[The Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Fujinomori Jinja, Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]
Ebisu: A Japanese fishing deity, who with the passage of time also became a deity of commerce and farming.
Daikokuten: A Hindu deity, "Mahakara," an avatar of Vishnu. Was merged in Japan with the traditional Shinto deity Okuninushi no Mikoto.
Bishamonten: Originally a Hindu deity, Kuvera. Was a war god, but after he was taken up by Buddhism, he was turned into a deity who increases fortune (Vaisravana).
Benzaiten: Originally a Hindu goddess called Sarasvati. In Buddhism she became a goddess of music, eloquence, wealth and wisdom.
Fukurokuju: A Daoist deity from China,. He brings long life, happiness and wealth.
Jurojin: A Daoist deity, avatar of the South Pole Star, again a deity who brings long life.
Hotei: An eccentric Chinese Zen priest who lived in the 10th c. Also seen as an incarnation of Miroku Bosatsu.
These deities were grouped together as "shichifukujin" in the Muromachi period, but initially the members were not fixed and Benzaiten was added somewhat later. They came to be widely worshiped in Japan from between the 15th and 17th centuries, especially among urban merchants and artisans. Their jolly group appears in many painted, sculpted or printed examples.
The Seven Deities of Good Fortune are often seen sailing in a Treasure Ship (Takarebune), filled with magical instruments, rich merchandise, and a bag of money that never empties. Such a picture is an auspicious symbol, especially during New Year celebrations. People may place it under their pillow on the night of 1 January to guarantee that the first dream of the year will be a lucky one.
Another New Year custom is "Shichifukujin-meguri," a circuit of seven shrines or temples that each enshrine one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. Such a tour is thought to bring luck, and is also good fun. At each temple/shrine one receives a stamp on a shikishi (square piece of cardboard) or on a scroll; sometimes one has to collect small clay dolls of the deities and place these on a treasure ship. Such tours are most popular in the first days (or week) of the New Year, but some of the most frequented circuits are open all year. Famous circuits are the "Sumidagawa Shichifukujin" circuit, or the "Yanaka Shichifukujin" circuit. In Kamakura we have the "Kamakura Enoshima Shichifukujin" circuit, and in Kyoto "Miyako Shichifukujin" and so on (there are between 50 and 60 courses in the whole of Japan). Some can be done on foot, but in other cases the shrines and temples are spaced so far apart that public transport is necessary.
Here is a look in more detail at the seven deities:
[Ebisu - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Ebisu is regarded specifically as the god of farming, fishing and commerce (in contemporary urban society, especially that last function). The name "Ebisu" in fact means "foreigner" and reflects a belief in deities who have come from afar (marebito) and bring skills from foreign lands. Ebisu is also identified as Kotoshironushi no Kami, the son of the god Okuninushi no Mikoto, or as Hiruko, in Japanese mythology the first, "boneless" child of the creator gods Izanagi and Izanami. The feast of Ebisu is usually celebrated in October (but at some shrines also in January). In October all kami from Japan are supposed to visit Izumo for the Kami-ai-sai, but Ebisu was excluded - perhaps because the kami of the market place and commerce could not allowed to be absent.
Originally a fishing deity (most of his shrines are located at the coast), the association with markets and commerce dates from the 12th century. A purification ritual and prayers for prosperity were offered before the market commenced. Worship of Ebisu became popular during the Edo period, when Ebisu dolls were sold throughout the country by traveling Ebisu puppeteers from Nishinomiya. Such dolls were used by believers at festival rites for Ebisu (Ebisu-ko). The main shrine of Ebisu stands in Nishinomiya, between Kobe and Osaka; here Ebisu is identified as Hiruko. Another important shrine is Imamiya Ebisu Jinja in Osaka, where Ebisu is identified as Kotoshironushi no Kami. An important festival is Toka Ebisu, held on January 10.
[Ebisu - image from Wikipedia]
Ebisu is normally represented as a plump bearded figure, smiling happily, and wearing a kimono, a divided skirt (hakama) or a Heian period hunting robe (kariginu) and a tall cap folded in the middle (kazaori eboshi). He holds a fishing rod in his right hand and carries a sea bream (tai, a symbol of good luck) under his left arm. He may also be depicted sitting on a rock. Ebisu is the only one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune to originate purely from Japan. He is frequently paired with our next deity, Daikoku; they are often enshrined in kitchens. You may see a small Ebisu statue in restaurants where fish is served.
[Daikokuten - photo Ad Blankestijn]Daikokuten
The god of wealth. Also known as Mahakara ("Great Black") i.e. Shiva, an Indian god who fought forces of evil and in Buddhism became a protector of the Three Treasures (the Buddha, the Law and the priesthood). Mahakara was introduced to Japan by the priest Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, who made him the protector of the food supply in monasteries. But since the name Mahakara was homophonous with an alternate reading of the ideograms for the Shinto deity Okuninushi no Mikoto, the two were subsequently merged. Okuninushi is the major deity of the Grand Shrine of Izumo, whose messenger is the rat.
[Daikokuten - image from Wikipedia]
Together with Ebisu, Daikokuten is venerated as the tutelary deity of the kitchen. Daikokuten is usually represented as a fat and wealthy-looking merchant wearing a black hat with a round crown, holding a mallet of good fortune (kozuchi) in his right hand, and carrying a huge bag packed with valuable objects slung over his left shoulder. The mallet could also associate him with carpenters. He may be standing on two straw bushels (tawara) containing rice, with mice nearby signifying plentiful food.
The oldest extant image of Daikokuten in Japan is the late Heian wooden sculpture in Kanzeonji in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture), where his expression is fierce, perhaps indicating that he originally was a war god. It may have been the subsequent association with Okuninushi that turned Daikokuten into a god of good fortune.
[Bishamonten - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Bishamonten is originally Tamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings (Shitenno), who protect the four quarters and whose statues often stand on altars in large Buddhist temples. Tamonten is the protector of the North. He is based on the Hindu god Kuvera, who in Buddhism became Vaisravana. As a single deity, he is called Bishamonten. He is depicted as a warrior in armor with a grotesque face, holding a halberd in one hand and a treasure tower (hoto) in the other. He may also be depicted with a hoop of fire at his back. He is the god of fortune in war and battles, also associated with authority and dignity. He is the protector of those who follow the rules and behave appropriately. As a protector of the North, his image is found in temples like Kuramadera north of Kyoto, or in temples in Iwate like Narushima Bishamondo (here iconographically as Tobatsu Bishamonten, supported by the female deity Jiten). In addition, he is the protector of the Buddhist teaching and of the nation. There are many old tales of Bishamon's miraculous deeds. It is from the Muromachi period that he became in the first place known as a deity of good fortune.
[Benzaiten - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Benzaiten comes from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, the patron of music, learning, eloquence, wealth, longevity, and protection from natural disasters. In Indian mythology she was a river goddess. She appears in two forms: with eight arms and eight hands holding a bow, an arrow, a sword, an ax, a spear, a long pestle, an iron wheel and a silk rope (in the Sangatsudo of Todaiji, Nara, or in Hogonji on Chikubushima, Shiga Pref.); or as a plump Chinese lady dressed in a flowing gown and holding a biwa lute (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura).
[Benzaiten of Hogonji, Chikubushima - photo Wikipedia]
Benzaiten may also be seated on a white serpent, indicating her watery origins. In the Edo period, the popularity of Benzaiten among the merchant and urban classes grew. Benzaiten is often confused with Kichijoten, another female deity of good luck who was considered as the wife of Bishamonten.
[Fukurokuju - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Derived from the Chinese legend of a Song-Dynasty hermit, Fulushou. He is also associated with the Pole Star (Nankyukosei). He is the kami of wealth (fuku), happiness (roku) and long life (ju). Fukurokuju is depicted as having a small body and an elongated bald head. He may be accompanied by a bat, a crane or a tortoise. Fukurokuju is often confused with Jurojin. (The sake brand Fukuju takes its name from this deity).
[Jurojin - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Called Shoulaoren in Chinese, this Daoist deity is known as the Immortal of the Northern Song Dynasty and like Fukurokuju is often identified with the Pole Star (Nankyukosei). He is depicted as a Chinese-style hermit. Jurojin sports a large elongated head and a white beard and carries a long staff to which a Buddhist sutra is attached. He is often accompanied by a white stag said to be 1,500 years old. (The sake brand Hakushika takes its name from this white stag of Jurojin). In Japan, he became a deity of longevity. He may also be shown under a plum tree, another symbol of long life as these trees can live for many centuries. As a member of the Seven Deities, in Japan he is also considered as being Shirahige Myojin, the deity of the Shirahige Shrines.
[Hotei in Manpukuji, Kyoto - photo Ad Blnakestijn]Hotei
A Chinese fat-bellied, eccentric Zen priest (in the West often called "the laughing Buddha"), nicknamed Budai in Chinese. He may originally have been a 10th c. itinerant semi-legendary Buddhist monk, Qici (Keishi), who became a frequent subject in ink painting. Budai lived as a hermit in the mountains, but when he came to town he would carry a large cloth bag (budai) to collect alms, hence his nickname. He was a figure like the Tang Dynasty priests Hanshan and Shide, a man of "enlightened innocence" and thus a superior example of Zen values (in fact, in later times, his bag was therefore said to be always empty). Hotei was even thought to have been an incarnation of Miroku (Maitreya), the Buddha of the Future. He is shown with a broad smiling face, a large bare belly, loose garments, a bulging bag and a wooden staff. He is usually seated but may also be walking, dancing, or pointing at the moon. Sometimes he is followed by a group of playing children.
[Hotei by Kuniyoshi - image Wikipedia]
Written with the help of information from: Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Kodansha; Essentials of Shinto, by Stuart Picken; JAANUS website; Japanese Wikipedia.