On choice, fate, and more of the same.

One thing that I’ve always found fascinating is religion and how beliefs differ, or don’t, around the world. The Ancient Aliens enthusiast in me wants to see ancient astronauts in the story of Hovki. Could it be that the midsummer flight to the sun is actually referring to an alien spacecraft? After, there’s nothing in that legend that says it wasn’t aliens. Proof positive? I think so. I do wonder how this idea of flying reindeer got so popular, though. Whether it’s on Santa’s sleigh or in the legends of Siberian nomads, reindeer always seem to abandon their hooves for wings, so to speak.

That aside, there was one idea that came up a few times within the reading and I thought it was worth touching on. The Eveny legends tell of a time when animals (Specifically reindeer) were offered domestication as a choice, a gift, in much the same way that humans are offered the gift of knowledge in various myths. Knowing, of course, that these are myths, it still struck me as a very interesting way to look at our history, which has understandably been human-centric. It’s a mythical characteristic normally reserved for humans but given in this case to reindeer; choices are things people make, not animals. Perhaps that is what I found most intriguing about the Eveny peoples; it was the blurring of the line between the human and the animal, between the physical and the spiritual—distinctions that are obvious and well established in our own culture. There is a connectedness about the way they see the world that is, frankly, beautiful. It reminded me very much of the way Native Americans would view nature, almost as this collective entity of which the human is only one part.

But there is something else about the Eveny, something much subtler, that I think plays into that—Even as I write this, I’m not sure how to go about discussing it, but it will bother me for a while if I don’t try. I’ll get to that in a little bit. The Grandmother on page 277 says “There is a God, who ordains our fate.” The hunter, a few pages before, says that on more than one occasion, animals have been sacrificed to save his life where his should have been lost. Different people are certainly different, but cultures generally share similar values. The question I pose to you is this; isn’t there a bit of discord in that? If someone is meant to die, they will die, and if they are meant to live, they will live. This is the rigid definition of fate that many of us are familiar with; one cannot simply appease fate with the sacrifice of another. The way Vitebsky writes about it, it seems as though the Eveny view fate as less of a law and more of a force—in the way that small objects gravitate around large ones. Fate is the earthbound, the terrestrial, and we are drawn, but not tied to it. This is key, it means that we can escape fate: but how? In the case of the hunter, there is a sentience to nature that can even drive away fate. That can save him even when he should die. There is something extremely powerful about that. Fate is a question central to all people, it unifies us in its scope, and that single question of self determination is the wind that fills the sails of so many religions. The uniqueness of the Eveny is simply this: the idea that nature is stronger than fate. It’s the pastoralism of the Eveny shaping their beliefs. I don’t know how to even begin to dissect that.

That was a bit of a rant and I really hope it made sense/was on the mark, but for now I’ll try to circle back into domestication with a relevant question for Tuesday. Vitebsky briefly brings up this idea (pp. 25-26) of Russian scholars who believe that the “domestic” variant of the reindeer is actually descended from a different ancestor than its wild counterparts. The modern wild reindeer, they say, can’t be domesticated. This seems to mirror Jared Diamond’s own views on the subject, namely that there are species that, due to inherent and immutable characteristics, can or cannot be domesticated. This made me think back to last week’s discussion and our dissenting opinions and it made me curious: which view of domestication is more popular? Of course, popularity =/= truthfulness, but still. My personal opinion, as I’ve hinted in the past, is that we have resources and capabilities today (Technology is often penicillin to problems that were once considered unsolvable. Think tuberculosis/consumption, which has been reduced from a death sentence to an inconvenience in the first world) that our ancestors did not, and before we write something off as impossible it’s important to tackle it with everything in our toolbox. Whether it’s worthwhile to do that is another question entirely. I’m not even saying that I disagree with Diamond, I just don’t think enough has been done in the present day to validate this view.

4 thoughts on “On choice, fate, and more of the same.

  1. Really interesting post. I like you discussion of religion and destiny. How different is that idea that an animal can die in your stead from the Christian idea that Jesus died in their stead or the Jewish idea that animals must be sacrificed? Of course, Christians and Jews believe that those deaths are protecting them from hell, punishment from their sins, rather than simply protecting them from death. However, it seems to me that these are parallel ideas.

    I addressed your point about domesticate-ability at length in my post this week (I kind of went on a rant!), but I, too, would like to know which is the more popular belief among historians and to know which is the most popular opinion among animal geneticists.

  2. What a terrific post, Bill! The question of fate and destiny touches (again) on issues far beyond (but intricately bound up with) issues of domestication and the nature of human-animal relations. I’m thinking back to our discussion about agency a couple of weeks ago. If everything is fated or pre-ordained, then there is little room for contingency, and the actions of an individual (animal or person) don’t really matter that much, and we are all much less “free” than we imagine. So I’m with the Eveny on this one. I have to believe that there are forces (nature will do here) that outdo or at least counter-balance “fate.” What makes the Eveny especially interesting, to my mind, is their recognition of the agency and power of individual animals as well as humans.

  3. Your discussion on fate really intrigued me and you did a great job of putting it into words. I was fascinated with the power animals in the culture of the Envy people but I was unable to reach your conclusion that they see nature as more powerful than fate. I think this is a very good point but I am going to try to put my thoughts into words as well. I think the Envy culture shows a respect for the balance of the world and sees all things as equal through Bayanay. Perhaps fate and nature are the same thing in this culture. If a death is needed to balance things and all things are equal then nature sees no difference in the death between a reindeer and a human as long as balance is restored. The point I’m trying to make is maybe fate is more of a universal thing to the Envy people that does not distinguish between individuals. This is very contradictory to Western belief and shows the uniqueness of the Reindeer People.

  4. I’m going to have to agree with you completely on your ancient astronaut theory. The Eveny were clearly a slave worker force for Soviets who had harnessed alien technology. The flying reindeer were just one of the many tools the Eveny had to use to complete their work.

    I really appreciate your mention of the Eveny’s domestication myth. I’m almost reminded of Bulliet’s distinction between the various animal-human worldviews that came out of the enlightenment. The implicit idea in foreign cultures that animals share a close kinship with humans always makes me pause. I think it would be extremely interesting to spend a class brainstorming how our culture would change if we were to hold some of those similar beliefs. Even if we never live in a such a culture, I’m inclined to believe that adopting some of those foreign principles might really change how we approach daily life, even during experiences not explicitly related to animal-human relations.

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