Vitebsky described two Eveny folktales in the reading. Both had to do with how reindeer and humans came to have the relationship that they do. In one, a woman lures reindeer closer and closer because they like the salt in her urine. Eventually the woman is able to touch them and milk them, thus beginning centuries of human reindeer relationships.
The second folktale is more interesting to me. In that one, humans help create reindeer by birthing them from trees. The reindeer get older and have two calves. Eventually the reindeer are attacked by wolves and the older reindeer cower in fear and call on the God Hovki for help. The younger reindeer kill the wolves with their antlers and Hovki asks why the older reindeer could not do it themselves. Their answer was that they had been born with human help and now needed human help to survive. Hovki sent the older reindeer to live with humans the younger reindeer into the wild, never to mingle together again, thus explaining the difference between wild reindeer and domestic reindeer.
Folktales and folk practices are important because they serve as a link to a time for which few other records exist. I’ve taken a class on Russian folktales and practices in general before and the light they can shed on early history and religious beliefs is interesting. Very little is known about Slavic pagan belief is known, except for information that could be gleaned from folk tales and practices. For example, a recurring character in Russian folklore in St. Elijah. St. Elijah is a Christian figure, but the way he behaves has led scholars to believe that St. Elijah is a character from older Slavic myth, Perun the Thunder God, with a veneer of Christianity. Scholars are able to learn a great deal about Perun and other pre-Christian Slavic beliefs based on folktales.
My point with that bit of unrelated knowledge is that the Eveny folktales might tell us something about how reindeer actually first came to be domesticated. The two folktales in the introduction have a few elements in common that also line up with arguments that Bulliet made and with a point that we have talked about in class.
In the first folktale, domestication is based on a mutually beneficial relationship between reindeer and humans. The reindeer wanted the salt the woman could give them and the woman wanted the reindeer milk. This vision of domestication lines up with Bulliet’s idea that domestication was not a process that early humans discovered and mastered, but instead was more of an accident. The woman in the folktale didn’t even know that the reindeer was useful until after it was comfortable around her.
The second folktale is similar. The reindeer want to go with humans because humans can protect them from danger. The humans can use the reindeer as pack animals and the hundred other things that reindeer are good for. It is even more interesting because humans don’t really play any part in the domestication aspect of the folktale. In class we have discussed the idea of animals “choosing” to become domesticated because it is useful for them. The second folktale is interesting because the reindeer literally chose to go to the humans when Hovki asks them.
I don’t mean to say that these folktales should be taken as literal, just that the ideas presented in them may not be so farfetched. The first one paints the picture of a mutually beneficial relationship that, I think, we have decided is a good basis for domestication. The second describes the split between wild and domestic reindeer. It doesn’t seem impossible to me that older reindeer would have been easier to domesticate, it seems fairly likely. I think these folktales can give a lot of insight into the early relationship between humans and reindeer.