There is some flexibility in the identities of the Seven Lucky Gods, not only in who the members are, but in what form they appear.
Some of the Seven Lucky gods have shrines dedicated to them individually, within their own domains, while others are only worshipped as part of the group of deities.
The Seven Lucky Gods are seven Japanese deities who bring luck, good fortune, and compassion to the denizens of Japan. Each god has a different domain, yet together they represent prosperity and luck, traveling across Japan throughout the year (if they can) and then meeting at the New Year, where they gather in a great feast or occasionally go sailing in a giant vessel called the Takarabune. This vessel is laden with treasures and is a key symbol of the Japanese New Year. Most of the gods are not native to Japan but come from the Asian mainland, either from China or India, as gods, sages, emperors, or Buddhas. They have appeared as a collective in story and art since the 1400s.
The list of deities making up the Seven Lucky Gods has fluctuated somewhat over time and by region, and several of the gods share such a similar role that they often are combined or supersede one another. Some gods fall out of favor over time, while others have remained important throughout the centuries. Within this larger group, some of the gods combine in smaller groupings, based on Indian and Chinese beliefs, for the purposes of divination or prayer:
Hindu Tridevi: This group of three female deities represent the divine feminine’s role in creation. In Japan, Benzaiten, Kichijoten, and the feminine form of Daikokuten make up this group.
Daoist Sanxing: Jurojin and Fukurokuju represent two of China’s Three Star Gods, with the Japanese gods’ attributes and imagery drawing heavily on the Star Gods.
The term Seven Lucky Gods is a direct translation of 七福神, or Shichifukujin, and is occasionally translated as Seven Gods of Good Fortune.
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The only purely Japanese member of the Seven Lucky Gods, Ebisu is the god of prosperity and good fortune, particularly in commercial activities. Dressed as a fisherman, he is a patron of fisheries, restaurants, and corporations in the modern world. Descended from Izanagi and Izanami, he is tied directly to the creation of Japan and is also a sign of hope for the disabled, as he was born without bones.
Armed with a mallet of good fortune and dressed in a black hat, Daikokuten is the god of luck and fortune-seeking, and he is also known as the god of darkness and the god of five cereals. He always wears a smile and is also the god of thieves, for those who steal in good humor and get away with it are seen as blessed by him. Carrying a bag of treasure, he gives these to those he favors. He is sometimes portrayed in a feminine form known as Daikokunyo.
God of war and patron to fighters, Bishamonten is a god of dignity, authority, and honor. Dressed in armor and wielding a spear with which he hunts demons, Bishamonten also carries a pagoda, which houses all of his treasures. Worshiped in Shinto and Shingon Buddhism alike, Bishamonten is a Japanese iteration of the Hindu deity Kubera, also known as Vaisravana. He also takes on some of the characteristics of the more well-known Japanese war deity, Hachiman. However, Bishamonten’s relationship to war comes from his role as the protector of Buddhist worshipers, temples, and sacred places.
A form of the Hindu goddess Saraswati, Benzaiten is the only consistent member of the Seven Lucky Gods who always appears as female. Cloaked in a halo and carrying a biwa (Japanese lute), she is a musician and the patron of financial security, beauty, music, and talent. Accompanied by a white snake, a traditional symbol of prosperity and divinity in East and South Asia, she is seen as exceptionally intelligent, beautiful, and cunning.
Jurojin the god shares his name with a Chinese Daoist monk who was viewed as a deity incarnate. Associated with the Southern Polestar, Jurojin rides a deer and is seen with a thousand-year-old crane, representing longevity and prosperity. Drawing on Daoist imagery such as the powerful peach tree and having a sage-like appearance, Jurojin is sometimes combined with Fukurokuju, who is also said to be his grandfather. Jurojin is also a god of consumption and gaiety, enjoying simple feasts of wine and rice and the good times that come with them.
Robust in body and personality, Hotei is the god of prosperity, popularity, children, diviners, and bartenders. So large that clothes cannot cover him, the figure of Hotei evolved from stories of a Zen monk named Budai who lived simply and was content despite owning only a plain linen cloth. Hotei blesses and gives good fortune to those who ignore appearance. Hotei’s portrayal as large, rotund, and smiling has inspired images of the “Laughing Buddha” known by many Westerners.
Fukurokuju is not always included in lists of the Seven Lucky Gods but appears in many modern depictions of the group. Having many of the same attributes as his grandson Jurojin, the two are said to share the same body. Fukurokuju is recognizable by his enormously long head. He is sage-like and a form of the Chinese god/priest Shou, a representation of the Southern Polestar. Although Fukurokuju did not appear on traditional lists of the Seven Lucky Gods, he has replaced Kichijoten on some lists over the last few hundred years.
A form of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi filtered through a Buddhist perspective, Kichijoten provides fortune, happiness, and fertility to couples. She not usually included in modern depictions of the Seven Lucky Gods, but she was frequently included in place of either Fukurokuju or Jurojin prior to the end of the Tokugawa period (1868). She is represented as a smiling, courtly woman holding a Nyoihoju jewel, a wishing stone common in Buddhist imagery.
While individually many of these gods appear in a number of shrines, several shrines are dedicated to the whole group, including Toka Ebisu Shrine in Fukuoka, Imamiya Ebisu Shrine in Osaka, Nishinomiya Shrine in Hyogo, and Nanyo in Kanjizaiji.
The Seven Lucky Gods often appear in popular media, including:
In the video game Yo-Kai Watch, the Seven Lucky Gods (excluding Kichijoten) appear as characters.
Although using different names, the Seven Lucky Gods appear in the manga series Ranma 1/2 as a group of seven mastery martial artists who rule over the kingdom of Nekonron.
In the manga series InuYasha (also created by Ranma 1/2’s Rumiko Takahashi), members of the Band of Seven (Shichinintai) have some of the visual characteristics of the Seven Lucky Gods. However, their personality traits may be related to the seven deadly sins of Christianity.