Author: Matt J. Rossano
Author: Ainu Museum Porotokotan
Ancient and Modern Totemism, Animism, and Shamanism
Throughout the Paleolithic era, homo sapiens sapiens were developing their technology and improving their understanding of the world. Nearly all of what we now know as common fact was unknown and they had no way of explaining many things in their world because they lacked the proper equipment and knowledge. This meant they had to explain their world in other ways, and so many gained over time specific beliefs about their world around them based on what they saw. Many believed everything had a spirit or god associated with it, from the sky to the smallest rocks. This is called totemism, and is the belief that any and all things are living, in that they have a soul, or a god in command of them. Forms of totemism also believe that each human is connected to another spirit, and this is their totem animal. It is believed that many totemists explained things through magic, such as fire. Others developed beliefs that specific people could contact spirits and deceased. This is shamanism, the belief that certain people, shamans, could contact the spirit world, which held special power. Shamanism came during the Upper Paleolithic Era, nearing the end of the age. Animism is another form of belief which appeared, with many traits relating to totemism, such as that everything has a spirit. They also believed that natural forces had spirits, such as that there was a spirit of fertility, and other natural forces. One must understand that though they were classified under the same name, tribal beliefs could vary wildly from others, often mixing and combining beliefs from all three categories. These religions were also not recorded so much of what we know comes from old totems or statues found through archaeology. These beliefs were also very fluid, changing as the cultures and beliefs of the group associated with it changed.
Some modern day societies still hold on to these beliefs and practice their ways even with the creation and expansion of organized religions and belief systems such as Christianity. One prime example of totemism in the modern world are the Ainu people of modern day Japan. The Ainu are a culture native to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and the northern tip of the Japanese mainland, Honshu. They believe that everything beyond their control is a "kamuy" or god, and these gods vary wildly from each other. Some are gods of nature and natural forces, such as fire or thunder. Some are animal or plant gods. Interestingly, some of the gods are manmade objects, such as boats and pots. Other kamuy included the gods who protect houses and the gods of lakes. Ainu, in their language, means human. It also means the opposite of the kamuy. The Ainu performed many ceremonies and rituals to please the gods, some such ceremonies involved offering young bears, who were believed to be kind kamuy in disguise, which were captured during winter and sending them back to "kamuy moshir", or the Eastern Heaven. There are also evil or malevolent kamuy, who seek to harm humanity. They are blamed for things such as famine, disease, or just whenever things are not beneficial. To ward against them magical rituals are performed as protection. These rituals are usually performed by elders, who lead the ceremonies. One such evil god was "pakorkamuy", or smallpox, who was considered particularly evil. This is most likely because of how harmful smallpox was when the Europeans brought it to Japan.
Just like the Era of Foragers, much of the Ainu's religion had to do with diverse spirits in control of all aspects of life. They both mix and matched aspects from all three belief systems to create one that fits their culture, landscape, or ideology. The Ainu believed all things had spirits, similar to animists, but they also believed that everything had a kamuy related to it, which is similar to totemism. Also the Ainu took traits from shamanism, with their belief that elders held a special power or at least were more capable of leading rituals, much like shamans. Both groups use their beliefs to explain events and natural occurrences, such as disease and fertility. It is very surprising to see the belief system survive as nearly all other systems similar to have long since died out and gives historians a perfect specimen to study. Much like how historians study modern foragers to glean information on the past lifestyle, they examine present day totemists such as the Ainu to understand how foragers connected themselves to explained the world around them.