Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mythology of the Ainu

Someone tried to pull a fast one on us today with this question: More of a cultural question than a mythic one, but do you have any information about the Ainu people to share with us? General "information about a whole ethnic group" is a pretty big topic and outside the scope of this blog, especially since we're not members of that group ourselves, but we'll bring it back home for you and talk about Ainu mythology a little bit. Because it's awesome!

For those who haven't encountered them before, the Ainu are the indigenous people of the northern island of Hokkaido in modern Japan, as well as several other islands heading up toward the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. They were thoroughly conquered by the Japanese during the nineteenth century, with their land confiscated and a large portion of their people enslaved or forced to assimilate to Japanese culture, and remain a marginalized group to this day, one that is not officially recognized in Japan as an official ethnic identity (they are officially considered Japanese rather than a separate group) but which struggles on its own to maintain its traditions and culture in spite of a few centuries of being immersed in someone else's.

As often happens when a people is conquered, this means that a lot of Ainu history and mythology was lost; it was largely orally preserved, and with the Japanese discouraging Ainu people from practicing their own religion in the hopes that they would hurry up and assimilate into mainstream Japanese culture, many of the more ancient practices and beliefs were lost before they could be recorded. But some of it has been recorded, and not only by crusty old white dudes who investigated Ainu folklore for their own entertainment; Ainu people, too, have recorded their religious beliefs over the years, and some still practice their rituals and keep their traditions.


Ainu religion is all about spirit - not just the spirits of living things, but the spirits of all things, which are indestructible and eternal and always full of energy. Like many other animist religions, they believe that natural features such as storms and mountains and plant life have their own spirits, which animate them and keep them a living part of the world, and that that life energy can never actually be destroyed, just moved or converted into something else as those things decay or are destroyed or are combined into something new. And while all human beings of course have their own spirits as well, the highest order of spirits are the kamuy, the gods whose powers can move the universe. (Incidentally, if you're wondering why that word is so close to the Japanese kami, it's most likely because they probably have similar root etymology, just like the Greek and Latin languages have theos/deus as close cousins!)

There are a good number of kamuy, too many to list out and go in depth into, but here are a few Ainu gods that you might see in the landscape of the frozen northern reaches of the islands:

Chikap is the god of prosperity and plenty, and often appears as a massive owl, one who weeps tears that are precious metals and oversees all the Ainu lands with his great unblinking eyes. As a god of the earth who oversees its fertility and bounty, he is famous for ending famines and helping humans who have accidentally stopped performing the correct rituals and sacrifices figure out what they're doing wrong and correct it so that the crops grow again.


Then there's Pekerchup, the radiant goddess of the sun, who is the patron of women and children and the universal symbol of purity and innocence (especially in the sense of sexual chastity). According to myth, she was originally the goddess of the moon, but only for a single night; when she saw all the adultery and unchaste behavior humans got up to under cover of nightfall, she was so horrified that she begged her brother Kunnechup, who was at the time the sun god, to switch places with her. He agreed, and she became the sun goddess, whose welcoming rays of morning light are so sacred that it is respectful to avoid stepping on any sunbeam that falls inside your home lest she be hurt by your behavior.

The goddess Fuchi is the divinity of heat, light, flame, and especially the hearth, which is considered her sacred seat and which must never be allowed to fully go out lest she be driven from her place. Because she is in every home, she is extremely important as the connection between the worlds of mortals and the gods, allowing worship and blessings to pass between them, and like many other such gateway gods around the world was often called upon first in any sacred ritual so that she could open the way for the other gods to respond.

Kim-Un, the god of bears, is uniquely important because of the extreme importance of bears in Ainu religion; they were considered gifts from the gods and inherently spiritual creatures that were provided to live symbiotically with humans by sharing their flesh and hides, and therefore Kim-Un is intensely important as the god who decides when and where and how many bears are in play down below. Every yearly bear sacrifice reports to Kim-Un about how well the humans treated them and whether they are being properly appreciative of their gifts, and if he feels that the bears aren't being respected, he withholds them until the people do better.


There are also at least two water deities - Waka-Ush, goddess of fresh flowing water and friend of humanity, who helps them ensure that they can survive on her rivers and draw fish and other sustenance from them without too much difficulty, and Repun, god of the sea, who is a god who appears half the time as a fun-loving youth with a harpoon and the other half as a giant orca, representing that he can share the bounty of the seas with his people if he wishes, but that if they abuse it all the terrifying power of the sea and its predators can come down upon them.

There are plenty more Ainu deities, but that's enough to start on for today, I think! It's a fascinating religion and one that could be very interesting to explore in HJ, especially if you're interested in the interplay between different east Asian religions and their historical interactions.

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