Animism and Perspectivism Essay

Pages: 5 (1632 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Animals

¶ … Native American myths, the question of whether or not animals possess a spark of humanity or can bridge the gap between animals and humans relies upon Native American or Western perspectives. Certainly, we can not ignore ancient myths from Sumeria, Babylonia or ancient Egypt, especially where their legends, heroes and gods included so many zoomorphic forms. Indeed, the period now spanning the so-called Modern Era and the Industrial Revolution has been dependent upon humanity taming and turning nature to our own ends. This has led to a process whereby we downplay the natural world and of native peoples in general who live in a more harmonious fashion with their surrounding world. While this process, especially during the Industrial Age, has led to dehumanization it has also led to a cheapening of human life in general as well. One can therefore see in New Age approaches to nature (and religion) that there is a hunger to rediscover an intra-natural balance that was lost in the last few centuries. By studying and internalizing these myths and their moral lessons, we can recapture this lost balance. The author will compare these other approaches and build upon what we learned in class, especially by comparing and contrasting and them with the Native American myths of animals, tricksters, and both of their roles in fashioning and maintaining the world.

A good example can be seen in the epic of Gilgamesh, one the earliest known examples of a work of literature. In it is a man-beast who the hero (Gilgamesh) befriends and who later becomes his closest confidant. Enkidu comes from the wilderness where he lived with the animals. He falls under the spell of humanity via the compulsive-obsessive skills of a harlot and begins to lose his animal powers so much that Gilgamesh can defeat him when Enkidu comes to challenge him to a dual. In their struggle, they gain respect for each other and become best friends (Kovacs, & Carnahan, 1998).

Other great examples from the Near East and the Mediterranean basin include zoomorphic or anthropomorphic deities with some animal characteristics. For example, many times female deities are frequently depicted with wings but are considered to be fully human in qualities as depicted in the artwork and icons though they are hybrid in form (Wilkinson, 2008, p. 2). From such examples, the religious iconography usually includes half human and half animal hybrids. The other hybrids can range from the mild to those that may seem bizarre to modern eyes. However, they retain a certain degree of logic in that they shared a connection or suggested a specific kind of divine identity. Some of these connections may be cultural and unique and known only to the ancient Egyptians. They usually represented different incarnations or manifestations of a deity's powers or attributes. These manifestations were usually very fluid, with a particular goddess, demigod or deity being represented in multiple different settings with very different combinations of animal attributes (ibid, p. 3). Many of these have come down to us in the Western tradition, one of the most famous and ubiquitous example being the sphinx. Outside of Egypt, many of examples of zoomorphic deities can be quite elaborate, even representing astrological and astronomical data. Indeed such examples can be seen in countries not usually thought of such as Bulgaria. Here, a ceramic ram's head recovered from an archaeological site in Western Bulgaria contain details of a lunisolar calendar from the 2nd to 4th century C.E. One of the images on the ram has been interpreted as an image of the constellation Draco constellation around the fixed point of the North Pole in the center of the ecliptic. The symbols of seven primary luminaries (Sun, Moon and the five planets) are also represented on the ram. In antiquity, time and space were perceived as being united. The gods provided and endless divine beginning connected with the universe and the divine essence. This calendar was an attempt to comprehend an infinite and cyclic time and to translate and use it in terrestrial life (Sikov, p. 1).

All of this of course compares very well with the holistic approach that Native Americans such as the Cree have. In Cree mythology, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms have great importance. In the early part of the world, humans behaved like animals and talked, having the power of speech and other human attributes. In this early world, Wisahkicahk transformed himself and his environments as a trickster type of character. His transformations blurred the boundaries between animal and human. These events led to the series of events that resulted in the universe as it is now. His adventures include rites of passage and adventure such as war, hunting, marriage, traveling, etc. The parables and stories can include humor, fabricated stories as well as things that are presented as factual. Such characters can include animals with the power of humans, morphs who possess human abilities but can turn into and imitate and interact with animals. The trickster characters are preceded by the totally animal characters in the Cree cosmogony the superior being Kicimanitow uses them as agents of his creation. This was the source of the stories of the non-human and/or infrahuman figure of the Hedgehog (Brightman, 2002, pp. 38-40).

Brightman goes on in chapter six to include parallels with other Native American groups that have similar beliefs. For example, the Algonquins believe that animals are thinking creatures that are every bit as intelligent as human beings. These animals have an existence corresponds to humanity with emotions and live purpose. The difference lies chiefly lies in the outward forms and that the patterns of animal society paralleled that of humanity who were tribal and conversed with men who lived in similar societies. As man developed, the differences became more profound and less able to be bridged. The animals also tended to congregate amongst themselves and stick together (ibid, p. 160-161).

This ambiguity has not been without its impact upon modern authors. In Common Knowledge, it is remarked that Eduardo Viveiros de Castro speaks about this ambiguous approach of the Native American and the Spanish conquistadors. Latour tells his version of this ambiguity to point out his opinion that even the most best intentioned and culturally sensitive peacemakers foul up the signals in communicating due to the cultural difference. He says that the gaps are likely unbridgeable (Castro, 2004, p. 463). This author might add the caveat that they are unbridgeable if at least one side does not want to communicate. More often that not, it has been our side in the West.

Castro compares the Western approach with the shamanism of the Amazonian Indians who like the Cree have an amazingly complex cosmogony and view of the interrelationship of humanity, the forces of nature and man interacting with the rest of the universe. He claims that nondifferentiation is almost universal amongst Native Americans. In their view, animals were once people and this causes Amerindian peoples to be more careful in their interactions with the common world (ibid, pp. 463-464).

In this author's view, it is well that Castro balances his opinions off with Latour's. It is far too easy to adopt a "noble savage" approach to relations with native peoples with has led to often to disaster, especially for the natives. It is parochial and condescending and it is very understandable that native peoples would reject it outright.

To recap, it has been this author's contention that while many of our texts in the class included Native American myths, the question of whether or not animals possess a spark of humanity or can bridge the gap between animals and humans relies upon native American or Western perspectives. Certainly, we can not ignore ancient myths from Sumeria, Babylonia or ancient Egypt, especially where their legends,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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