In our past reading, Goat Song, we explored the cultural and societal impacts of the pastoral raising of herd animals like goats, cows, and sheep. The current reading, The Reindeer People, dives into the same topics with a different subject, the nomadic herders of reindeer. There is a huge cultural difference between these two societies, possibly stemming from the differences between their domesticates.
Pastoral societies developed monotheistic religions, with one all-powerful god ruling over his people, possibly mirroring the relationship between a shepherd and his flock. In contrast, the native religions of Siberia focus more on spirits inhabiting people, animals, and places. While reindeer are domesticated, they have changed very little in appearance, and don’t immediately convey a sense of human dependence like pigs and cow do. What this means is that animals are seen more as independent entities to be bargained with, rather than exploited. When an animal is killed there are necessary rituals to complete, just as when a person dies. Rather than harnessing animals’ power like in pastoral cultures, shamans merged with animals to gain their abilities. While most animals were deserving of some amount of respect within the reindeer herders’ cultures, there was one animal deserving of scorn, the wolf. Wolves are competitors and thieves, stealing ones work and killing without any respect.
An interesting mental quirk is described in The Reindeer People, demonstrating how humans can compartmentalize their beliefs. While hunting game or predators, the animals are only seen as instances of their species, “a wolf” or “an elk.” By contrast, domesticated animals are more often given names and seen as individuals. This same phenomenon can be seen in the modern world applied to out post-domestic society. We are taught that cows go moo and pigs go oink, but otherwise don’t generally develop any personal attachment to them. These animals domesticated for food are rarely given individual names and are instead seen as individual instances of the species as a whole. We do, however, form deep attachments to our pets and animals domesticated for companionship. It’s interesting to see a similar disparity in attitudes in a society involved with its domesticates.