Ainu - Religion and Expressive Culture

Separation of religious dimensions of Ainu life from others distorts the way Ainu view their lives, since religion is the perspective that pervades their life. Thus, even the disposal of discarded items such as food remains and broken objects is guided by the spatial classification of the Ainu universe and its directions, which derive from religious and cosmological principles. What we call economic activities are religious activities to the Ainu, who regard land and sea animals as deities and fish and plants as products of deities.

Religious Beliefs. An important concept in the Ainu belief system is the soul, owned by most beings in the Ainu universe. According to tradition, the soul becomes perceptible when it leaves the owner's body. For example, when one dreams, one's soul frees itself from the sleeping body and travels, even to places where one has never been. Likewise, a deceased person may appear in one's dreams because the soul of the deceased can travel from the world of the dead to that of the living. During a shamanistic performance, the shaman's soul travels to the world of the dead to snatch back the soul of a dead person, thereby reviving the person nearing death.

This belief underlies the Ainu emphasis on proper treatment of the dead body of humans and all other soul owners in the universe, resulting in elaborate funeral customs ranging from the bear ceremony, discussed later, to the careful treatment of fish bones, which represent the dead body of a fish. Without proper treatment of a dead body, its soul cannot rest in peace in the world of the dead and causes illness among the living to remind the Ainu of their misconduct. Shamans must be consulted to obtain diagnosis and treatment for these illnesses.

The soul has the power to punish only when it has been mistreated. Deities ( kamuy ), in contrast, possess the power to punish or reward at will. Some scholars believe that among the Ainu nature is equated with the deities. Others claim that only certain members of the universe are deified. The Ainu consider all animal deities to be exactly like humans in appearance and to live just like humans in their own divine country—an important point in Ainu religion. Animal deities disguise themselves when visiting the Ainu world to bring meat and fur as presents to the Ainu, just as Ainu guests always bring gifts. The bear thus is not itself the supreme deity but rather the mountain deity's disguise for bringing the gift of bear meat and hide.

In most regions, the goddess of the hearth (fire) was almost as important as the bear. Referred to as "Grandmother Hearth," she resides in the hearth, which symbolizes the Ainu universe. Other important deities include foxes, owls (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, there are the goddess of the sun and moon (in some regions, the sun and moon represent two phases of one deity), the dragon deity in the sky, the deity of the house, the deity of the nusa (the altar with inaw, ritual wood shavings), the deity of the woods, the deity of water, and others.

Evil spirits and demons—called variously oyasi, wenkamuy (evil deity), etc.—constitute another group of beings in the universe who are more powerful than humans. They exercise their destructive power by causing misfortunes such as epidemics. The smallpox deity is an example. Some of them are intrinsic or by definition bona fide demons, whereas others become demons. For example, if a soul is mistreated after the death of its owner, it turns into a demon. The Ainu devote a great deal of attention to evil spirits and demons by observing religious rules and performing exorcism rites. Human combat with demons is a major theme in Ainu epic poems, discussed later. Characteristically, the deities never deal directly with the demons; rather, they extend aid to the Ainu if the latter behave as directed.

Religious Practitioners. Shamanism is not an exclusively male role. Sakhalin Ainu shamanism differs considerably from Hokkaidō Ainu shamanism. Among the Sakhalin Ainu, with regard to the symbolic structure, the shamanistic ritual represents the process of cooking, a role assigned to women in Ainu society. Shamanism is highly valued among the Sakhalin Ainu, and highly regarded members of society of both sexes, including heads of settlements, may become shamans. Although shamans sometimes perform rites for divinations of various sorts and for miracles, most rites are performed to diagnose and cure illnesses. When shamans are possessed by spirits, they enter a trance and the spirit speaks through their mouths, providing the client with necessary information such as the diagnosis and cure of an illness or the location of a missing object.

Among the Hokkaidō Ainu, shamanism is not highly regarded and shamans are usually women, who collectively have lower social status than men. The Hokkaidō 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, male elders take over the healing process. Male elders must consult a shaman before they make important decisions for the community. In other words, the politically powerful male cannot even declare a war without consulting the shaman—an intriguing cultural mechanism to balance formalized and nonformalized power.

Ceremonies. Among the rich and varied Ainu religious beliefs and practices, the bear ceremony is perhaps the most important religious ceremony among both the Sakhalin and Hokkaidō Ainu, for whom the bear represents the supreme deity in disguise. From the Ainu perspective, the bear ceremony is a "funeral ritual" for the bear. Its purpose is to send the soul of the bear back to the mountains through a proper ritual so the soul will be reborn as a bear and revisit the Ainu with gifts of meat and fur.

The process of the bear ceremonial takes at least two years. Among the Sakhalin Ainu another, less elaborate, "after ceremony" follows several months after the major ceremony, thereby further extending the process. A bear cub, captured alive either while still in a den or while walking with its mother upon emerging from the den, is usually raised by the Ainu for about a year and a half. Sometimes women nurse these cubs. Although the time of the ceremony differs according to region, usually it is held at the beginning of the cold season; for the Sakhalin Ainu, it takes place just before they move inland to their winter settlement.

The bear ceremony combines deeply religious elements with the merriment of eating, drinking, singing, and dancing. All participants don their finest clothing and adornments. Prayers are offered to the goddess of the hearth 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 humans. After the bear is taken out of the "bear house," situated southwest of the house, the bear is killed. The Sakhalin Ainu kill the bear with two pointed arrows, while the Hokkaidō Ainu use blunt arrows before they fatally shoot the bear with pointed arrows, and then strangle the dead or dying bear between two logs. Male elders skin and dress the bear, which is placed in front of the altar hung with treasures. (Ainu treasures consist primarily of goods such as swords and lacquerware obtained in trade with the Japanese. They are considered offerings to the deities and serve as status symbols for the owner.) After preliminary feasting outside at the altar, the Ainu bring the dissected bear into the house through the sacred window and continue the feast.

Among the Hokkaidō Ainu, the ceremony ends when the head of the bear is placed at the altar on a pole decorated with ritual wood shavings (inaw). An elder offers a farewell prayer while shooting an arrow toward the eastern sky—an act signifying the safe departure of the deity. The Sakhalin Ainu bring the bear's skull, stuffed with ritual shavings, bones, eyes, and, if a male bear, the penis, to a sacred place in the mountains. They also sacrifice two carefully chosen dogs, whom they consider to be servant-messengers of the bear deities. Although often taken as a cruel act by outsiders, the bear ceremony expresses the Ainu's utmost respect for the deity.

The bear ceremonial is at once religious, political, and economic. The host of the bear ceremony is usually the political leader of the community. It is the only intersettlement event, to which friends and relatives as well as the politically powerful from nearby and distant settlements may come to participate. Offerings of trade items, such as Japanese lacquerware or swords and Chinese brocades, are a display of wealth, which in turn signifies the political power of the leader and his settlement.

The bear ceremony expresses the formalized cosmology in which men are closer to the deities than are women. The officiants of the ceremony must be male elders and the women must leave the scene when the bear is shot and skinned.

Arts. While Ainu religion is expressed through rituals as well as in daily routines like the disposal of fish bones, nowhere is it better articulated than in their highly developed oral tradition, which is comparable to the Greek tradition. For the Ainu, the oral tradition is both a primary source of knowledge about the deities and a guide for conduct. There are at least twenty-seven native genres of oral tradition, each having a label in Ainu, that may be classified into two types: verses (epic or lyric) to be sung or chanted, and narrative prose. While the prose in some genres is in the third person, first-person narration is used in the rest: a protagonist tells his own story through the mouth of the narrator-singer. The mythic and heroic epics are long and complex; some heroic epics have as many as 15,000 verses. While the mythic epics relate the activities of deities, the heroic epics are about the culture hero who, with the aid of the deities, fought demons to save the Ainu and became the founder of the Ainu people. Among the Hokkaidō 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. Some scholars contend that the battles fought by the culture hero are battles that the Ainu once fought against invading peoples.

Ainu carving, weaving, embroidery, and music are of high aesthetic quality. Traditionally, these activities were a part of their daily lives rather than separate activities. While Hokkaidō Ainu relied most extensively on garments made of plant fibers, the Sakhalin Ainu wore garments made of fish skin and animal hides. The Kurile Ainu, who knew basketry but not weaving, used land- and sea-mammal hides and bird feathers for their clothing.

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Sep 23, 2012 @ 1:01 am
hi this is a bit to long but it has good information :)
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Dec 12, 2012 @ 7:19 pm
Great article! However, i would like to take a peek at your sources for my own buddying research!
I would love it if you got back to me as soon as posible.
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Jul 24, 2013 @ 4:04 am
This is really good!! this was excellent for my school project! thanks for all the info :)
Judith Mitchell
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Jan 9, 2018 @ 11:23 pm
Very interesting and helpful information -- thank you. I'm an artist currently working on a project of world people which includes words in many languages. I would like to include the words "I am a soul" in the Ainu language, and hope that you can either give me that phrase, or tell me where I could find it. Your help will be much appreciated.
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Nov 22, 2019 @ 3:15 pm
A. H. Savage Landor, in his 1893 book, could get no information from the Ainu about their beliefs, so he erroneously thought they had none. But their society was more unified and cohesive than he gave them credit for! They kept their secrets well guarded!

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