Hunting in the Human Way: The Shaman and Hunting Magic
Today most of us would think that a discussion on shamanism and hunting magic to be purely academic. However I think that a proper understanding of ancient shamanism and hunting magic is necessary to understand our modern environmental movement and the philosophies that exist within it. For instance many people might think that the greatest difference between the ancient hunters and modern hunters are in the weapons they carry. However, in the end, whether the hunter is using a spear or a high-powered rifle, a kill is a kill, nothing more nothing less.
The real difference is in the philosophies of the ancient and modern hunter. The ancient hunter was able to recognize or believe that the deer he killed had a spirit. This spirit might belong to a collective spirit of nature, or more likely the spirit of the "Great Deer". People would pray to these collective animal deities like the Great Deer or the Great Buffalo or have the shaman do rituals to please them, thus convincing the animal deity to give of itself, to let the hunter take one of his kind for nourishment.
Often these prayers and rituals were done with a sense of desperation as a hunter's family or tribe was without food. It was in need and desperation that ancient hunters would call on the spirits for help.
The modern hunter comes from a very different philosophical point of view. Most often his monotheistic beliefs do not allow for the deer to have a spirit, collective or otherwise.
Whether he's an atheist or not, he can conceive of the idea, that someone that believes in no gods or spirits at all. They are often influenced by the scientific point of view that animals are mechanistic in nature. This strips them of any supernatural connection. We must also consider the fact that a modern hunter seldom goes into the field with hunger and desperation.
It is these differences that we, as modern humans, must first consider in order to understand hunting in the human way in regards to shamanism and hunting magic. There is also another philosophy that must be considered to fully understand this issue. That is the philosophy of the modern environmentalist. This has its own curious similarities and differences to shamanism and hunting magic. Like the beliefs of ancient people, this modern philosophy generally allow for such things as mountains and trees and butterflies to have souls, or spirits of some kind. Yet they put little value on ancient knowledge, such as tracking and reading sign, presence and awareness, or primal experiences such as making a kill and partaking of it. Therefore, for a modern person to acquire a useful understanding of shamanistic practices and hunting magic, they should be well versed in these three distinct philosophies and have some degree of traditional knowledge and experiences
Now, having dealt with these philosophies and differences we must also consider that there are things that have not changed, especially if we use big game hunting as our model.
There are seven separate components of the hunt that have not changed. This leads to some similarity in the philosophy of both the ancient and modern hunters. This then leads to distinct differences in the philosophy of somebody from the modern environmental philosophy that has never experienced the hunt.
We must examine these seven different components of the hunt to understand their philosophical and shamanistic consequences in both the ancient and modern world.
The first major component of the hunt we can label preparation. In ancient times this might have meant making a few more arrowheads or in modern times buying some ammunition. Using a modern type of language we could say the psychological environment of the hunt starts here. Also the difference between the ancient and modern hunter starts here. The ancient hunter is more likely to have his arrowheads blessed by a shaman and involve himself in prayers and rituals in preparation for the hunt. The modern hunter does none of this, but there is one powerful psychological component of this phase of the hunt that is the same for both ancient and modern hunter’s and that is the kill is essentially premeditated.
The second major component of the hunt is the search/hunt that starts when the hunter enters the environment with his weapon in hand. Here, an ancient hunter would enter the environment believing that the mountains, trees, and butterflies have spirits and the necessity of having the shaman's hunting magic for protection and success. The modern hunter puts more confidence in his personal skill and equipment, to bring about success. Then sees the mountains trees and butterflies as beautiful and inspiring. Through all this, both ancient and modern hunter’s must conduct themselves in the same manner to achieve the same goal, and that is to bring about the next major component of the hunt.
The third component of the hunt is the stalk. This occurs when the hunter has found a suitable animal and begins to close in to make the kill. This is often described as a time that is exciting and thrilling, a time when the hunter experiences a heightened psychological and environmental awareness. This component of hunting is one of the primary reasons that people still go hunting to this very day. Having experienced this myself, I can tell you it will affect you, and how you understand yourself in the natural world. No doubt that in the ancient world, this component of the hunt was the focus of much of the shamans hunting magic. To start with, to properly stalk an animal is a form of respect. If you do not properly respect the animal's intelligence and sensory perception you will fail. It is my experience that this form of respect only grows with experience. It is from this traditional form of respect, that a different emotional and intellectual response to the kill is derived. Here we find the philosophical difference between the ancient hunter and the modern hunter is reduced through the shared experience of the stalk. At the same time a greater difference between the modern hunter and a person with a modern environmental philosophy occurs, since the latter has not experienced the stalk, nor do they wish to. However it is interesting to note that they work to achieve a similar form of respect through philosophical and intellectual means, rather than through technical, emotional, and bloody means of the stalk and kill.
The fourth component of the hunt is the kill. Here we find the differences between the ancient and modern hunter interesting and complex. For instance, for the ancient hunter, killing was an important part of everyday life, and for the modern hunter it is also important, but a rarity. To explore shamanism and hunting magic as it pertains to killing, we can look at some of the behavior that surrounds killing. One of the many interesting behaviors that one can experience is the killing frenzy. This can be done by a coyote, house cat, or human being. This phenomenon occurs when a predator feels an emotional exhilaration from the act of killing and simply does not want to stop. I know of no shamanistic ritual or hunting magic that deals with this situation. However it is important to understand that the very act of killing something is a ritual because it deals with life and death, the physical reality, and the supernatural. Many farming societies recognize this and have added further development to the ritual of killing animals, such as the kosher laws and animal sacrifice. When a human being kills something, especially something large like a deer or a bear, it can cause a flood of emotions such as fear, pride, joy, guilt, and remorse. In ancient times the shaman was there with his wisdom and rituals to guide the hunters thoughts and soul through all this.
In today’s world a hunter often does not have access to this type of wisdom, let alone rituals.
There may be some older hunter or guide in camp that know some of these things, but due to the culture and custom of our times, such things are not always talked about in a manner that they should be.
The fifth component of the hunt is butchering. No doubt many ancient shamen presided over this in some ceremonial manner. Here it should also be noted that perhaps the oldest evidence of human existence are butcher sites where the stone tools and the bones were left to tell the story. Today’s hunter takes on this process without ceremony or mysticism. It is just a job that needs to be done. However it is important to understand the physical process has seen little change since the Stone Age, giving our ancient and modern hunter a similar experience. Once the hunter has gotten over his emotional response to the kill. the butchering can start. The first thing that happens is a quick examination of the animal. Was it healthy, does it have a good hide, or is it a proper trophy. Then traditionally, the hunter makes an examination on the wound or wounds that killed the animal to assess his or others skill and effectiveness. Then the butchering starts in earnest. Usually this entails opening up the body cavity and removing the internal organs. This is a bloody, slimy job that most people simply don’t want to do. This no doubt is one of the major reasons people no longer hunt or raise animals for their own personal consumption. But once you’ve gotten used to it it’s just a job. After the carcass has been parted out properly, most people can view and handle the various parts with little or no emotions.
The sixth component of the hunt is cooking. While no doubt some meat was eaten raw and other portions of it might be set aside to be dried, most of it was destined to be cooked.
In ancient times a successful hunter would return to camp loaded with meat. This meat would have a lineage rooted in the physical and intellectual and spiritual capabilities of the hunter. This would be known to all that this meat passed through all the various steps of shamanism and hunting magic proper for that time and culture. This is very different from lineage of meat that is purchased at a supermarket. Today we tend to look at cooking as a technical skill rather than something mystical, but if we look closely from time to time, we will still see the faint ghost of the ancient shamans in our midst. We can usually see this at a typical backyard barbecue where one of the dominant males has taken to ritually cooking the meat. Wearing the proper regalia such as special ceremonial headdress, (a chef’s hat) this tends to increase his stature and signify that he is different from anybody else at this gathering. When done properly he and he alone is the only one to use the special ceremonial implements, usually a big spatula and fork. Then when it’s time he makes the formal announcement that the meat is ready. Standing there in his ceremonial regalia and implements he presides over the distribution of the cooked meat. In today’s world this is the time when this dominant male/shaman will greet everybody there from the elderly to the youngest child and he will ceremoniously provide for them. In ancient times this ceremony had greater meaning. For instance, this dominant male or shaman might give a larger portion to a pregnant woman and a smaller one to an unsuccessful hunter, based on what he thought was physically advantageous and spiritually correct. Here in the act of cooking food we can see the distance between us and our hunter-gatherer past, and perhaps appreciate the fact that when we get a chance we still act as hunter-gatherers.
The seventh and final component of the hunt is eating. Here we find that you are literally what you eat, physically, scientifically, and spiritually. We find the physical and scientific reality is very obvious. If one eats a lot of carbohydrates and sugar you will certainly gain weight and if your diet is deficient in some mineral or vitamin your health will suffer. Likewise if one considers themselves a spiritual being what they eat and how they eat it also matters in the spiritual realm.
We can see one of the last remnants of this idea is in people that still say grace/prayers before they eat a meal. This recognition, that there is a spiritual reality in food, is most often made by more traditionally minded people such as hunters, or people that still farm some of their food, or participate in an intact religious system. It seems that this ancient idea that food has a spiritual component is dying out. No doubt it has some relation to the growing dominance of factory produced food. There are other vestiges of our ancient shamanistic hunter-gatherer past that pertain to eating that are still with us and worth understanding. Here we can explore two of them to get an understanding of what they were in the past and their significance in our present time. We can start by looking at a restaurant that specializes in serving chicken. Often such a place will have a large statue of a chicken outside to attract customers. In this statue we can see some of the hallmarks of our ancient shamanistic past. To start with it’s a perfect healthy looking chicken and this has similarities to what the ancient Greeks would call the perfect form. This concept goes something like this; Out there somewhere is a perfect chicken and all other chickens are related to it, and are less than perfect in some way. And of course the large size is very reminiscent of the animal deities in many hunter gatherer cultures. Then there are the eyes. These eyes are not the eyes of a normal chicken. The eyes on this statue usually express intelligence and happiness, something that the eyes of the real chicken cannot do. The message that this statue transmits is subliminal to some and completely missed by others. Yet clear and decisive, it comes from our ancient shamanistic past. It is nothing less than the great chicken deity showing its approval for us to eat of chicken at this restaurant.
Our next character of interest is one that you’ll often find on a sign at a place that serves barbecue pork. This character will often look like a pig with significant differences from a normal pig. He will often wear a chef’s hat and an apron, signifying that not only is he different and intelligent but that he’s the one doing the cooking. And while he is recognizable as a pig, he often has his body shaped somewhat like a human so that he can stand up on his two hind legs and perhaps holding on to a fork and spatula in his hands, which real pigs do not have. In the overall symbolism here we can recognize he is not only the one that is giving but also that which is being given. To take this line of reasoning a little further, one can see that he is the mirror image of the ancient shaman. That is the Great Pig in his human style regalia is symbolically transmitting his message to us. In ancient times the shamans, in this case dressed in their pig regalia, and carrying their symbolic weapons, would try to get a message through to the Great Pig of all pigs. So as we look at this sign we can see half of this ancient exchange between our reality and the spiritual reality in plain view in the modern world, and achieving the desired and traditional effect. And that is to assure people that it is good and proper to eat pork cooked here. In the end it is amazing to realize what we as humans go through to get something to eat. Well I suppose that’s just the way of things.