The Sacred Fire
On a continent that contains two of the largest and most heavily populated countries of India and China, it is easy to forget Japan. All too often, Far Easterners get lumped into one category, much like those on the continent of Africa where we will go next in our Pentecostal theme of mythology, studying the spirits man has believed in throughout time.
Like any country, Japan has its indigenous people. The Ainu are often called the indigenous people of Japan but they actually lived on the Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and Kuril Islands. There are distinct cultural and physical differences between the Ainu and the Jomon culture, a culture that describes the earliest known people of Japan who date back to 10,500 to 8000 BCE. The word “Jomon” refers to the pottery found from this era, and literally translates as “corded”. The clay for the pottery was rolled into long cords that were then wrapped around the object being made to produce vessels. Why this was done is not hard to imagine. Pottery breaks and grasping it is essential. The cording provided a surface to grip and strengthened the cup, class, or vase in ways that a smoother surface could not.
Japan has four main islands and it is as important to their mythologies to learn the history of this country as it is to a student of general history. The Jomon culture boasted gatherers, fishermen, and hunters. The Ainu, awarded the distinction of being Japan’s aboriginal population by law in 1899, were mostly hunters. They too are said to be an amalgamation of two even older cultures, the Okhotsk and the Satsumon. Ainu translates as “human”.
The word Ainu which means human is an important part of their culture and mythology. To the Ainu, a god or “kamuy” was anything useful or beyond their control. They therefore had animal gods, nature gods, plant gods, object gods, and then the usual deities for protection of things such as houses, mountains, and lakes. They saw themselves as being separate from these gods or deities, thus the term “human”.
The word “human” has an interesting etymology. The French word “humain” and the Latin “humanus” both mean man. The modern English word “bridegroom” is the closest word we have to the original Old English “guma”. The Hebrew “adamah” which means ground gave us the name of the first human, according to Abrahamic mythology – Adam or man. It is the Lithuanian “zmua or zmuni” which means man or male person that seems closest to this ancient word from Japan for human – Ainu.
These etymologies may seem to have no purpose but when tracing them back through time and then comparing them to the culture of this ancient civilization, some very interesting things become apparent. Ten thousand years before the birth of the man known as Jesus as Nazareth, these people who lived off of the land distinguished themselves from the natural world, the world in which they lived and depended upon for life.
The Ainu prayed to their “kamuy” and performed various rituals to them. They did not see themselves as owners of the world. They simply inhabited it. It was through music that the Ainu spoke to their deities. The kamuy yukar or songs of the gods were sung and celebrated so that the humans could continue to live. These were sung in the first person, as if by the gods themselves. This is a practice particular to the Ainu and found nowhere else in ancient mythology. The Ainu also were the first culture to have female shamans.
You may think this ancient culture with its mythologies about such things as the Kimum Kamuy, a mountain god, and their “Song of the Bear’, a mythology which gave rise to a winter festival and sacrifice of a bear cub, is greatly removed from our modern life. Many churches, temples, and other religious worship services, however, carry on some of the ancient Ainu traditions.
Fuchi was the Ainu god of fire. Her festival was one of the most important for it was believed that her fire carried prayers to the gods. The fires for Fuchi were sprinkled with wine in order to have them burn longer. One mythology tells of a battle between Fuchi and the goddess of water who apparently stole Fuchi’s husband. Fuchi wins the magical battle and her husband returns to her. This myth tells of how fire with such an additive cannot be easily battles with water and even today, candles are lit when many say prayers, strengthening and continuing the connection between fire and religious ceremony.
I really like the concept of being human, of recognizing that we are not gods or goddesses but just ordinary people. It also emphasizes that no one is better than another. The Ainu were like many ancient and even modern day people. They themselves invaded territory in China and their own culture is also one of assimilation. Today many feel the designation in 1899 as aboriginal people furthered discrimination the Ainu faced and continue to face today within the Japanese nation.
We are easily led into believing that “our” way of doing things is the only way. This leads to a feeling of superiority and discrimination. Discrimination serves no purpose. Even the Ainu knew that harmony was needed between themselves and the world in which they lived and depended upon for life. We do not bolster ourselves by putting down another. We all have a fire burning with us and discriminating acts and language serves only to squelch another’s fire.
Imagine yourself camping out on an island when it suddenly turns cold. You have dropped your firewood into the water so you have nothing dry that will burn to provide you warmth or upon which to cook your meal. On the other end of the island is another group camping and they have a large fire burning, a fire providing them with warmth and the ability cook their food. What is your smartest course of action? To douse their fire serves no purpose. The smartest thing is to go make friends with them and share their fire.
We live on one planet, many people with many different mythologies which have very similar bases of belief. As human beings, we share many things in common, all but two thousand of our eighty-eight thousand chromosomes, in fact. We need to nurture the fire burning inside each of us rather than live discriminating others.
I leave you and the month of September with these closing lines from a most talented Indian poet, Geetha Jayakumar, and her poem “Keep the Fire Burning Within”. Please google this prolific poet and check out her poems. They are most lovely!
“There is no one who can stop us doing anything Especially something constructive But we ourselves are the barriers Which stop ourselves from going forward. Keep the Fire Burning Within!”
During September we have dipped our toe into barely a paragraph of the multitudes of mythologies from the Far East – India, China, and Japan. I hope you will seek out the thousands of others for they are the richest and most imaginative of all mythologies. They also are present today in the various spiritualities of the Eastern world which now are found throughout the world. In October we will explore the wonderful volumes of mythology of the cultures on the continent of Africa but first we will go to Egypt. Some of the best known mythologies are from Egypt but you might be surprised that what you think could be misleading. Ponder this…When is a pyramid not a pyramid but an observatory? Tune in tomorrow!