Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Monday, July 9, 2012

Carl Etter: An Accidental Folklorist

When we’re young we all dream of being things we never actually grow up to be. When I was eight I wanted to be a veterinarian until I realized there was more to it than just playing with cute animals all day. I recently processed the Carl Etter Papers and Photographs on Ainu Folklore and Culture. Like me, Etter originally had other career plans in mind. He studied religion in college and traveled to Japan in 1928 hoping to serve as a missionary for the Church of Christ. The Church would not support him, so he learned Japanese and became a teacher. While in Japan, from 1931-1932, Etter traveled around the country and collected over 200 legends of the Ainu people in the regions of Hokkaido, the Kuril islands, and Sakhalin. Along the way Etter took photographs of the Ainu people, their villages, and rituals. The Ainu are animists who believe that spirits exist in all things including natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as rivers and trees, and in animals. 

In the diary he kept during his travels, Etter described his experiences interviewing elderly Ainu to collect Ainu stories. He writes:
 “We arrived back at the lodging house at 9:15 a.m. and soon were in a very interesting interview with the older Ainu who at first found difficulty in recalling Ainu traditions but who succeeded in remembering four or five most intriguing stories before our interview ended. First she gave us a story of a brother and sister who came down from heaven to live in Hokkaido. He had great miraculous powers and could accomplish wonders but he did not know the art of making fetishes. The souls of the birds and animals which he killed went to heaven and complained to the gods. His elder brother in heaven came down to earth on a cloud to slay him but did not succeed. They apologized and then the heavenly brother taught the one on earth how to make fetishes. This was the beginning of the Ainu custom of making fetishes.”

Carl Etter's colleague, Dr. Yajima (3rd from left) takes notes while an elderly Ainu man speaks in Ainu and a younger man translates into Japanese. Dr. Yajima and Etter later translated the notes into English.

Although the Ainus’ animistic beliefs differed greatly from his own Christian beliefs, Etter recognized many themes in the legends that were similar to those seen in Christianity.
“The two brothers in this story who quarreled reminds us of Cain and Abel or their reconciliation makes us think of Esau and Jacob. The god coming down to earth implies the idea of incarnate deity or at least possibility of heavenly beings taking up their abode upon the earth. The elder brother’s coming on a cloud carries with it a familiar ring also.”
We can see further evidence of these tropes and the connections Etter made to Christianity in the titles Etter assigned the legends.
-The Moses story—a baby found in a kettle floating down the stream
- The virgin-born boy whose mother was made pregnant by a light that shined into her chest
- The prodigal Ainu youth who was selfish and went away from home—to whom the gods sang a yukara + influenced him to return home
- The Samson (strong man) of Ainu land who took a large tree away from a god, carried a great stone, pulled a boat against the wind etc

For more on Etter’s analyses of these tales, see his book Ainu Folkore, and for an in-depth look at these fascinating folktales visit the National Anthropological Archives. To learn more about Ainu culture, visit the online tour of the exhibition Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, which was organized by the Arctic Studies Center in 1999.

Christy Fic
Contract Processing Archivist
National Anthropological Archives

No comments:

Post a Comment