|Polytheism is the belief in the existence of many gods or divine beings. In a culture where polytheism is widespread, how did seven deities become collectively known as the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan? The belief that each god controls different facets of happiness and good fortune also raises the question: are they equally effective when worshipped as individuals?
Sometimes referred to as the Seven Gods of Fortune, or Shichi Fukujin, these seven gods of good fortune are found in Japanese mythology and folklore, but their origins did not all begin in Japan. Many were introduced by way of China, with some having entered China from India. The exception was Ebisu, the god of fishermen and merchants, and the only one of the seven who originated from Japan. According to folklore, Ebisu was named Hiruko at birth. Born without bones, he was placed in a boat made of reeds and cast to the sea. Discovered and cared for by the Ainu, a group of people living in ancient Hokkaido, he eventually grew legs on his third birthday. As a god, Ebisu is usually depicted dressed as a peasant and wearing a tall hat. In his hands, he holds a fishing rod and sea bream. In the modern world, he symbolizes safe sailing and plentiful fishing.
Ebisu is often paired with Daikokuten, god of wealth, commerce and trade. Shopkeepers display both gods for luck, although some myth versions refer to the two as father and son, master and apprentice or brothers. Daikokuten is one of three gods of Hindu-Buddhist origins from India, and is also considered the provider of food. He is depicted with a treasure sack in one hand and a mallet in the other. Depending on the myth, the mallet is magic and coins fall out when shaken, or will grant believers a wish if it is tapped on the ground three times.
Another god sharing Hindu-Buddhist origins with Daikokuten is Bishamonten, the god of wealth, good fortune and healing. Because he is often depicted clad in armor with a spear in hand, there is some disagreement over whether he is actually the god of war and warriors or merely the defender of evil. His other hand holds a pagoda, symbolizing his role as both protector and dispenser of the divine treasure house.
The third god with Hindu-Buddhist origins is actually a goddess. The only female deity in the group, Benzaiten is known as the goddess of knowledge, music, art and beauty. Her representation is that of a beautiful woman carrying a biwa, or Japanese mandolin. According to myth, she is occasionally shown surrounded by white serpents, believed by some to be an indication of her jealous nature, while others believe the serpents are merely her messengers.
Three of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan are from Taoist-Buddhist origins in China. The most widely recognized is Hotei, the fat and happy god of abundance and good health. Westerners know him as the Laughing Buddha or the Fat Buddha. With his cheerful face and big belly, it’s no wonder he is the god of contentment and happiness. Believed to be based on a 10th century Buddhist monk, Hotei carries a large sack that never empties and uses it to feed the poor. Hotei is also the god of fortune and guardian of children, which is why he is occasionally shown surrounded by small children at his feet. In modern times, people have been known to rub his rotund belly for good luck.
Another deity the Western world may be familiar with is Fukurokuju, the god of wisdom, wealth and longevity. He is often portrayed with a long beard, in scholars clothing and carrying a cane with a scroll attached. The scroll is said to contain all the wisdom in the world. It is his notable short stature, long beard and high forehead that distinguishes him from Jurojin, the third god with Taoist-Buddhist origins. Some believe Fukurokuju is the only god out of the seven able to perform miracles, such as reviving the dead.
Sometimes confused with Fukurokuju, Jurojin is the god of longevity and wisdom. He also has a long beard and a holy staff with a scroll attached. His scroll is said to contain the life span of all living things. Occasionally, he is accompanied by a deer, crane or tortoise, all symbols of longevity.
At one point, each god was worshipped separately, but as time went on, it became rare when only one god was summoned to help in a particular situation, since several of the gods would appear in pairs. Perhaps the reason the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan are worshipped together is due to Japan’s fondness for groups and their belief that seven is also a sacred number. Another theory is that each of the seven gods represents the seven virtues believed to be absolute: longevity (Jurojin), fortune (Daikokuten), popularity (Fukurokuju), candor (Ebisu), amiability (Benzaiten), dignity (Bishamonten) and magnanimity (Hotei).
If the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan are a group of divine deities you’d like to become familiar with, browse Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen for products that feature Hotei, the Laughing Buddha, or the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan.
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