anagnori

Laughing at the Spirits in North Siberia by Rane Willerslev

In anthropology, culture, humanities, society on January 19, 2013 at 00:24

From: Laughing at the Spirits in North Siberia: Is Animism Being Taken too Seriously? by Rane Willerslev, e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com

In many respects, the Yukaghir distribution of resources reflects a traditional hunter-gatherer economic model of sharing, in that they run a “demand sharing” principle.18 People are expected to make claims on other people’s possessions, and those who possess more than they can immediately consume or use are expected to give it up without expectation of repayment. This principle of sharing applies to virtually everything, from trade goods, such as cigarettes and fuel, to knowledge about how to hunt, but it applies most forcefully to the distribution of meat: “I eat, you eat. I have nothing, you have nothing, we all share of one pot,” the Yukaghirs say [figure 3].19 The important point for my argument, however, is that Yukaghir hunters engage with the nonhuman world of animal spirits in much the same way as they engage with other humans, namely, through the principle of demand sharing. In the forest, hunters will ask—even demand—that spiritual owners share their stock of prey. They will also address the spirits of the rivers and places where they hunt, saying, “Grandfather, your children are hungry and poor. Feed us as you have fed us before!” In this sense, their animist cosmology could be interpreted as an integrated system, an “all-embracing cosmic principle based in sharing” in which the forest is akin to a “parent” who gives its human “children” food in overabundance, without expecting anything in return, as has been suggested for hunter-gatherer peoples more generally by Bird-David.20 The trouble is that in proposing this argument, Bird-David assumes that the official rhetoric of these hunter-gatherers faithfully corresponds to their activity of hunting. But this is not so—if it were, we would have aligned the Yukaghir with something akin to a “death wish,”21 for surely a community that hunts simply by waiting for the forest to “feed” them, without making any effort to control their prey, would not survive long.

What this points to, then, is that the Yukaghirs’ rhetoric about the forest being a “generous parent” is not meant to be taken too seriously. Rather, it is a sophisticated means of spirit manipulation, which is an inherent, even necessary, part of Yukaghir hunting animism. This becomes evident when we realize that a paradox is built into the moral economy of sharing, which makes it risky—lethal, in fact—to take the principle of unconditional giving at face value.

Read the essay

Reposted with permission from: e-flux

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