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 The Animal and the Human

Recent DNA analyses have revealed that humans share a majority of their 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 the 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.

The Animal and the Human

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 that 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
they are 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 story-making. "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
the practice comprises an extension and evolution of childhood, where the wonder and
intimacy in the natural world they experienced as children develop 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.

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 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
the 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
the character of bird and human, and the uliuaqtaq [an 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
a 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 seafloor, where she becomes the Sea Mother, having dominion
over the souls of the creatures made from her fingers.

Why Do Dogs Roam

Since the Eskimo depend on sea creatures for most of their food supply, keeping the
Sea Mother happiness 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
a 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.


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