Saturday, November 10, 2012

#118. Bear Cult People

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Blog entries beginning with #101 are not essays but minimally-edited notes and reviews from the files I've collected over the last few decades. I no longer have the time and energy needed to sort out and put together into decent essay-form the many varied ideas in these files, but I would like to share them with all who are interested.

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Post #118 is about a surviving-into-the-20th-century form of ancient religious ceremonies in Japan.


AINU CREED AND CULT, by Munro, Neil Gordon (London, 1962) ILL Aug 90

The author is a Scottish MD who lived with the Ainu in Japan for many years. His notes, photos and artifacts were destroyed in an earthquake in 1923; a second collection was lost in 1932 in a fire. This text was intended as a comparison between the rather exotic rites of the Ainu and common folk practices in the English speaking world: a "plea for tolerance," as the editor says-- who then announces that she has omitted all the parallels!

It's tough going. A great many nouns and adjectives are given in the Ainu language, with little or no explanation. And there is no text by the author on the Bear Ceremony. Instead, it is described in a brief appendix composed by the editor from film captions made by Munro. Despite all this, a feeling of great reverence pervades the book, and is enhanced especially by the numerous (but often incomprehensibly labeled) photos.

I remember the first time I ever heard of these people, in one of Joseph Campbell's early books where he describes the bear ceremony. I felt like I was in touch with the oldest kind of religious experience possible. I still feel that way.

The Aniu seem to have been treated by the Japanese almost exactly as were NAs by invading Europeans; they were hunters, yet prohibited from hunting and fishing; nomadic, but assigned to allotted land plots where they were forced to become farmers. Ritual was intrinsic to their everyday life, yet their most significant ceremonies were prohibited by law. Even the ensuing results are familiar: a dis-spirited people characterized by depression and alcoholism.

That we have as much information about them as we do is a wonder. An indication of just how old their culture is: even in the 1920s and 30s when the notes for this book were recorded, many of the older Ainu did not believe that conception was caused by sex. At most, intercourse was thought to 'open to the door' for the easier entrance of a spirit seeking to be born.

There were shaman-like specialists in this society, but their functions seemed to have been limited mainly to exorcisms and divinatory rites.

The whole Ainu culture was shamanic. "No aspect of everyday life is describable without reference to rituals of relating to spirit powers; worship took place in the home, and was lead by the head of the family."

Also of importance: almost all the ritual was carried on by males. In only one rite, mentioned below, were women actively engaged in the actual ritual activity.

Munro names three main elements in the religious life of the Ainu: ramat, kamui and inau.

Ramat is what we know as energy or power: the ability to 'live, act, be,' which pervades all things.

Kamui are the spirits; they are at least quasi-personal 'embodiments' of ramat. They may be good or evil (or even neutral), but they are always treated with respect, minimally, more usually with reverent awe.

Inau are something like prayer arrows: wooden sticks which are thought of both as offering to and embodiments of the spirit powers. These "power objects" are of various sizes and lengths; their distinguishing feature is that on their ends are sacred wood curls or wood shavings (which look a lot like feathers on a Huichol prayer arrow).

Once placed in the earth these objects are left undisturbed permanently. They are placed in all kinds of significant places, such as the ocean's high water mark, and the place where bones of game animals are reverently deposited.

The main place of deposition is in a group (called a nusa) located to the east of the sacred window outside the home. The nusa is a major "shrine" which every home has, with a line of sight from it through the window to the sacred fire on the hearth.

Another form of inua, less numerous but still common, and especially taken on hunting expeditions, are animal skulls stuffed with wood shavings (exactly like those buffalo skulls, the eyes and mouth of which are stuffed with sweet grass by NAs).


There are eight or so categories of spirit powers. The author's list begins with an inaccessible "high god" power.

Among the accessible cosmic powers of the second category are several of great interest: a male spirit of wood, vegetation and green growing things, and a fire spirit, considered to be female. Both have the title "Owner" (of the world).

A third major spirit (in this same category) is one associated with west, the dead, and snakes. Also of interest is a female protector and guide of hunters. There are many other spirits in the remaining categories; one whole group consists of VQ-like personal guardian spirits.


The number of similarities between Ainu practices and NA ways is amazing. If it would be possible, given time and a team of research assistants, to cull from available materials a thorough list of the practical details of this hunting culture's spiritual ways, the areas of overlap with that of NA hunting cultures would, I think, be very great.

We could come up with a description of "classic" practices of a hunter-warrior spirituality that would of great significance for contemporary males. It would be a description of the "natural religious expression" of those who are genetically male: a characterization of that "male magic" lost to mainstream cultures when agriculture replaced hunting as the primary source of livelihood and which the exaltation of the solar phallos by early civilizations is a misplaced attempt to recover.

We would be able to offer a description of what a grounded male spirituality looks like, what the practical implications are of an awakening to sacred phallos by contemporary males.


The Ainu house was "as much a place of worship as a home." House building rites and the house blessing ceremony were of major importance (as with Navajos, for example, even today). Also, the house blessing rite was the foundation for most other rituals. Even the all-important bear ceremony is simply the house blessing rite with minor variations.

The essence of this rite was communion with the spirits via salutations with a sacred beer and various foods. (The sacred beer, made from millet, was illegal by Japanese law.) All prayer was essentially for health, safety, prosperity and offspring.

Intrinsic to the rite was the "ceremony of falling tears" conducted by women in honor of ancestors. The women went in procession, with food and beer, to the shrine outside, lead by the male householder, who addressed the spirits and left. Then the women, one by one, made their offerings to the ancestors. (Note that only males addressed the spirits, at least in public; and that spirits are clearly distinguished from ancestors.)

The ceremonies were followed by gaiety, feasting, drinking and dancing; they ended only in the wee hours of the morning, with what seem to be (to me; neither the author nor editor makes this observation) mini-rituals by the "survivors" mocking the solemnity of the opening rites.

The last dance is always a women's dance, imitating birds flying away. Even after this, the more hardy elders would sit around, perhaps till noon, telling old stories.


Death/funeral ideas. An unhappy person's ghost may linger around its corpse, cause troubles, appear in dreams of the living. A dead person may also be the victim of troubles: evil spirits may attach themselves to the body, or soul, or to an energy known as the 'bad influence.' The most ominous sign of such evils is "the erection of the penis after death." Various exorcisms prevented these calamities.

The funeral ritual is basically a sacred meal, but water rather than beer is used. There is singing, but not dancing. The main rite is an address to the corpse by each of the adult males, performed at the head of the corpse, while kneeling, with palms flat on the floor.

All grave goods are [intentionally] damaged. The purpose is to release the inherent ramat energy so that it can accompany the dead. This is a another example of a custom shared by some NAs (notably those Pueblos who put holes in grave pottery).

Yet another example is the fact that the corpse is wrapped with mats; the description sounds very like the way the corpse is wrapped in those NA tribes which use "air" burial.

Of special interest is where the dead go: to the "village of the spirits" which is in the underworld(!) On their way the path diverges; unworthy dead are conducted (by dogs) to a "wet underworld." This is the first time I remember hearing (in a non-Near East context) of "down" as a place where even good souls go!


Of all the interesting things in the book, one I find most fascinating is the fact that the most sacred and protective substance for the Ainu hunters was living wood-- what we would call "green wood." This accounts for the very great use of wood shavings to honor sacred things and as a substance in itself filled with sacred power. One of the things that a Ainu hunter would do when in trouble was to hug a tree. Who knows how old that might be? And [the Native American teacher] Sun Bear still recommends it!


#118. Bear Cult People
• Ancient religious ceremonies in Japan.

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