Three-legged crow

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The three-legged (or tripedal) crow is a creature found in various mythologies and arts of East Asia.[1] It is believed by East Asian cultures to inhabit and represent the sun.

It has also been found figured on ancient coins from Lycia and Pamphylia.[1]

Three-legged crow originated in China. Evidence of the earliest bird-sun motif or totemic articles excavated around 5000 BC from the lower Yangtze River delta area. This bird-sun totem heritage was observed in later Yangshao and Longshan Cultures.[2]The Chinese have several versions of crow and crow-sun tales. But the most popular depiction and myth of the sun crow is that of the Yangwu or Jinwu or “golden crow”. [3]


Japanese Kamon.Three-legged crow commonly found in mythology and art.

In Chinese mythology and culture, the three-legged crow is called the Sanzuwu (Chinese: 三足烏; pinyin: sānzúwū; Cantonese: sam1zuk1wu1; Shanghainese: sae tsoh u(lit. ¨three legged bird¨)) and is present in many myths and is also mentioned in the Shanhaijing. The earliest known depiction of a three-legged crow appears in Neolithic pottery of the Yangshao culture.[4] The Sanzuwu is also of the Twelve Medallions that is used in the decoration of formal imperial garments in ancient China.[citation needed] A silk painting from the Western Han excavated at the Mawangdui archaeological site also depicts a Sanzuwu perched on a tree.

Sun Crow in Chinese Mythology[edit]

Mural from the Han Dynasty period found in Henan province depicting a three-legged crow.

The most popular depiction and myth of a Sanzuwu is that of a sun crow called the Yangwu (Chinese: 陽烏; pinyin: yángwū) or more commonly referred to as the Jīnwū (Chinese: 金烏; pinyin: jīnwū) or "golden crow". Even though it is described as a crow or raven, it is usually colored red instead of black.[5]

According to folklore, there were originally ten sun crows which settled in 10 separate suns. They perched on a red mulberry tree called the Fusang (Chinese: 扶桑; pinyin: fúsāng), literally meaning the Leaning Mulberry Tree, in the East at the foot of the Valley of the Sun. This mulberry tree was said to have many mouths opening from its branches.[6] Each day one of the sun crows would be rostered to travel around the world on a carriage, driven by Xihe the 'mother' of the suns. As soon as one sun crow returned, another one would set forth in its journey crossing the sky. According to Shanhaijing, the sun crows loved eating two sorts of mythical grasses of immortality, one called the Diri (Chinese: 地日; pinyin: dìrì), or "ground sun", and the other the Chunsheng (Chinese: 春生; pinyin: chūnshēng), or "spring grow". The sun crows would often descend from heaven on to the earth and feast on these grasses, but Xihe did not like this thus she covered their eyes to prevent them from doing so.[7] Folklore also held that, at around 2170 BC, all ten sun crows came out on the same day, causing the world to burn; Houyi the celestial archer saved the day by shooting down all but one of the sun crows. (See Mid-Autumn Festival for variants of this legend.)

Other depictions of the Sanzuwu in Chinese Mythology[edit]

In Chinese mythology, the Fènghuáng is commonly depicted as being two legged but there are some instances in art in which it has a three legged appearance.[8][9] Xi Wangmu (Queen Mother of the West) is also said to have three green birds (Chinese: 青鳥; pinyin: qīngniǎo) that gathered food for her and in Han-period religious art they were depicted has having three-legs.[10] [11] In the Yongtai Tomb dating to the Tang Dynasty Era, when the Cult of Xi Wangu flourished, the birds are also shown as being three-legged.[12]


Yatagarasu guides Emperor Jimmu towards the plain of Yamato.

In Japanese mythology, this flying creature is a raven or a Jungle Crow called Yatagarasu (八咫烏?, "eight-span crow")[13] and the appearance of the great bird is construed as evidence of the will of Heaven or divine intervention in human affairs.[14]

Although Yatagarasu is mentioned in a number of places in the Shintō canon, the depictions are primarily seen on Edo wood art, dating back to the early 1800s wood-art era. Although not as celebrated current day, the crow is a mark of rebirth and rejuvenation; the animal that has historically cleaned up after great battles symbolized the renaissance after such tragedy.

Yatagarasu the Crow-God himself is symbolic specifically of guidance. This great crow was sent from heaven as a guide for Emperor Jimmu on his initial journey from the region which would become Kumano to what would become Yamato. It is generally accepted that Yatagarasu is an incarnation of Taketsunimi no mikoto, but none of the early surviving documentary records are quite so specific.[15]

In more than one instance, Yatagarasu appears as a three legged crow in Kojiki.

Both the Japan Football Association and subsequently its administered teams such as the Japan national football team use the symbol of Yatagarasu in their emblems and badges respectively.[16] The winner of the Emperor's Cup is also given the honor of wearing the Itachi emblem the following season.


Three-legged crow representing the sun in ancient Korea
Three-legged crow flanked by dragon and phoenix. Mural from the Korean Goguryeo period.

In Korean mythology, it is known as Samjok-o (hangul: 삼족오; hanja: 三足烏). During the period of the Goguryo kingdom, the Samjok-o was considered a symbol of the sun. The ancient Goguryo people thought that a three-legged crow lived in the sun while a turtle lived in the moon. Samjok-o was a highly regarded symbol of power, thought superior to both the dragon and the Korean bonghwang.

Although the Samjok-o is mainly considered the symbol of Goguryeo, it is also found in Goryeo and Joseon dynasty.

In modern Korea, Samjok-o is still found especially in drama such as Jumong (TV series). The three-legged crow was one of several emblems under consideration to replace the bonghwang in the Korean seal of state when its revision was considered in 2008.[17] The Samjok-o appears also in Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC's current emblem. There are some Korean companies using Samjok-o as their corporate logos.


  1. ^ a b Volker, T. (1975). The Animal in Far Eastern Art and Especially in the Art of the Japanese. Brill. p. 39. 
  2. ^ Chinese Prehistory
  3. ^ the three-legged crow and its possible origins
  4. ^ Allan, Sarah (1991), The shape of the turtle: myth, art, and cosmos in early China, SUNY Press, p. 31, ISBN 0-7914-0460-9 
  5. ^ Katherine M. Ball (2004). Animal motifs in Asian art: an illustrated guide to their meanings and aesthetics. Courier Dover Publications. p. 241. ISBN 978-0-486-43338-7. 
  6. ^ Allan 1991, p. 27
  7. ^ Lihui Yang; Deming An; Jessica Anderson Turner (2005). Handbook of Chinese mythology. ABC-CLIO. pp. 95–96. ISBN 978-1-57607-806-8. 
  8. ^ Feng Huang, Emperor of Birds
  9. ^ Ancient Spiral: The Phoenix
  10. ^ Richard E. Strassberg (2002). A Chinese bestiary: strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas. University of California Press. p. 195. ISBN 978-0-520-21844-4. 
  11. ^ Xi Wangmu Summary
  12. ^ China 1999 - Tang Dynasty Day
  13. ^ Ponsonby-Fane, Richard. (1962). Studies in Shinto and Shrines, pp. 143-152.
  14. ^ Ponsonby-Fane, Richard. (1963). Vicissitudes of Shinto, p. 11.
  15. ^ Ponsonby-Fane, p. 147.
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Three-Legged Bird to Replace Phoenix on State Seal," Chosun Ilbo (Soeul). January 16, 2006.