Owl deity – Chikap Kamui, owls of Japan, owl tales and talismans

Owl sculptures and amulets at the Ainu Kotan Village, Lake Akan in Hokkaido

According to Michael Ashkenaz’s “Handbook Of Japanese Mythology“, Chikap Kamui is an owl kamuy or deity of the Ainu people. He is believed to oversee the behavior of humans … since the Ainu believed that the owl watched over the local kotan (domain), Chikap Kamuy came to be represented as the master of the domain.  He is worshipped as a deity of material success. In some areas, his tears were said to be gold and silver.

From Wikipedia’s Chikap Kamuy:

“As the story goes, famine had struck the land, and humankind was starving. Chikap Kamuy wished to send a message to heaven inquiring about the cause of the famine, and he asked Crow to be his messenger. His message and instructions were very lengthy, however, and it took him days to recite them. On the third day, Crow fell asleep, and Chikap Kamuy grew angry and killed him. Chikap Kamuy next asked Mountain Jay to be his messenger, but on the fourth day, Mountain Jay fell asleep and was killed in turn. The third messenger was the Dipper Bird, who listened respectfully for six full days until Chikap Kamuy finally completed the recitation of the message. Dipper Bird then flew to the heavens, and returned with news that the kamuy of fish and game were angry because humans had stopped showing proper respect for the gifts they gave. Accordingly, Chikap Kamuy went to the humans and taught them the proper rituals to be enacted after killing a fish or a deer. Once the humans began performing these rituals, the kamuy were appeased, and the famine ceased.”

In our travels around Hokkaido, we had encountered lots of owl carvings and amulets especially at the Ainu Kotan Village at Lake Akan in Hokkaido. We’d also seen lots of owl amulets on the Izu Peninsula, and some homes around my neighborhood have owl pottery figurines on their gate, so my curiosity has been piqued as to what they might symbolize.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:
When we were visiting the Maruyama Zoo in Hokkaido, at the aviary section I saw a plaque that said Japan was the “owl capital of the world” (I haven’t been able to confirm this by a google search but…) and it noted that there were around twelve species of owls indigenous to or that breed mainly in Japan.

Blakiston fish owl (Bubo blakistoni), Kushiro Zoo

Japan seems to shares a Central Asian veneration of owls, as in Japan owl pictures and figurines have been placed in homes to ward off famine or epidemics. In Central Asia feathers of the Northern Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo), particularly from its breast and belly, were valued as precious amulets protecting children and livestock from evil spirits. Talons of the Northern Eagle Owl were said to ward off diseases and cure infertility in women.

Also hinting of the antiquity of these beliefs – are the Ainu’s owl beliefs: the Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) was called “Kotan Kor Kamuy” (God of the Village) by the Ainu, the native peoples of Hokkaido, Japan. The traditional Ainu people were hunter-gatherers and believed that all animals were divine; most admired were bear and the fish owl. The owls were held in particular esteem and, like the people, were associated with fish (salmonids) and lived in many of the same riverside locations. The Fish Owl Ceremony, which returned the spirit of fish owls to the god’s world, was conducted until the 1930’s.

Bird symbolism in Japan mirrors that of Central Asia and Siberia, since the tumulus age, there has been a persistent image of the bird as a bird of death. There are images of a bird on a prow in ancient etchings, tomb murals and funerary statuary. Although the chicken and flying waterfowl are more common imagery as the bird of death, the owl shares the same symbolic meaning. As in many cultures, owls signal an underworld or serve to represent human spirits after death; in ancient times along with other Siberian cultures, owls represented supportive spirit helpers and allow humans (often shamans) to connect with or utilize their supernatural powers.

It is not surprising that with owls having been very common in the olden days and they are associated with shinto shrine groves, that there are several legends and folktales to do with owls:   – see the Little Horned Owl (an Ainu tale) and “Colored” ; a really famous folktale about how the crow, originally a white bird, became black and “The Owl of the Three Jewels (from the nine gothic “Tales of Moonlight and Rain” by Ueda Akinari).  According to some lore, some owls are seen as divine messengers while others, particularly Barn or Horned owls, are viewed as demons.

*

On a more modern note,  a Japanese Lucky Owl is one of the most popular lucky charms in Japan because ‘owl’ in Japanese is ‘fukurou’ which means ‘no hardship’ or ‘no trouble’.

Gold Mini Owl
By the way…

Japanese scientists use several words for ‘owl’. Scientific names are conventionally written in katakana

* フクロウ fukurō is applied to owls without ‘ears’, in particular the Ural Owl.
* ズク zuku and ミミズク mimizuku are somewhat less common terms for owls with ‘ears’, such as various types of Scops owl and the Eagle Owl

***

Further information and readings on owls that are found in Japan:

Collared Scops Owl

Japanese Scops Owl

Little Horned Owl (Ainu legend, NOVA Online)

Ryukyu Scops Owl

Snowy Owl (National Geographic in English) Snowy Owl (in Japanese)

A well-known owl folktale from Japan

Story-lovers.com has a page that lists books about owls

Japanese Lucky Owl (The Japanese Shop)

How many owls are there? (World Owl Trust)

 

Source readings and references:

Ashkenazy, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio, 2003.

Wikipedia’s Chikap Kamuy

 

Note: A version of this article was first published as Guardians of Ga’Hoole, owls of Japan, owl tales and talismans on March 11, 2011 on the Education in Japan blog

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