World History

Bears and Their Importance in Ainu Culture and Religion

Author: Elisha Kayne

In all areas of the world where the mighty bear can be found, there seems to have been cultures who deemed them worthy of respect. After all, such a powerful creature offered a means of survival in regions of the world where acquiring food and warmth can be challenging. Admiration for the bear has often times grown to such great heights, that the animal has been viewed as a God. Cultures which associate bears with religious significance include the Basque of the Pyrenees, the Nivkh of the Sakhalin Islands, and the Finns and Slavs of northern central Eurasia. Incredibly, evidence has even been found to suggest that Paleolithic Neanderthals worshiped bears as a primary deity. However, the rituals and ceremonies surrounding bear cults have largely disappeared into the myths and legends of local folklore. One exception to this rule is the relationship between bears and the Ainu culture of northern Japan.


Kamuy and Animal Worship Among the Ainu

The Ainu share a belief in Kamuy, spirits which dwell within nature. Similar to the idea of Kami in Shinto faith, these spiritual beings can be found among most objects in the material world, including lakes, mountains, trees, people and animals. Ainu frequently worshipped the animals which kept their families well fed and cared for, including deer, squirrels and wolves. However, the bear was viewed as chief among the others, and was held in extremely high regard. And, while the term Kamuy can be attributed to other animals, plants and phenomena in nature, the word for bear in the Ainu language is “Kamuy”.


The Bear Sacrifice Ceremony

The Ainu always performed rituals and ceremonies following a hunt. They believed that the God which had dwelt within the body of the animal should be thanked and appropriately sent back to the realm of the spirits. When an adult bear was sacrificed, Omante was performed as a show of respect to the bear’s sacred spirit. However, when a bear cub was captured during a hunt, the bear was taken in by the village and raised for years as if it were a child of their own. When the young cub reached adulthood, it was then sent back to world of the Gods through an elaborate ritual known as Iomante. During the ritual, members of the village would gather around a central area, and sacrifice the bear with special ceremonial arrows shot from bows.



Bears and Modern Ainu Communities

The bear sacrifice tradition of the Ainu villages was legally abolished in 1955 and deemed to be an example of cruelty to animals. However, the restriction was overturned in 2007 and Iomante was considered to be an exception to the animal rights laws in Japan because it is a long-standing custom that was central to the culture of the Ainu people. The original Iomante ceremony has been adapted and transformed into an annual festival. Today’s Iomante starts after sundown with a torch parade stretching from the hot spring to the Ainu Kotan pier. Afterward, a play is performed in the open air followed by music and dancing. Those who want to learn more about Ainu beliefs and practices can visit Hokkaido and participate in Iomante and other public festivals held throughout the year.





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