Animal ceremonialism & relational ontologies: How its ritualistic practice is reflected in myth & cosmology of indigenous Siberians

In the Evenk tale “Xeladan and Ngamondri”, a woman spends the entire winter with a bear, who requests her to kill and honor him in return. Upon her return to the village, the bear has also returned from death. She finds out that reindeer are plentiful and as a consequence, the village performs a bear dance in the bear’s honor (Vasilevich, 1980, p.110–112, Lynda Mc Neil; 2005). Here we find another good example of the motif of the “woman who married the bear” which appears to be linked to the practice of the bear feast and bear ceremonialism. This myth is for example documented among the Tlingit in Alaska and the Mi Kmaq in eastern Canada, telling of Muin the bear and Muiniskw, the bear-woman (Harris et al., 2010). The belief in an ursine and other-than-human ancestor is also well documented in relation to bear ceremonialism and indigenous skylore (Pentikainen, 2007; Hallowell, 1926; Lushnikova, 2002).

As ethnographer Animisov points out, it is the duty of every clan member to participate in the ceremonies, however, every clan member does have access to the tools and the equipment that may be necessary during the ceremonies in order to maintain the animal’s rebirth to the hunting grounds (Animisov; 1963, p. 116). Such rituals do not always incorporate a shaman or a centralized figure who officiates the ceremony. The feast of the bear takes place on equal terms and all members are allowed to participate. As a consequence, bear ceremonialism as such might stem from an even older animal-ceremonialism, being part of a pre-shamanic palaeolithic hunting ritual procession (Esther Jacobson; 1993. p. 179 – 190) that is embedded in an animistic worldview, but not necessarily in shamanic practice under the guide of a centralized human shaman figure.

The term “Evenk” is used to describe an indigenous people in Siberia with various subgroups and cultural differences, who live near the Olenok River and the Baikal region in eastern Siberia. Today, there are three distinct cultural differences. Orochon Evenk live off of reindeer pastoralism, while the Tungus engage predominantly in fishing and the Murchen domesticate and raise cattle (Tatiana Safonova; 2016, p. 59). The Evenk for example, who live mostly from hunting and gathering, live on the Olenok River in Yakutia, Sakha Republic. The Evenk hunters do not eat their own domesticated reindeer, yet use them for transportation to distant places (Shirokogoroff 1935, p. 406) and they also serve as a status symbol for wealth within the clan’s designated territory. The Evenk forest hunters consume the meat of wild reindeer, elk and moose during winter, while living off of birds and fish during the summer (Shirokogoroff;1929, p. 26).

The cultural landscape of the Evenk is deeply interwoven with the land itself, including all wildlife and sacred spaces. Dwellings and campsites of the Evenk are regarded as “centers of the world”, which is also reflected in their native cosmology and ritual-myth complex (Ole Grøn & Torunn Klokkernes; 2008, p. 60). Evenk mythology consists of a tripartite world tree. The upper world belongs to unborn souls who reside in the sky in anticipation of their reincarnation, while the underworld is where deceased people must go first after death. Just as the world tree contains three different levels, so do human souls, and in some instances, the souls of animals that have been deeply integrated into the cultural landscape of the Evenk (Vasilevich & Smolyak, 1963). This motif is common and widespread for most of northern Eurasia. As Ole Grøn (2005, 2003) writes in his numerous papers about the culture and ecology of the Evenk, there is a strong belief that humans have 3 souls as well as certain animals, who receive specific ritualistic processions after their death. Similar research has been conducted by Edward Vajda regarding the Ket-Ostyak that live near the Yenisei River. Several of Edward Vajda’s papers such as “Siberian Landscapes in Ket Traditional Culture” (2009) demonstrate a strong belief in certain animals such as the bear being related to humans. Consequently, kill-sites after a hunt are particularly interesting to the ethnographic study of animal ceremonialism. By exchange of several Emails, Grøn told me that one of his Evenk informants still felt bad about the fact that he once hunted a bear, mourning the bear’s death even many years after.

When a reindeer or elk is killed after a hunt, the genitals of the animal are hung on a tree in order for the animals’ fertility to be able reproduce, i.e., to reincarnate again from the upper worlds of the world tree and maintain a healthy population of the animal being killed. Sometimes the Evenk hunters cut out the tongue and the eyes, so that the animal may not tell other animals about the kill, or so that it may not know what caused its death (Gron, Klokkernes; 2008, p. 43). These processions take place in order to honor the spirit of the slain animal, and to ensure its reincarnation back to the Evenk hunting territories. By honoring and pleasing the animal’s spirit, it may decide to reincarnate from the worlds of the world tree back into the Clan’s territory, and thus maintain and ensure its population for the future. This cycle is dependent on many factors, including the spirits of the land and ancestors who have lived on this land before. Similar processions take place during the Evenk bear feast, where the skull is attached to a tree, with its paws on the ground. The Evenk also cut the eyes of the bear out and put them into a hollow crack in the tree. (Grøn; 2005, Grøn & Klokkernes; 2008, p. 69, 70, 75). Since the Evenk avoid killing the bear, as he is regarded as akin to the Evenk, the bear is told that he wasn’t killed on purpose but by accident. The spirit of the bear is honored in the hope that he may reincarnate back again.

The highly specific disposal of the remains have been further elaborated by Hans Joachim Paproth (1976), as well as A. Irving Hallowell (1926) and portray a relationship of dependency and respect between human-animal interfaces and their interactions between the cultural landscape of the Evenk and the wilderness of northern Eurasia. The Evenk perceive the bear as a totemic ancestor, having 3 souls just like humans and as a master of animals who, by reincarnating each year after winter, can multiply all animals and ensure success in future hunting and the rebirth of all of nature. By practicing ceremonies for the bear’s departing soul after its death, the bear restore itself and all of nature. Thus, the bear feasts themselves can be understood to have a cyclical function and by returning to the middle world of the world tree, where we humans reside, the bear restores souls from the lower world, accompanied by a wide range of wild game animals (Animisov; 1963, p. 177 – 178, Lynda McNeil, 2008). This means that he could restore himself while traveling the world tree. He acts as a renewer of the natural world, which bestows him “shamanic qualities” without the presence of a human shaman figure (Paproth, 1976). In Evenk mythology, this bear eventually hunts a cosmic sky-elk. As a powerful celestial elk, he controls the souls of animals who reside in the upper world of the tripartite world tree (Anisimov, 1963b, p. 204). The pursuit of a celestial elk by a bear-hunter is also documented as a variant of “the cosmic hunt” myth, a skyward projected myth that was shared by hunter-gatherers across northern Eurasia. As mentioned by linguist Roslyn Frank, aspects of the daily lives of hunter-gatherers were projected onto the sky and reveal an overarching cosmology, where animals acted as animated agents and were cognitively perceived to be entangled with the world of human affairs. (Roslyn Frank, 2014; p. 4 – 5).

To be continued…


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