The Ainus are genetically related to the Ulchis.
The Ulchi language belongs to the southern group of the Manchu-Tungus languages and is so close to the Nanai language that it has been regarded as a Nanai dialect. The Ulchis, who are related to the ancient population of the Lower Amur, are a people of mixed composition, among whom tribes of Nanai, Evenk, Manchu, Udeghe, Orochi, Orok and Nivkh origin have been found. A number of historical layers have been discerned within the material culture of the Ulchis which are associated with local ancient Paleo-Northeast Asian, as well as with old Manchu and “common Tungus”, culture. The Ulchi’s manner of fishing, traditionally their main occupation, is similar to that of the Nivkhs.
The prehistoric and former traditional lifestyles of the Ainu resembled that of the Ulchis – hunter-gathering with a dependence upon marine resources
The main occupation of the Ulchis was fishing, for which the River Amur and lakes offered ample source. The all-year-round fishing necessitated a rather settled lifestyle. Fish was the main food for the people, and it was also fed to the dogs, kept in large numbers for draught work. Hunting for furs was an additional occupation which sometimes yielded a good income — sables especially. For sables, some Ulchi co-operatives went hunting even to the island of Sakhalin, where some of them eventually settled. The Ulchis were also known to hunt marine animals in the Straits of Tatar. To get there, the Ulchis had to undertake a long journey via Lake Kiz and along various small rivers.
The Ainus and Ulchis share the same animistic world view and similar nature rituals
The Ulchi had an animistic worldview; all parts of nature like the sun, the stars, mountains, rivers, forests, and hunting grounds had guardian spritis. The guardian spritits were worshipped according to certain rites,inclding sacrifices. Important rituals were regularly devoted to the water guardian spirit Tem and the taiga guardian spirit Duuente Edeni. Every family had their own tree in the taiga, where the worshipped the local guardians spirit.
The shamanism of the Ulchi has much in common with that of the Nanais. The shamans, women among them were subjdivided into several categories in terms of their power. Those of the highest category would convey the souls of the dead into the net world.
Like most Arctic indigenous people, the Ul’chi also worshipped the bear; several taboos were connected with the bear hunt and the breeding of bears, as well as the associated feats (see Bear Ceremonialism). Another highly developed cult was that of twins: twins and the mothers of twins were considered sacred, and were given special burial rites. — Source: Mark Nuttall, Encyclopedia of the Arctic, p. 2090
“We live in harmony with nature. We are guests: we are temporary. We respect nature: the grasses, trees, rivers, and lakes. We see everything as living: seeing and feeling. When a hunter goes into the forest, he asks forgiveness. He asks for pardon from the master spirits and makes an offering. He gives the most delicious pieces of meat to the spirit of this place and thanks the master spirit of nature.
Making offerings is of central importance in Ulchi ritual. It is also something they do daily as they arise. While making an offering, one makes a request for happiness, for the well-being of one’s family and friends, and asks for success in work. Grandfather would kneel, placing tobacco and food into the water, at the base of a tree, or in the fire. He would pray to the Master of the Water, Land. Tree, Mountain, or to whatever local spirits were in the place he stood. It is in the act of sacrifice and offering that the Ulchi express their heartfelt gratitude for all that nature offers.
Even if they have no food, they give tobacco or candy In the afternoons we watched Misha make ritual offerings, after which we participated by making our own. We made offerings to the Master of the Forest, Water, Sun, and Fire.
We learned many dances during these afternoon sessions. We learned to dance like a seal, a reindeer, a bear, and a raven. All these dances were shamanic dances of animal transformation.
During the dances we practiced the complex rhythms of the Ulchi drummers. All the dances we practiced were trance-inducing. In fact, for me to be able to beat the complex rhythm, sing, and move my body in the prescribed ways was too much for my “ordinary” mind to grasp. Only when I surrendered could I discover where it all comes from. Then it would work together in a natural and automatic way, becoming enjoyable.
Many times during our week with Misha, he became inspired and began to drum and sing.
These were some of the best moments for me. I loved to watch him hunch his shoulders into the drum and move with strength and grace. He seemed to sing from his soul. The Ulchi play large, narrow-hooped drums that have a flexible cross-tie on their back side (serving as a handle), making it possible for the drum to bounce back and be struck by the knuckles or finger tip on the underside of the drumhead. They combine this back hit with regular beats on the drum face and with clicks as they hit the rim of the drum with the flat, fur covered beater, called a gispu. Thus they play amazing rhythm sequences, making one wonder how all this sound comes from one drummer. Nadia explained:
Rhythms played by shamans reveal what the spirits are commanding of them. Grandfather can work with the voice of the swan, and then in a moment a new rhythm begins. When calling a flying spirit. the beat is soft and tender. When calling Tiger, the sound is stronger. When searching, they have a high rhythm. When driving out illness, they get faster and louder. For divination, a more monotonous tone is played. For a fish transformation, they play the drum with the beater gliding over the drum face, which indicates going into the water, head down, coming up for air and then gliding. The shamans’ rhythms are improvised, expressing the moment in their journey.
Nadia asked us about our use of one rhythm. Not wanting to offend us, but trying to understand, she noted, “There is nothing to show what you are meeting. Our shamans start up slowly, then their rhythms express the experience, or they stop and just sing.”
The Ainu shared the same Bear Cult ceremonies of the Ulchis
The Bear Cult’ is common in Siberian cultures, where it is of major ritual importance. It is even found among the Ainu of northern Japan. Although suppressed by the Soviets, knowledge of it has survived and is currently being revived by a number of Siberian peoples.
Nadia and Misha taught us about the Ulchi version.
On our first day, we gathered in the forest to learn the bear dances. These dances are normally done during the Ritual of the Bear. in which the Ulchi make their largest offering for the insurance of the clan harmony. Nadia explained:
This ritual is for the Ulchi people a way to honor those people who have gone before us and died. It is also for honoring one’s parents and insuring their passage. Our people never forget their ancestors who have left the Middle World. We know they have gone to the Lower World and we know they have their own life there.” –Susan Grimaldi, Learning from a Master: An Ulchi Shaman Teaches in America
On our first day, we gathered in the forest to learn the bear dances. These dances are normally done during the Ritual of the Bear. in which the Ulchi make their largest offering for the insurance of the clan’s harmony. Nadia explained:
This ritual is for the Ulchi people a way to honor those people who have gone before us and died. It is also for honoring one’s parents and insuring their passage. Our people never forget their ancestors who have left the Middle World. We know they have gone to the Lower World and we know they have their own life there.
A log was hung horizontally from two trees. This instrument, called the yujaju, or “log drum.” is played by many people each hitting two sticks in repetitive rhythm patterns.
The dancers walked, leaning on two long sticks. feet turned inward, stepping forward, tapping out rhythms with the sticks, walking like a bear. Then we learned the dance called “Bear Eating.”
We chanted. “Karugda. karugda. chak kum, chak kum. karugda” side stepping as we opened and closed our arms, hitting the sticks upon the ground. We also learned how a bear sits and how a bear rests.
This ceremony only happens every three to five years. A bear cub is taken from the wild and raised for three years. Tears slipped down Nadia’s cheeks as she told us, “On the face of the bear they see their son, their parent.” The bear is seen as a messenger to the deceased. It is raised by the entire clan and is free to roam the streets, going into any house and being handfed the best food.
When the time comes to sacrifice the bear, the people of the village and neighboring villages gather. At the time of the killing, the women beat the rhythms of the bear’s life on the log drum and remember those who have gone to the Lower World-and they cry.
They share the same Shamanic Afterlife concept of belief in the Netherworld
I was particularly interested in the Ulchi concept of the soul. They understand that every person has an invisible soul that can make temporary departures from the body, which is its temporary envelope. The soul can move, turn into something else, or just travel.
A wandering soul is without a master, without a home. This needs to be rectified. The soul needs to be put into a safe place. One of the shaman’s jobs is to make the patient safe which is accomplished when the shaman puts their soul in a safe place. Then there is balance. Nadia said that when she was younger, her soul was being stored. When “Grandmother” had her soul stored safely, she felt great and she didn’t get sick. “Grandmother knew my soul was there: it was being well protected. She explained that, “If your soul is kept in a safe place by the shaman, it is possible for it to get out and it may be necessary to find it and put it back again.”
Grandfather told us, “You find it, you put it back in a safe place, make a new search, and find a stronger safe place.” The spirit master of the storage place lets him know if a soul has escaped and he restores it.
The Ulchi shaman refers to his helping spirits as savin. Effigies of these spirits are carved in wood and used for healing. These are carried by hunters as guardians, to provide success in the hunt, and for protection.
When shamans complete healing work, they will often make a prescription of a specific savin.
Patients can make their own or order them from the village woodcarver. Savin are carved from live larch wood. Many of the savin are traditional. Some are new images received by the shaman for a specific problem. One such new image was described as having the head and right paw of a bear.
Nadia taught us to, “bring offering food to them (the savin): touch their lips. Either wear them or keep them in a box with the lid open, and the illness will pass slowly.”
Kasaa Shaman Ritual
We were very privileged to be present for a kasaa shaman ritual. which is done by a shaman accompanying a deceased person’s soul to the Lower World. A kasaa shaman makes the road to the Lower World for someone who has died, making sure they can find their house in that world. Nadia stated, “It is a unique and important ritual, not done by all. Only shamans of the highest rank have the right to do this, not a simple shaman.” She said this was the first time this ritual has been shown outside Siberia. It is considered to be a very dangerous undertaking.
Before the ceremony began, Nadia and Grandfather went to a sacred place in a house where an altar was covered with a white cloth. As he prepared, he made offerings and his face was smudged. He prayed, asking permission: “I am here only to teach. I ask the Master of the House not to be angry. Father and Mother come help me. I don’t know what road to take. I am a stranger in this land.”
The rest of us were outside in the ceremonial area, drumming softly to strengthen Grandfather.
As it grew dark he came out and stood on a four-foot-high platform that was flanked by two forked and leafed eucalyptus poles. Hanging from the forks were metal clangors, called yampa, and curled wood streamers. We were cautioned to quickly sit and make no noise. Three men stood near Grandfather to catch him if he fell. Holding the poles, he began to sing:
I go to two poles. I bow to you three times. I don’t know why I’m standing here. Please do not be angry with me. My body is dark blue. I cannot speak or sing. My body is taken away. Let’s go the edge of the mountains. I’m flying. If you cannot hear me now, I hope you’ll be able to hear me soon. I’m going on the road of the taiga (forest) people. I’m afraid to touch this road.
He shook the trees and the yampa changed. I felt scared for him. He began to question one of the men present. “Who went first, your mother or your father?” His questions concerned the family. the parent’s deaths and the shape of the graves. His journey continued as he sang:
I’m going through mountains, ponds and rivers. I ask permission: lead me well upon this road.
I’m singing with the voice of the golden bird. Please protect me well. Do not be offended by what you have seen or heard. Master of the House, I bow to you. I bow to your door. I don’t know your language. I hope the Master of the Door is not offended. Threshold Master, I bow to you. It is difficult to step on you. All of the steps that go into the threshold are sacred and should not be fouled. I stand before you and I sing. Please protect these children. I beg you. I’m learning from the sun: I stand at dawn.
He began to lurch forward and the tree poles bent. The three men moved closer. He started to go wild. shaking as he fell back into their arms. He was carefully carried to his chair inside as he vibrated with intensity. He went to the altar. drank deeply, kneeled and swayed as he sang of his experiences. After bowing his head to the floor, he began to drum and moved to the open door, singing to the spirits. He proceeded to do healing work, sweeping several people with the wood streamers, pressing their heads and directing them to the threshold.
Shared beliefs of a fire deity and fire hearth rituals
The Ritual of Fire
The Ritual of Fire is done when a hunter is sent out at funerals or each month for three years after a person has died. Each month when the moon wanes, the deceased’s relatives come to the grave and bring offerings and give them to the fire so the deceased can receive nourishment. Things that belonged to the dead person are burned. Things not placed in their coffin can reach them this way. Fire has its own master. Fire represents the family and the continuity of the clan. The Ulchi put food in the fire and ask the Master of the Fire to take the offerings and not to be offended. They speak as their soul directs them.
While kneeling, Grandfather drummed and sang, talking to the spirit, the Master of Fire. He flicked vodka and cried:
I’m not a shaman. I’m just a little man. Oh. I know you need this ritual. Do not let me frighten you. I don’t know why they don’t have these things here. I’ll speak to them and let them know.
Please forgive me for whatever we did wrong. I will tell these people what needs to be done.”
The Ainu and Ul’chi share the same love of skilled storytelling, music (both cultures play the Jew’s harp) and craftwork of wood, bone, fish skin clothing
The folklore of the Ul’chi features shaman tales of spirits, animals, and their origin. Numerous famous shamans were good narrators, who performed their rites with special theatricality. The Ul’chi spiritual culture is known for its musical folklore. Music accompanied the bear festival and various other rites and musical chanting was an element of shaman rites. Characteristic musical instruments are one-string violins, pipes, Jew’s harps, and the unique instrument called the musical log. The musical and choreographic arts are represented by bear dances, performed at the bear festival, and are also associated with the twin cult and shaman dances.
The decorative arts of the Ul’chi are represented by ornamentation of wood, bone, and metal (by men), and of fish skin and birch bark (by women). Ritual spoons, ladles, and other housewares were embellished with intricate carving.
Shared belief in twin cults and taboos between the two cultures (also with the Gilyakis (or Nivkhs):
“The Gilyaki are convinced that, in the case of twins, one of the twins is the son of a mountian and forest-god whom they call Mountain-man. This deity has great power over the Gilyaki and so the child must be restored to its spirit father as soon as possible. As the y do not know which of the two it is, they treat them both alike. Here we have the dual paternity, and the introduction of the spirit-father; the description is not quite clear; to send the child to its father should naturally mean, as in British Guiana, its sacrifice; but the writer does not say this, or does he say that they kill them both.
Twins who live and grow up are considered dangerous: but a dead twin is feared; perhaps, as in the Niger region, because it might return and injure its brother or the family. One way of getting rid of the danger of a returning twin is to make a little model house for it, and place in the house an image to represent the twin. This is something like the W. African custom of conjuring the dead twin into an image. This image in the Gilyaki custom has to be fed everyday.]
In the case of the Saghalien Ainu, the customs are different, but the beliefs are much the same. One of the children is considered diabolic origin, because a man, in their opnion, can only fertilize one child. The writer came across no cases of twin-murder, but he quotes a Russian traveller Krascheninnikov of the beginning of the ninteenth century to the effect that the custom of killing one twin was current in the Kurile islands. Piksudski shows reason for believing that the same custom once prevailed amongst the Ainu.
The Saghalien Ainu say that when a twin dies, it is the one that had a spiritfather, presumably because that is the one that ought to die.
They carefully conceal the fact that twins are in the community, apparently because it is a dishonour to the family as well as a public danger.
The writer reports cases of a concurrence of Ainu beliefs with those of the Japanese, that when twins are born one of the one of them is strong, brave and lucky; the other is an average human being. This differentiation between the twins has its parallel in the cases of Herakles and Iphikles, and to some extent of Zethus and Amphion. …
In the northern villages of Saghalien, the Ainu make offerings at the birth of twins: the shaven sticks which they call inao are fastened over the mother’s bed;: and two little images to represent the twins are fastened to the wall. They have also talismans to prevent the return of the twins to the world. This last statement suggests a custom of accelerating twins out of the world.” — Boanergers by Rendel Harris
Up until the 17th century, the Ulchis led an existence free from interference, but thereafter the Chinese alternatively tried to make the Ulchis, Nanais and Nivkhs pay taxes or traded with them for their furs; while Russian colonization began in the region in 1850, with the arrival of the first Russian peasant settlers, followed by a number of large Russian villages formed in the vicinity of the Ulchi settlements.
Sources and readings:
Learning from a Master: An Ulchi Shaman Teaches in America by Susan Grimaldi
Encyclopedia of the Arctic
By Mark Nuttall
The Cult of the Heavenly Twins by Rendel Harris (Online open book format)