Recent DNA analyses have revealed that humans share a majority of our genetic makeup with other animals. Physically speaking, our similarities with our fellow beings far outweigh our differences. In the Western mindset, however, a sharp line is drawn between human beings and other animals. Because they do not communicate in our language, it is thought, we do not have much in common beyond physical structure. For Westerners, only humans have a soul, a wide range of emotions, and the unique capacities of reason, imagination, and the changing of our environment on a grand scale to meet our needs. Despite the division in our thinking, we still have intimate relationships with the animals closest to us and cannot seem to resist anthropomorphizing them. There are several societies whose conception of humans’ place in the animal world is far different from ours.
Although these kinds of belief systems are widely varied, many see us as more closely related to other creatures, both physically and spiritually. Here, I will examine a few of these non-Western ideologies and compare their conceptions of the human-animal relationship to each other and to Western ideas.
Several cultures which hold traditionally animistic religious beliefs share the concept of a time long ago during which humans were animals and vice versa. In this “Distant Time, ” “Dreamtime” or “Mythtime, ” as it is variously referred to, animals were able to take human form. Most animals, it is believed, once possessed human souls, and some cultures think that they still do, although the average person is now unable to perceive them. Folklorist Charles L. Edwards hints that this idea may have evolved out of a memory of a much earlier period in the evolution of the human species, when the common ancestor of both humans and apes roamed the earth. This apelike being lived no differently from the other predatory mammals who shared his environment. Some of his offspring later began the process of change and adaptation that would produce our species. “In outwitting his foes, instead of throttling them the diverging elementary man began to make plans of strategy. ” As their thought process grew more complex, Edwards argues, early humans expanded their thinking beyond their immediate surroundings and contemplated the unseen forces that governed their world. “[T]hese forces took form in the gods who dwelt beyond the clouds, and the myths of cosmogony and transformation arose. ” Now, when people belonging to animistic traditions look for ways of explaining the phenomena around them and of connecting their rituals to the greater processes of continuing cyclical transformation, they recall the time when myths were formed, when humans were much closer to other animals than we are today.
Edwards connects the deep sense of spiritual communion with other beings out of which myth and belief in the supernatural arise to the formative period in the development of each human being known as childhood. He relates a story of his own childhood and the time he spent watching ants in his backyard, inventing stories to match the escapades of “the ant-people. ” He envisions them as soldiers engaged in various industries at peacetime, but in wartime displaying “remarkable valor and extraordinary strategy. ” This depth of imagination, which is now the exclusive domain of children, is the fertile ground from which spring “the miracles of transformation” and the deeper sense of connection through the anthropomorphism of playful storymaking. “So we see in the child, as in primitive people [sic], the projection of his own fancies born of fear, or love, or desire, into the things about him which then become personified. ”
For many non-Westerners, the rituals associated with storytelling and traditional practice comprise an extension and evolution of childhood, where the wonder and intimacy in the natural world they experienced as children develops into a greater understanding of ourselves and other forms of life. Most Western adults are, on the surface, all too eager to put childhood behind them. Our deep longing to connect to the wider life community manifests itself in other ways, though, such as our feelings towards our companion animals.
The Distant Time stories of the Koyukon people, who inhabit the boreal forests of central Alaska, show another instance of the interrelatedness of humans and other animals in a non-Western culture. Once again, the time when human-animal transformations occurred is seen as a dreamlike phase in the formation of the earth and cosmos:
During this age [Distant Time] ‘the animals were human’-that is, they had human form, they lived in a human society, and they spoke human (Koyukon) language. At some point in the Distant Time certain humans died and were transformed into animal or plant beings [. . . ] These dreamlike metamorphoses left a residue of human qualities and personality traits in the north-woods creatures.
Distant Time stories account for natural features and occurrences, as well as for the physical forms and personalities of the animals. The myths also dictate how they must be treated. Since the animals were once human, the Koyukon believe, they can understand and are aware of human actions, words and thoughts. Although the spirits of some animals are more potent than others, it is important to treat all animals with respect because they can cause grief and bad luck for those who do otherwise. Because Koyukon people were no different from other animals in Distant Time and because of the awareness and power of animal spirits, it may appear that they do not conceive of a separation between human and animal realms. However, the Koyukon believe that only humans possess a soul which is different from the animals’ spirits. But because they accept that humans were created by a human- animal (the Raven), the distinction is less sharp than in Western cultures. The similarities between us and other animals derive not as much from the animal nature of humans as from the human nature of animals, having been human in Distant Time.
The relative absence of a boundary between the human and animal realms figures widely in the mythology of the Inuit and Eskimo. Their stories of a similar time long ago explain the way they see their world and also guide their traditional observances, rituals and overall lifestyle, much as the Distant Time stories do for the Koyukon. Just as the myths account for such things as the shape of the land, the cycles of sun, moon and seasons and the generation of all life forms, they also dictate how each person is to play his or her role in society. Tom Lowenstein investigates this phenomenon amongst the Inuit of Tikigaq Peninsula in northwestern Alaska in a poetic book entitled Ancient Land, Sacred Whale. For these people, the annual whale hunt and the elaborate preparations for it reenact a mythic cycle. The rituals surrounding the whale hunt represent a complex interplay between them and the spirit of the whale, whose power is seen as greater than that of humans. Their belief system comprehends the union of many opposites, including the human and animal. “Just as Raven Man had the double character of bird and human, and the uliuaqtaq [unmarried woman who marries Raven Man in the story] was a double creative/destructive presence , so the whale was perceived in terms of two main elements: animal and land. ” By reenacting the ages-old epic every spring, the Tikigaq Inuit play an essential role in keeping the forces of nature in balance, thereby ensuring their survival and livelihood.
A central aspect of the religious traditions of several Eskimo tribes of northeastern Canada and Greenland is the existence of the Sea Mother, who is both as a real creature living on the ocean floor and a spirit residing within sea creatures (as well as land creatures, according to some tribes). The ancient story of her coming to be the spiritual ruler of the submarine world is similar across these cultures and it serves to bind the animal and human worlds together. According to one version of the story, the Sea Mother (who goes by different names, Sedna being one of the most recognized) was once a young woman living with her father. She had refused to marry, but a sea bird disguised as a man succeeds in winning her hand and whisks her across the sea. Her life with him is miserable, and eventually her father comes and takes her with him in his boat. The bird-man is furious, so he causes a windstorm which capsizes the boat. The woman is left hanging on by her fingertips. In anger and desperation, her father decides to amputate her fingers, each of which becomes a sea creature as it drops into the water. Once the last finger is cut, the woman sinks to the sea floor, where she becomes the Sea Mother, having dominion over the souls of the creatures made from her fingers.
Since the Eskimo depend on sea creatures for most of their food supply, keeping the Sea Mother happy is an important aspect of their endeavors. She is seen as having control of the souls of many creatures, which are able to take either animal or human form, and as a union of opposites. Her power is respected as greater than the human because people are utterly dependent on other creatures for survival. However, she is also scorned because of her refusal to join human society (which is indicated by her refusal to marry) and her insistence on living in a dream world. The human/animal boundary is central to the Sea Mother’s status both as an abject outcast and as a great power to be feared and obeyed. The people’s lukewarm relationship with her is indicative of their respect for and struggle with the animals and the natural world, with which they must maintain the proper balance in order to ensure survival and sustainability.
In “Witches’ Transformations into Animals, ” M. A. Murray investigates an example of human-animal transformation in a Western setting which took place among witches in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and France, as well as in colonial New England. These witches carried on pre-Christian traditions. Each witch’s transformation ability was limited to one or two animals, usually a cat or a hare, but occasionally a dog, mouse, crow, rock or bee. Transformation was accomplished “by being invested with the skin of the creature, by the utterance of magical words, the making of magical gestures, the wearing of a magical object [amulet], or the performance of magical ceremonies. ” These methods appear as motifs in many cultures. “Distant Time” stories tell of humans becoming animals by doing any of these things, and shamans continue this practice in several places. Another common belief which Murray argues is a corollary to zoomorphism is that wounds a person receives while in the shape of an animal remain on the body after a return to the human form. Witches saw taking on the form of their particular species as a way of becoming one with that animal’s spirit, as shamans use ritual objects made of animal parts to communicate with the spirit world.
Jean Buxton examines animal and human identities in the traditional culture of the Mandari people of southern Sudan in “Animal Identity and Human Peril. ” For these people, the physical location where an animal lives relative to the human homestead and village determines its cultural and spiritual status. Like many Westerners, the Mandari draw a sharp line between the animals of the home (dogs and other domesticated animals), the animals of the village (cattle and other farmed animals), and animals of the three tiers of the wild, separated according to distance from the village.
Dogs are by far the most important animals, and are the closest to people physically and emotionally. Mandari mythology contains stories of ancient people who had dogs with horns that were featured in rain rituals. Owners of “horned” dogs had higher stature than those with “hornless” dogs. The Mandari also believe that primal dogs could speak and warn people of impending danger, and that it was the dog who taught humans the use of fire, enabling them to become more social beings. In short, the dog “is represented as needed and liked, and as reciprocating these attitudes. ” Cattle also have an important role considering their appearance in myth, their long-standing ties with people, and their economic and social importance. They do not, however, enjoy the same emotional attachment to the Mandari that dogs have. Although chickens are also considered animals of the homestead, their dual classification as “birds of the above” causes them to lack innate dignity. Therefore, it is permissible to slaughter them with impunity.
Contrarily, wild animals who inhabit homesteads, though categorized as “wild nature, ” are often given immunity from human-induced harm because of their location in the homestead. Just outside the village lies the realm of semi-domestic and scavenger animals, and further beyond lies the habitat of game and predator animals. It is here where the line between human and animal solidifies. While dogs and cattle are given the “dignity and integrity of ‘psyche’, ” game animals and those capable of killing people are not seen as deserving of any respect. One notable exception is the leopard, which is seen as more “like a person” and is given elaborate death rites. “Mandari are quite clear about the basic separation between man and animal, and of the fact that while man is a part of the animal world, an animal is never a man. ”
Although the concept of the boundary between humans and animals varies between cultures, there are few examples of people for whom humans are absolutely no different from the other creatures with whom we share our world. In the cultures examined here, the existence of well-defined roles for each species, which are generally learned through myths that describe how each animal got its place in the living community, defines the way animals are regarded and what spiritual significance they are given. The grand variability of ideas about the human/animal division is indicative of our species’ multifaceted relationship with other species. The fact that humans are almost universally seen as unique may, in some respects, serve to qualify the uniqueness of nonhuman animal species. Certainly, for non- Western cultures especially, our exceptionality does not always make us the most powerful or important species. It only serves to define our place in the natural world and, in many cases, to deepen our connection to other species.
Malcolm Kenton is a sophomore and full-time student at Guilford College in North Carolina, where he is majoring in Environmental Studies and Political Science. His interests include activism on behalf of animal protection and the environment, politics, computers, music and reading and writing. He resides in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was the editor of his high school newspaper and has had op-ed pieces published in the Greensboro News and Record.