New Internationalist

Dreams, Symbols And Totems

Issue 266

Dreams, symbols and totems
Animals have a social and a sacred significance to all nomads. John Galaty looks at how
they both mediate and inform the world view of herders and hunters.

This past December near Vallon, Pont d’Arc in southern France, local caving enthusiasts stumbled across one of the most significant archaeological finds of the century. Sweeping their helmet lights down a narrow cave they were astonished to find hundreds of powerful images painted in earthen pigments on the smooth limestone walls: gazelles, woolly rhinos, bears and mammoths. The discovery turned out to be the work of Palaeolithic hunters who lived more than 20,000 years ago. Mounted on a shelf of rock close to the paintings was a bear’s skull – a glimpse across the centuries of the deep spiritual meaning of animals in the lives of our ancestors.

For nomadic hunters then, as now, animals were symbols – ports of entry into deeper dimensions of reality. Today, game animals are still valued as intermediaries between the human world and the divine. The Cree in northern Canada believe that if people take more game than they need or lack respect for the hunted, the tacit pact joining the animal and human communities will be broken. Geese flying overhead and ducks fluttering in marshes have a moral link to the people who hunt them. So hunters retrieve their prey not in victory but in a spirit of thanks. Far from seeing themselves in a fight for survival with creatures of the wild, they feel bonds of sympathy for the species they stalk. Northern peoples like the Inuit or Chukchee identify with the whale, polar bear and caribou. Africans like the Okiek and the San identify with the bushbuck and the giraffe. Hunters see themselves and the world around them through the eyes of the animal.

Nineteenth-century anthropologists thought that early cultures believed themselves to be descendants of animals and thus to be bears, otters or eagles. A ‘totemic’ species was worshipped as a god, revered as an ancestor and classified as kin. Those who shared a totem were considered bound by blood to defend and avenge each another, to avoid intermarriage and to mutually ‘respect’ the species by refraining from harming or eating totemic animals as well as protecting them.

Today, most specialists share the view of noted French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. He suggests that we should see totemic systems not as a primitive stage of religion, but as a common tendency of all human beings to classify the social world in natural terms. Among the Iroquois in North America there are Bear, Eagle and Turtle Clans. The Maasai in East Africa have red, white, blue and striped ‘cattle clans’. But are these practices any more exotic than fans cheering their favourite sports teams: the Chicago Bulls, the Detroit Tigers or the Toronto Raptors? And what about those of us who share a longing to drive a Mustang, Cougar or Jaguar?

Lichen under snow
In a modern world plagued by environmental destruction and loss of biodiversity we are rediscovering knowledge held by indigenous peoples regarding the natural world. Nomadic hunters have to be behavioural ecologists, and herders must know animal science and range ecology. Lapps, for example, know when and where reindeer will seek lichen under winter snow; Inuit know where seals lie, how long they stay under water and which ripples betray their presence. The Turkana in northern Kenya bring their camels, cattle, goats and sheep to the Rift Valley Floor during the wet season. Then in the dry season the cattle and sheep are moved to the cooler mountains while camels and goats browse the remaining lowland shrubs.

No-one knows why people undertook to domesticate grazing animals 10,000 years ago. Killing some animals for meat would have done little to advance the domestication of other live animals and milking was adopted long after more docile domestic animals had appeared. So why were animals domesticated if it meant lots of hard work without any immediate benefits? It may well be that the answers lie in a perceived affinity with animals, along with a ‘passion’ to embrace and control them.

Pastoral people in particular have an intense interest in domestic livestock. Usually one animal is culturally dominant – it is crucial for subsistence and also used as a yardstick for measuring wealth. Whether yak, llama or cow, the dominant animal is both a medium of exchange and an object of emotional interest and symbolic elaboration. Moreover, pastoralists internalize the image of their dominant animal. The animal becomes part of a herder’s inner sense of self and a lens through which the world is perceived and understood. Pastoral communities everywhere make their ultimate gift to god by sacrificing their most prized animal.

The Nuer of the Sudan take their names from their favourite oxen and cows and draw parallels from their herds to define their own social relations and talk about community life. The gift of cattle from the groom to a wife’s family, usually called ‘bridewealth’, establishes links between the two families that expand over time as the cattle reproduce and are in turn given to others. Today, with the coming of a market economy, Nuer separate their herd into ‘cattle of women’ and ‘cattle of money’, since it would be ‘polluting’ were the former sold or the latter given for marriage.

Maasai sometimes use special names with partners, calling one another ‘my bull’ or ‘my heifer’ or ‘my cow’. For the Maasai, too, the words for colours, patterns and shapes come from their herds. It is not that terms to describe animals are then used to label colours and patterns, but rather that the system of colours and patterns and shapes are drawn from livestock. There is no ‘red’ per se, only the redness of a particular type of cow, no ‘striped’ per se, only a streaked pattern found on particular animals. Thus the world of nature – the patterns of clouds in the sky, the form of rocks, the texture of landscape, the shape of human limbs – are all expressed in the idiom of the animal.

State of grace
Many pastoralists consider their link with domestic animals to be God-given. They emphasize their reliance on herd animals by prohibiting the hunting or eating of wild animals. Most herders usually consume milk products as staple foods but any wanton eating of meat is prohibited. Milk can be eaten fresh or sour or as butter. Meat is usually only sacrificed in special rituals and blessings – holiest when roasted or used in the distilled form of fat. Only on special Islamic feasts are camels sacrificed by Bedouin, Tuareg or Somali nomads. There is no cruelty, but rather an attitude towards the victim akin to gratitude. The sacrificial animal should be holy, a perfect specimen – a strong, patient castrate rather than an irascible bull. At its death, its spirit establishes a link between a community and divinity, a state of grace. Whoever eats the flesh becomes one with the group, assuming its obligations and prerogatives. The animal serves to unify the group, joining it to God and advancing its members to another stage of life.

It is sometimes claimed that the pastoralists’ attitude to their livestock is religious rather than economic, since they prefer to accumulate animals rather than sell or slaughter them. In fact it is more complex than that – economic logic is coupled with a strong cultural bond. We now realize that there is a good reason to build up herd numbers as a hedge against drought and as a store of ‘capital’. Anyone who draws on ‘capital’ by routinely slaughtering animals and eating meat rather than relying on ‘interest’ by drinking milk is seen as a wastrel and a fool.

Nomads treasure few possessions. But they deeply value kin and livestock. Periodically moving house and home, they rely most directly for their survival and well-being on one another and on their domestic animals. Pastoralism demands intimate knowledge of animals, but it also demands dedicated effort and continuous labour. Like most occupations, it is best performed as an avocation, a love which is continuously rewarding rather than occasionally profitable. When herders praise cattle in song, or dream of camels, this enhances the necessary but mundane functions of husbandry. But more than that – it’s a clear example of the symbolic importance of animals to their lives.

John Galaty teaches at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and has written extensively on pastoralism in East Africa.

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