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The Ainu of Japan believe that the world is supported by a Giant Trout and that sin is caused by otters.

In Facty facts, Miraculous discoveries, Otter, Random fun stuff on Monday 25th May, 2009 by Guy

It started with a twit, as it can tend to these days. This twitticism was from the QI Elves, the small people behind Quite Interesting, which is most prominently a television show on the BBC. It went as follows:

The Ainu of Japan believe that the world is supported by a Giant Trout and that sin is caused by otters.

That sentence contains a remarkable otter fact which I didn’t recall having come across before! Certainly none of my otter colleagues had mentioned it to me, unless I misinterpreted their high-pitched squealing for hunger. So, was it a true fact?

I hereby maintain that it is, after some hardy lutran sniffing. At the least, I have traced the fact to someone who wrote a book about the Ainu after living amongst them.

The Ainu are a group indigenous to the northern parts of Japan, though these days they have almost completely assimilated into the general population for various reasons, including discrimination and lack of official recognition until relatively recently. Alas and alack.

In 1901 a book was published by the Religious Tract Society of London entitled “The Ainu and their folk-lore”, written by a missionary called John Batchelor. Some crazedly-written details of his life can be had here. I found a scanned copy of his tome at the mighty archive.org which weighs in at a similarly mighty 33MB in PDF form. [These sort of sentences are always amusing a few years after being written, because of advances in technology. Go ahead, laugh at me, Generation A! Or Generation 笑, whatever we get to]. The American broadcaster PBS quotes the relevant section (though no kudos to them for quoting the last word of the title of the book as “Folklore” rather than “folk-lore”, as that made it harder for me to find references to it elsewhere):

“When God was in the act of making the first man and had nearly finished His task, it happened to be necessary for Him to unexpectedly return to heaven on important business. Before setting out for the return journey, He called an otter, which happened to be near at the time, and told him that He was going away, but would quickly send another deity to finish the work He Himself had already begun, and he (the otter) was to deliver a message to him, explaining what to do.

“Now, although this animal said he would deliver the message without fail, he grew careless and did nothing but amuse himself by swimming up and down the rivers, catching and eating fish; he fixed his whole attention on this, and thought of nothing else. So intent was he on his fishing that he entirely forgot the message God gave him to deliver; yea, the otter forgot all about it. This is the reason why the first man was made so imperfect, and why all human beings are not quite in the fashion God originally intended. As a punishment for this deliquency and astonishing forgetfulness, God punished the otter with a bad memory; yea, he took his memory completely away. This is why no otter can now remember anything”….

“The otter’s head must not lightly be used as an article of food, for unless people are very careful they will, if they eat it, become as forgetful as that creature. And hence it happens that when an otter has been killed the people do not usually eat the head.

“But if they are seized with a very strong desire for a feast of otter’s head, they may partake thereof, providing proper precautions are taken. When eating it the people must take their swords, knives, axes, bows and arrows, tobacco boxes and pipes, trays, cups, garden tools, and everything they possess, tie them up in bundles with carrying slings, and sit with them attached to their heads while in the act of eating … If this method be carefully adhered to, there will be no danger of forgetting where a thing has been placed, otherwise loss of memory will be the result.”

So otters are more the cause of original sin, in a way, than sin per se. But it is still a fascinatingly weird theology to have.

I miss the animists, I really do.

(The trout fact was also given by Batchelor. It’s worth checking out all the quotes on the dedicated PBS website from his book.)

A similar story is recorded by Basil Hall Chamberlain in “Aino Folk-Tales”, published by the Folk-lore Society in 1888:

At the beginning of the world it had been the Creator’s intention to place both men’s and women’s genitals on their foreheads so that they might be able to procreate children easily. But the otter made a mistake in conveying the message to that effect; and that is how the genitals come to be in the inconvenient place they are now in. —(Written down from memory. Told by Ishanashte, 11th July, 1886.)

Lovely.

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2 Responses to “The Ainu of Japan believe that the world is supported by a Giant Trout and that sin is caused by otters.”

  1. its not very good you know!!!

  2. …ring of bright water, gavin maxwell, great read.
    in the tonalamatl(Nauatl), otter=7 cipactli(N),
    the 19th trecena/13 days of cuauhtli(N)/eagle,
    the 240th day of the ritual birthing calendar
    whose regent is tlatla-/flame hole/-tzol-teotl/thea,
    whose animal is the ocelotl. she masquerades,
    at the moment, as the venus of willendorf,
    and is the so/u(r/l)ce=s/z/tzol-ce(N)=one hole/
    soul of kubaba, the turkish deity, who succeeds
    her as myth deals with progress.
    7 cipactli/otter is day 240=6.
    Chalchiuitlicue(N)=
    ch/halc/ch(letra)=halcón/falcon jadeskirt
    is otter’s deity of the 9 night teos,
    she is thea of water,
    as tlatla is thea of fire=
    tletl(N)=t/l/red/t/l=consort of tzol-thea.
    where does otter get its craziness?
    well, it is indicated in the day number 7,
    whose teo=Xochipilli(N),the flower prince,
    his animal being the butterfly=
    papalotl=paper(E)=p/babylon(pun)babble on.

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