Tibetan mythology

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The Jokhang Temple in Tibet. Jokhang Temple in Tibet.jpg
The Jokhang Temple in Tibet.

Tibetan mythology refers to the traditional as well as the religious stories that have been passed down by the Tibetan people. Tibetan mythology consists mainly of national mythology stemming from the Tibetan culture as well as religious mythology from both Tibetan Buddhism and Bön Religion. These myths are often passed down orally, through rituals or through traditional art like sculptures or cave paintings. They also feature a variety of different creatures ranging from gods to spirits to monsters play a significant role in Tibetan mythology with some of these myths have broken into mainstream Western media, with the most notable one being the Abominable Snowman – the Yeti. [1]


National mythology

National Tibetan mythology stems from the history of the country, and was passed down by word of mouth or works of art such as cave paintings. The latter include gods and sacred mythological creatures like the Five Clawed Great Eagle of the Sky, and also record information about how the Tibetan people lived. [2]

Creation myth

In the Tibetan creation myth, Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa is believed to be the monkey ancestor of the Tibetan people. Many versions of this myth have been presented. In the most widely accepted version, the monkey ancestor arrived in Tibet when the world was covered in water and had children that were baby monkeys. These children eventually learned how to use tools, harvest crops, and became self-sufficient. The Tibetan people are said to be descendants of this civilisation.

Myths from the Tibetan landscape

Many traditional Tibetan myths are based on its unique landscape being located atop a plateau and amongst many mountains. Some of these notable myths include ‘Wild Men of the Tibetan Steppes’, which tells the tale of groups of hairy wild men that were said to be living on the peaks of Tibet amongst the snow and mythical white lions. They were said to be hairy naked savages by some, and the Mongolians referred to them as wild men or bamburshe. Others have said that the footprints of these supposed wild men were actually from bears. The immured anchorite is another myth which concerns monks that are confined within a dark, stony walled space only enough fit for one person and would meditate in that small space for the whole of their lives, with a single hole present as to be able to pass food and drink through. These monks take a vow to live their lives in the darkness and these stone walls are not only the place they spend their entire life in but also their tomb. Despite having many national Tibetan myths that are based on the culture and environment in Tibet, there are many myths that share similarities to the mythology from other cultures as Tibet shares borders spanning across different countries. This includes the Epic of King Gesar a ballad follows the story of a brave and fearless lord, Gesar from the mythical kingdom of GLing, and the various heroic deeds he accomplished. Although this is a myth which is a well-known Tibetan myth in the form of an epic poem that is still being sung in the form of a ballad by many throughout Tibet, Mongolia, and much of Central Asia.


The religious mythology present in Tibetan mythology is mostly from Vajrayana Buddhism and Bön Religion. Although the two are separate religions, they are often blended together within Tibetan mythology. Buddhism originally spread from India to Tibet and many myths have been passed down through the form of artworks involving the Samsara, which is the Buddhist cycle of life and death that is at the bane of Buddhism. Bon religion, on the other hand, is a Tibetan religion that has many shared beliefs with Buddhism and has many myths that originate before Buddhism was introduced into the country. [3] Bon religion primarily involves making peace between the human and celestial realms and is closely linked to Tibetan folklore. Religious concepts such as the Rainbow body level of realization are also present in this category.


Ideas of reincarnation as well as ghosts and spirits also appear often in these myths as the cycle of rebirth is a concept that entails souls as a temporary form, where some souls become ghosts and roam the world if this cycle is disrupted or unable to be completed. For example in Tibet there are a series of popular narratives regarding death and the afterlife in Buddhism, a story known as ‘A ghost in Monk's Clothes’ is one of these narratives which depicts ghosts as the lingering souls of humans who are unable to move on and that in order to move on, understanding the samsara as well as reflecting on one's life is required. These two qualities are rooted in Buddhism. [4] Buddhist art is often used to record and display myths and is often art that requires active participation from the viewer in order to create meaning for the piece, this also means that it is not just trying to tell a story but also portray a mentality and way of thinking. This idea in Buddhism has been present in Tibetan mythology for a long time and is often seen in Buddhist sculptures throughout history. [5] Although Bon religion and Buddhism are the main religions where most of the myths stem from, Tibet is located in South-West China and borders Burma, India, Nepal, and Bhutan there are also many myths shared within these cultures religions. For example, from India the Hindu demon Jvarasura the fever deity is also present within Tibetan mythology.

Deities within Tibetan Mythology

A variety of different deities are present within Tibetan mythology and some of the more well-known deities in Tibetan mythology are either from the national mythology of Tibet or from Buddhism, and so are present and shared amongst many cultures.

Mountain gods

Mountain gods are one of the more notable creatures, as Tibet is covered in mountains, many of which are the tallest in the world. This led to many myths about mountain gods and how they came to be. It was believed that every mountain had a god guarding it and these gods differ from those who were benevolent and gods who were malevolent. There are four great Sacred Mountains and each one had a god, alongside another five famous Mountain Gods; together, they were named the Nine Creator-Gods. Different areas of Tibet worship different mountain gods. These Mountain Gods were divided into good and bad; gods that rose out of the rubble of old mountains were good and beneficial as they had to face challenges and hardships to emerge, whilst those who rose out of lush green forests were viewed as evil since they were believed to have everything to begin with. [6]


Often known as the Avalokiteśvara or Guanyin, this Bodhisattva is portrayed as either male or female depending on the culture in Tibetan culture Chenrezig is regarded as a male Bodhisatta. Chenrezig is said to personify the compassion of all Buddhas, this Bodhisattva in Tibetan mythology is said to have created Tara (Buddhism), the female bodhisattva of success with a single tear. This tear had fallen and when it landed it created a lake where Tãrã emerged from a lotus.


Vajrapani has many forms in Tibetan mythology with the main ones being the Dharmapala or the Vajrapani-Acharya the deity is depicted in human form to possess a single head and a third eye and is wearing a necklace made out of snakes. Nilambara-Vajrapani is depicted as having either four or six hands and as having a head and a third eye wearing a crown of skulls. Mahachakra-Vajrapani is another form of the Vajrapani however unlike the previous forms this form has three heads, six arms, and two legs as well as a third eye and is holding a skull cup in his left hand. Many Buddhist statues as well as artworks depicting this deity is found in many countries including Nepal, Japan, India, and Cambodia.


The Jampelyang also often known as Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom and insight and within Tibetan mythology is also said to have connections with Vajrayana Buddhism, the traditions of Tantra. Depicted to have been holding a sword in flames in his right hand to cut down ignorance and a lotus in the left hand as a symbol of fully blossomed wisdom. The Jampelyang is often featured in many Buddhist artworks and is often depicted with Chenrezig and Vajrapani as the family protector deities.


Different mythical creatures are often featured within Tibetan mythology, ranging from creatures that resemble animals like the snow lion to spirits. These creatures are present in both religious mythology as well as national mythology and are often a result of the Tibetan environment or are shared amongst many countries as a result of the spread of religion.

The Yeti

The Yeti is one of the most well-known mythical creatures around the world, Tibetan mythology also has a version of the Yeti myth alongside Chinese and Russian myths. [7] The large creature was said to resemble an ape and in recent years this myth has been adapted into different forms, like a kids’ movies such as Abominable (2019 film) or Smallfoot (2018 film). It was said to have been sighted in the snowy mountains around Tibet with tufts of orange fur and large footsteps being spotted in the snow. The reports of the Yeti in Western media had peaked around the 1950s when pictures were taken of these large footprints in the snow. [8]

The snow lion

The Snow Lion is a celestial animal and the emblem of Tibet, its appearance is symbolic of the snowy mountain ranges that make up most of Tibet. It is thought to live in the highest mountains and the snow lion often makes appearances in other stories, this makes the snow lion often regarded as the king of beasts. The snow lion was present on coins, banknotes, postage stamps, and even on the national flag of Tibet. The Senggeh Garcham or the snow lion dance is still practiced in areas of Tibet and is a traditional Buddhist dance that is performed by monks. Although vastly popular in Tibet, the snow lion is also present in Buddhism and so statues and art of the snow lion can also be seen within temples in China, Japan, India, and parts of different Himalayan regions. [9]

Wind Horse

The Wind Horse stems from Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet. They were thought to be mighty creatures that are able to carry the wishes and prayers of the people to the Gods using the might of the wind. These mythical creatures are often present in prayer flags as a symbol of luck and believed to be able to change aspects of the world. Tibetan prayer flags stem from the Bon religion and are often strung around the mountains in Tibet and the greater Himalayan region in order to bless the regions. The flags are made of cloth and are often brightly colored and strung together with string. These flags for the wind horse are said to increase the positives in life and so are often strung in higher regions of the blessed areas such as treetops. [10]


Other common Tibetan myths include Tibetan ghosts, this is often due to Buddhism and so there are many similarities to Indian ghost mythology. These include the hungry ghosts who are a symbol of greediness and unfulfillment of the tulpa which is a manifestation of high-ranking monks' wishes. These ghosts are deeply tied to the Tibetan culture with an annual religious ceremony being held near the end of the year for getting rid of all the negative energy, spirits, or bad luck in order to receive the new year.

See also

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Tibetan Buddhism Form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet and Bhutan

Tibetan Buddhism is the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet and Bhutan, where it is the dominant religion. It also has adherents in the regions surrounding the Himalayas, in much of Central Asia, in the Southern Siberian regions such as Tuva, and in Mongolia.

<i>Vajrayana</i> Indian Buddhist tantric traditions given to Tibet, Bhutan, and East Asia

Vajrayāna along with Mantrayāna, Guhyamantrayāna, Tantrayāna, Secret Mantra, Tantric Buddhism, and Esoteric Buddhism are names referring to Buddhist traditions associated with Tantra and "Secret Mantra", which developed in the medieval Indian subcontinent and spread to Tibet, Nepal, other Himalayan states, East Asia, and Mongolia.

Chinese mythology Myths and practices of the Chinese people

Chinese mythology is mythology that has been passed down in oral form or recorded in literature in the geographic area now known as Greater China. Chinese mythology includes many varied myths from regional and cultural traditions. Much of the mythology involves exciting stories full of fantastic people and beings, the use of magical powers, often taking place in an exotic mythological place or time. Like many mythologies, Chinese mythology has in the past been believed to be, at least in part, a factual recording of history. Along with Chinese folklore, Chinese mythology forms an important part of Chinese folk religion. Many stories regarding characters and events of the distant past have a double tradition: ones which present a more historicized or euhemerized version and ones which present a more mythological version.

Bon Tibetan religion

Bon, also spelled Bön, is a Tibetan religious tradition with many similarities to Tibetan Buddhism and also many unique features. Bon, also known as Yungdrung Bon, initially developed in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but may retain elements from earlier religious traditions. Bon remains a significant minority religion in Tibet and the surrounding Himalayan regions.

Avalokiteśvara Buddhist bodhisattva embodying the compassion of all buddhas

In Buddhism, Avalokiteśvara, also known as Avalokitasvara, is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. He has 108 avatars, one notable avatar being Padmapāṇi. He is variably depicted, described, and portrayed in different cultures as either male or female. In Chinese Buddhism, he has since evolved into the female figure called Guanyin.

Buddhist symbolism Religious symbols in Buddhism

Buddhist symbolism is the use of symbols to represent certain aspects of the Buddha's Dharma (teaching). Early Buddhist symbols which remain important today include the Dharma wheel, the Indian lotus, the three jewels and the Bodhi tree.

Tibetan art Art of Tibet

For more than a thousand years, Tibetan artists have played a key role in the cultural life of Tibet. From designs for painted furniture to elaborate murals in religious buildings, their efforts have permeated virtually every facet of life on the Tibetan plateau. The vast majority of surviving artworks created before the mid-20th century are dedicated to the depiction of religious subjects, with the main forms being thangka, distemper paintings on cloth, Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, and small statues in bronze, or large ones in clay, stucco or wood. They were commissioned by religious establishments or by pious individuals for use within the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and were manufactured in large workshops by monks and lay artists, who are mostly unknown.

Wrathful deities Enlightened beings in Mahayana Buddhism

In Buddhism, wrathful deities or fierce deities are the fierce, wrathful or forceful forms of enlightened Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or Devas. Because of their power to destroy the obstacles to enlightenment, they are also termed krodha-vighnantaka, "Wrathful onlookers on destroying obstacles". Wrathful deities are a notable feature of the iconography of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. These types of deities first appeared in India during the late 6th century, with its main source being the Yaksha imagery, and became a central feature of Indian Tantric Buddhism by the late 10th or early 11th century.

Vajrapani Deity in Buddhism

Vajrapāṇi is one of the earliest-appearing bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. He is the protector and guide of Gautama Buddha and rose to symbolize the Buddha's power.

Nio Guardians of the Buddha

Niō (仁王) are two wrathful and muscular guardians of the Buddha standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples in East Asian Buddhism in the form of frightening wrestler-like statues. They are dharmapala manifestations of the bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, the oldest and most powerful of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon. According to scriptures like the Pāli Canon as well as the Ambaṭṭha Sutta, they travelled with Gautama Buddha to protect him. Within the generally pacifist tradition of Buddhism, stories of dharmapalas justified the use of physical force to protect cherished values and beliefs against evil. They are also seen as a manifestation of Mahasthamaprapta, the bodhisattva of power that flanks Amitābha in Pure Land Buddhism and as Vajrasattva in Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism includes a wide array of divine beings that are venerated in various ritual and popular contexts. Initially they included mainly Indian figures such as devas, asuras and yakshas, but later came to include other Asian spirits and local gods. They range from enlightened Buddhas to regional spirits adopted by Buddhists or practiced on the margins of the religion. Notably, Buddhism lacks a supreme creator deity.

Wind Horse Symbol of the human soul in East Asian and Central Asian traditions

The wind horse is a symbol of the human soul in the shamanistic tradition of East Asia and Central Asia. In Tibetan Buddhism, it was included as the pivotal element in the center of the four animals symbolizing the cardinal directions and a symbol of the idea of well-being or good fortune. It has also given the name to a type of prayer flag that has the five animals printed on it.

Snow Lion

The Snow Lion is a celestial animal of Tibet. It is the emblem of Tibet, representing the snowy mountain ranges and glaciers of Tibet, and may also symbolize power and strength, and fearlessness and joy, east and the earth element. It is one of the Four Dignities. It ranges over the mountains, and is commonly pictured as being white with a turquoise mane. In Journey to the West published in 1592, Snow Lion is depicted as one of Yōkais.

Sacred mountains Mountains central to certain religions

Sacred mountains are central to certain religions, and are usually the subjects of many legends. For many, the most symbolic aspect of a mountain is the peak because it is believed that it is closest to heaven or other religious worlds. Many religions have traditions centred on sacred mountains, which either are or were considered holy or are related to famous events. In some cases, the sacred mountain is purely mythical, like the Hara Berezaiti in Zoroastrianism. Mount Kailash is believed to be the abode of the deities Shiva and Parvati, and is considered sacred in four religions: Hinduism, Bon, Buddhism, and Jainism. Volcanoes, such as Mount Etna in Italy, were also considered sacred, Mount Etna being believed to have been the home of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge.

Shenlha Ökar or Shiwa Ökar is the most important deity in the Yungdrung Bon tradition of Tibet. He is counted among the "Four Transcendent Lords" along with Satrig Ersang, Sangpo Bumtri, and Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche.

Gyalpo spirits Spirits in Tibetan mythology

Gyalpo spirits are one of the eight classes of haughty gods and spirits in Tibetan mythology and religion. Gyalpo, a word which simply means "king" in the Tibetic languages, in Tibetan mythology is used to refer to the Four Heavenly Kings and especially to a class of spirits, both Buddhist and Bon, who may be either malevolent spirits or oath-bound as dharmapalas.

Buddhist mythology Myths in Buddhist literature and history

The Buddhist traditions have created and maintained a vast body of mythological literature. The central myth of Buddhism is the life of the Buddha. This is told in relatively realistic terms in the earliest texts, and was soon elaborated into a complex literary mythology. The chief motif of this story, and the most distinctive feature of Buddhist myth, is the Buddha's renunciation: leaving his home and family for a spiritual quest. Alongside this central myth, the traditions contain large numbers of smaller stories, which are usually supposed to convey an ethical or Buddhist teaching. These include the popular Jātakas, folk tales or legends believed to be past lives of Gautama Buddha. Since these are regarded as episodes in the life of the Buddha, they are treated here as “myth”, rather than distinguishing between myth, legend, and folk-tale.

Maheśvara (Buddhism) Figure in Buddhist Mythology

Maheśvara is the ruler of all three realms of samsara in Buddhist Mythology. He is also sometimes referred to as Sabbalokādhipatī Devā in Pali literature. His main duty is to give spiritual knowledge. Some times he is also referred to as the Buddhist version of Hindu deity shiva.


  1. Yves Bonnefoy Asian Mythologies - 1993 p. 302 "These remarks indicate in barest outline the perspective in which the study of Tibetan mythology is approached here. We will not describe Tibetan religion in its entirety, whether in the Buddhist or the pre-Buddhist periods, but only certain mythological elements that appear in it, which one can assume to be indigenous, that is, not introduced by Buddhism."
  2. Bellezza, John Vincent (2002). "Gods, hunting and society animals in the ancient cave paintings of Celestial Lake in Northern Tibet". East and West. 52 (1–4): 347–396. JSTOR   29757548.
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