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.