Littell's Living Age/Volume 152/Issue 1968/A Bear Festival among the Ainos

Littell's Living Age
Volume 152, Issue 1968 : A Bear Festival among the Ainos

Originally published in Nature.

A Bear Festival among the Ainos

Although it is well known that the Amos of Yeso worship the bear, and have a festival known as the "bear festival," at which that animal is killed, no foreign writer, except the one whom we are about to mention, has ever actually beheld this ceremony. Dr. Scheube, of Kioto, in a paper recently published in the Mittheilungen der deutschen Gesellschaft für Natur und Völker-kunde Ostasiens, describes one at which he was an honored guest. He observes that these celebrations are becoming rarer every day; in the various villages which he visited there had not been one for some years. The motives assigned for this cessation of an old custom, is that the Amos are becoming Japanized, and that the expenses are too great. In those parts of the island where Japanese habits have penetrated most, the absence of the skulls of the bears, which are also objects of veneration, is very noticeable; and as the individual who gives a bear feast is compelled to invite all his relations, friends, and neighbors, and to supply them with unlimited quantities of saké (rice beer) — a beverage which is three times more expensive in Yeso than in Japan — the excuse on the score of expense is probably a valid one. It is, it seems, incorrect to say that the Ainos reverence the bear as they do their gods — the god of the fire or of the sea, for instance; but they respect the bear above all other animals. He is most useful to them; he supplies them with food, raiment, and even with medicine. On the other hand, when enraged, the bear is a terror to them; he destroys their houses, plantations, and domestic animals, and kills themselves. The animal intended for sacrifice is selected while it is still very young, towards the end of winter, it is nourished by the wife of its owner at first, and when it gets stronger is fed on fish alone. In the beginning it runs freely about the house, but as it increases in size and strength it is placed in a cage. About September or October, when it is a year old, and has become so strong that it attempts to break its cage, the time for the ceremony is deemed to have come, and the great event of an Aino's life is about to take place. He first addresses long prayers to the gods and to the relations of the bear asking pardon for what he is about to do, and pleading that from the time the animal came into his possession he has showered favors on him, and has maintained him as long as possible; but he is poor, the bear is growing large, and he finds it impossible to support him any longer. He has therefore no resource but to slay him; and for this act, which is forced on him by inevitable necessity, he prays for forgiveness.

On arriving at the scene of the ceremony the visitor found about thirty persons, chiefly residents of the place, assembled, and dressed in their gala costumes, which consisted chiefly of old Japanese brocaded garments. From the commencement to the end saké played almost as prominent a part as the bear himself. The guests sat around the fireplace in the centre of the host's hut, and an offering was first made to the god of fire. This was done in this wise. The Ainos, who were all seated, raised their left hands, holding a drinking-vessel, to their foreheads, while the palm of the right was also elevated slightly. A small stick lying across the cup was then dipped in the saké and the contents sprinkled on the floor to the fire-god, the stick being then waved three or four times over the cup. A formula was uttered by each person present, and the saké drunk in long draughts, the stick being meanwhile employed in holding up the moustache. A similar ceremony then took place in front of the bear's cage. This was followed by a dance around the cage by the women and girls. Offerings of drink were then made as before to other gods, and finally the bear was taken out of his cage by three young men specially selected for the purpose. The animal was killed by pressing the throat firmly against a large block of wood. The body was then cleaned, and placed neatly on a mat, food and drink being laid before it, and ornaments of various kinds being placed on its ears, mouth, etc. Mats were spread, around the bear, the guests took their seats on them, and the drinking commenced. This continued for some time, until the Ainos sank in a state of helpless intoxication on their mats. The women in another part of the village meantime amused themselves with various dances, which Dr. Scheube describes at length.

The following day, as a rule, the debauch is continued. The body of the bear is then cut up in such a manner that the hide remains attached to the head. The blood was collected in vessels and drunk by the men. The liver was cut out and eaten raw; the rest of the flesh was distributed amongst the partakers of the feast. The writer states that although hardened in a certain sense to the sight of blood, he could not look without horror on the sight of the drunken crowd with their faces and bodies smeared with blood. The skull of the bear — stuffed with charms — is placed in a sacred place on the east side of the house, and the mouth is filled with bamboo-leaves. It is then always preserved and venerated as a sacred object.