the online database of Japanese folkore

Dakini

荼枳尼
だきに

Translation: none; a transliteration of the Sanskrit term dakini
Alternate names: Dakiniten, Daten, Shinko’ō, Kiko Tennō
Habitat: the sky
Diet: human hearts, blood, and flesh

Appearance: Dakini—or Dakiniten, as she is commonly called in Japan—is an esoteric goddess and an important figure in Shingon Buddhism. She is usually depicted as a beautiful half-nude woman carrying a wish-granting jewel and riding a white fox. She is revered across Japan as a goddess of food and grain, foxes, and good fortune who is willing to grant any wish. She serves Benzaiten, the goddess of wisdom, and Daikokuten, the god of grain. In Shintō-Buddhist syncretism she is associated with the kami Inari. She is the Japanese version of the dakini from Indian cosmology.

Interactions: Dakini was an important goddess to the nobility and samurai classes during the Middle Ages. Both the shōgun and the emperor venerated and prayed to Dakini, believing that failure to do so would bring an end to their rule. Secret rituals relating to Dakini worship were passed down orally through the imperial household. These became an integral part of the emperor’s enthronement ceremony.

Dakini worship involved secret techniques to invoke her black magic. Knowledge of the deepest secrets of her esoteric worship was believed to grant unlimited power. The ability to trap a kitsune and force it to perform kitsunetsuki was among the powers that Dakini bestowed upon her worshipers.

Origin: In Buddhist cosmology, the dakini were originally a race of wrathful sky-dwelling demons who served Kali and feasted upon the flesh of humans. They were energetic, wise, and muse-like spirits. They looked like beautiful nude women, carried fearsome swords for cutting out hearts, and drank blood from cups made of skulls. The dakini listened to the Buddha’s teachings and converted to Buddhism. Although they required human meat in order to survive, as part of their submission to Buddism, they promised to feast only upon the meat of the recently dead. In order to ensure that they would not starve, the dakini were granted the power to see six months into the future. This way they could wait near the people who were going to die soon and feast upon their flesh before other carrion-eating demons arrived.

In China, the dakini came to be associated with jackals (possibly due to the fact that both dakini and jackals fed on carrion). Jackals did not exist in China, but the creature was described as a clever, wicked, magical beast who feeds on humans and looks like a dog. That description perfectly fit with Chinese folklore about foxes, who disguise themselves as beautiful women and feed on human life force. Jackals did not exist in Japan either, and so the word for jackals—yakan—was considered to be synonymous with foxes in Japan. Thus, the Japanese interpretation of dakini became associated with foxes.

By the time Buddhism had been transmitted from India, through China, to Japan, the dakini had been fused with various Buddhist, Shintō, onmyōdō, and folkloric concepts. In Japan, they changed from a race of demonic spirits into a single goddess resembling both a yasha and tennyo.

As a result of her long and complicated history, and the esoteric nature of her religious practice, Dakini is known by many different names, such as Shinko’ō (“Dragon Fox Queen”), Kiko Tennō (“Noble Fox Empress”), and many more due to her syncretism with Inari.

Legends: Genpei seisuiki, an extended narrative of the Tale of the Heike describes an encounter with a servant of Dakini. Long ago, and impoverished young samurai named Taira no Kiyomori went hunting and shot a fox. He thought he had killed it, but to his surprise the fox suddenly transformed into a beautiful woman. She explained that she was a servant of Dakini. She promised that if Kiyomori spared her life, she would see to it that all of his wishes would come true. Kiyomori let her go free, and began to pray to Dakini. True to the fox’s word, not long after that Kiyomori’s luck began to change. His family rose to prominence, and he became wealthy and powerful. He continued to worship Dakini, and for a time the Taira were the most powerful samurai clan in Japan. His success is often credited to Dakini’s influence.

Alphabetical list of yōkai