The name consists of two kanji, 御 (go) meaning honorable and 霊 (ryō) meaning soul or spirit.
Arising mainly in the Heian period, the belief was that "the spirits of powerful lords who had been wronged were capable of catastrophic vengeance, including destruction of crops and the summoning of a typhoon or an earthquake."
According to tradition, the only way to "quell the wrath of a goryō" was with the help of a yamabushi, who could "perform the necessary rites that would tame the spirit."
Government official Sugawara no Michizane was killed in a plot by a rival member of the Fujiwara clan. In the years after his death, the capital city was struck by heavy rain and lightning, and his chief Fujiwara adversary and Emperor Daigo's crown prince died, while fires caused by lightning and floods destroyed many of residences. The court drew the conclusion that the disturbances were caused by Michizane's angry spirit. In order to placate him, the emperor restored all his offices, burned the official order of exile, and he was promoted to Senior Second Rank. Even this wasn't enough, and 70 years later he was elevated to the post of Prime Minister, and he was deified as Tenjin-sama, which means "heavenly deity". He became the patron god of calligraphy, of poetry and of those who suffer injustice. A shrine was established at Kitano. With the support of the government, it was immediately raised to the first rank of official shrines.