Iyomante: Sacred ceremony of the Ainu ~ forgotten indigenous people of Japan, part 4

27 Jan
By Kaze no ryu (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Kaze no ryu (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In my previous post on  “Ainu and Spirituality” I wrote about the overview of spirituality of the Ainu people.  They had many ceremonies throughout the year, and one of the most important ones is called “iyomante.”  It’s a ceremony to send back the spirits of bear cubs to the divine world, an intricate ceremony involving many steps and extensive preparations.  Iyomante represents the essence of their spiritual life, but its complex nature has also caused outsiders to misunderstand the spiritual traditions of the Ainu.

The Ainu people believed that gods took on the forms of animals and visited the human world.  The bear god was highly regarded, since it provided many things to humans, such as fur and meat.  During iyomante the soul of bear cubs was sent back with abundant offerings, such as foods, sake, treasures, or ornamental arrows.

But what does it mean by sending a bear cub to the divine world?

Iyomante took place between January and February when the snow was deep on the ground.  The bear cub, captured in a hibernation den during winter, had been kept in a cell next to the house. The Ainu people often raised the bear as a part of the family and developed a deep bond.

It took nearly a month to prepare for iyomante.  Two weeks prior to the ceremony they began making sake and dango (dumplings).  A few days before they started making inaw, important spiritual icons of the Ainu (click here for more about inaw).  On the day before the ceremony they offered a prayer to the fire goddess.  This was done prior to all ceremonies because communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention.  After the prayer people celebrated with dance, song, and story telling, which sometimes lasted until the midnight.

Prayer for god of fire

Prayer for god of fire

Next day iyomante took place.  It began by offering prayers to the god of fire once again, which followed by placing inaw in certain ways to make an altar like structure.  After lunch they took the bear out of the cell and tied him/her to a post with a rope.  The bear cub would play while people offered a prayer.  Women would line up in front of the house, clapping and dancing “rimuse,” the last dance to show God that this was in the form of animals called “bear” on this earth.  Here is a video of iyomante rimuse:

Eventually men would shoot arrows and kill the bear.  Then the prayers were offered again to the bear.  Some men would place dango (dumplings) and kurumi (walnuts) next to the body while others drop dango from the roof of the house.  It was believed that the bear would take those things to the divine world.  Once the dango was scattered, a young man  would shoot an arrow into the sky toward the East, a sacred direction to the Ainu.

Even though the bear was ceremonially killed, he was not a sacrifice to god.  Instead the Ainu believed that a god spirit came to the people, disguised as a bear, and that the death of the bear released the spirit, allowing it to return to god’s land.

Iomante3 (524x362)

Picture of iyomante

Iomante (iyomante) (459x318) (2)

Picture of iyomante

Iyomante2 (640x311)

Picture depicting the Ainu and the bear cub during iyomante


Related articles


5 Responses to “Iyomante: Sacred ceremony of the Ainu ~ forgotten indigenous people of Japan, part 4”

  1. Sameer January 27, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    Really interesting! thanks

    • Yumi January 28, 2014 at 10:03 am #

      You’re welcome.

  2. Emjay January 30, 2014 at 8:50 pm #

    Interesting ritual, however I feel sorry for the bear cub. I feel it is a cruel practice.

    • Yumi February 2, 2014 at 10:45 am #

      I understand your sentiment. There are many traditions and customs of ancient cultures that seem cruel to contemporary people.

      • falcon October 30, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

        Has the ritual changed as the years past or not.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: