There are lots of different animal-type yokai, and a great deal more bestial yokai that resemble animals in some way or another. Out of these, though, there don’t seem to be all that many bird yokai. As a bird lover, I thought I’d even the scales a bit today by introducing a bird yokai, specifically a great spotted woodpecker yokai. It comes with a free history lesson too. Enjoy!
Tera-tsutsuki (寺つつき, てらつつき)
Long long ago, back when Japanese historical records blur with legends and mythology, there was a man named Mononobe no Moriya. He lived in the 500’s CE, back when Japan was still called Yamato, and the capital was located in what is today Nara. Mononobe no Moriya was the leader of the a Mononobe clan and a Muraji, one of the two most high-ranking hereditary titles of nobility in old Japan. The Mononobe clan, along with a few other clans, had held their nobility since time immemorial, and were said to be descended from the gods. As a result, they were chief keepers of the old ways and supported Shinto when it was challenged by Buddhism, newly brought over from China in the 6 century CE. Buddhism was supported by the clans descended from the imperial line (and opposed by the clans descended from the gods). The leaders of these clans were called Omi — the other highest-ranking noble rank — and frequently came into conflict with the clans led by Muraji.
Mononobe no Moriya, the Ō-Muraji (great Muraji) of the Mononobe clan, had a powerful rival in Soga no Umako, the Ō-Omi (great Omi) of the Soga clan. These two nobles held considerable power in the imperial court. During the reign of Emperor Bidatsu (572-585), Mononobe no Moriya held higher favor with the emperor, who supported Shinto. When Emperor Yōmei took power in 585, Moriya’s favor fell and Soga no Umako’s rose, as the new emperor supported Buddhism over Shinto.
Whem Emperor Yōmei died in 587, the two rivals each tried their best to influence the succession of the imperial title. The two clans went to war with each other, and Mononobe no Moriya set out to purge Buddhism from Japan, setting fire to temples and throwing the very first statues of the Buddha brought to the country into the canals of Naniwa. The two clans finally met on the battlefields in Kawachi, at Mount Shigi. There, at the Battle of Mount Shigi, Soga no Umako and Prince Shōtoku killed Mononobe no Moriya, and nearly exterminated the entire Mononobe clan. Afterwards, the Soga clan rose to even higher prominence, and Prince Shōtoku, a devout Buddhist, began the construction many new Buddhist temples in Japan.
The story doesn’t end there. The spirit of defeated Mononobe no Moriya, as he lay dying in hatred and resent, transformed into an onryō. His ghost took the form of a woodpecker, and could later be seen at Hōryū-ji and Shitennō-ji temples in Osaka, pecking furiously at the buildings constructed by Prince Shōtoku, still trying to destroy the heretical faith even in death. Prince Shōtoku was finally able to defeat the tera-tsutsuki (“temple-pecker“) by magically transforming into a hawk and attacking it. After that, the tera-tsutsuki was never seen again.
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