Monday, August 20, 2018

The Animal and the Human

Recent DNA analyses have revealed that humans share a majority of our genetic makeup with other animals. Physically speaking, our similarities with our fellow beings far outweigh our differences. In the Western mindset, however, a sharp line is drawn between human beings and other animals. Because they do not communicate in our language, it is thought, we do not have much in common beyond physical structure. For Westerners, only humans have a soul, a wide range of emotions, and the unique capacities of reason, imagination, and the changing of our environment on a grand scale to meet our needs. Despite the division in our thinking, we still have intimate relationships with the animals closest to us and cannot seem to resist anthropomorphizing them. There are several societies whose conception of humans' place in the animal world is far different from ours.

Although these kinds of belief systems are widely varied, many see us as more
closely related to other creatures, both physically and spiritually. Here, I will
examine a few of these non-Western ideologies and compare their conceptions of
the human-animal relationship to each other and to Western ideas.

Several cultures which hold traditionally animistic religious beliefs share the concept
of a time long ago during which humans were animals and vice versa. In this
"Distant Time," "Dreamtime" or "Mythtime," as it is variously referred to, animals
were able to take human form. Most animals, it is believed, once possessed human
souls, and some cultures think that they still do, although the average person is now
unable to perceive them. Folklorist Charles L. Edwards hints that this idea may have
evolved out of a memory of a much earlier period in the evolution of the human
species, when the common ancestor of both humans and apes roamed the earth.
This apelike being lived no differently from the other predatory mammals who
shared his environment. Some of his offspring later began the process of change
and adaptation that would produce our species. "In outwitting his foes, instead of
throttling them the diverging elementary man began to make plans of strategy." As
their thought process grew more complex, Edwards argues, early humans expanded
their thinking beyond their immediate surroundings and contemplated the unseen
forces that governed their world. "[T]hese forces took form in the gods who dwelt
beyond the clouds, and the myths of cosmogony and transformation arose." Now,
when people belonging to animistic traditions look for ways of explaining the
phenomena around them and of connecting their rituals to the greater processes of
continuing cyclical transformation, they recall the time when myths were formed,
when humans were much closer to other animals than we are today.

Edwards connects the deep sense of spiritual communion with other beings out of
which myth and belief in the supernatural arise to the formative period in the
development of each human being known as childhood. He relates a story of his
own childhood and the time he spent watching ants in his backyard, inventing
stories to match the escapades of "the ant-people." He envisions them as soldiers
engaged in various industries at peacetime, but in wartime displaying "remarkable
valor and extraordinary strategy." This depth of imagination, which is now the
exclusive domain of children, is the fertile ground from which spring "the miracles
of transformation" and the deeper sense of connection through the
anthropomorphism of playful storymaking. "So we see in the child, as in primitive
people [sic], the projection of his own fancies born of fear, or love, or desire, into
the things about him which then become personified."

For many non-Westerners, the rituals associated with storytelling and traditional
practice comprise an extension and evolution of childhood, where the wonder and
intimacy in the natural world they experienced as children develops into a greater
understanding of ourselves and other forms of life. Most Western adults are, on the
surface, all too eager to put childhood behind them. Our deep longing to connect
to the wider life community manifests itself in other ways, though, such as our
feelings towards our companion animals.

The Distant Time stories of the Koyukon people, who inhabit the boreal forests of
central Alaska, show another instance of the interrelatedness of humans and other
animals in a non-Western culture. Once again, the time when human-animal
transformations occurred is seen as a dreamlike phase in the formation of the earth
and cosmos:

During this age [Distant Time] 'the animals were human'--that is,
they had human form, they lived in a human society, and they spoke human
(Koyukon) language. At some point in the Distant Time certain humans died and
were transformed into animal or plant beings [...] These dreamlike metamorphoses
left a residue of human qualities and personality traits in the north-woods
Distant Time stories account for natural features and occurrences, as well as for the
physical forms and personalities of the animals. The myths also dictate how they
must be treated. Since the animals were once human, the Koyukon believe, they can
understand and are aware of human actions, words and thoughts. Although the
spirits of some animals are more potent than others, it is important to treat all
animals with respect because they can cause grief and bad luck for those who do
otherwise. Because Koyukon people were no different from other animals in Distant
Time and because of the awareness and power of animal spirits, it may appear that
they do not conceive of a separation between human and animal realms. However,
the Koyukon believe that only humans possess a soul which is different from the
animals' spirits. But because they accept that humans were created by a human-
animal (the Raven), the distinction is less sharp than in Western cultures. The
similarities between us and other animals derive not as much from the animal
nature of humans as from the human nature of animals, having been human in
Distant Time.

The relative absence of a boundary between the human and animal realms figures
widely in the mythology of the Inuit and Eskimo. Their stories of a similar time long
ago explain the way they see their world and also guide their traditional
observances, rituals and overall lifestyle, much as the Distant Time stories do for
the Koyukon. Just as the myths account for such things as the shape of the land,
the cycles of sun, moon and seasons and the generation of all life forms, they also
dictate how each person is to play his or her role in society. Tom Lowenstein
investigates this phenomenon amongst the Inuit of Tikigaq Peninsula in
northwestern Alaska in a poetic book entitled Ancient Land, Sacred Whale.
For these people, the annual whale hunt and the elaborate preparations for it
reenact a mythic cycle. The rituals surrounding the whale hunt represent a complex
interplay between them and the spirit of the whale, whose power is seen as greater
than that of humans. Their belief system comprehends the union of many
opposites, including the human and animal. "Just as Raven Man had the double
character of bird and human, and the uliuaqtaq [unmarried woman who marries
Raven Man in the story] was a double creative/destructive presence , so the whale
was perceived in terms of two main elements: animal and land." By reenacting the
ages-old epic every spring, the Tikigaq Inuit play an essential role in keeping the
forces of nature in balance, thereby ensuring their survival and livelihood.

A central aspect of the religious traditions of several Eskimo tribes of northeastern
Canada and Greenland is the existence of the Sea Mother, who is both as a real
creature living on the ocean floor and a spirit residing within sea creatures (as well
as land creatures, according to some tribes). The ancient story of her coming to be
the spiritual ruler of the submarine world is similar across these cultures and it
serves to bind the animal and human worlds together. According to one version of
the story, the Sea Mother (who goes by different names, Sedna being one of the
most recognized) was once a young woman living with her father. She had refused
to marry, but a sea bird disguised as a man succeeds in winning her hand and
whisks her across the sea. Her life with him is miserable, and eventually her father
comes and takes her with him in his boat. The bird-man is furious, so he causes a
windstorm which capsizes the boat. The woman is left hanging on by her fingertips.
In anger and desperation, her father decides to amputate her fingers, each of which
becomes a sea creature as it drops into the water. Once the last finger is cut, the
woman sinks to the sea floor, where she becomes the Sea Mother, having dominion
over the souls of the creatures made from her fingers.

Since the Eskimo depend on sea creatures for most of their food supply, keeping the
Sea Mother happy is an important aspect of their endeavors. She is seen as having
control of the souls of many creatures, which are able to take either animal or
human form, and as a union of opposites. Her power is respected as greater than
the human because people are utterly dependent on other creatures for survival.
However, she is also scorned because of her refusal to join human society (which is
indicated by her refusal to marry) and her insistence on living in a dream world. The
human/animal boundary is central to the Sea Mother's status both as an abject
outcast and as a great power to be feared and obeyed. The people's lukewarm
relationship with her is indicative of their respect for and struggle with the animals
and the natural world, with which they must maintain the proper balance in order to
ensure survival and sustainability.

In "Witches' Transformations into Animals," M. A. Murray investigates an example of
human-animal transformation in a Western setting which took place among witches
in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and France, as well as in colonial
New England. These witches carried on pre-Christian traditions. Each witch's
transformation ability was limited to one or two animals, usually a cat or a hare, but
occasionally a dog, mouse, crow, rock or bee. Transformation was accomplished
"by being invested with the skin of the creature, by the utterance of magical words,
the making of magical gestures, the wearing of a magical object [amulet], or the
performance of magical ceremonies." These methods appear as motifs in many
cultures. "Distant Time" stories tell of humans becoming animals by doing any of
these things, and shamans continue this practice in several places. Another
common belief which Murray argues is a corollary to zoomorphism is that wounds a
person receives while in the shape of an animal remain on the body after a return to
the human form. Witches saw taking on the form of their particular species as a
way of becoming one with that animal's spirit, as shamans use ritual objects made
of animal parts to communicate with the spirit world.

Jean Buxton examines animal and human identities in the traditional culture of the
Mandari people of southern Sudan in "Animal Identity and Human Peril." For these
people, the physical location where an animal lives relative to the human homestead
and village determines its cultural and spiritual status. Like many Westerners, the
Mandari draw a sharp line between the animals of the home (dogs and other
domesticated animals), the animals of the village (cattle and other farmed animals),
and animals of the three tiers of the wild, separated according to distance from the

Dogs are by far the most important animals, and are the closest to people physically
and emotionally. Mandari mythology contains stories of ancient people who had
dogs with horns that were featured in rain rituals. Owners of "horned" dogs had
higher stature than those with "hornless" dogs. The Mandari also believe that
primal dogs could speak and warn people of impending danger, and that it was the
dog who taught humans the use of fire, enabling them to become more social
beings. In short, the dog "is represented as needed and liked, and as reciprocating
these attitudes." Cattle also have an important role considering their appearance in
myth, their long-standing ties with people, and their economic and social
importance. They do not, however, enjoy the same emotional attachment to the
Mandari that dogs have. Although chickens are also considered animals of the
homestead, their dual classification as "birds of the above" causes them to lack
innate dignity. Therefore, it is permissible to slaughter them with impunity.

Contrarily, wild animals who inhabit homesteads, though categorized as "wild
nature," are often given immunity from human-induced harm because of their
location in the homestead. Just outside the village lies the realm of semi-domestic
and scavenger animals, and further beyond lies the habitat of game and predator
animals. It is here where the line between human and animal solidifies. While dogs
and cattle are given the "dignity and integrity of 'psyche'," game animals and those
capable of killing people are not seen as deserving of any respect. One notable
exception is the leopard, which is seen as more "like a person" and is given
elaborate death rites. "Mandari are quite clear about the basic separation between
man and animal, and of the fact that while man is a part of the animal world, an
animal is never a man."

Although the concept of the boundary between humans and animals varies between
cultures, there are few examples of people for whom humans are absolutely no
different from the other creatures with whom we share our world. In the cultures
examined here, the existence of well-defined roles for each species, which are
generally learned through myths that describe how each animal got its place in the
living community, defines the way animals are regarded and what spiritual
significance they are given. The grand variability of ideas about the human/animal
division is indicative of our species' multifaceted relationship with other species.
The fact that humans are almost universally seen as unique may, in some respects,
serve to qualify the uniqueness of nonhuman animal species. Certainly, for non-
Western cultures especially, our exceptionality does not always make us the most
powerful or important species. It only serves to define our place in the natural
world and, in many cases, to deepen our connection to other species.

Malcolm Kenton is a sophomore and full-time student at Guilford College in North Carolina, where he is majoring in Environmental Studies and Political Science. His interests include activism on behalf of animal protection and the environment, politics, computers, music and reading and writing. He resides in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was the editor of his high school newspaper and has had op-ed pieces published in the Greensboro News and Record.

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