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Soul Hunters

Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs

Rane Willerslev
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 235
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  • Book Info
    Soul Hunters
    Book Description:

    This is an insightful, highly original ethnographic interpretation of the hunting life of the Yukaghirs, a little-known group of indigenous people in the Upper Kolyma region of northeastern Siberia. Basing his study on firsthand experience with Yukaghir hunters, Rane Willerslev focuses on the practical implications of living in a "hall-of-mirrors" world—one inhabited by humans, animals, and spirits, all of whom are understood to be endless mimetic doubles of one another. In this world human beings inhabit a betwixt-and-between state in which their souls are both substance and nonsubstance, both body and soul, both their own individual selves and reincarnated others. Hunters are thus both human and the animals they imitate, which forces them to steer a complicated course between the ability to transcend difference and the necessity of maintaining identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94100-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. CHAPTER 1 Animism as Mimesis
    (pp. 1-28)

    Watching Old Spiridon rocking his body back and forth, I was puzzled whether the figure I saw before me was man or elk. The elk-hide coat worn with its hair outward, the headgear with its characteristic protruding ears, and the skis covered with an elk’s smooth leg skins, so as to sound like the animal when moving in snow, made him an elk; yet the lower part of his face below the hat, with its human eyes, nose, and mouth, along with the loaded rifle in his hands, made him a man. Thus, it was not that Spiridon had stopped...

  7. CHAPTER 2 To Kill or Not to Kill: Rebirth, Sharing, and Risk
    (pp. 29-49)

    The subarctic environment of the Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs is part of the vast and largely unpopulated larch forest that is popularly known as the taiga. The climate is sharply continental, with permafrost and long, icy, cloudless winters, when the temperature can fall as low as minus 63° Celsius. Winter starts with the first snowfall in early October and persists into late May. In fact, there are only seventy to eighty frost-free days in the course of the whole year (Ivanov 1999: 153). Midwinter is dominated by darkness. The sun rises above the horizon for only an hour in late December,...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Body-Soul Dialectics: Human Rebirth Beliefs
    (pp. 50-72)

    Having described Yukaghir reincarnation beliefs in relation to animals and the implications for the hunter-prey relationship, I shall now turn to discuss those beliefs in relation to humans. What Nikolai Likhachev’s account in chapter 2 reveals is that each living person is seen as a kind of new embodiment of a particular dead relative. In fact, everyone in Nelemnoye would always insist that the living personisthe dead relative of whom he or she is a reincarnation. “The two are one and the same person,” they assured me. Yet some people would add, “but a person’s body is also...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Ideas of Species and Personhood
    (pp. 73-88)

    In the world of the Yukaghirs, as we have seen, everything—human, animal, and inanimate object—is said to have anayibii,or what we would call a soul or life essence. For the Yukaghirs, the whole world is thus animated by living souls in the sense of Tylorian animism. Although everything is understood to be alive, people do nevertheless differentiate between conscious and unconscious beings. On a conceptual level this distinction corresponds, at least roughly, to our categories of the animate and inanimate. An elderly Yukaghir hunter, Vasili Shalugin, told me that animals, trees, and rivers are “people like...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Animals as Persons
    (pp. 89-118)

    Although Yukaghirs are quite clear in their minds about which body belongs to any given person, they do regard it as possible for someone to take on the body of a being from another species. In principle, one can take on the body of any natural entity that is ascribed the status of person. An old man thus told me that he had once seen a person turn himself into a larch tree in order to hide from the Spirit of Smallpox. In general, however, humans are most likely to transform themselves into one of the great predators, such as...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Shamanism
    (pp. 119-140)

    The wordshamanhas become one of the most heavily worked terms among scholars of anthropology and religious studies.Shaman, shamanism,andshamanshipare also terms with a major presence within neoreligious movements all over the world. What are we to understand by this wordshaman,which originated in Siberia, but which has come to be applied much more widely to those people in tribal societies throughout the world who are otherwise known as medicine men, witch doctors, sorcerers, or magicians?¹ The notion that shamans constitute an early type of priesthood is common in the classical literature on the topic....

  12. CHAPTER 7 The Spirit World
    (pp. 141-158)

    In his classic study of the Yukaghirs Jochelson devoted a major part of his work to what he called their “religious concepts.” In the opening chapter of his description of the Yukaghir’s pantheon of spirits, he writes, “I propose to analyze the elements of the ancient Yukaghir religion in the sense in which I understand that term and to the extent to which it was possible to reconstruct the religious system of the Yukaghir in its present state of degeneration” (1926: 140). Having said that, he begins the ambitious task of classifying all the various kinds of “owners,” or “fathers”...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Learning and Dreaming
    (pp. 159-180)

    A question that still needs to be explored is how we can account for the somewhat puzzling fact that the Yukaghirs’ paucity of spiritual knowledge does not seem to be bound up with their loss of indigenous language. One explanation, I suggest, is that among the Yukaghirs very little knowledge about spiritual beings is explicitly transmitted between generations. Instead, people are largely left to think independently, and this gives rise to highly heterogeneous ideas about spiritual matters. Moreover, I will show that the hunters have a general attitude of mistrust, at times even hostility, toward information conveyed through language, which,...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Taking Animism Seriously
    (pp. 181-192)

    This book is, in part, an extended reflection on the limitations of contemporary theories on animism and the inadequacy of the theoretical tool kit available to the anthropologist who wants to take seriously the attitudes and beliefs that indigenous peoples have about the nature of such beings as spirits, souls, and animal persons and their relationships with them. By “taking seriously,” I simply mean taking seriously what the people themselves take seriously. This is not usually done in anthropology. Spirits such as those the Yukaghirs claim to exist out there in the world alongside humans and animals and with whom...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 193-204)
  16. References
    (pp. 205-220)
  17. Index
    (pp. 221-229)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 230-230)