On Folktales

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.

7 thoughts on “On Folktales

  1. So, if not taken literally, how would you describe the domestication of reindeer? I believe the women with the urine makes a lot of since, in accordance to your statement of a “mutual benefit” of each other. But how do we incorporate the wild versus domestic reindeer story into today’s logic? Could there have possibly been a reindeer trapped in a tree (not as far as the story goes, but because of accidental trapping) and a human came to free it, thus making the reindeer think that human interaction was ok? Then that reindeer started interacting and staying with humans, thus the domestication of the reindeer? And that story kept getting passed down through generations and generations, with one Papa twisting the tale into a more fantastical version of the reality?

    Who knows, but it was a good arguement, eh?

  2. It is very interesting to me that these folktales keep the most important points from historical occurrences. How is it that these most important points (domestication as a mutually beneficially relationship, for example) are the ones that last, while the less important themes do not last? How do the tellers of the folk tales know?

    I’m a scientist, not a historian, and I had never really thought about folktales until I read your post. It really made me think and now I want to learn more about folktales. Thanks! Great job.

    • First of all, folktales are an incredibly rich and interesting subject to study, so you should definitely try to learn more about them.

      I think we listen to folktales and deem things important based on what we find important. The domestication of reindeer seems important to us and to the Eveny. I’m sure they have an overabundance of folktales that seem irrelevant to us, but are extremely important to them. I think its less about them preserving important themes, and more about us determining what is important based on our own context.

  3. I really liked the folktales from this book as well. I have always found myths and folktales to be really interesting. Like Camilla, I am more science oriented than I am history oriented, which I think is why I find folktales and myths so intriguing because they give me a very different perspective on things than I get in my classes. I also agree with you 100% that we determine what folktales are important. I think western society only popularizes the stories that back up the opinions that they are trying to convince others of. I think that if we were able to put together all of the folklore on any specific subject, we could learn just as much from the overlaps of these stories as we could from scientific methods.

  4. This discussion of folk tales definitely increases my respect for them in understanding the history of domestication. It appears this is happening for others as well as myself too. The idea presented in these folktales is not a new one: domestication emerging due to mutually beneficial relationships. However, it is within these folk takes that we can better understand the culture of reindeer. To understand this culture is to understand why reindeer are different than other domesticated animals.

    We can grant to other cultures the same significance to animals, people and ideas that we recognize in our culture. But, is that enough? The question that dictates our complete understanding then is, can we thoroughly understand any past (or present) culture without being brought up and have lived according to its forms?
    How limited are we in our current paradigm?

    To some degree I think folktales can help our understanding.

  5. I really like the connection you made between these folktales and Bulliet. You looked past the myth and improbability of such events happening and gathered real information from it. I think the culture and the respect for reindeer that the Envy people have clearly shows that domestication happened mutually between people and animal. They do not see domesticated animals as we do and it only makes sense that this started from a respect even in the beginnings of domestication.
    I am very curious about the split between wild and domestic reindeer. Even if there is a distinct difference between wild reindeer and domestic reindeer it seems that neither are at the extreme, and are in fact closely related. This is to say it seems that wild reindeer are not too wild and domestic reindeer are not too domestic.
    Folktales and superstitions can also give a lot of insight on the relationship between people and wolves. I find it interesting that in other parts of the world people harnessed the power of wolves to aid them, yet the Eveny people despise them. This must be because of the connection they have with reindeer. They do not want power to overwhelm and dominate reindeer as would result in using wolves. This goes back to Ingold’s discussion about not taking more than is needed.

  6. I find the second folktale especially intriguing as well. It suggests that the first reindeer came into the world with human assistance — as domesticates — and that their offspring chose to become wild — an interesting inversion of the more common trajectory of domestication.

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