The Seven Gods of Fortune (七 福神, shichi fukujin in Japanese) guarantee good luck and often have their place in netsuke engravings or in other representations. Amongst the seven, not all gods are mythical characters, as there is one who is a historical figure.
They all began as remote and impersonal gods, but gradually became much closer canonical figures for certain professions and Japanese arts. During the course of its history, the mutual influence between gods has created confusion about which of them was the patron of certain professions. The worship of this group of gods is also due to the importance of the number seven in Japan, which is supposedly a bearer of good luck.
It is known that these deities have their origins in ancient gods of fortune: from the Indian Hinduism (Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Daikokuten); and from the Chinese Taoism and Buddhism (Fukurokuju, Hotei, Jurojin), except for one (Ebisu) who has a Japanese ancestry.
These gods have been recognized as such for over a thousand years ago by a large number of followers. In the beginning, these gods were worshiped by merchants as the first two of them (Ebisu and Daikokuten) were gods of business and trade.
Subsequently, the other classes of the Japanese society looked for other gods that could correspond to their professions: so did Benzaiten, patron of the arts, Fukurokuju, patron of the sciences, and so on.
In ancient times, these gods were worshiped separately, but it rarely happens today – only when it is required for the god to act on behalf of the applicant.
The Seven Gods of Fortune started being mentioned as a collective by the year 1420 in Fushimi, in order to imitate the processions of the Daimyo, the feudal lords of pre-modern Japan.
It is said that the Buddhist priest Tenkai selected these gods after speaking with the shogun he served, Iemitsu Tokugawa, at the order of seeking whoever possessed the perfect virtues: longevity, fortune, popularity, sincerity, kindness, dignity and magnanimity.
Shortly after a famous artist of the time, Kano Yasunobu, was ordained to portray these gods for the first time ever.
From the period of the gods Izanami and Izanagi, Ebisu is the only one whose origins are purely Japanese. He is the god of prosperity and wealth in business, and of abundance in crops, cereals and food in general. He is the patron of fishermen and therefore is represented with fishermen’s costumes such as a typical hat, a fishing rod in his right hand and a fish that can be either a carp, a hake, a codfish or a sea bass, or any large fish in general that symbolize abundance in meals. It is now common to see his figure in restaurants where fish is served in great quantities or in household kitchens.
Daikokuten is also one of the Shichifukujin. He is the god of commerce and prosperity. There are other characteristics which have also been attributed to him, such as being the patron of cooks, farmers, bankers, and protector of crops. Curiously, he is also considered a demon hunter – legend says that the god Daikokuten hung a sacred talisman on the branch of a tree in his garden and, by using this as a trap, he was able to catch a demon. This god is characterized by his smile, having short legs and wearing a hat on his head. He is usually depicted with a bag full of valuable objects. Daikokuten originated as a syncretic conflation of the Buddhist death deity Mahākāla with the Shinto deity Ōkuninushi. The Japanese name Daikoku and the Hindi name Mahakala both translate to “Great Blackness”. Per the Butsuzōzui compendium of 1690 (reprinted and expanded in 1796), Daikoku can also manifest as a female known as Daikokunyo (大黒女) (“She of the Great Blackness”) or Daikokutennyo (大黒天女) (“She of the Great Blackness of the Heavens”).
His origin dates back to Hinduism, but he has been adapted by the Japanese culture. He comes from the Hindu god “Kubera” and is also known by the name “Vaisravana” from Hindu culture.
He is the god of fortune in war and battles, also associated with authority and dignity. He is literally the protector of those who follow the rules and behave appropriately. As the patron of fighters, he is represented dressed in armour and a helmet, carrying a pagoda in his left hand. He also acts as protector of holy sites and important places and holds a spear in his right hand to fight against the evil spirits. He is usually depicted in illustrations with a hoop of fire.
Benzaiten (弁才天 or 弁財天)
Her origin is found in Hinduism, as she comes from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati. While being the only female Fukujin in the modern grouping of seven Fukujin, she is named in various ways: Benzaiten (弁才天), Benten (弁天), Bentensama (弁天様), or Benzaitennyo (弁才天女). When she was adapted from Buddhism, she was given the attributes of talent, beauty and music among others. In many occasions her figure appears in the “Torii” (entrance of the temples). It is common to see her in the Japanese temples. She is represented as a smart, beautiful woman with all the aforementioned attributes. She carries a biwa, a Japanese traditional lute-like instrument and is normally accompanied by a white snake. She is the patron of artists, writers, dancers, and geisha, among others.
The god Fukurokuju, another Shichifukujin, has his origins in China. It is believed that he used to be a hermit during the Chinese Song dynasty, distinguished for being a reincarnation of the Taoist god Hsuan-wu. He is the god of wisdom, luck, longevity, wealth and happiness. This god receives certain credits, such as being one of the Chinese philosophers who could live without eating. Moreover, he is the only god who was said to have the ability to resurrect the dead. Fukurokuju is characterized by the size of his head, being almost as large as the size of his whole body, and is represented wearing traditional Chinese costumes. He normally carries a cane in one hand and in the other a scroll with writings about the world. He is usually accompanied by a turtle, a crow or a deer, animals that are frequently used in Japan to symbolize a long life. It is also said that he likes to play chess, and so he is also credited for being the patron of chess players. Fukurokuju’s characteristics bear tremendous overlap with those of Jurōjin, which is why Fukurokuju is sometimes replaced by the goddess Kichijōten, as in the Butsuzōzui compendium of 1783.
Considered the incarnation of the southern polestar (南極星 “nankyokusei”) is the god of elderly and longevity in the Japanese Buddhist mythology. It is said that the legendary Juroujin is based on a real person who lived in ancient times. He was approximately 1.82 meters tall with a very long head. Besides his distinctive skull, he is represented with a long white beard, riding a deer and is often also accompanied by a 1500 years old crane and a tortoise, as symbols of his affinity with long lives. In addition, he is usually represented under a peach tree, as the fruit of this tree is considered, by Chinese Taoism and corroborated by scientists, able to prolong life as it has antioxidant properties. In his hand he holds a cane and a book or a scroll. The wisdom of the world remains written in its pages. Jurojin enjoys rice and wine, and is a very cheerful figure.
God of fortune, guardian of the children, patron of diviners and barmen, and also the god of popularity. He is depicted as a fat, smiling, bald man with a curly moustache. He always appears half naked, as his clothes aren’t wide enough to cover his enormous belly. He did grace to the Chinese, and therefore they nicknamed him “Cho-Tei-Shi” or “Ho-Tei-Shi,” which means ‘bag of old clothes’.
Hotei was a Zen priest, but his appearance and some of his actions were against their moral condition: his appearance made him look like a quite mischievous person and he didn’t had a fixed place to sleep.
He carries a bag on his shoulders which is, according to the beliefs, loaded with fortunes for those who believe in his virtues.
The legend explains that Hotei was a real person. His Chinese name was Kaishi, and even though it seems that his date of birth is unknown, his death is recorded on March 916.
The Japanese began to believe in Hotei during the Edo era. The reason why the Japanese have such great respect for this god comes from a legend that says that, before the Zen Buddhism arrived to Japan, an alternative Buddhist thought was extended by a priest of dubious aesthetic, who actually was a manifestation of the Buddhist called Miroku. Miroku was the patron of those who could not be saved by the beliefs of Buddha, and Hotei was later perceived and accepted by the Japanese as a second Miroku.
This Fukujin goddess is also known as Kisshōten (吉祥天) or Kisshoutennyo (吉祥天女), and is adapted via Buddhism from the Hindu goddess Laxmi. In the 1783 edition of the Butsuzōzui compendium (reprinted in 1796), Kichijōten replaces Fukurokuju as one of the seven Fukujin. Kichijōten’s iconography is distinguished from the other Fukujin goddesses by the Nyoihōju gem (如意宝珠) in her hand. When Kichijōten replaces Fukurokuju, and Daikoku is regarded in feminine form, all three of the Hindu Tridevi goddesses are then represented among the seven Fukujin.