Exploring the origins of the kuma-wani or bear-crocodile totem

We may draw insights from case examples of crocodile totemism in Mabuiag, Torres Straits, and its characteristics:

“A man did not change his totem by changing his district: if a Panai man went to live elsewhere, he did not cease to be a Dugong-Crocodile man. …Exogamy descent of the totem clan is, and so far as the descent of genealogical records go back, always has been, in teh male the totem line. A man has the same totem or totems as his father. A wife keeps the totem which she has inherited from her father: she does not take her husband’s totem. The clans were exogamous; sexual intercourse, as well as marriage was prohibited between members of the same clan. However, marriages might take place between clans that had the same chief totem, but different subsidiary totems. In the genealogies such marriages are found to occur most frequently between persons whose chief totem was the crocodile. The two or three Crocodile clans of Mabuiag probably arose by fission, one original Crocodile clan splitting up into several, which distinguished themselves from each other by their subsidiary totems. There is  definite evidence that the two Dugong clans of Mabuiag the Dugon-Crocodile clan and the Dugong-Sucker-fish clan – originated in this way.” — Sir James Frazier, (1935) “Totemism and exogamy, a treatise on certain early forms of superstition and society

The above anthropological example gives us a plausible explanation of how subsidiary totemic symbols can become combined as a Crocodile clan that splits up will distinguish themselves from each other by their subsidiary totems. This would explain how the bear-crocodile and shark-crocodile totems in Japan came into being — the kuma-vani/kuma-oni/kuma-wani i.e. bear-crocodile and the shark-crocodile. (On the island of Tutu, the crocodile and the shark formed a close group.)


In trying to trace the possible origins of crocodile totems, we find the following:

In Egypt:

“The god Sobek, which was depicted as a crocodile or a man with the head of a crocodile was a powerful and frightening deity; in some Egyptian creation myths, it was Sobek who first came out of the waters of chaos to create the world. As a creator god, he was occasionally linked with the sun god Ra.

Most of Sobek’s temples were located “in parts of Egypt where crocodiles were common.” Sobek’s cult originally flourished around Al Fayyum where some temples still remain; the area was so associated with Sobek that one town, Arsinoe, was known to the Greeks as Crocodilopolis or ‘Crocodile Town.’

Another major cult centre was at Kom Ombo, “close to the sandbanks of the Nile where crocodiles liked to bask.” Some temples of Sobek kept pools where sacred crocodiles were kept: these crocodiles were fed the best cuts of meat and became quite tame.” —Sobek (Crystalinks website) 

The Egyptians so adored the crocodiles, they named a town after them: Crocodilopolis, where these creatures were worshipped and adorned with bedazzling gold and jewels. The crocodile god, Sobek, symbolized ultimate power, protection, and fertility to the ancient Egyptians. Sobek was one among several gods responsible for weighing the souls of the dead. In this light, we can’t overlook the symbolism of discernment, judgment, authority and guidance in conjunction with the crocodile and the role of Sobek in ancient Egypt.

Seventy-five miles south of Cairo, hidden by shifting sands on the edge of the desert, are the remains of the ancient oasis town of Tebtunis….a collection of impressive ruins that sprawl across nearly 100 acres and more than 3,000 years. At the south end of the site are the low ruins of a Greek settlement, including a massive temple to the crocodile god Sobek”… (This is one of the very few places in Egypt where archaeologists are still unearthing papyrus fragments. And the finds here are startlingly diverse, written in Arabic, Coptic, Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian demotic, a simplified, cursive form of hieratic writing.)...”The archive of the crocodile god’s temple was emptied from time to time and we found where all those papyri were thrown away. It is truly a treasure,” he says. “We recently found 300 oracular cards there that date back to the third century B.C. They contain requests from common people to Sobek on what to do in certain situations.”Since 1998, the Italian-French mission has found 7,000 papyri and many inscribed potsherds.”

Letters to the Crocodile God, Marco Merola

In India:

Kunbi-ra, (perhaps derived from a phonetic connection with KomOmbo’s Ra), is the Ganges river crocodile god. The Hindu god of the Ganges River, Kunbi-ra is thought to have become incorporated into Buddhism and became Kubira Taisho and with the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism.

“Crocodile worship is practiced in some parts of Goa. Every year on the day of the new moon in January a ceremony called the ‘Mannge Thapnee’ is performed. People construct a crocodile from silt, shells are placed as eyes and scales and sticks for teeth. The crocodile is then adorned with flowers and vermillion. A live chick is offered as a sacrifice and placed in a depression. The crocodile is believed to be a guardian deity or protector.” — Source: Indian crocodile. Crocodile Specialist Group Newsletter, Vol.14, No.1, January – March, 1995.

In ancient Hindu scriptures, makara refers to a mythical sea-creature that somewhat resembles a crocodile. It is often depicted as the vahana of Goddess Ganga, who represent the river Ganges, and Lord Varuna, God of wind. It is also the vahana of the river Goddess Narmada. Strongly supporting this connection is the existence of a tribe called Kunbi located largely in Northwestern India (with a subcaste called Wani (Bania) and Wanjari Kunbi are descended from Rajput clans and and Gujerati origins are also implicated.

Devi Ganga the River Goddess

The mythical deity Ganga‘s iconography is her animal mount and pedestal, which is the makara. 

The makara, is a hybrid creature having the body of a crocodile and the tail of a fish.

Thus, the diffusion of the Kunbi-Wani tutelary totems from Egypt’s Komombo-Ra to India to East Asia through maritime trade, we posit here is the likely origin of the Konpira deity venerated at Konpira shrines. In the town of Kotohira in Nakatado District of Kagawa Prefecture, the Konpira-Daigongen (金比羅大権現) shrine, is a Shinto shrine founded during the 1st century. Although the crocodile totemic origins appear to have been forgotten, having been transformed into snake or dragon symbols, the principal kami enshrined in the shrine is Ō-mono-nushi-no-mikoto, a spirit associated with seafaring that is interchangeable with and also referred to as the Buddhist deity Konpira.

According to JAANUS; “According to legend, Konpira flew from India to a sacred cave at Matsuodera Temple 松尾寺 on Mt. Zōzusan 象頭山 (lit. Elephant’s Head Mountain), a small mountain near the sea on Shikoku island, and became the temple’s protective deity. He is worshipped principally as a seafaring god and secondarily as a god of water for agriculture. He may appear as a snake or as a dragon god (Ryūjin 竜神) and he is also identified with Ōmononushi 大物主神, the Shintō kami of Mt. Miwa 三輪

According to Jūni Shinshō 十二神将: ” The main shrine is situated on Mt. Zōzusan 象頭山, a maritime location in Kagawa Prefecture (Shikoku Island), where locals fondly call the deity and shrine “Konpira-san” or “Konpira Daigongen” and claim his cult dates back centuries before the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. …

Symbolic alligator-meaning and crocodile meaning

“In the Hindu chakra system, the crocodile governs the sacral chakra (Svadhisthana). This is a developmental energy, as the sacral chakra is a power-center of creation. The crocodile in this chakra encourages creativity and balance. This chakra-crocodilegoes deep into our emotional core and resurfaces with dynamic creative power. Read more about chakra animal symbols here.

Symbolism of the great crocodile parallels in several aspects with its ancient brother,the shark. Both rulers are amazingly strong, silent, cunning, and fearless. Both have highly effective skin and perpetually regenerate their teeth.

In many Native American tribes, alligators are symbols of status and power. Because it is easily comfortable on land and water, many tribes consider them as creatures responsible for creation. The alligator is a mediator in many Native legends, because it emerged from primordial waters in creation myths and brought forth the sun and the earth.

Mayan legend tells of four crocodiles supporting the entire world – keeping it’s delicate balance in-tack by the strength of their backs and with fierce determination. The alligator appears in Mayan astrology too. In their zodiac, those born under this Day-Sign are instinctively superior and sensitive to criticism. Those with the alligator animal totem should examine their fears, both conscious and subconsciously. People born under the alligator/crocodile sign of the Mayan zodiac also have access to incredible, primordial power. They are open to new beginnings, and often see opportunities where others see nothing.

Symbolism of the great crocodile parallels in several aspects with its ancient brother,the shark. Both rulers are amazingly strong, silent, cunning, and fearless. Both have highly effective skin and perpetually regenerate their teeth.

In many Native American tribes, alligators are symbols of status and power. Because it is easily comfortable on land and water, many tribes consider them as creatures responsible for creation. The alligator is a mediator in many Native legends, because it emerged from primordial waters in creation myths and brought forth the sun and the earth.

Mayan legend tells of four crocodiles supporting the entire world – keeping it’s delicate balance in-tack by the strength of their backs and with fierce determination. The alligator appears in Mayan astrology too. In their zodiac, those born under this Day-Sign are instinctively superior and sensitive to criticism. Those with the alligator animal totem should examine their fears, both conscious and subconsciously.

Why crocodiles?

It has been noted that crocodiles don’t exist in Japan, they did exist in Japan’s prehistoric past. The first machika wani fossil (see photo below) was found in Japan in 1964 by the Osaka University archaeology department (source: Wikipedia article マチカネワニ)

マチカネワニ

Toyotamaphimeia Aoki

Considering the absence of wani crocodiles in Japan in historic times, it is highly likely that the crocodile motifs were imported totemic clan identifiers, transferred to Japan through an arriving or migrating tribal clan of Vedic Indian origins (such as the Gujerati-Indian Kunbi-wani tribes). The wani motif can be found in abundance in the legends of Shimane prefecture…see the Hare of Inaba. When the etymology of the kanji characters for the Watatsumi deity that is associated with the wani tales, we see a connection with seafaring navigators of the cotton trade (i.e. with India).

The Konpira deity of Konpirasan, dedicated to sailors and seafaring is the subject of a folk song of the Shikoku region, indicating however, a fisheries connection.

To “♪ konpira ships, pursuer for sail shurashushushu. Guardian deity of seafarers in the folk song sings of the progress of the favored ship of a popular God who is known in the whole of Japan. The deity is believed to be the god of voyaging and ships from olden days, in particular, associated with persons concerned with fisheries.
Konpira Shrine Shrine which we found along the shore of Kawaramachi
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