Ainu cloud motif and their creation myth of deity’s descent on five-colored cloud

Cloud motifs are characteristic patterns seen on Ainu clothing and craft items Photo: Tetsu Joko/Yomiuri Shimbun

Cloud motifs are characteristic patterns seen on Ainu clothing and craft items Photo: Tetsu Joko/Yomiuri Shimbun. Nov 15, 2014

Ainu creation folklore and cloud symbolism

According to Ainu mythic poetry, the world was created when oil floating in the ocean rose like a flame and became the sky. What was left turned into land. Vapor gathered over the land and a god was created. From the vapor of the sky, another god was created who descended on five-colored clouds. Out of those clouds, the two gods created the sea, soil, minerals, plants, and animals. The two gods married and produced many gods including two shining gods—the Sun god and the Moon god, who rose to Heaven in order to illuminate the fog-covered dark places of the world.

Okikurmi of the Saru region is a semidivine hero who descended from Heaven to help humans. Humans lived in a beautiful land but did not know how to build fire or make bows and arrows. Okikurmi taught them to build fire, to hunt, to catch salmon, to plant millet, to brew millet wine, and to worship the gods. He married and stayed in the village, but eventually returned to the divine land.

Ainu historical heroes include Kosamainu and Samkusainu. Kosamainu, who lived in eastern Hokkaido, led an Ainu rebellion against the mainland Japanese ruling the southern tip of Hokkaido, called Matsumae. He destroyed ten out of the twelve Japanese bases but was killed in 1457. Samkusainu organized Ainu in the southern half of the island during a 1669 uprising, but after two months they were destroyed by Matsumae forces armed with guns.

Source: Ainu (

The above myth represents just one of the many folkmyths transmitted by their epic poetic oral traditions.

The Ainu have handed down a vast body of oral traditions. The main categories are yukar and oina (longer and shorter epic poems in literary Ainu), uwepekere and upasikma (old tales and autobiographical stories, both in prose), lullabies, and dance songs. Yukar usually refers to heroic poetry, chanted mainly by men, dealing with demigods and humans. It also includes oina, or kamui yukar, shorter epics chanted principally by women about the gods. The Saru region of south central Hokkaido is particularly known as the homeland of many bards and storytellers.

Yukar was narrated by the fireside for a mixed gathering of men, women, and children. Men sometimes reclined and beat time on their bellies. Depending upon the piece, yukar lasted all night or even for a few nights. There were also festival songs, group dance-songs, and stamping dances.

This myth showing the tradition of divine descent on a cloud, as well as a long tradition of using cloud patterns on their clothing show the Ainu’s connection to the Far Eastern or Northeast Asian tradition where cloud symbolism and descent from the sky or heavens of deities, sages and ancestral heroes, is a strong and widespread genealogical and mythical traditional motif associated with the ancient Mongols, Udegeys, Manchurians, and the Jurchen Tartars, Han Northern Chinese (spiral motifs better known as thunder patterns) and possibly proto-Mongol-Tartars before them. The concept must have disseminated across Eurasia along trade routes in fairly early prehistoric times as India’s Krishna and other deities, and Buddhist imagery of divinities, sages and the Dunhuang celestial beings, depicted as descending or seated upon clouds, are later disseminated back to East Asia and Japan (see Amida’s descent, celestial beings, and the use of the cloud motif as an artistic convention).

Jomon "dogu" ceramic figurine with spiral cloud motif

Jomon “dogu” ceramic figurine with spiral cloud motif Photo: Heritage of Japan archives

It may have been a far older motif of Northeast Asia from prehistoric times, as the cloud spirals are a common motif in ceramics of the prehistoric Jomon people of Japan, although interpretations lend themselves variously to both solar as well as cloud symbols. As a pre-Hun and proto-Tartar-Mongol belief, cloud associated sky, storm and thunder god beliefs likely spread westwards influencing early Indo-European and Anatolian populations as well as all through East Asia, see Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol.”

Katsurano,Yamanashi prefecture, Middle Jōmon(2500-1500BC), Fuefuki City Board of Education

This cloud symbolism is given detailed treatment in Camman Schuyler’s article “The Symbolism of the Cloud Collar“, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar., 1951), pp. 1-9 URL:, Jacqueline Taylor Basker’s, “The Cloud as a Symbol” as well as Hubert Damisch’s “A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting“. In The Language of Kilim of Anatolia, Uzeyir Ozeyurt showed that Mongolian princes of Hitay and Anatolian Hittite village weaving used the same fertility motifs, and that many basic motifs are shared between East and West, including cloud and storm/thunder meander patterns.


One thought on “Ainu cloud motif and their creation myth of deity’s descent on five-colored cloud

  1. […] Ainu have as one of their creation myths, a descent from heaven a deity upon a five-colored […]

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