Animal Possession

In his Histories, Herodotus ranks the civilizations of the ancient world for formidability and fierceness. He observes of the Egyptians and Babylonians that, although they are the richest and most powerful kingdoms of the classical age, their sedentary life and easy access to resources makes them soft and reluctant to go to war. He sees the Persians and Greeks as disciplined and robust by comparison due to their strenuous lives as herders. But the people he calls most fearsome, most menacing and unassailable are the Scythians, who inhabited the boreal forests along the Volga and survived by hunting game and trapping. As huntsmen, they used the implements of warfare in their everyday lives and became adept at taking life at an early age. Twice Persian armies marched into Scythian territory and both times they suffered humiliating defeats. These hunting people were tenacious and bloodthirsty. Persian reports suggest they butchered their prisoners and cannibalized the corpses of their enemies.

Life is difficult and extreme for hunting peoples. They are vulnerable to starvation, injury and exposure to the elements, but the greatest threat the face is apparently psychological. Many are driven mad by the isolation and the constant insecurity of living in the wild. Hunting people sometimes experience a kind of cognitive confusion regarding their own humanness. After spending months trailing prey and watching the ways of animals, the hunter will often begin to adopt animal traits. By the end of the summer when the hunt has ended, he may forget that he is human. Rather than returning to his tribe, he will abandon his people and go on roaming the forest. The phenomenon has been observed in both ancient hunter/gatherer societies and contemporary bush tribes. Many cultures have elaborate shamanistic rituals which are performed on individuals who have been lost to the wild. These rituals are almost without exception violent and result in the “possessed” individual undergoing painful mutilation at the hands of his clansmen. This brutal treatment is intended to frighten the afflicted subject out of his adopted animal identity and remind him of his own human agency.

Ambiguous delineation between human and animal is not simply a matter of individual psychosis for people who inhabit wild places. Animal identity pervades their histories and religious understanding of the world. The Buryats of Siberia believed themselves to be descended from the bear. Their word for bear is baabgai, which also means “father.” The ancient inhabitants of Southern Asia were perplexed by the resemblance between themselves and the small monkeys they encountered in the forest. In the Ramayana, Prince Rama leads a monkey army against the demon king Ravana. The monkey soldiers prove both savage and remarkably cunning. They engineer a foot bridge to the island of Lanka so that they might carry out their invasion. Primate sentience remained an eerie and inexplicable fact of nature even for Europeans: our Germanic word “ape” is derived from the verb “to ape,” which means to imitate or poorly mimic.

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