Ainu Religion

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AINU RELIGION . The Ainu are a people whose traditional homeland lay in Hokkaido, southern Sakhalin, and the Kurile islands, although their territory once included southern Kamchatka and the northern part of the main Japanese island (Honshu). Scholarly controversies over their cultural, racial, and linguistic identities remain unresolved. Their hunting-gathering way of life was discontinued with the encroachment of the Russians and the Japanese during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Generalizations about Ainu culture or religion are dangerous to make, since not only are there a great many intracultural variations among the Ainu of each region, but differences occur within each group as well. Because the following description is aimed, as much as possible, at the common denominators, it may not fit in toto the religion of a particular Ainu group.

An important concept in the Ainu belief system is the soul. Most beings in the Ainu universe have a soul, and its presence is most conspicuous when it leaves the body of the owner. When one dreams, one's soul frees itself from the sleeping body and travels to places where one has never been. Similarly, a deceased person appears in one's dreams, since the soul of the deceased can travel from the world of the dead to visit one. During shamanistic performances the shaman's soul travels to the world of the dead in order to snatch back the soul of a dead person, thereby reviving him or her.

This belief underlies the Ainu emphasis on the proper treatment of the dead body of human beings and all other soul-owners of the universe. The belief results in elaborate funeral customs, which range from the bear ceremony to the careful treatment of fish bones (because they represent the dead body of a fish). Without proper treatment of the dead body, its soul cannot rest in peace in the world of the dead. For this reason, illnesses serve to remind the Ainu of their misconduct. Shamans are consulted in order to obtain diagnosis and treatment for these illnesses.

When a soul has been mistreated, it exercises the power to punish. The deities, in contrast, possess the power to punish or reward the Ainu at will. Interpretations among scholars as to the identity of the deities range from those proposing that nature be equated with the deities, to those finding that only certain members of the universe are deified. The differences in opinion originate in part from the Ainu's extensive use of the term kamuy, their word for "deity" or "deities." An important point in regard to the Ainu concept of deities is Chiri Mashio's interpretation that the Ainu consider all the animal deities to be exactly like humans in appearance and to live just like humans in their own country. The animal deities disguise themselves when visiting the Ainu world in order to bring meat and fur as presents to the Ainu, just as Ainu guests always bring gifts. In this view, then, the bear, which is generally considered the supreme deity, is but the mountain deity in disguise.

Besides the bears, the important deities or kamuy include foxes, owls (which are considered to be the deity of the settlement), seals, and a number of other sea and land animals and birds. The importance of each varies from region to region. In addition, the Ainu pantheon includes the fire goddess (Iresu-Huchi), the goddess of the sun and moon (in some regions they are separate deities), the dragon deity in the sky, the deity of the house, the deity of the nusa (the altar with inaw ritual sticks), the deity of the woods, and the deity of water.

Evil spirits and demons, called variously oyasi or wen-kamuy ("evil deity"), constitute another group of beings in the universe who are more powerful than humans. They may exercise their destructive power by causing misfortunes such as epidemics. (The smallpox deity is an example.) While some of them have always been demons, others are beings that have turned into demons. When a soul is mistreated after the death of its owner, for example, it becomes a demon. The Ainu pay a great deal of attention to evil spirits and demons by observing religious rules and performing exorcism rites. A major theme in the Ainu epic poems treats human combat with demons. Characteristically, the deities never directly deal with the demons; rather, they extend their aid to the Ainu, if the latter behave properly.

Of all the rituals of the Ainu, the bear ceremony is by far the most elaborate. It is the only ceremony of the Ainu that occurs in all regions and that formally involves not only all the members of the settlement but those from numerous other settlements as well, thereby facilitating the flow of people and their communication among different settlements. The bear ceremony provides a significant opportunity for male elders to display their wealth, symbolizing their political power, to those from other settlements. Most importantly, from the perspective of the Ainu, the bear ceremony is a funeral ritual for the bear. Its purpose is to send the soul of the bear through a proper ritual so that the soul will be reborn as a bear and will revisit the Ainu with gifts of meat and fur.

The entire process of the bear ceremony takes at least two years and consists of three stages. The hunters capture and raise a bear cub. In the major ceremony, the bear is ritually killed and its soul is sent back to the mountains. Among the Sakhalin Ainu a secondary ceremony follows the major ceremony after several months. A bear cub, captured alive either while still in a den or while ambling with its mother upon emerging from the den, is usually raised by the Ainu for about a year and a half. At times women nurse these newborn cubs. Although the time of the ceremony differs according to the region, it is most often held in the beginning of the cold season; for the Sakhalin Ainu, it takes place just before they move from their coastal settlement to their inland settlement for the cold season.

The ceremony combines deeply religious elements with the merriment of eating, drinking, and dancing. All the participants don their finest clothing and adornments. Prayers are offered to the fire goddess and the deity of the house, but the major focus of the ceremony is on the deity of the mountains, who is believed to have sent the bear as a gift to the humans. After the bear is taken out of the "bear house," situated southwest of the host's house, the bear is killed by the Sakhalin Ainu with two pointed arrows. The Hokkaido Ainu use blunt arrows before they fatally shoot the bear with pointed arrows; then they strangle the already dead or dying bear between two logs. Male elders skin and dress the bear, which is then placed in front of the sacred altar where treasures are hung. Ainu treasures consist primarily of trade goods from the Japanese, such as swords and lacquerware. These are considered offerings to the deities and function as status symbols for the owner. After preliminary feasting outside at the altar, the Ainu bring the dissected bear into the host's house through the sacred window and continue their feast. Among the Hokkaido Ainu, the ceremony ends when the head of the bear is placed at the altar on a pole decorated with inaw. The elder bids a farewell prayer while shooting an arrow toward the eastern skyan act signifying the safe departure of the deity. The Sakhalin Ainu bring the bear skull stuffed with ritual shavings, bones, eyes, and the penis, if the bear was male, to a sacred bone pile in the mountains. They also sacrifice two carefully chosen dogs, which they consider to be servant-messengers of the bear deities. Although often mistaken as a cruel act by outsiders, the bear ceremony is a ritual whereby the Ainu express their utmost respect for their deity.

Although the bear ceremony is distinctly a male ceremony, in that the officiants are male elders and the women must leave the scene when the bear is shot and skinned, shamanism is not an exclusively male vocation. Sakhalin Ainu shamanism differs considerably from that of the Hokkaido Ainu. Among the former, cultural valuation of shamanism is high; well-regarded members of the society, both men and women, may become shamans. Although shamans sometimes perform rites for divinations of various sorts and for miracle performances, by far the great majority of rites are performed for diagnosis and cure of illnesses. When shamans are possessed by spirits, they enter a trance state, and the spirit speaks through their mouths, providing the client with necessary information, such as the diagnosis and cure of the illness or the location of a missing object. Among the Hokkaido Ainu, whose shamanistic practice is not well recorded, shamans are usually women, who collectively have lower social status than men, although some male shamans are reported to have existed. The Hokkaido Ainu shaman also enters a possession trance, but she does so only if a male elder induces it in her by offering prayers to the deities. Although she too diagnoses illnesses, her function is confined to diagnosis, after which male elders take over and engage in the healing process. Male elders must, however, consult a shaman before they make important decisions for the community.

While Ainu religion is expressed in rituals as well as in such daily routines as the disposal of fish bones, nowhere is it more articulated than in their highly developed oral tradition, which is both a primary source of knowledge about the deities and a guideline for the Ainu conducts. There are at least twenty-seven native genres of oral tradition, each having a label in Ainu. They may be classified into two types: verses, either epic or lyric, sung or chanted; and prose that is narrated. While the prose in some genres is recited in the third person, the more common genre is first person narrative, in which a protagonist tells his own story through the mouth of the narrator-singer. The mythic and heroic epics are very complex and lengthy; some heroic epics have as many as fifteen thousand verses. While the mythic epics relate the activities of deities, the heroic epics concern the culture hero, sometimes called Aynu Rakkuru, who, with the aid of the deities, fought against demons to save the Ainu, thereby becoming the founder of Ainu people. Among the Hokkaido Ainu, the culture hero descended from the world of the deities in the sky and taught the Ainu their way of life, including fishing and hunting, and the rituals and rules governing human society. His marriage, told in various versions, is another prominent theme in the epics. Some scholars interpret the battles fought by the culture hero as being the battles that the Ainu fought against invading peoples.

See Also



Ainu minzokushi. Tokyo, 1970. Issued by Ainu Bunka Hozon Taisaku Kyogikai. See pages 723770.

Chiri Mashio. "Ainu no shinyo." Hoppo bunka kenkyu hokoku (1954): 178.

Chiri Mashio. Bunrui Ainugo jiten, vol. 3. Tokyo, 1962. See pages 359361.

Kindaichi Kyosuke. Ainu bungaku. Tokyo, 1933.

Kitagawa, Joseph. "Ainu Bear Festival (Iyomante)." History of Religions 1 (Summer 1961): 95151.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Ainu of the Northwest Coast of Southern Sakhalin (1974). Reprint, Prospect Heights, Ill., 1984. Pages 9097 describe the Sakhalin Ainu bear ceremony.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. "Regional Variations in Ainu Culture." American Ethnologist 3 (May 1976): 297329.

Philippi, Donald L. Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans. Princeton and Tokyo, 1979.

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (1987)