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Genbu

Genbu玄武
げんぶ

TRANSLATION: dark warrior
ALTERNATE NAMES: genten jōtei (dark emperor of the heavens), showan’ū
HABITAT: the northern sky

APPEARANCE: Genbu is a large tortoise or turtle combined with a snake. Sometimes he is represented as two creatures—a snake wrapped around a tortoise—and sometimes he is represented as a single creature—a tortoise-snake chimera. His home is in the northern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the snake’s neck is located in Sagittarius. The constellations which makes up the tortoise’s shell are located in Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pegasus. The constellations which make up the snake’s tail are located in PEgasus and Andromeda.

INTERACTIONS: Genbu is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Genbu is the guardian of the north. He is associated with the Chinese element of water, the season of winter, the planet Mercury, and the color black. He represents the virtue of knowledge. He controls the cold. He is enshrined in the Genbu Shrine, north of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace.

ORIGIN: Genbu is named differently than the other shijin; rather than directly describing a color and animal, i.e. Black Tortoise, his name is written as gen, meaning dark, occult, or mysterious, and bu, meaning warrior. The word tortoise is not used for his name, because it was also used as a slur in China. So this euphemistic name was used to refer to the Black Tortoise. His name comes from Chinese mythology, where it is with the Taoist god Xuan Wu (the Chinese pronunciation of Genbu). Xuan Wu was a prince who lived in prehistoric northern China. He lived in the mountains, far from civilization, where he studied Taoism as an ascetic. He learned that to achieve full divinity, he would have to purge both his mind and body of all impurities. While his mind had become enlightened, he still had to eat earthly food, and so sin remained in his stomach and his intestines. So he cut them out and washed them in a river to purify them. When he did this, his stomach turned into a large demon tortoise and his intestines into a demon snake. The demons began to terrorize the countryside. Xuan Wu subdued them, and instead of destroying them he allowed them to atone for their sins by serving him. They became his generals: a snake and a tortoise. It is these two generals which became Xuan Wu’s—and Genbu’s—symbols.

Genbu is associated with yin energy—the forces of darkness and shadow—and in ancient China was worshipped as a god of the moon (another strong yin force) in addition to being the god of the north. Because the shell of a tortoise is like a suit of armor, Genbu is also viewed as a warrior deity. The tortoise shell is a symbol of heaven and earth, with the flat part of the lower shell representing the world and the dome of the upper shell representing the heavens. As tortoise shells were a popular tool in divination, Genbu was also viewed as having soothsaying powers and the ability to travel between the lands of the living and the dead. The tortoise is a symbol of longevity and immortality, while the snake is a symbol of reproduction and multiplication. It was believed that all tortoises were female and had to mate with a snake to reproduce. The intertwining of the two was a symbol not only of long life and fertility, but also of the balance of yin and yang.

In later centuries, as belief in onmyōdō waned, the Four Symbols were gradually replaced by the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Genbu and his symbols were largly absorbed and supplanted by the Buddhist king Tamonten.

Byakko

Byakko白虎
びゃっこ

TRANSLATION: white tiger
ALTERNATE NAMES: baifū
HABITAT: the western sky

APPEARANCE: Byakko is a celestial white tiger. His home is in the western sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the rear of the tiger is located in Andromeda and Pisces. The constellations which makes up the middle of the tiger are located in Ares and Taurus. The constellations which makes up his front legs and head are located in Orion.

INTERACTIONS: Byakko is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Byakko is the guardian of the west. He is associated with the Chinese element of metal, the season of autumn, the planet Venus, and the color white. He represents the virtue of righteousness. He controls the wind.

ORIGIN: Byakko and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. Japan’s ancient capitals were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Byakko and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.

Suzaku

Suzaku朱雀
すざく

TRANSLATION: vermilion bird
ALTERNATE NAMES: sujaku, shujaku, chūchue
HABITAT: the southern sky

APPEARANCE: Suzaku is a large, scarlet, phoenix-like bird. His home is in the southern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellation which makes up the left wing of the bird is located in Gemini. The constellation which makes up his head feathers or comb is located in Cancer. The constellations which make up his head, beak, and body are located in Hydra. The constellation which makes up his right wing is located in Hydra and Crater. The constellation which makes up his tail feathers is located in Corvus.

INTERACTIONS: Suzaku is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Suzaku is the guardian of the south. He is associated with the Chinese element of fire, the season of summer, the planet Mars, and the color red. He represents the virtue of propriety. He controls heat and flame. The ancient capitals of Fujiwara-kyō, Heijo-kyō and Heian-kyō were each guarded on the south by a large gate called Suzakumon (Suzaku Gate). Beyond Suzakumon was a wide avenue called Suzaku Boulevard, which served as the main north-south road. In Kyoto, this road ran from the Imperial Palace to the gate at the southern end of the city, Rashōmon. Today, though the gates are long gone, Suzaku Boulevard (now called Senbon Avenue) remains an important road in the city.

ORIGIN: Suzaku and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. Japan’s ancient capitals were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Suzaku and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.

Because they look very similar, Suzaku is often confused with hōō, the Chinese pheonix. The attributes and symbolism of one are sometimes mixed or swapped with each other. Though it has been suggested that they may share a common origin—perhaps going back to the mythical bird Garuda in Indian mythology—there is no strong evidence linking these creatures to each other.

Seiryū

Seiryuu青竜
せいりゅう

TRANSLATION: azure dragon
ALTERNATE NAMES: shōryū, seiryō, sōryū, chinron
HABITAT: the eastern sky

APPEARANCE: Seiryū is a large blue-green dragon with a long tongue. His home is in the eastern sky. He spans seven of the twenty-eight Chinese constellations, taking up one quarter of the entire sky. The constellations which make up the horn and neck of the dragon are located in Virgo. The constellation which makes up the chest of the dragon is located in Libra. The constellations which make up his heart, belly, and tail are located in Scorpius. The final constellation makes up his dung, and is located in Sagittarius.

INTERACTIONS: Seiryū is one of the shijin, or Four Symbols, which are important mythological figures in Taoism. Seiryū is the guardian of the east. He is associated with the Chinese element of wood, the season of spring, the planet Jupiter, and the colors blue and green. He represents the virtue of benevolence, and symbolizes creativity. He controls the rain. He is enshrined in Kyoto at Kiyomizu Temple, in the eastern part of the city.

ORIGIN: Seiryū and the other shijin were brought to Japan from China in the 7th century CE. They are strongly associated with Taoism, feng shui, astrology, the five element theory, and other forms of Chinese mysticism. The ancient capitals of Fujiwara-kyō, Heijo-kyō, and Heian-kyō were built in correspondence to these beliefs, with each of the quadrants of the city dedicated to one of the Four Symbols. Excavations of ancient burial mounds in Nara has revealed paintings of Seiryū and the other shijin on the tomb walls.

In later centuries, belief in astrology waned, and worship of the Four Symbols was gradually supplanted by worship of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. Their use as symbols, however, continued.