Haniwa Birds

Waterfowl or duck haniwa: Left – 5th C. Mozu Group Tumulus, Sakia City  (Kouryu-machi Education Board);  middle- late 4th c. TsudoUshiroyama Tumulus (PHOTO: Fujidera City Education Board); far right – 5th or 6th c. Gaya Kingdom Duck pottery (Source: Wikimedia commons)

By Aileen Kawagoe

This flying bird motif and by extension, the duck-swan-cranes cosmic motifs of Russia and the Urals are thought to be implied in many of the ritual and shamanic implements or bird totems excavated from Yayoi Period to the Kofun Period sites of Japan. The rituals may resemble those of Siberian shamans where the shamans are often transported away to the other world of the dead spirits on a bird (in lieu of the horse or deer).

Given the ritual or symbolism or funerary context of the Japanese bird totems, it is likely that Japanese bird imagery might be consonant with the variant interpretation of the Milky Way ‘path of birds’ as the heavenly ‘route of dead souls’. Though the two ideas are quite similar in meaning but the cosmonym ‘path of birds’ is still specific and distinctive enough differ from the image of the Milky Way (called the heavenly river or “ten-no-gawa” in Japanese) as a ‘route of dead souls’. (From the Nara period onwards, the literal watery “river of souls” becomes the more common imagery in local festivals.)

The cosmonym for Milky Way as ‘the path of birds’ (‘path of cranes’, ‘birds’ path’, ‘trace of the route of birds’, etc.) is known mainly to peoples from three language families, i.e. Balts, Finno-Ugrians (but excluding Samoyeds) and Turks(Altai-Central-Asian), the Letts and Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, Saami,  Bashkir, Udmurt, Komi, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Karakalpak. The same cosmonym was known also to the Khanty and Mansi and to the Hungarians. The Russians call the Milky Way ‘path of geese’ in Vologda, Viatka, Perm, Tula, Smolensk, and Kaluga provinces and in Siberia. The ‘path of birds’ is also known to the Evenki of the Middle Amur area and in America to Algonkians who live to the north of the Great Lakes.  The absence of the ‘path of birds’ among peoples of the Sayan-Altai region as well as among Uzbeks (and most probably Uigurs) makes it doubtful that this cosmonym had a proto-Turkic origin. However, it is thought that this concept of the Milky Way as ‘path of birds’ that is so well known to the Finno-Ugrians must have appeared in Eurasia long before the split of Proto-Uralic into two major branches.

The cosmonym of the Milky Way as the “route of dead souls” is known among the native peoples of Alaska, North American Northwest Coast and some South American Indians, who do not know of the Milky Way as the ‘path of birds’. There is another bird cosmonym this time, for the Pleiades (not Milky Way) — that of ‘a duck’s nest’ or ‘a flock of ducks’ which is predominantly seen among northern Russians, among the Khakas, who speak a Turkic language,  and east of the Urals, where the Russians brought the ‘duck’s nest’ to Siberia. The myth cycle is a clear Uralic legacy of the pre-Slavic sub-stratum.


A variation of the bird cosmonym that is typically found in Western, Southern and Central Europe, the Balkans, Western Ukraines is however that of the ‘hen with its chickens’, ‘brood’, ‘chickens’, ‘pullets’ that is symbolic of The Pleiades. The cockerel which crows at dawn is said to be symbolic of the transition from night’s darkness to daylight and as a marker of time it is associated with birth, death and rebirth and thus is a symbol often seen on Greek and Italian tombstones. In several Celtic legends, the cock is a good luck charm that chases away ghosts and other night terrors by his crowing at dawn. The chicken played an important role among the Romans as sacrificial animals. Sometimes clay figurines were used as a substitute in their death rituals. Cocks were regarded as animals accompanying the god Mercury and votive offerings of clay were therefore often sacrificed in sanctuaries. As an intermediary between day and night, life and death or as a guard for the dead.
Outside Europe it is also found in North-East India, South-East Asia, West Africa and the Sudan. The chicken imagery is only absent across most of the territory of the former Yugoslavia, but the imagery is present among the Basques peoples of the Pyrenees. It is also thought that the Pleiades chicken cosmonym was also once known in the Near East and North Africa.

Replica of a early 2nd century AD cockerel terracotta originally deposited in the grave 2 of “Older Praunheimer burial ground” (Photo: Archaologisches Museum Frankfurt)

Chicken haniwa, 3rd century, Asadaiseki no. 3 Kofun tomb (Photo: Asahi Shimbun)

Curiously, this European cosmonym seems to be familiar to the Japanese – how it arrived at the opposite end of Eurasia and East Asia is not known (but probably via the Near East though the motif is rarely seen there) — it is seen in the  symbolism of the funerary earthenware “chicken” haniwa seen in many of the Kofun tombs as well as at modern-day chicken and bird shrines of Japan as good luck symbols (niwatari jinja and otori jinja) and Rooster Day Market Tori-no-Ichi festival.

Procession of chicken and bird (among other animals) haniwa figurines, Hodota-hachimanzuka Kofun, Takasaki city, Gunma Prefecture (Photo: Kamitsukenosato Museum)

The symbolism interpretation of the cockerel leading the dead in their journey is further collaborated by the 4th century haniwa pottery incised depictions of a “boat of the dead with a bird perched on the prow”  found in the Higashi Tonozuka tomb from the Yamato Kofun group in Nara, as well by the late 6th century tomb mural with a similar motif found in the Mezurashiizuka Kofun (see below).

Drawings of the haniwa pottery incised pictures of the “boat of the dead” from the early 4th century Higashi Tonozuka Kofun, Nakayama-cho, Tenri city, Nara prefecture

“Boat of the dead with bird perched on prow” late 6th century tomb mural, Mezurashiizuka Kofun tumulus, Ukiwa city, Fukuoka

In the Eastern Baltic, the conception of Pleiades is not like a bird, rather it is viewed as a ‘a sieve’ and as an image of openings or holes in the sky firmament (or sieve) it is predominant only in Northern Eurasia, in the American Arctic and possibly in Borneo although the image of a particular star (usually Polaris) as an opening through which one can penetrate into the upper world is also known to many American Indians.  It should be noted that there are Siberian and Paleoasiatic variations of the Pleiades sieve motif — for the Saami the Pleiades are girls; among Chukchi and Koryak of the Asian North-East, the Pleiades cosmonyms Ke’tmet and Kä’tmäc have been translated them as ‘small sieve’, but among the Chukchi the basic image of the Pleiades was ‘group of women’.  In Yakut stories, the hero makes mittens of wolf skin to stop up holes in the sky from which the icy wind blows and these holes are the Pleiades.

Among the Orochi and the Uilta of Sakhalin the Pleiades, are also ‘seven openings’ but ‘seven women’ are more usual for the Lower Amur region. Japan appears to have inherited this Amur variation on the seven holes in the sky – the Pleiades for the Japanese are a star cluster with eta (η), Alcyone, as the principal star, situated on the shoulder of the Bull, also known as the Seven Sisters and Messier 45, or M45. Traditionally six of the stars are visible to the naked eye, another star is “lost” or “invisible” giving rise to stories and legends explaining the reason. In Japan they are called “Subaru” (source: “The Pleiades“).

Another name for the Milky Way which is widespread among Ob’ Ugrians is ‘ski trace’, connected to the myth about the hunt of the sky elk. It is either the only or the most dominant name among Samoyeds and the peoples of Eastern Siberia, Lower Amur and Alaska. Often a motif characteristic of Scythian art and jewelery, in the form of the White Doe or White Stag, the deer was often a messenger and guide from the Otherworlds. Following such an animal led the unsuspecting human into contact with supernatural beings. Celtic shamans may have copied the antlered headdress of Cernunnos as apparel in their rituals.

The deer-stag imagery is also known to ancient Japan, though in the form of rare pieces of Kofun haniwa and in the crown filigree motifs found in Kofun tombs which have a funerary context.

6th century stag haniwa, Hiradokoro Funkubo, Matsue city, Shimane Prefecture (Photo: Shimane Education Board)

Given that all three cosmic motifs (the Milky Way ‘the path of birds’; the motif of stars/Pleiades as sieve/sky-openings; and the ‘water-carrier on the Moon’) are typical for the Eastern Baltic and Middle Volga region and that all the motifs are also typical for some or for many of the northern Russian provinces and for most of Siberia, according to Yuri Berezkin in his paper “The Pleiades as openings, the Milky Way as the path of birds, and the girl on the moon: Cultural links across Northern Asia“, this makes his hypothesis of trans-Eurasian migration plausible. The ‘path of birds’ is known to all Finno-Ugrians and ‘the water-carrier on the Moon’ is known to most of them in some variation. Some of the motifs are not known to the peripheral regions such as for southern Russia or for the Ukraine or to some of the Altai-Sayan Turks or for later arrivals to Siberia (the Northern Samoyeds –  the Nenets, Enets and Nganasans – are not familiar with these three motifs) and the southernmost parts of Americas. In many instances, new images in Siberia and Eastern Europe did not displace earlier ones but were added to them. It is thus concluded that detailed ideas about the objects of the night sky had probably been forming in Northern and Central Eurasia since very early times during the Final Pleistocene – Early Holocene, and that small groups of migrants from the East were spreading the new cosmic ideas across most of Eurasia and to North America (The Algonkians to the north of the Great Lakes have ‘the path of birds’ and ‘the water-carrier on the Moon’, and also a possible parallel for the image of the Pleiades as an opening in the sky).

Read more at:

Japan’s legacy of the celestial cultural complex of Eurasia (Heritage of Japan website)

An examination of Japanese rooster symbolism, mythology, and the funerary and folkloric connections with rooster symbolism around the world (Heritage of Japan website)

Human sacrifices and the Sayan-Altay : The Duck and its People


Haniwa Birds

By KAKU Takayo

Nihon Kokogaku 14

November 2002  ISBN 4-642-09089-4 ISSN 1340-8488, ISBN 4-642-09089-4

Abstracts:This article discusses bird-shaped haniwa that were placed on kofun burial mounds in Kofun period Japan. These bird haniwa include chickens, waterfowl, cormorants, hawks, and cranes or herons. In this paper, I analyze the morphology of these haniwa in comparison with the actual shape and ecology of these birds.Haniwa chickens are found from the very beginning of the custom of placing these sculptures on tombs and they continue right through the period of haniwa use. Their numbers are also much greater than finds of other birds. Haniwa chickens are found from Kagoshima to Iwate Prefectures, a distribution that is more or less the same as the distribution of kofun with haniwa.Bird-shaped haniwa differ as to the time of their appearance and their locations on tombs depending on the type of bird. This means that all birds did not play the same role but that their significance probably differed depending on the type of bird. Bird-shaped haniwa cannot be considered as one group but must be seen separately depending on the bird. In order to classify these haniwa, therefore, this article considers the ways in which the characteristics of the actual birds are represented in haniwa form. Since they are all birds, there are certain shared features common to the whole category, but there are also differences in expression than can be used to differentiate different types of bird.If one looks in detail at the expression of each part of the body, early examples use actual birds as models but before long the stylistic expression becomes fixed and in the majority of cases the sculpture was made based on bird-shaped haniwa rather than the birds themselves. The types of birds also became limited and it was not possible to freely represent birds in haniwa form.Keywords:Kofun period, western Japan, bird-shaped haniwa

3 responses to “Haniwa Birds

  1. The cosmonym for Milky Way as ‘the path of birds’ (‘path of cranes’, ‘birds’ path’, ‘trace of the route of birds’, etc.) is known mainly to peoples from three language families, i.e. Balts, Finno-Ugrians (but excluding Samoyeds) and Turks, the Letts and Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, Saami, Bashkir, Udmurt, Komi, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Karakalpak.

    By “Turks” do you mean Ottoman/Turkey Turks? If so, I should point out that you are wrong, as there is no bird-related terminology for the Milky Way among them. The Turkish name of the Milky Way is Samanyolu, which literally means “path/way of straw” or “strawy way”. Samanyolu is either a translation either of the Persian name of the Milky Way, کهکشان (Kahkashān), which literally means “strawy round tent or dome”, or of the Arabic name of the Milky Way, درب التبانة (Darb Al-Tabbāna), which literally means “path/way of the straw seller”, or a combination of both translations, which is more in line with its literal meaning. BTW, there is an obvious connection between the Persian name and the Arabic name of the Milky Way, as both of them are straw-related.

    • Turkic references when relating to origins of Japanese usually refer to the Eastern Turks see http://historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistoriesResponsive.asp?historyid=aa98
      The Ashina and Yabgyu are royal clans and the Ashina appear as progenitor ancestral pair in the myths of the earliest chronicles.
      Although the commentator mentions the Japanese haniwa as resembling Chinese and Mongolian influences, the technology came from Central Asian steppes and show influences of both the Huns (Gokturks and Xiongnu, etc tribes, and the Han dynasty. The period of migration into Japan preceded the beginning of Mongol empire. Japanese DNA shows no Mongol DNA, unlike Korean as the Mongols invaded Korea but not Japan. Migrations of Koreans as well as certain “barbarian” and Austronesian tribes from North China and SE China into Japan during the Yayoi and Kofun periods are not disputed and are corroborated by DNA evidence. What is important to note is that Central China at the time of migration to Japan did not recognize these peoples as Chinese. As such it is more helpful to understand the various East Asian nations today as having shared ancestral lineages from various chiefdoms or tribal peoples before the state unification processes hardened into the national identities called Chinese, Mongolian, Korean and Japanese. Tattoos were common for many tribes including Austronesian tribes, Wa people of Myanmar, Saka and Scythian tribes. Identification of ancestral lineage must go hand in hand with accompanying pottery and other artefacts, such as bronze, jewellery, weaponry, agricultural tools, tomb technology, etc.

  2. Relationship between Asian Culture and Haniwa.
    Envoys visiting the Tang Emperor. 6th Japanese.

    Korea Gaya Soldier


    Some Gaya Crown.


    haniwa with Chinese and Mongolian style.

    Wa was not a term referring to a specific area.
    Ancient Chinese records.
    A man is tattooed on adults and children all face.
    * Tai Bo himself 太 伯 (Wu progenitor) is called a descendant of. (Qin Librarian)

    Actual and May Wu Footmark This fact also has a tattoo in Chinese literature, and easily find and see Mon Footmark of the Wu and customs common to have a single shot and tattoo wear shoes barefoot but conveys danyeotdago.

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