Late Pleistocene Mythology and Human-Animal-Relations

Mythological motifs that reveal a projected hunt toward star constellations of the circumpolar north and indigenous skylore may have been preserved in the context of a celestial “cosmic hunt”, which reveals strong correlations in both the various narratives and motifs (Berezkin, 2005, p. 80; Enn, 2010). Additionally, it may have had a type of “proto- stage” at some point before its dispersal into the Americas (Berezkin, 2004, 2005). Despite cultural differences, the motif of the cosmic hunt shares a similar narrative across indigenous communities in northern Eurasia involving a group of hunters and game animals, who are chased or killed (Stith Thompson Index, 1955 – 1958). The Eurasian cosmic hunt is related to several star constellations. One variant is related to Orion’s Belt, where the mythological narrative emphasizes the role of deer, buffalo or sheep and an emphasis on the star cluster Pleiades is prevalent among Arctic tribes (Berezkin, 2005; Thompson, 1955). There are also several cultural distinctions involving Arcturus and Ursa Major in the skylore of Siberian tribes, such as the Evenk, who tell of a sky bear whose role is that of a hunter (Anisimov, 1963, pp.163 – 164). It is thus important to study ethnographic data from central Asian and Siberian cultures, as they may offer a strong comparative context to the cognitive and sociocultural world of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, due to a relative continuity of practise within their cultures (Zvelebil, 2003).

Elk-like anthropomorphic rock art is known from Fenno-Scandinavia into Siberia, and Tacitus spoke of the Oksiones and the Helluseios tribes as being people of the bear and the elk (Pentikainen, 1999). Similar to the bear, the elk had a significant symbolic and ritualistic meaning for the northern people of Scandinavia (Lahelma, 2007; 2008). However, the motif of the cosmic hunt does not explicitly involve any shamanic activities or intervention by humans. In traditional Finnish mythologies, the pursuit of Hiisi’s elk by Lemminkainen in the Kalevala is connected to several constellations, such as Orion, the Pleiades and Arcturus (Pentikainen, 1995, p. 137). The motif of the cosmic hunt was likely connected to several star constellations and perhaps served as a “memory bank” for nomadic hunter-gatherers populating the circumpolar northern hemisphere, projecting the narrative of the hunt skywards, where Ursa Major may have been identified as a skybear, who shares a common ancestry with humans (Frank, 2016, p. 347; Lushnikova, 2002; Hoppal & Pentikainen, 1989).

Several Russian scholars have attempted to identify shamanism in northern Eurasian rock-art, and to link the rock-art with an indigenous mythology of Eurasian tribes. Anthropomorphic rock-art in the “x-ray- style” of people wearing antlers could be understood as “proto- shamans” (Hoppal, 1992, pp. 143 – 144). Other scholars such as Smoliak identified the use of antlers and horns as relating to the mythological motif of the world-tree among Nanai shamanism (1991). Likewise, Anatoly Martynov wrote in “The Ancient Art of Northern Asia” (1991) that petroglyphs in central Asia and Siberia dating back to the Neolithic often depict deer-like antlers, and that the horns of mountain sheep are depicted as stunningly “tree-like”, linking the rock- art to the motif of the world tree. In addition, Cheremisin says that deer- like horses in Eurasia have tree-like antlers with many branches, for example within the Tuvian myth of chaaga daiym, a horse with antlers, and another in a deer-like horse in Tuvian folklore called Khulok Bora(Cheremisin, 2005). These attempts to identify the mythological narratives in rock-art and link them to animal-ceremonialism and the emergence of shamanism has numerous implications.

The petroglyphs on the Toma River in Siberia are suggested to date back to the Neolithic, which could potentially mean that shamanism in central Asia arose as a result of a neolithization, a changing ecology, during the Bronze Age and is thus a relatively recent practice (Hoppal, 1992, p.6; Vajda, 1959). Recent research, however, suggests that the mythological motif of the cosmic hunt may indeed be reflected in Eurasian rock-art. The “sun-eater” motifs from both western and eastern Siberia may depict the narrative of a cosmic-hunter in the scenes of northern Eurasian rock art such as the Ukunevo culture in southern Khakassia (Okladnikov & Martynov, 1972, p. 77; Ernits, 2010, p.62). Ernits suggests that many rock-art scenes in the Altai mountains near the border of Mongolia date back to the Bronze Age, but they have also been identified as depicting a sun-eater motif; a species of the deer- family chases the sun, perhaps depicting the celestial elk. Similar scenes may be found throughout northern Eurasia and eastern Siberia (Ernits, 2010, p.65).

If it is possible to determine the mythological narrative in northern Eurasian rock-art, as David Lewis-Williams has demonstrated in African contexts (1983, 1986), it may indeed point to a heavily zoomorphic, animal-oriented mythology and animistic worldview, where shamanism is not yet present and from which his role developed.

It may become important to discriminate between a centralized figure of the “shaman” on the other hand, and a highly complex, animistic cosmology of hunter-gatherers on the other. This cosmology may have been already well established before the Neolithic and can be demonstrated by the Shigir idol, emphasizing the complex cosmology of hunter- gatherers at the beginning of the Holocene and their relational ontology (Zhilin, 2010). The cognitive world (“Glaubenswelt”) of late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers has been shaped by human-animal interfaces, i.e., hunter-gatherer interactions with non-human animals and an internally structured identification with animal agents in an animal-dominated environment (Erica Hill, 2011, 2013), thus emphasizing a non-anthropocentric relational ontology, which appears to be so fundamental to an animistic mind and perception of the world (Nurit Bird-David, 1999, Tylor, 1871, p. 309).

References:

 

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  • Berezkin, Yuri 2005 The cosmic hunt. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, Vol. 31, 79-100.

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