- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Ice and Fire
Long ago and far away in space-time ice covered the Earth. It would feel strange to us now, we who live in a warm time when snow only comes for a few weeks in winter, if at all.
In northerly climes like Scandinavia, parts of Russia, Canada and America, snow may come for several months over the winter but we have to go up into Arctic to find snow all the year round, and those lands are shrinking every year now because of global warming and climate change. We watch wonderful programmes like Frozen Planet but we cannot imagine living there. If we really stretch the imagination, our mind tells us that such an existence would be terrible, frightening, cold and miserable. We admire the explorers and scientists who go there for many months at a time but we do not believe the frozen wastes to be places to live, to make great art and philosophy; we consider them to be too bitterly cold to even think. Our ancestors didn't share these feelings as this beautiful carving shows.
This sculpture, known as the Swimming Reindeer, was created at least 13,000 years ago, that's three thousand years before the end of the last Ice Age. It's carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk and shows a male and female reindeer with their heads raised and legs extended. The depiction is remarkable in its naturalism; it conveys movement and displays the hunter's knowledge of anatomy. It was discovered in 1866 as two separate pieces and acquired by the British Museum in 1887.
The fragility of the connection between the two halves shows that it was not a practical object but rather a masterpiece of figurative art. Its significance to the people who created it remains a mystery to archaeologists. For me, it is one of many things which tell me the Reindeer Goddess was important to humankind from back into very ancient times.
If we wanted to have this made for us now it would need craft-skills of superb delicacy as well as an exquisite visionary talent ... but it was made when the Earth was deep in an Ice Age. Our ancestors were not savages as was the perceived academic wisdom until quite recently; they were people of amazing culture which must, from the intricacy of such art, have had great spiritual depth. There are not many artists nowadays who could achieve such an evocative and skilled piece of work.
What would it be like to live the life of these people? How did they see the world and know the gods, the powers, and their elder brethren – the animals and plants and rocks?
Our Deer-Trod Following Ancestors
Reindeer have been around for a long time.
Wild reindeer have been a major resource for humans throughout the northernmost parts of the northern hemisphere for tens of thousands of years, from the Middle Pleistocene. Norway and Greenland have unbroken traditions of hunting wild reindeer from the ice age up to the present day. In the nonforested mountains of central Norway you can find the remains of stone trapping pits, guiding fences, and bow rests built especially for hunting reindeer, that have likely been in use since the Stone Age.
In the North American continent reindeer are called caribou. Caribou is an important source of food, clothing, shelter and tools in the traditional lifestyle of the Inuit people, Northern First Nations people, Alaska Natives, and the Kalaallit people of Greenland. Many Gwich'in people, who depend on the Porcupine caribou, still follow traditional ways of caribou management. These folk still follow the old ways that are similar to hunter-gatherer and pastoralist paths.
Before farming, the land was owned by none; it was known to be for all, all life belonged to the Earth, including all animal, plant and mineral life as well as humans. The concept of ownership began with farming.
Hunting and gathering was the ancestral way of life for humans for most of the six million years of our evolution from apes. It began to change about 10,000 years ago when agriculture began; before that all modern humans, homo sapiens, were hunter-gatherers. It was a very different way of life to what we know now as largely citified humans. Over the next few thousand years hunter-gatherers were displaced by farmers and, to some extent, by pastoralist groups in most parts of the world. Only a few contemporary societies are still able to be hunter-gatherers and many of those supplement foraging with keeping or following animals.
Life was good for the hunter-gatherers. Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer people didn't suffer from famine and malnutrition like the Neolithic farming tribes that followed them because they had access to a far wider variety of plants and animals and fish. The famines experienced by both Neolithic and modern farmers were and are caused, and intensified, by their dependence on a small number of crops. The Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers didn't suffer the modern diseases of affluence either, diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease, because they ate mostly lean meats and plants, and engaged in lots of physical activity.
Archaeological evidence from the Dordogne region of France shows they used lunar calendars giving the phases of the moon. Solar calendars do not appear until the Neolithic period. But our hunter-gatherer ancestors understood the seasons perfectly well, they knew how to follow the migration of animals like deer, and wild cattle and horses, far better than most of us do now.
At first, when the farmers began to take over and control the Earth, many hunter-gatherer groups continued their ways of life. Their numbers have continually declined as a result of pressure from growing agricultural and pastoral communities. As the number and size of agricultural societies increased, they expanded into lands traditionally used by hunter-gatherers, driving the hunter-gatherers out or forcing them to change into farmers. This process of agriculture-driven expansion led to the development of the first forms of what we know as modern government in agricultural centres such as the Fertile Crescent, Ancient India, Ancient China, Olmec, Sub-Saharan Africa and Norte Chico. The new farming societies also gave rise to the concept of war through the idea of ownership.
Many of the remaining hunter-gatherer societies now live in arid regions or tropical forests. Those areas which were formerly available to them were—and continue to be—encroached upon by the settlements of agriculturalists. The resulting competition for land use meant that hunter-gatherer societies either adopted farming or moved to other areas. Usually they were forced into lands much less suitable for their lifestyle and, in consequence, they became malnourished and sick, and so died out. According to American scientist and author Jared Diamond the ignorant practices of farmers, including overexploitation, caused many large mammal species to become extinct. This was further complicated in 19th century America by the idiotic romantic concept of "good animal" (pretty herbivore) and "bad animal" (wolf). The subsequent hunting of large predators which grew up wrecked the habitat balance which the hunter-gatherers and pastoralists had helped nature (the goddess) to maintain for millennia. Hunting wolves became a sort of religious war; it extends, still, to bears and big cats. The stupid and foolhardy modern destruction, such as began with the creation of the first National Park, Yellowstone, for material profit (i.e. tourism to line pockets) still goes on.
We see this still continuing today. Indeed there are still arguments over the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone although it has been proven that without wolves to balance their numbers the herbivores kill the forest. Intelligent scientists now realise how well the hunter-gatherer societies, who were thrown out of Yellowstone by the railway profiteers, worked with nature to maintain a proper ecological balance.
Another thing to note about hunter-gatherer society is that the division of labour was quite different to the way we have been taught to think of it. For our ancestors, man was not superior ... but neither was woman.
Back in 1966 at the "Man the Hunter" conference in Chicago, anthropologists Richard Borshay Lee and Irven DeVore made the (then) radical suggestion that egalitarianism was a major characteristic of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Being mobile, following the herds and the seasons, along with the efficient use of resources, knocks on the head all the ego-ideas of male superiority and female inferiority.
Personal material possessions were minimal, just what you needed to live and likely included only things such as a knife and axe, bow-drill hearth and maybe cord, a cookpot/carryall, and some form of "poncho" that you could use as a hammock or tarp. Collecting excess possessions was unhelpful, wasteful, greedy and unnecessary; to do so would be to steal from the land's own resources which other creatures and plants would need. Our ancestors were "ultralight backpackers". In their philosophy the people belonged to the land. It was only with the advent of farming that this concept was turned on its head to become the farmers' philosophy that people owned the land. This is a concept we are all familiar with nowadays. When following the herds, moving from place to place as the herds followed the seasons, was normal we knew our connectedness with the Earth and the goddess much more clearly than we do now. Grasping, greed, the fear of loss, the envy of another man's field, all these were concepts that had no place to exist before we decided to be owners and to control the Earth.
At the "Man the Hunter" conference, Marshall Sahlins presented a paper entitled Notes on the Original Affluent Society in which he challenged the popular view that hunter-gatherers lived lives that were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" as Thomas Hobbes had put it back in 1651. Sahlins showed that hunter-gatherers needed to work far fewer hours – now thought to be about 15 hours/week – than the later farmers in order to enjoy far more leisure than is nowadays typical for members of any industrial society. Hunter-gatherers ate well and seasonally, so their bodies were well nourished by what is best at each time of the year. Nowadays we have the rather childish attitudes of being overly fussy and wanting "treats" all the time, such as strawberries in midwinter. The hunter-gatherer affluence came about because they needed very little in the material sense in order to be content, and to produce beautiful art which is an expression of a deep philosophy ... unlike us today.
Mutual exchange and sharing of resources, such as the meat gained from hunting or the berries harvested for preserving, wine and cordial, are important in hunter-gatherer societies. In our modern way of classifying, labelling and putting into boxes, we sometimes describe such practices as gift economies although we don't really understand the concept of gifting. Gifting is an ancient shamanic habit; we gift between each other, between ourselves and other tribes; we gift the land and receive gifts from the land; and we gift between worlds. It's a fundamental part of shamanic practice to gift back to the land and to Otherworld as well as to other people. This is another trait we have largely lost in modern society except at midwinter sun-return and birthdays.
There is a vast amount of ethnographic and archaeological evidence which demonstrates that the sexual division of labour in which men hunt and women gather wild fruits and vegetables is uncommon and unlikely among hunter-gatherers worldwide. The evidence suggests gathering is often done by women but no society has ever been found in which men completely abstain from gathering easily available plants. Often women hunt the small game while men tend to hunt the large game, likely because the human male torso has more strength than the female and men may have more stamina for a long running chase. But there are quite a few documented exceptions to this; for instance, in the Philippines, about 85% of Aeta women hunt, and they hunt the same quarry as men. Studies show that Aeta women hunt in groups, and with dogs, and have a 31% success rate as opposed to 17% for men; their rates are even better when they combine forces with men. The Jul'hoansi women in Namibia track the quarry for the men.
Recent archaeological research by anthropologist and archaeologist Steven Kuhn from the University of Arizona suggests that the sexual division of labour did not exist prior to the Upper Paleolithic. It seems to have developed very recently in human history, probably with the beginning of land-ownership. The idea that sexual division of labour arose to allow humans to acquire food and other resources more efficiently is a myth, likely instigated by power/land/property struggles rather than for any life-enhancing reasons.
As a result of the now near-universal human reliance upon agriculture, the few contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures are only able to live in areas the farmers consider unsuitable for agricultural use. This change in how we work – with each other as well as with the Earth – has brought us to a place where one sex dominates the other. We have lost our way ... we no longer follow the deer-trods.
Deer and Humans
The earliest fossil deer were found in Europe and date from about 34 million years ago.
This exquisite Lascaux cave painting is of the Irish Elk, Megaloceros giganteus who first appeared about 400,000 years ago, that's in the time of archaic Homo sapiens ancestors. This gigantic deer stood over two metres tall at the shoulder, that's nearly seven foot in old money, they had the largest antlers of any known deer at over three and a half metres from tip to tip and weighed in at maybe 600 kg. There's an impressive and significant collection of Irish Elk skeletons at the Natural History Museum in Dublin.
The Lascaux painting is quite stunning and shows how very well our ancestors knew deer. It was painted on the wall of a cave in southern France, far underground and hidden from everyday sight. To see it you made a journey into the womb of the Earth, in darkness; then, with the flame-lights lit, you would stand in the presence of the Deer Spirit.
Undoubtedly we ate these deer, the butchered bones in caves all over Britain and Europe attest to this. Archaeologists suggest the paintings were a form of calling to the gods for help with the hunt and that's a part of it but there's more than that. Shamanic peoples know hunting and killing a beast is a sacred task, your beast will show itself to you, stop maybe, make it quite obvious that he or she is the one you should kill. People who live wild know this whether they are knowingly working with spirit or not, too many "odd things" happen so that you really feel you're pushing "coincidence" far too far. Unless you go out and experience this for yourself it can be hard for modern city folk to appreciate.
Shamanic people everywhere know the interconnectedness of all life ... and this means what you eat and what eats you too. Our bodies and those of animals and plants are all made of the same atoms that make up Mother Earth: the atoms that make up your skin and organs and brain have all been atoms of rock and cabbage and cat and motor car and concrete and other people etc, etc ... and they will be so again after you no longer need them. Spirit, your spirit, builds your body like a space-suit for living on Planet Earth out of the stuff of Earth. Your spirit then inhabits the space-suit for the duration of your incarnation and at the end, when your body dies, all the atoms go back into the Earth again to become other things.
When you're in touch with your spirit and, even more so, when you know yourself to be that spirit rather than just your little personal self you know this in your bones rather than in your head. It's all the stuff I was brought up with as normal and has been so for awenyddion, spirit keepers, for time out of mind. Knowing this means you know to ask for permission to kill your food ... and you kill a carrot every time you pull one up to eat it (or buy it in a shop) just as much as a cow or sheep of deer is killed so you can eat meat. You and the cow and the sheep and the deer and the carrot all share the same atoms; some of the stuff that currently makes up your body may well have been atoms in a deer and, when you die, some of your atoms may go on to be a carrot. As awenydd you know this; you respect all of life whatever its shape and form; and you know that we all nourish each other in a completely physical way, all the time.
I think these paintings are about all of that; a far more complex, and complete, idea of the world, the universe and everything.
Excerpted from Shaman Pathways Elen of the Ways by Elen Sentier. Copyright © 2013 Elen Sentier. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
About Elen Sentier.................... viii
1. Ice and Fire.................... 3
2. Goddess of the North Wind.................... 16
3. Sovereignty.................... 22
4. The Deer Goddess of the Ancient Caledonians.................... 31
5. 2012 Scotland.................... 35
6. Following the Deer Trods.................... 60
7. Deer Stalking – Working with Elen.................... 67