The Japanese people “emerge from the aboriginal Ainu people. There are still remnants of the Ainu in northern Japan.” (1) They were hunter-gatherers that worshiped nature and animals, The Ainu were animists and believed that all things are inhabited by spirits known as kamuy (kami). (2) “There are thousands of Kami, a few appearing as personified beings in Japanese mythology, but the vast majority inhabit specific places in the Japanese landscape. Kami can also be deceased ancestors or national figures.” (p. 161, ROTW) But the kami are not easily classified and this is not an all-inclusive definition.
The Ainu reverence of the Akkorokamui entered into Shintoism, and in which it became a minor kami. And as such it would be considered both part of Ainu and Shinto religious folklore of Japan. In Ainu folklore, it is called the Atkorkamuy. Its name can be translated as “string-holding kamuy.” “String-holding refers to the octopus’s string-like tentacles, while kamuy is an Ainu term for a divine being (similar to the Japanese term kami).” (3). In Ainu folklore, Akkorokamui is both revered and feared and known as the lord of Uchiura Bay. According to Shinto mythology, the creature is octopus and human-like and contains a bright red color. (3) The 19th-century account by John Batchelor of his encounter with it confirms what the Akkorokamui looks like. John Batchelor was an Englishman and missionary who lived among the Ainu and he is known for his extensive writings about them, their culture, and life. He also kept a journal of his experiences and interactions. In his book, The Ainu and Their Folklore, he provides many details of physical attributes of the creature. In it he states that the creature was 120 meters [131.2 yards] in length and a red color with with large staring eyes. He also specifies that this red color of the Akkorokamui was a striking red, seemingly “likened to the color of the reflection of the setting sun upon the water.” (4 & 5)
Another old 19th-century account was made by a Japanese fisherman, which I has been translated from the original Japanese:
“And I saw ahead something huge and red undulating under the waves. I at first thought my eyes deceived me and that I was merely seeing the reflection of the sun upon the water, but as I approached, I could see that in fact it was an enormous monster, 80 meters in length at least, with large, thick tentacles as big around as a man’s torso. The thing fixed me with a huge, staring eye before sinking out of sight into the depths.” (6)
The story of the Akkorokamui.
“Once, spirits cursed Rebunge, a villager of Abuta Toyoura in Hokkaido, Japan, to see the destruction of his town. They sent a part-spider-part-human creature, Yaoshikepu (also known as Yushkep Kamuy (goddess of the spiders) or Ashketanne Mat (Long-fingered Woman)), to fulfill the curse. Yaoshikepu caused rampant destruction throughout the town, slaughtering so many that the streets were filled with crimson blood. After hearing the townsfolk tremble with fear, the sea kami, Repunkamui, transformed Yaoshikepu into an octopus, and cast her into the sea.” (8 & 9)
The Reunkamu, the sea kami, are the killer whales [orcas] of Japan who were “known by the Ainu people as Repunkamui – “Gods of the sea”.” (7)
“I shall swallow the whale and ship, empty the sea, and appear in red when you are cursed.” – Akkorokamui
“After Yaoshikepu was cast into the sea, she began to grow, eventually beginning to consume larger prey, such as whales and ships. One day, Akkorokamui gobbled up a boat full of fishermen. In her stomach, they called for help. Hearing the cries, Repunkamui poisoned Akkorokamui, causing her great pain. As Akkorokamui hollered in agony, the fishermen escaped. However, Akkorokamui learned to harness the venom, using it to attack her prey.” (9) In the description of the sighting of the creature by John Batchelor, he stated that as the monster attacked the ship, it “emitted a dark fluid which has a very powerful and noxious odor.” (4)
“The Akkorokamui is also characteristically described with the ability to self-amputate, like several octopus species, and regenerate limbs. This characteristic manifests in the belief in Shinto that Akkorokamui has healing powers. Consequently, it is believed among followers that giving offerings to Akkorokamui will heal ailments of the body, in particular, disfigurements, and broken limbs.” (9 & 10)
“Self-purification practices for Akkorokamui are often strictly followed. While Akkorokamui is often presented as a benevolent kami with powers to heal and bestow knowledge, it is fickle and has the propensity to do harm. Akkorokamui’s nature as an octopus means that it is persistent and it is near impossible to escape its grasp without permission. Like other Shinto purification rituals, (Ritual purity: Ritual bathing to spiritually and physically cleanse yourselves before entering a shrine to worship the kami (13)) prior to entering the shrine of Akkorokamui, one’s hands must be cleaned with water with the exception that one’s feet must also be cleaned as well. Akkorokamui enjoys the sea and offerings that reflect this: fish, crabs, mollusks, and the like are particular favorites of Akkorokamui, which give back that which it gave. Homage to Akkorokamui is often for ailments of the limbs or skin, but mental purification and spiritual release are particularly important.” (11 & 12)
More recent reports of the creature in Japan have surfaced over the years as well, including into modern days. In the 1980’s passengers of a cruise ship in the bay in came upon a “surprising sight of what appeared to be a massive creature thrashing about in the water with what appeared to be tentacles breaking the surface. The creature was described as being bright red in color and being around 80 feet in diameter. In the 1970’s, “a fishing boat also reported bumping up against something in the water which they at first took to be a rock, but when the crew looked overboard they saw an enormous red mass, and according to the report an eye peering out from the depths that was supposedly the size of a dinner plate. There was even a report of a beachcomber who supposedly came across a piece of what he said was an octopus tentacle that was reported as being around as thick as a telephone pole.” (6) It has also been sighted in Taiwan, Korea, and other Asian countries.
Before we chalk up the stories of the Akkorokamui as just a folktale to be dismissed, I would remind us as Christians that the Leviathan is a Biblical sea monster! It is a creature with the form of a sea serpent (a very large serpent!) in Judaism, and is referenced in several books of the Hebrew Bible, including Genesis, Psalms, the Book of Job, the Book of Isaiah, and the Book of Amos; it is also mentioned in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. In Genesis 1:21 it states, “On the fifth day God created the tanniynim, which is the plural form of the Hebrew word tanniyn, meaning “sea creature” or “sea monster.” In Isaiah 27:1, in the original text the word tanniyn is used, which is directly referring to the Leviathan (which is also referred to as a dragon or a reptile in some versions). The use of these words leads some experts to believe that since the word tanniyn is referring to the Leviathan in Isaiah, then tanniynim is referring to Leviathans being created on the fifth day. This suggests it is possible that God did in fact kill multiple Leviathans at one point, and that only one remains. The Leviathan in Isaiah is described again as a singular entity that will be destroyed by God, as well as being described as a serpent.” (16) In Job Laviathan is thought to be a fire-breathing dragon. In Bel and the Dragon (extended verses of the Book of Daniel), we again find a dragon (Bel and the Dragon NRSV – Daniel and the Priests of Bel – When – Bible Gateway). Of course we also have the dragon in the New Testament Book of Revelation, but most (but not all) think it’s symbolic.
We also have the talking donkey in chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers, and the talking snake in Genesis. The Nephilim, and, in the King’s James version of the Bible, unicorns! 🦄
Although some scholars believe that unicorn was a translation mistake, there is an argument to be made that the animal did exist but probably looked a bit different than our idea of a unicorn today. (14 & 15) The Biblical unicorn was a real animal and not the later mythical creature known as a unicorn. The word is translated in later versions of the Bible as oryx, or sometimes wild ox, wild bull, buffalo, or rhinoceros. But we really don’t know for sure exactly what the one-horned animal translated from the Hebrew re’em as unicorn looked like.
There are a myriad of stories in The Bible that people of other religions would find odd, bizarre, or strange. I try to be mindful of this when learning about the religions of the world.
Totally unrelated (well not totally unrelated) side note: Researching the Akkorokamui brought to mind one of my favorite TV series streaming on Netflix – The OA, and The Old Night Octopus in season two, episode 4, SYZYGY.
☆ This blog entry is from my work in the World Religions course at Phillips Seminary. ☆
ROTW = Hopfe, Lewis M., et. al. Religions of the World, 13th Edition. Pearson Education, 2016.
1. Graham, Clement. WK 4 TEACHER TALK.docx. World Religions course at Phillips Theological Seminary
3. Ashkenazy, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio, 2003. p. 294-295.
4. The Ainu and their folk-lore : Batchelor, John, 1854-1944. London : Religious Tract Society, 1901.
8. Kenji , Murakami. Japan specter Encyclopedia. Kenji Murakami, Kadokawa Shoten, 2005. p. 204.
9. Mythical Creature, ‘The Akkorokamui,’ a Japanese ‘Kami,’ and benevolent octopus spirit – ARJung. Author- Illustrator of children’s books
10. Crump, Marty. A year with nature : an almanac. University of Chicago Press, 2018. p. 282.
11. Tierney, Emiko. Illness and Culture in Japan: an Anthropological View. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Links to check out:
To learn more about the Ainu:
Best places to see wild orcas in Japan, America, and around the world:
Of general and related interest:
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