Smithsonian - National Museum of Natural Historyheader spaceAinu

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

Vital Cultural Link
Room 5 Overview

slideshow summary

For a people who believe that living and non-living things are kamuy (gods visiting the earthly world), proper behavior means sending kamuy back to their world with prayers, gifts, and invitations to return again soon. The sending ceremony for bears was and is at the core of Ainu spirituality. Through the bear iyomante, the Ainu celebrate returning a bear's spirit to the spirit world. Today, the Ainu sometimes perform the bear iyomante as a theatrical presentation our of deference to non-Ainu disapproval of killing a bear, but many Ainu continue to consider the actual iyomante crucial to Ainu identity, and private ceremonies are still held.

Opening credits:

Exercising the Bear
Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives 83-16285

Sakhalin Ainu Iyomante
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 81-3596

Kayano-ekashi shown performing a 1971 iyomante ceremony

(1) Room QTVR
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Viewing the 360 (degree) image

(5) Objects w/captions STILLS

1. Ikupasuy (prayer sticks)
Prayer sticks, known to Ainu as ikupasuy, are the vehicle through which men communicate with the gods. The carving on the ikupasuy also identified the worshipper. Often misidentified in early literature as a "mustache stick" or "mustache lifter", the ikupasuy carried a man's prayer's to the gods. Its artful and creative manufacture was a major concern; hours of thought and energy went into making one.

Brooklyn Museum of Art

2. Preparing the Bear for Iyomante
Ainu-e, literally "Ainu illustrations," are a major source of information about early Ainu life and customs. Some, dating as early as the eleventh century, depict people who can be recognized ethnically as Ainu. Most Ainu-e were painted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as this illustration from Scenes from Ezo Island by Teiryo Kodama showing Ainu exercising the bear before the iyomante ceremony. While its style is lively and the image depicts Ainu clothing relatively accurately, negative Japanese attitudes toward the Ainu are clearly conveyed by the use of such stylistic features as bulging eyes, hirsute bodies, and somewhat simian features.

Hakodate Municipal Library

3. Laquered Cups and Saucers
Japanese cup and saucer stands called tuki by the Ainu, had a central role in Ainu ceremonies in which millet beer or sake was shared by men and gods. Tuki became an important Ainu-Japanese trade commodity and were one of many foreign items incorporated into Ainu culture and belief. They continue to be used in ceremonies today.

Buffalo Museum of Science C18752, C18755, C18756, C18757

4. Lacquerware Tuki and Ikupasuy
Ainu rituals usually involve the offering of sake, millet beer, or some other precious libation to gods from lacquerware cups and saucers, using the ikupasuy (prayer stick). The ikupasuy is presented in the manner seen here, resting across the cup with its "tongue" end pointing to the left. The person performing the ritual dips the pointed end into the liquid and then makes offering gestures to the venerated object at hand, allowing drops to fall on the object]. This set from the Kono Collection includes both a tuki and an ikupasuy with its own visual pun another tuki and a tigerlike animal carving; it is one of the finest sets known.

Asahikawa City Museum

5. Exercising the Bear
As the bear cubs being raised for the iyomante grew larger, their care and feeding became more difficult to manage. Twenty men using heavy lines were needed to supervise the exercise of this nearly full-grown bear, indicating that the time of iyomante was at hand.

Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives NAA 83-16285

(2) Videos

1. Commentary on Bear Ceremony by Chisato and David Dubreuil

Chisato Dubreuil:
"Iyomante is the essence of Ainu traditional ceremony. This is [a] ritual and many people misunderstand this ceremony because they thought we sacrificed the bear, but bear is a god. We believe [the] bear comes to this world to give us meat and fur and [we] return the bear spirit to the other world. That is the essence of iyomante."

David Dubreuil:
"One of the concepts that is most difficult for Westerners to reconcile themselves with is this whole idea of killing the bear. They think that it's a sacrifice TO the gods. They don't understand the bear IS god. So there is no sacrifice that has taken place. Yes, the bear dies but that's the only way that he can get back to his world and I should say his or her world because there is no sexual discrimination in the god's world. You can be a female bear or male bear and it wouldn't make any difference. So it is not a sacrifice, I can't stress that enough. It is god, and we're sending god back."

2. Commentary on Prayersticks by Curator Chisato Dubreuil

"These are called ikupasuy or prayerstick. They are (the) most important ritual tools for the Ainu to send prayers to the gods. 19th and 20th century anthropologists could not understand the function of the ikupasuy and so they named ikupasuy "moustache lifter" or "moustache holder." (Because) Ainu men usually have a big beard and when they pray they hold the tuki laquerware and they put the ikupasuy on the top and then drink sake in the laquerware. Then when they send a prayer, they dip their prayerstick in the sake and they sprinkle it on an object. Contemporary people or elder people, and some young Ainu people too, still use the ikupasuy to send prayers to the gods. "

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