1: The Song the Owl God Sang

“Silver drops fall all around, golden drops fall all around”
 I sang as I glided above a stream and over a village,
And as I passed I gazed down –
Those who had been poor had become rich,
Those who had been rich were now poor, it seemed.
On the beach, human children were playing
With toy arrows and toy bows.[1]
“Silver drops fall all around,
Golden drops fall all around,”
I sang as I flew over the children
And they ran below me and said:

“Beautiful bird! Divine bird!
Let’s shoot arrows at that bird
The one who hits the divine bird, the one who gets it first
Is a true hero, a true champion!”

So saying, the children of those who had been poor
And were now rich
Putting gold arrows to their gold bows
Shot at me in turn with their gold arrows
Which I caused to pass below me and above me.

In the middle of that group,
One particular boy moved among them
With only an ordinary bow and ordinary arrows.
He seemed to be from a poor family; I could tell
From his clothes. But from his eyes[2]
I understood that he was descended from noble ancestors,
Out of place in such company. He too took his ordinary bow
And ordinary arrows and aimed at me, and
The children of those who had been poor and were now rich Laughed loudly and said:

“You filthy pauper,
That bird, the divine bird which
Would not take our golden arrows, do you seriously think
It will touch some peasant’s ordinary arrows,
Like your arrows of rotting wood?”[3]

So saying, they kicked the poor urchin
And beat him. However, the boy
Ignored them completely and took aim at me.
Seeing this, I was filled with pity for him.
“Silver drops fall all around,
Golden drops fall all around,”
I sang as in the sky
I flew in slow circles. The boy,
Taking up an archer’s stance,
Biting his lower lip, took aim,
And loosed the arrow. The little arrow flew well,
It reached me, and with my hand
I reached out and received that little arrow.
I spiralled downward, the air rushing past me;
I plummeted to the ground.
Then the boys came running
Raising a blizzard of dust they raced each other.
As I touched the ground, the poor boy
Reached me first and gathered me up,
And those who had been poor but were now rich
Came running after him,
Heaping on him innumerable insults
Pushing him and hitting him:

“You nasty brat, you little jerk
We were about to do that ourselves
And you cut in front of us!”

They said as the poor boy covered me
Under his clothes and fastened me against his body.
After a bitter struggle he found a gap in the crowd,
Jumped through it and made his escape.

Those who had been poor but were now rich
Threw stones and bits of wood, but
The boy ignored them, and
Raising a blizzard of dust he ran until
He arrived outside a little house.
He put me in at the east window,[4] and then
With well-chosen words, fluently told his tale.
From inside the house, an old couple
Came along, raising their hands up over their eyes.[5]
To look at them they were obviously terribly poor
Yet they had a gentlemanly and a ladylike quality.
They were startled to see me and bowed deeply;
Respectfully adjusting their sashes
They petitioned me thus:

“Great owl god,
You favor us by appearing at the inadequate hut
Of mere peasants; accept our thanks.
Once we were counted among the wealthy and great,
And although now we are reduced to these straits,
Mere paupers, in times past the local gods
Often graced our home with their presence;
Therefore, as today’s sun
Has already gone down, tonight allow us
To shelter you, Great God, though tomorrow
We can offer you nothing more than an inau.”

With such pleas they beseeched me time and time again.
Then the old couple, spreading a carpet there,
Placed me by the east window.
Then, everyone lay down, and soon
With resounding snores they all fell asleep.
I sat there between the ears of my earthly body[6]
But before long, when midnight came,
I arose.
“Silver drops fall all around,
Golden drops fall all around,”
I sang quietly,
As from the left side of the house to the right,[7]
With beautiful sounds, I flew.
As I beat my wings, around me
Exquisite jewels fell, the divine jewels
Making lovely sounds as they scattered around.
In a moment, that little house was filled
With magnificent treasures, with divine treasures.
“Silver drops fall all around,
Golden drops fall all around,”
I sang as, in one moment, I made that little house
Into a house of gold; I remade into a manor,
A storehouse of magnificent jewels, I quickly transformed it
Into a house adorned with the beauty of magnificent clothes.
Far more splendidly than the house of a lord
I decorated the interior of this mansion. When I had finished
I went back and sat, just as before,
Between the ears of the body I wore.
I caused the people in the house to dream
About the Ainu nispa,[8] how their luck had failed
And the people who had been poor but were now rich
Laughed at them and tormented them, and how I,
Seeing that, pitied them, and as I am no mere wicked spirit
I came to their human house
And stayed and granted them my blessing – of these things
I informed them.
When that was done, the night gave way to dawn and
The people in the house all got up
And they all saw the inside of the house and rubbed their eyes
And fainted near-lifeless to the floor. The old woman
Cried loudly and the old man
Spilled large tears one after another
But before long they brought themselves before me and
With innumerable prostrations they spoke thus:

“We thought that we merely dreamed, that we merely slept,
But in fact, you were doing all this for us.
At our humble, rustic dwelling
Merely by appearing you greatly favored us,
Great God of the Land, and then
You condescended to take pity on our ill luck,
Piling upon one blessing another still greater.”

Speaking through their tears
They addressed me
And then, cutting some wood for an inau,
The old couple made a charming new inau
And adorned me with it.
The old lady made new clothes;
The boy helped, gathering wood
Drawing water and preparing sake;
He made preparations, and in a moment
Six barrels of sake were lined up before the high seat.
Then, I called the old hearth goddess,[9] and
Spoke with the various gods.
Two days passed, and already the scent
Of sake (a particular favorite of the gods!)
Drifted in the air.
Then, I made the boy resume his dishevelled appearance
And put on his old clothes and I sent him
Through the village to give invitations to
Those who had been poor and were now rich.
He entered every house and
Proclaimed my message and
Those who had been poor and were now rich
Laughed hugely:

“Well, this is a wonder, the paupers have
Got some sort of sake,
Scraped together some sort of feast,
And it looks like they’re inviting everyone.
We should go and have a look at their feeble efforts.
It’ll be good for a laugh.”

So saying amongst themselves, they gathered in a crowd
And along they came, gathering from miles around;
Just seeing the house
They were so shocked that some instantly returned home
While others got quite close before collapsing, stunned, on the ground.
Then, the old wife went outside
And took their hands and led everyone into the house
But they crawled abjectly along the ground
And not one of them would lift up his face.
Then, the old husband made his appearance
And in a voice as clear as a cuckoo’s he spoke.
He spoke of many things:

“When we were poor, it was impossible for us
To come and go freely like this, but
The Great God took pity on us,
Because we entertained no wicked thoughts;
And therefore we were blessed.
From now on to all the village, we will be like family,
We will let bygones be bygones
And everyone who wishes may
Visit us freely.”

This speech he set forth, and the people
(Humbly wringing their hands again and again)
Apologized for their ill-treatment, and from now on,
They all declared, they would live as friends.
Everyone joined in worshipping me.
When that was finished, everyone with a glad heart
Began the luxurious banquet.
While chatting with the fire goddess and the house god,[10]
And the old goddess of the household altar[11], I watched them
Dancing their human dances and leaping about
And an amusing sight I found it.
In this way two or three days passed and the party ended.
Seeing that good relations prevailed among the humans,
I was contented
And took my leave of the fire goddess,
The house god and the goddess of the altar.
When that was done, I went back to my own house.
By the time I got home, my house was full
Of lovely inau and the best sake.
Then I sent messengers to all the gods both near and far
I invited them to a bountiful banquet
And furthermore, to all the gods
I told the tale, of the time I visited the human village,
And of the situation there, and everything that happened,
And they heaped praise on me.
When they went home, I gave to each
Two or even three beautiful inau.
Looking at the people of that Ainu village,
Now all at peace, and the people
All living in harmony, and the nispa
Once again at the head of the village,
I see that boy, now already grown up,
With a wife of his own and a child too
Who respects both his father and his mother,
And from now on, forever, when he has made sake,
Or at the start of the banquet, he sends me inau and sake.
I watch over the people
I protect the world of humans.

Such was the tale the Owl God told.

[1] Ainu boys were usually given toy bows and arrows at a certain age, so that by shooting at trees and birds they would learn archery. [Chiri]

[2] It was thought that the best way of determining someone’s quality was to look into their eyes so a steady gaze was greatly valued. [Chiri]

[3] It was believed that birds and beasts allowed themselves to be shot because they wanted man-made arrows. Being shot down, therefore, is no great disaster for the owl god and in fact is an essential point of commerce between kamui and humans. For much of this story, the owl is therefore actually dead, but this is not important from the Ainu point of view

[4] The east window was a sacred part of an Ainu house and not used merely for looking through. It is thus a suitable entry point for the dead owl.

[5] A gesture of humble greeting. [Chiri]

[6] The owl god is within a hayokpe (literally ‘armor’). In their own world, Ainu deities such as the owl god had a human form and lived in houses. On trips to the human world, they wore animal forms called hayokpe.  Even if the animal form died, the kamui could remain within it, located between the ears. From a human point of view, then, the owl is dead, but the Ainu know that the kamui may well actually still be residing in the body.

[7] Ainu houses had a hearth in the middle, and a ‘high seat’ by the east window. Looking from this seat, the house could be divided into left and right sides. Only men could sit in the eastern area, and those inferior to the house’s owner were barred. The women of the household lined up along the right hand side. Next in the pecking order was the left side. The west side of the house, nearest the door, was the lowliest. [Chiri]

[8] Nispa is an important, wealthy or great person.  Chiri Yukie usually translated this with various words such as ‘chief’ but in this line she left it it its Ainu form.  Here it may mean ‘the greatest among the people’.

[9] Apehuchi, ‘Fire Grandmother’, goddess of the hearth and of fire in general. [Chiri]

[10] Chisekor Kamui, the god of the house, also called the ‘Old man of the House’. [Chiri]

[11] Nusakor Kamui, the goddess of the domestic altar, i.e. of the place where inau are kept. In emergencies she may appear to humans, but in the form of a snake. Thus, when a snake is seen in the vicinity of the altar or the east window, people say “Doubtless Grandma Nusakorkamui is going out on an errand,” and such a snake is never killed. To do so would invite an unspeakable punishment. [Chiri]