Okikurmi or Ae-oyna Kamui: Ainu Wiseman Or Protective God

Ainu culture hero who features in many myths as an extremely pious powerful man who performs all the Ainu rituals, or who calls on the kamui for assistance for his people.

Okikurmi or Ae-oyna Kamui: Ainu Wiseman Or Protective God
Okikurmi or Ae-oyna Kamui Negotating with the Dragon

Okikurmi is wise and good, but he has a counterpart, Samai-unkur, the chieftain of a neighboring village, who is stupid, careless, and weak. The acts of the two are often counterpoised, demonstrating the proper reverential way of dealing with the kamui. Although Okikurmi performs the right rituals and is always respectful toward the kamui, Samai-unkur, either through stupidity or malevolence, often forgets, or does not perform the right rituals, and brings about calamities on his people.

Several myths recount how Okikurmi and Samai-unkur went fishing. In one such, they are met by the North Wind goddess, who dances up a storm. Samai-unkur dies, but Okikurmi, knowing the proper magic, procured a magical bow and arrow, and shoots the deity dead.

In another, they harpoon a swordfish that drags their boat across the waves for many days and nights. Again, the weak and indecisive Samai-unkur dies, but the hero knows the magic of the harpoon, curses the fish, then lets him go. The swordfish dies of the curse and is washed upon the beach, where he is eaten by foxes and unclean crows, instead of being treated royally and enjoying the ritual sendoff deities-as-prey are entitled to.

In contrast, a tree goddess, entreated properly by Okikurmi, allows herself to be made into a boat that conducts many glorious trading voyages to the Japanese. Once old and broken, the boat is dismissed ritually together with the presents she has been instrumental in acquiring.

Okikurmi also features in myths as a lone hero, succeeding either by wit or agility. In one myth, Okikurmi tricked a sak-somo-ayep (a dragon, or snake god, who hates the cold; Ainu dragons live in lakes, and their mere stench is sufficient to kill other beings) into going upriver to its source, where there would be a bride waiting for him. The dragon followed the instructions, but instead of finding a fine house and a waiting bride, as was promised, he found himself in a hornets’ nest, where he was stung to death.

In another, rather similar myth, Okikurmi appears to an ararush (evil monster bear) who has been hoarding the fish and the game on his own drying racks. The hero charms the bear with an inau and tells him to leave and find a place over the sea where others of the bear’s kind are feasting. The ararush does so, dying of hunger when he reaches his objective and finds a rocky shore rather than a paradise. Okikurmi breaks the bear’s storehouses and drying racks, releasing the game and fish there, thus allowing them to repopulate the rivers and forests and avert an Ainu famine.

On another occasion, Okikurmi ambushes the ferocious man-eating furi bird. He hides all the people in the forest, walking about on the beach by himself. When the furi stoops, Okikurmi dodges, and the furi bird buries itself in the sand, its beak impaling the bottom of the earth. The hero then rushes up and beats the monster to death.

The corpus of Okikurmi myths represents the ideal Ainu man: Tough and able to stand privation, he knows magic and is able to overcome even the most powerful opponents by his knowledge or his cleverness. Above all, Okikurmi myths reiterate the fundamental basis of Ainu life: the need to accommodate to nature by using the proper ritual observances.

Okikurmi as a god: Ae-oyna Kamui

In other versions, Okikurmi carries the name Ae-oyna Kamui (or Ayoyna-kamuy), and is an actual Ainu god (kamui). In this version, Okikurmi / Ae-oina Kamui is a“teacher” kamui and culture hero who taught humans the domestic arts. In these versions, he is often referred to as Ainurakkur, meaning the father of the Ainu. He is at the same time a savior and a dangerous kamui.

Armed with a magical and irresistible spear of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris, a bitter aromatic herb), Ae-oina Kamui fought many battles on behalf of humankind.

Instructed by Kamui Fuchi, the kamui (goddess) of the hearth, he taught weaving and other domestic tasks to Ainu women.

He is depicted as wreathed in mist or smoke. When this parts briefly, he is seen to be skirted by flames from his feet to his belt, wearing a coat of elm-bark fiber, its hem aflame, and a girt with a flame-tipped sword-sheath. The flames indicate his strongly virtuous character and his association with Kamui Fuchi.

There are a number of myths of his origin, due most probably to regional differences among Ainu tribes: Some say he was born of the elm tree, or fathered by the sun or by thunder, or even by Pakoro Kamui, the deity of pestilence and smallpox.

In one myth, he kills a magical giant char with his spear of mugwort, saving humanity from famine. In another myth he fights a famine crone, who has built fish traps to block the salmon from the people. He breaks all her fish traps, then releases herds of deer and schools of fish from the snow on his snowshoes. And another myth recounts how he forces the sister of the owl deity, Chikap Kamui, to marry him after defeating Chikap Kamui in battle.

Ae-oina Kamui/Okikurmi is credited with teaching humans the important basics of being Ainu (i.e., human):

  • (1) ritual activities appropriate for men and for women;
  • (2) handicraft techniques specific to men (carving) and women (needlework);
  • (3) fishing, hunting, and
    gathering techniques;
  • (4) architecture;
  • (5) medicine;
  • (6) dispute settlement (that is, law); and
  • (7) entertainment and singing.

Ae-oina Kamui finally returned to heaven, or, in some epics, left for another country, in disgust at the depraved ways of the Ainu. With his departure started the long decline of the Ainu. Thus the Ainu equate their subjugation by the Japanese in terms of the departure of their culture hero.

Atlas Mythica
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