came back and gave a faithful account of the disaster. The crow, who came back much later, could not do so much because it forgot to count the dead inits eagerness to peck at the eyes of the dead. Furious, Aropayang hurled a bottle of ink at the bird and thus stained the feather of the crow for ever, and he cursed it to be lame on one foot where it was hit by the inkwell.”

The Sioux Indians too have a story of a white raven that warned a group of buffaloes about approaching hunters. As a punishment, the white raven was caught and cast into the fire, giving it its black charred color.

According to Ukrainian legends, ravens used to have many beautifully colored feathers and a lovely song but after the Fall they started eating carrion. This habit destroyed their voices and blackened their plumage. Their former loveliness is expected to be returned to them when Paradise is restored.

Why the dichotomy between the Chinese red (gold) coloured crow and the Korean black crow?

The colours of the feathers of the crow or raven bird may be significant in ascertaining the origin of the crow tales.

The crow tales in the geographical range spanning East Asia to Central Asia and the Middle East where the crow or raven may once have been an other-coloured bird, either white, or yellow or golden or multi-coloured (or where red colour was prominent as the crow was contained inside the red sun), but was turned black upon some fault or failing.

In the Central Asian spiritual scheme of things:

“There are two kinds of mountain spirits, yellow and black. Yellow represents the light powers, more inclined to do good; and the black, the dark and dangerous”. — Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia

While the black crow (as in black raven of European thought) is thought to portend death, the Chinese and Japanese crow appear to signify divine direction and providence in both archer Yi and Emperor Jimmu’s cases.

The colour may also point to the approximate origin of the tales. In Turkic Siberia and the Altai region, the sun goddesses and other spirit figures have yellow hair. The sun goddess and protector spirit of Mt Irt have yellow hair.

Given the proximity of Shandong to the Korean peninsula, the adoption of Shantong three-legged crow motif by the Manchus of the medallion symbol for the “Son of Heaven” imperial clothes during the Zhou Dynasty, as well as the establishment Han commanderies in Korea, it is not surprising that the motif diffused to the Korean kingdoms and eventually becoming adopted by Koguryo as the sacred emblem of its “sons of heaven”.

The Crow Tribes in the (Western) Rocky Mountains have a tale “Three Legged Rabbit” which is an intriguing counterpoint variation to the archer Yi shooting the three-legged crow-in-the-sun story (genetic research points to South Siberia and the Altai region as the possible origins of the Native American lineages):

“A three legged rabbit made himself a fourth leg from wood. The rabbit thought the Sun was too hot for comfort so he went to see what could be done. He went east at night to the place where the Sun would rise. When the Sun was half way up the Rabbit shot it with an arrow. As the Sun lay wounded on the ground the Rabbit took the white of the Suns eyes and made the clouds. He made the black part of the eyes into the sky, the kidneys into stars, and the liver into the Moon, and the heart into the night. “There!” said the Rabbit, “You will never be too hot again.” — American Indian Starlore and other stories about the Sky

From the above mythical connections, we could hypothesize the following:

– The oldest concepts are the ones where the crow is a creator stealing thief, with the starry association of the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters (The crow as thief motif as an oral tradition appears to originate from ancient tribes in the south (Australia and Island South East Asia), i.e. from Austronesia.

– The idea of the crow or raven as guardian, carrion-cleaner as well as protector/provider spirit occurs in the region spanning the Persia-to Near East-Indo-Scythian and where the Central Asian crow or raven as messenger or guide to the Underworld. In Laos, water soiled by the crow cannot be used for ritual purification purposes (this seems to combine the bird as thief (stealing water) and ritual purification ideas from the Near East.

– These Crow messengers, guides, guardian protectors or portents of the Underworld then become fused with the Siberian cosmology and concepts of bird shamanic spirits on journeys to the world of the dead to become the Shang-Zhou-Han  Chinese, Mongol, Manchurian, Korean and Japanese stories of the archer shooting the Crow Sun(s).

– African tales of crows may have been the earliest ones carried out of Africa but the tale from Kilimanjaro only has a sacrificial motif:  “Dwarves that live on the slopes of Kilimanjaro  are supposed to lay out bits of meat in banana-groves when sacrificing to their ancestors, and these bits of meat roll down the slopes and turn into white-necked ravens.” — From Ravens in Mythology

What needs much greater treatment is the relationship of the Yatagarasu to and the origin of Tengu Karasu (literally, from the Chinese tian-gou “celestial dog”). The Tengu Karasu is a giant crow-like demon encountered often in Japanese folk-beliefs, art and shrine plays.

The Japanese creature is thought to be related to the winged Buddhist deity Garuda.  Some Japanese scholars have supported the theory that the tengu’s image derives from that of the Hindu eagle deity Garuda, who according to Buddhist scripture as one of the major races of non-human beings.

However, others feel Tengu are earlier indigenous transformations of Shinto mountain guardian deities given their association with tall trees and with yamabushi mountain ascetics. Tengu are of two physical types: karasu tengu 烏天狗 identified by a bird’s head and beak; and konoha tengu 木の葉天狗 distinguished by a human physique but with wings and a long nose (also called yamabushi tengu).  It is also thought that since the form of Tengu gigaku dance masks from the Nara Shosoin collection tell of a Central Asian origin suggest the mythical character may have arrived in Japan with entertaining musical and tsam masked troupes.


Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia by Kira van Deusen

Shinto: At the Fountainhead of Japan by Jean Herbert

Chinese Myths

Kamo Mioya Jinja Shrine webpage

Richard E. Strassberg (2002). A Chinese bestiary: strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas. University of California Press. p. 195. ISBN 0520218442, 9780520218444.

Xi Wangmu Summary


Ten Chinese Suns

Raven in Mythology

Creation myths of the world: an encyclopedia, Volume 1 by David Adams Leeming, p. 346)

Raven, crow and corvids in myth, folklore and religion/

Raven in Mythology

Birds in Mythology – Myth Encyclopedia

Ravens, crows, blackbirds: Omen of Death and Divine Providence

The Trickster/The Raven by M. Roe

Raven Part 1: Corvidology by Susan Morgan Black

Petersen, Peter Vang (1990). “Odin’s Ravens” as collected in Oldtidens Ansigt: Faces of the Past. Det kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab. ISBN 87-7468-274-1

Three legged bird Yatagarasu Omamori at Fukagawa Fudoson Temple

Three-legged animals in Mythology and Folklore by Graham Lloyd (Lloyd states that “there are grounds for believing the Asian three-legged birds have a Western origin”.  He is of the opinion that the Celtic triskele motif  and the Asia Minor coins of Lycia and Pamphyllia which are disks with three legs radiating from the disk are the origin of the eagles or cocks superimposed upon with the triskele motif (the latter seen in Sicily and Isle of Man designs).  Lloyd also cites this webpagefor the source on an Egyptian three-legged bird found on wall murals. Note: I do not subscribe to this view, given the extraordinarily clear details of the East Asian versions of stories.

Chinese dress in the Qing Dynasty

The Three-Legged Crow:  A Japanese legends tells of how, long ago a monster was about to devour the sun. To prevent this, the rulers of heaven created the first crow, who flew into the monster’s mouth and choked him (I assume this crow had three legs, since the “crow in the sun” is supposed to have three legs, representing dawn, noon and dusk). Another story tells of how the first Japanese soccer emblemEmperor of Japan was travelling through the mountains and became lost. The sun-goddess sent a three-legged crow to guide him, and from that day on, the three-legged crow became an emblem of Japanese imperial rule (and the Japanese National soccer team).

The shape of the turtle: myth, art and cosmos in early China by Sarah Allen: Myth, Art and Cosmos in early Chinese art

Three Legged Bird 三足鸟 (

Painted patterns on Yangshao pottery

Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia

The symbolism and spiritual significance of the number three

The trinity secret, the power of three and the code of creation by Marie D. Jones, Larry Flaxman and Marie D. Jones’interview with Big 3 News in which she said: “When people hear the title they automatically think it’s about the trinity that we all know, the Catholic Trinity and it’s not. It takes a look at the same trinity and shows how in every religion and in mythology all over the world – in folklore, fairytales, in science & psychology, in studies of the brain, in studies of human consciousness – there is the same concept of there being like three levels, a triune nature of reality. It always intrigued us that the number three turns up so often in so many different areas of life. So the book, it is controversial because people who have only heard of the trinity in that one context are going to think that we’re taking a holy concept and turning it into something metaphysical but the truth is that the trinity has been around long before Catholicism found it. It’s far more ancient than that.”

Reclaiming the Raven chapter 6 of John Peter Luke Saunders’ Masters Thesis on Irish Oral History

Raven and Crow (Khandro.Net) on Tibetan and Indian crow/raven traditions.

A Negative Bird/Symbol of the Crow / Guide and Messenger of the Gods

Inanna, Queen of Heavens | The goddess Inanna |

A Brief Guide to Babylonian Constellations

Tengu: The Shamanic and Esoteric Origins of Japanese Martial Arts by Roald Knutsen

Tengu (JAANUS archives) | Tengu – The Slayer of Vanity

7 responses to “The Legend of Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow and its possible origins

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  3. “The Akkadian god Anzu was a raven (also variously known as “Sky-Wisdom”; with parallels in the Imdugud; Assyrian Pazuzu; Greek Zeus”

    Don’t seem very pausible…

  4. Pingback: To Infinity and Beyond - Plural

  5. Pingback: Kumano Kodo: Torheit – Fußläufig erreichbar

  6. Pingback: Kumano Kodo: Torheit – Fußläufig erreichbar

  7. Amazing amount of information you have here! Arigato! Fascinating! I’ve been intrigued by yatagarasu after walking the Kumano Kodo and learning about it. Thanks again!

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