The Epic of the Ainu (part one)

The Epic of the Ainu (part one)

The Ainu [アイヌ] are the indigenous peoples of Japan and far east Russia. Although the true number of Ainu descendants living in Japan is unknown, it is believed that only 200 pure blood Ainu remain, most of these upon Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Though the Ainu have their own language, they do not have a written alphabet. Even the spoken language is becoming much rarer. It is feared that slowly but surely the Ainu way of life is dying out; that soon the only records of their culture, their wisdom and their stories will lie in the hands of anthropologists.

Kutune Shirka is the most well-known story of the Ainu (you can read the original translated version by Arthur Waley here). It is an epic poem about an Ainu hero who catches a golden sea-otter in order to win the hand of an Ainu princess and is written, as is Ainu tradition, from the viewpoint of the protagonist of the story.


“I was brought up by my foster brother and sister. We lived in a magical castle. There was a great mound of treasure and on top of it all were many gleaming hand guards, fit for the swords of captains! When their tassels swayed the light reflected so beautifully upon the wall. I had a high seat, and a magnificent wooden bed. I had no work to do but carve wooden treasures and my life was free of all cares.

One day I overheard some marvellous news; the man of Ishkar had proclaimed that whoever could catch the golden sea-otter would have his sister in marriage, a dowry and all his treasure! Many great men had come to camp at the mouth of the river at Ishkar, seeking to catch the golden otter. I heard the beautiful voice of my sister saying “Pay no attention to tales. This happened before and it has again. It is nothing.” But I watched her and she seemed afraid. Afterwards, I thought to myself about the strange news. I waited and carved my treasures, as I always did to pass the time.

One night, I couldn’t sleep. The gods of the floor and the ceiling beam stared at me. I tossed in bed and could find no rest. My brother and sister, however, snored and slept soundly. I jumped out of my bed and went over to the treasure pile. There in a basket, I found a sword, a sword belt and a magnificent helmet. Putting them on, I looked as splendid as a god! I swung my sword as if fighting the ancient evils of long ago. I decided there and then to set off in search of adventure.

I stopped to look back at the house in which I grew up; and it was beautiful. The fencing stood tall. The creatures made their nests among the walls. The wind blowing through the beams sounded like music. Looking ahead I saw the paths zig-zagging over the hillsides and the shore; I saw the tools like black and white dots on the farmland far away.

I set off down the path; but a god took hold of me; a great wind lifted me from the ground and carried me to the sea! The sea-breeze caressed my face and the sea-birds called to me; below I soon saw the town of Ishkar below me. The town was splendidly built and the castle even more so. I saw the golden otter of legend playing in the waves; so it was true! It glinted like a sword in the sunlight.

There was a watch tower before the castle. As I landed, there was a great noise from the people assembled. A great lady emerged from the castle and I looked, knowing that surely she would be graceful and fair. But to my surprise, she had red hair, cut short to the chin… why, there was nothing beautiful about her, save the jewels she wore! The hideous woman climbed up into the watch tower and looked down upon the people.

Behind me then, I saw the tents of the great men I had heard of, at the mouth of the Ishkar. I heard a great sound; and from the first stepped an Ainu, more splendid than any I had known. There was a new moon and a full moon on his coat, and on his hat also. I did not know him, but surely he was the Man of the East!

He raised his hands to the woman and paid homage, but she laughed at him! He stepped forward to pursue the golden otter, which rose out of the waves. He pursued it into the sea and onto the land; but he could not catch it and at last, lay panting on the rocks. The ugly woman mocked him, as hateful as she was.

From the far side came once more a great noise and a second man came out. He I knew to be from the island of Repunshir. He also went after the golden otter, which led him twice to the sea then twice to the land; and he too, failed. The ugly woman mocked him, wagging her long chin.

Then from the middle tent came a third noise and out came a man; no, a god; no, a man, but clothed all in gold armour like a god! I wondered how he could lift his sword; but even more marvellous was his face! He paid his homage to the tower also and leapt forth after the golden otter. The otter fled before him into the waves three times, then onto the land the same, and it was a wonder to watch. He was the Man of the Little Island, but he too fell onto the shore.

Then, it was my turn.”

[Continued in part two]

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