Cosmology and Mythology Research Paper

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The term cosmology comes from the Greek word kosmos, meaning “the world or universe as an ordered and harmonious system.” A cosmology is any composition or cultural construct relating to the structure and process of systems of creation: the origins of physical elements of earthly or astronomical spheres, the genesis of the material world, the order and function of the observable universe. In philosophy, it is taken to mean that part of metaphysics dealing with the idea of the world as a totality of all phenomena in space and time.

According to Greek thought, cosmos came out of chaos—the formless void, or a state of utter confusion and disorder—by separating the different elements. The concept is often associated with cosmogony, referring to a theory or system of the generation of the universe.

In social anthropology, the definition of cosmology is closely connected to the empirical study of religious myths. Edmund Leach (1982) defined it as “the system of beliefs and practices which social anthropologists commonly refer to as ‘primitive religion’” (p. 229).

If, however, one tries to abide by the more rigorous definitions, then cosmology in anthropological usage encompasses both more and less than religion. In some way or another the study of cosmology means taking account of the relationship between the whole and the parts: the macrocosm and the microcosm.

Because the word kosmos can mean “order” as well as “the world of order,” in Greek thought, microcosm can signify not only humans in relation to the universe, but also any part of a thing, especially a living thing that reflects or represents the whole it belongs to (Guthrie, 1962).

In anthropology, Hocart (2004) was an early theorist who tried to elaborate this point. His aim was to establish that the root idea in human existence is the procurement of life. This, he claimed, is done through ritual that derives its meaning from the “life-giving myth.”

The Importance of Dreams in Ancient Japanese Mythology

Dreaming is a subconscious activity that occurs while a person is sleeping. Images occurring in dreams have been interpreted in various ways by different cultures. In our modern, materialistic and scientific culture, we tend to treat dreams as irrational and personal. However, in many cultures of the world, dreams are still considered very important, not only on a personal level but also in a public way. In these contexts, dreams are believed to foretell actual events that will occur in the future, represent the dreamer’s physical and mental condition, communicate with supernatural forces, and so forth. Thus, these cultures use dreams as devices to predict the future, to communicate with others, to make day-to-day decisions, to educate the youths, to heal the sick, and to enforce rules and laws. Japan is one culture that particularly emphasizes this type of significance for dreams, connecting its own rich mythology very closely with the concept of dream.

Definition of Historical Phases

Six phases in Japanese history have been defined by anthropologists to describe the evolution of dreams in Japan and the connection with cosmology:

  • Phase 1 (Jomon period, 10,000 BCE onward):

Archaeological evidence reveals that the societies were small, with a simple social structure, of which the dominant economy was hunting and gathering.

  • Phase 2 (500 BCE onward): Paddy-field rice cultivation was introduced to Japan from China, through Korea. According to Chinese documents, a queen in Japan regularly brought tributes to the emperor and reported that a civil war continued in her land. This means that the society grew large and complex enough to have the formation of tribal territories. Such a process is reflected in the mythologies compiled in Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) (see Philippi, 1968) and Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan) in the 8th century (see Singer, 2002).
  • Phase 3 (5th century CE onward): Japan was established as a state and became a member of the East Asian political system, adopting Chinese law. The highly developed philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism were introduced and well-accepted.
  • Phase 4 (9th century onward): As the political and economic system matured, the aristocratic culture of literature and religion developed in the court, amalgamating alien and indigenous elements.
  • Phase 5 (13th century onward): The Samurai class came into power. They were realistic and practical entrepreneurs who demolished the old aristocratic sociopolitical system.
  • Phase 6 (19th century onward): Japan started to accept the influence of Western culture. It began in the 16th century, but the process was slow until Japan’s ports opened in the latter half of the 19th century.

In the period following Phase 6, Japan aggressively learned the techniques and philosophy of Euro-American culture.

Iconography During Phase 1

For this prehistoric stage, few data are available to help to understand the socioanthropological dimension of the culture, and no written records remain. The only possible clue is iconography, or the study of art. The realistic figures found from this phase are limited to humans and animals and are probably the most conspicuous feature of the Jomon period. Human figures were most popular throughout the period, figurines made of clay or stone. Almost all of the figurines were female, of whom the bosoms, bellies, and buttocks were exaggerated. Masks usually hid their faces. Figurines have been found in various situations at the sites; placed alone in a stone structure or in a dwelling. Many pieces were discarded in holes. They were sometimes goddesses of fertility and at other times used as substitute human beings for curing sickness as votive gifts.

Snakes are another noticeable motif in the art. Realistic figures have been found from middle Jomon sites in central Japan. Snakes often decorated vessels of peculiar shapes, but later, these were replaced by abstract designs such as spirals or waves. Such designs were characteristic decorative motifs of this culture throughout the period. During the late Jomon period, figurines of bears and wild boars were produced in the eastern and northern regions. Some scholars claim that monkeys, dogs, fish, reptiles, and insects were used as motifs, but others believe that the expressions are too vague to determine exactly what they are.

Symbols and Cultural Changes

Two eminent icons, humans and snakes, offer us an interesting suggestion. In Japanese mythology, one of the popular themes is that the snake was the spirit (god) of the land but was subdued by a hero of royal blood in the course of forming Japan. This theme may reflect a transition period with a change of culture and population. Another theme in mythology is that a snake transforms itself into a man and visits a woman at night to fertilize her. There has also been another anecdote saying that a man visits a woman only to find out that her natural shape is that of a snake. He runs away as a fierce snake chases him. This kind of story is referred to in many localities, where particular groups believe that their ancestors were snakes. The fact that the Jomon figurines always wore masks may indicate that they could transform to any shape at will.

The philosophy of merging humans and animals can be observed in many cultures. This is based upon animism, the belief that living beings are composed of two elements, spirit and body. Spirits are eternal and intangible, while visible and tangible bodies are temporal. If this is so, there is no limit on where a spirit may rest in humans, animals, or plants, or even in natural objects. Such a mythic world, where waking life and the life in dreams exist in the same horizon, has been experienced in Arnehmland, Australia. In Australian Aboriginal society, dreams are considered sacred and important. They have named their mythological era Dreamtime, which in fact rules their actual life. They use dreams to discover pregnancy and the birth of children, bad accidents, the visit of friends, and so forth. Dreams can also allow discovery of causes and the ways of curing sickness or preventing accidents. Artists in this society claim that they create designs and write poems revealed in dreams.

What happens in dreams was considered real and true, and waking life was temporal or just one of the possibilities of what could happen in the world. Aborigines believe that the world of dreams is operated by spirits: ancestral, powerful, good, and bad. We might consider that a similar atmosphere could have existed in the Jomon period.

Cosmology and Dreams During the Second and Third Phases

It has been estimated that more than one million people moved in and occupied central Japan from about 500 BCE, pushing the Jomon stock out to the southern and northern margins of the Japanese archipelago, Hokinawa and Hokkaido. It is not difficult to assume that they brought in a vast number of new cultural elements. As for the archaeological remains, iconographic characters have been found both in drawn and figurine form. The line-drawn figures were simplified signs that which decorated the surface of pottery vessels or bronze bells. Motifs were expressed either as a single figure or in scenes of daily activities such as hunting, harvesting, or seafaring. Human, deer, and boar motifs were most popular. Dogs, waterbirds, turtles, fish, dragonflies, spiders, and dragons have been observed occasionally.

Figures of humans and birds were made of wood, stone, or clay. It is noticeable that these two characters fly. This coincides with the fact that newcomers believed that they were descendants of celestial gods of the land in mythology. The newcomers also used mirrors as a symbol of the sun. A quantity of Chinese bronze mirrors have been excavated from large-scale tombs—apparently very important artifacts, with decorations on the backs of some of the mirrors depicting Taoist cosmology.

Dreaming took on an important role in governance as well. In written records, Chinese history reveals that the queen governed her nation by shamanism. They used oracle bones to foretell the future and make decisions. Pieces of deer bones and boar bones, with incised lines or small perforations, have been excavated from many sites. Kojiki (as cited in Philippi, 1968) describes how dreaming was used to decide national policy. Emperor Sujin had a sacred bed made so that he could dream in order to make a decision in a crisis, for example, to stamp out epidemics or to nominate the heir to the throne. He often listened to the dreams of his subjects in order to make national policy. It is clear that during this period people still believed in the supernatural world, and dreaming was considered a domain where qualified persons communicated with powerful spirits.

As Japan started to actively participate as a member of the East Asian political order, it had to adopt the contemporary Chinese system and philosophy that was a combination of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Confucianism denied admission of irrational supernatural phenomena into its own scheme. Taoism is the science of deciding calendar and time, but it also involves supernatural features such as fortune-telling by astronomy and omens. An octagonal building in Horyuij Temple is said to have been built by Prince Shotoku so that he could shut himself up in isolation for days to get inspiration. It is called the Dream Hall, which reminds us of the sacred bed of Emperor Sujin. A continuation of old ideas and customs can be observed in various archaeological remains: figurines of humans, animals, and various tools for cursing and votive gifts. The characteristic of the third phase may be described as the confinement of dreaming to the private realm.

New Cultural Contaminations

As the sociopolitical system matured, a strong recurrence of the old psychology could be seen, including fear of supernatural beings such as ghosts, demons, furies, wraiths, and incarnations. The practice of reading omens, fortunetelling, cursing, and pointing was also more widespread. Buddhism adopted a lot of Shinto elements and Shinto shrines were reactivated. Novels and diaries written by aristocratic female artists described vividly such a social climate. Dreaming continued to play an important role as a device to see the future. Dreams could be discoursed by actions and interpretations—they could buy, give, or steal. Some temples or shrines had special compounds for dreaming. People rushed to such places all at once and stayed until they had a good dream. By now, there were professional dream interpreters and dreamers by profession. Nightmares and sleep disorders were commonplace during this period.

The signs of rational individuals can be observed from Phase 4. The author (known as Mother of Michitsuna) of Kagero-Nikki (The Gossamer Years) commented that an interpretation of her dream given by a priest was a “stupid lie.” Myoe’s description of his dream was as subjective as modern psychological analysis (see Tanabe, 1992). The Samurai, the realistic warrior class who emerged from entrepreneurial farmers, also brought in rational thinking. According to the Taiheiki (Chronicle of Great Peace), Aoto refused to receive an award after being told that his lord wanted to give it to him because he dreamed of Aoto’s distinguished service. He said he couldn’t receive such an irrational award. What would have happened if he dreamed another way? For such people, the difference between dream and reality was clearly distinct. So, after the Samurai class came to power to rule Japan for centuries, such a rational and pragmatic way of thinking prevailed and provided a suitable precondition for the smooth assimilation of Western culture and philosophy.

The Role of Dreams in the Last Stage

How to evaluate dreams, real and important or fantastic and absurd, depends on the cosmology of the culture. Japanese people today believe that they are a rational and scientific nation. However, millions visit Shinto shrines on New Year’s days, put portable shrines in computer rooms, and have charms in their cars. Most young adults believe in the existence of the soul, and a majority of them practice more than two religions.

Although it has been deformed in the course of history, it is believed that people have retained animism since the Jomon period. In such a psychological climate, they can smoothly shift to soft, personal, irrational, and transient reality in order to avoid the difficulty of hard reality. There, they can enjoy pleasant sleep and dream. For anthropologists, this is a very interesting characteristic of the Japanese, whose image varies from one of purely economic human types to one of quiet peaceful people in the eyes of Westerners.

Significance of the Struggle in Ancient Norse Mythology

Anthropologists frequently emphasize the newfound interest in cosmology as, to a large extent, attributable to the influence of the work of Lévi-Strauss. Although in his early writings he does not use the word cosmology, and hardly does so subsequently, his work inspired a new and different interest in cosmology. Data derived from many different cosmologies, together with mythologies, were being used to put forward general theories about the workings of the human mind. Whether the focus of anthropological studies is on kinship, ritual, house construction, or even social change, most find it impossible to discuss cultural and social practices without relating them in some way to indigenous, often ancient, cosmologies.

Vafprudnismal is the Codex regius manuscript dated to around 1280, often known simply as the Poetic Edda, but it is one of the few Eddic poems also found elsewhere. All texts commonly date from the 13th century in their present form, but the Poetic Edda is usually regarded as old, even originating from before the Christianization of Iceland in 1000. It is one of several gnomic mythological poems composed in the meter of wisdom poetry: All verses but one are spoken by the protagonists, making it dramatic in form, regardless of whether it was ever performed. The Eddic poem depicts a contest of wisdom between Odin and a wise giant. It reenacts the conflict between gods and giants, which seems to lie at the heart of the heathen worldview, as reflected in 13th-century sources. Paternity is a major theme, and Odin’s quest for knowledge of the origins and the end of the world outline the poem’s core.

The relationship of gods and giants in these classic works is complex. The giants are the ancestors of the gods (including Odin himself) and of the world. Their Otherness is entwined with proximity. The giant’s foremost attribute is his extreme old age and wisdom, whereas his size may be secondary to his paternal role. When Odin has plied the giant for information about the past, he turns to the future, the impending last battle of gods and giants and how he himself will meet his end. He then wins the contest by asking a fraudulent last question about what he whispered into his own son’s ear. The death of the giant is closely associated with the proclamation of Odin as the new father and his growing awareness of his own mortality.

The Mission

Most studies of this Nordic text concentrate on two aspects: (1) the wisdom contained in the poem, which concerns important parts of heathen cosmology, and (2) the duel itself and its significance. J. Cohen (1999) has claimed that in the Poetic Edda “constructing an identity for the subject and composing a history for the world are two versions of the same process” (p. 94). Without this poem, the importance of giants in the Nordic cosmos would be far less clearly represented. The battle is a duel of words, which concerns knowledge and the cosmos. The first five verses are a prelude to the contest and yet contribute much to the poem’s overall meaning, since they establish the contest as a symbolic journey.

Odin, the wandering high god of Old Norse heathenism, informs his wife Frigg that he wishes to engage in a battle of wits against a giant called Vafprudnir. He wants to seek out the giant and claims he is curious about the ancient knowledge that this all-knowing giant may possess. Frigg warns that he is the mightiest of giants. She is, nevertheless, persuaded that this mission is fundamental for Odin. From his point of view, the journey is a test—a challenge and a rite of passage. Odin needs to face the giant, to conquer him and to acquire knowledge and power from him.

The rest of the poem takes place in Vafprudnir’s hall, where the giant first has to discover whether his dissembled guest is an honorable antagonist. Then god and giant engage in a contest of wisdom where the stake seems to be the loser’s head. This tragedy with two main characters is relatively plain, as Eddic stories go, and there are no descriptions of scene. It is left to the audience to stage the duel in their own heads and, as is so often the case with the mythological narrations of the Poetic Edda, the scene seems to refer to a lost mythical world. The text is not obscure in itself, but perhaps it has been made so by a loss of context. It is not clear, for instance, why Odin needs to contend with the giant and wherein Vafprudnir’s significance to him lies, but the epic impresses upon us that Odin is interested in the contest: It is he who starts it and who needs it. Odin is the aggressor, whereas the giant merely accepts his guest as an adversary. However, the reason given for Odin’s eagerness is the figure of the antagonist. To fathom the quest, it is important to understand who he is and what he means to Odin.

The answer is complex, and indeed the giant of the Eddic world is a complex figure. The word giant occurs many times, as if to establish that it is an important attribute as well as wisdom. This may seem unusual in light of later folktales, where trolls and other relatives of giants are presented as stupid, but stupidity is rarely a quality of Eddic giants. There is also an emphasis on the giant’s strength, but it is not clear whether this is pure physical strength or the strength derived from magical wisdom; the word powerful is often conjoined with a sort of witchcraft in Old Norse texts. It remains to be seen what kind of wisdom the giant possesses and how it is important to our perception of him.

The Symbolic Role of the Father

When Odin comes to the giant’s hall, it is said that Vafprudnir is a father, but not, however, the only father in the duel. In the prose of Snorra-Edda, Odin is frequently named the father of all the gods. In this Poetic Edda, Frigg also calls her husband “father of men.” The contest is established as a contest of fathers before it begins. This makes it an attractive possibility that paternity might be a major theme of this particular poem and perhaps lie at the heart of the giant’s significance in Old Norse mythology. The quest is for a showdown between the two fathers—a conflict that may be characterized as oedipal (not necessarily in the Freudian sense), with Odin acting out the role of the son, since in the Snorra-Edda Odin is, on his mother’s side, the grandson of a giant. Of the two fathers, one is depicted as a son as well, and the two represent two different worlds. But which two worlds? Considering the giant’s close relationship to nature, the first assumption might be that the god and the giant represent the opposing forces of nature and civilization. Odin’s first questions to his rival concern the elements of nature, and questions about giants and natural elements are interwoven in the poem. After Odin has asked Vafprudnir about the origin of the sun and the moon, day and night, and winter and summer, he turns suddenly to the origins of the oldest living being, Ymir. He asks about his origins and how he grew.

The answers sometimes involve giants as well, which is best exemplified when Odin asks about the origin of the wind and the giant reveals that its originator is a giant in the shape of an eagle, called corpse-swallower. In narratives such as romances and folktales, giants dwell on the periphery, in the wilderness. Whether Vafprudnir rules over a distant kingdom in a spectacular landscape is unclear, for it is merely established that the giant possesses knowledge about nature. He lives in a hall, which does not suggest the wilderness. While Odin has to travel to get there, it is not revealed how lengthy his journey is, or where the giant resides (the Norse tradition says East, in frozen lands). It may be precisely the status of the giant as a father that makes Vafprudnir knowledgeable about nature and the elements, as nature is often seen as preceding civilization.

The Struggle Between Gods and Giants

There is an ongoing conflict between the gods and the giants; however, the relationship is complicated by the fact that they are also ancestors. In Odin’s case, this ancestry is direct. Giants are also known as ancestors of royal families in other sources (for instance, Giant Dofri as a foster father of King Haraldr, the legendary founding father of Norway). The enemy of gods turns out to be their grandfather. Furthermore, the enemy of the cosmos (earth) is its own past self, the giant descending from Ymir, whose body now has been transformed into earth. The enormity of giants is easily explained as a secondary trait going with their ancestral role—in the eyes of small children, their parents are giants. This means that monstrous enormity may go hand in hand with proximity. It is important to emphasize that, in Norse ancient mythology, otherness is entwined with proximity; the giant is not just an alien, he is a familiar character. The frequent use of the word father forces us to regard the contest as a generational conflict, a symbolic battle between the past and the present, the old and the new.

We might define this conflict as oedipal or refer to the myth of Kronos-Saturn, which was known in medieval Iceland. The choice of father-son conflict seems to be subject to the protagonist’s point of view: Odin is like Oedipus in seeking out and killing a paternal figure, and the giant is a Kronos-like figure who poses a threat to his descendant. In Greek mythology, Kronos was the father of Zeus, who swallowed his own children, only to be toppled, castrated, and exiled by Zeus. In Old Norse mythology, this deposed and exiled ancestor (represented by the descendants of Ymir) had not admitted defeat and is an exile only in that he seems mostly to live on the outskirts of the known world and persist in distressing the current rulers of the world. The relationship with the Kronos-Oedipus myths is further complicated by the fact that it does not at first seem right to regard Vafprudnir as the aggressor in the struggle; he is a father figure who is sought out and defeated.

It has often been argued that the giants represent chaos, which in the beginning was embodied in the progenitorYmir whom the gods had to kill in order to make the present world (cosmos). However, since the giants were not all drowned, they have continued to be a destructive and chaotic force, opposing the natural order of the gods and waging war on them. The narration may be seen as a reenactment of this struggle between two wise fathers, order and chaos. At stake is the head of one of the competitors, but the death of both of them closes the circle. There is a symbiosis between the future and the past, perhaps inspired by the notion of fate, that the future of the world is predestinated and the decisions were made long ago, so that a very ancient being is more likely to know the future than ourselves.

The last few verses of the cosmogony indicate that Odin has succeeded in his quest for the father role. When he asks about his own death, the giant answers by using the term father of men (the wolf will swallow the father of men). In spite of all their cheating, the Old Norse gods, somewhat uniquely for gods, nevertheless face extinction in the end: as scholars have noted, the Old Norse end of the world differs from the Christian account in that evil triumphs over good. This is logical if the gods represent order and giants chaos. The perfect only needs one flaw or imperfection for the adversary to win; a tiny chink in the armor of order leads to chaos. While good must be whole, evil is allowed to be sundered, imperfect, and chaotic, and in the end that may prove to be advantageous. The world goes on but the individual’s end is final. Odin has learned that the world will survive his death. Like a giant, our death is a huge and horrific presence, intertwined with our creation and being, but negative in that it signifies its end. This may account for the paradoxical nature of the giant in Old Norse mythology: We observe a duel of two fathers to the death but we also learn about death, where the giant father gets a rare chance to enunciate his own point of view. He also has the last word, triumphing over Odin while he admits his own defeat.

Nature and Culture in Amazonian Cosmology

An important aspect of Amerindian culture has been called perspectival quality: The conception, common to many peoples of the continent, is based upon the idea that the world is inhabited by different sorts of subjects or persons, human and nonhuman, which apprehend reality from different points of view. This idea cannot be reduced to our current concept of relativism, which it at first seems to call to mind. As many anthropologists have already concluded, the classic distinction between nature and culture cannot be used to describe domains internal to non-Western cosmologies without first undergoing a rigorous ethnographic critique. Such a critique, in the present case, implies the redistribution of the predicates subsumed within the two paradigmatic sets that traditionally oppose one another under the heading of nature and culture: universal and particular, objective and subjective, physical and social, fact and value, the given and the instituted, necessity and spontaneity, immanence and transcendence, body and mind, and animality and humanity, among many more.

Such an ethnographically based reshuffling of our conceptual schemes leads many scholars to suggest the expression multinaturalism, to designate one of the contrastive features of Amerindian thought in relation to Western multiculturalist cosmologies. Where the latter are founded on the mutual implication of the unity of nature and the plurality of cultures—the first guaranteed by the objective universality of the body and substance, the second generated by the subjective particularity of spirit and meaning—the Amerindian conception would suppose a spiritual unity and a corporeal diversity. Here, culture or the subject would be the form of the universal, while nature or the object would be the form of the particular. This inversion, perhaps too symmetrical to be more than speculative, must be developed by means of the plausible phenomenological interpretation of Amerindian cosmological categories, which determine the constitutive conditions of the relational contexts we can call nature and culture.

Humans and Animals: A Perspective View

There are numerous references in Amazonian ethnography to an indigenous theory showing how the way humans perceive animals and other subjectivities that inhabit the world—gods, spirits, the dead, inhabitants of other cosmic levels, meteorological phenomena, plants, and occasionally even objects—differs profoundly from the way in which these humans see themselves. Usually, in normal conditions, humans see humans as humans, animals as animals, and spirits (if they see them) as spirits; however, spirits and animals see humans as animals, either as predators or prey. By the same token, animals and spirits see themselves as humans: They perceive themselves as (or become) anthropomorphic beings when they are in their own houses or villages, and they experience their own habits and characteristics in the form of the culture. They see their food as human food (e.g., jaguars see blood as manioc beer, vultures see the maggot in rotten meat as grilled fish); they see their bodily attributes (fur, feathers, claws, beaks) as body decorations or cultural instruments; they see their social system as organized in the same way as human institutions (with chiefs, shamans, ceremonies, and exogamous moieties).

The allocution to see as refers literally to percepts and not analogically to concepts, although in some cases the emphasis is placed more on the categorical than on a sensory aspect of the phenomenon. Generally, animals are people, or see themselves as persons. Such a notion is virtually always connected to the idea that the manifest form of each species is a mere envelope—a garment concealing an internal human form, usually only visible to the eyes of the particular species or to certain transspecific beings such as shamans. This internal form is the soul or spirit of the animal: an intentionality or subjectivity formally identical to human consciousness, materializable, in a human, bodily schema concealed behind an animal mask.

The Essence and the Appearance: A Cosmological Transformation

At first sight then, there is a distinction between an anthropomorphic essence of a spiritual type, common to animate beings, and a variable bodily appearance, characteristic of each individual species but which, rather than being, is instead changeable and removable clothing. This notion of clothing is one of the privileged expressions of metamorphosis—spirits, the dead, and shamans, beasts that turn into other beasts, and humans that are inadvertently turned into animals. This is an omnipresent process in the highly transformational world proposed by Amazonian culture. This perspectivism and cosmological transformation can be seen in numerous South American ethnographies and it can also be found, and maybe with even greater generative value, in the far north of North America as well as in Asia and among hunter-gatherer populations of other parts of the world.

Perspectivism does not involve all animal species (besides covering other beings); the emphasis seems to be on those species that perform a key symbolic and practical role, such as the great predators and the principal species of prey for humans. In fact, one of the central dimensions, possibly the fundamental dimension, of perspectival inversions refers to the relative and relational statuses of predator and prey. On the other hand, however, it is not always clear whether spirits or subjectivities are being attributed to each individual animal, and there are examples of cosmologies that deny any consciousness to postmythical animals. Nonetheless, as is well-known, the notion of animal-spirit masters (e.g., mothers of the game animals or masters of white-lipped peccaries) is widespread throughout the continent. These spirit masters, clearly endowed with intentionality analogous to that of humans, function as hypostases of the animal species with which they are associated, thereby creating an intersubjective field for human-animal relations even where empirical animals are not spiritualized.

We must remember, above all, that if there is a virtually universal Amerindian notion, it is that of an original state of undifferentiation between humans and animals, described in mythology. Myths are filled with beings whose form, name, and behavior inextricably mix human and animal attributes in a common context of intercommunicability, identical to that which defines the present-day intrahuman world. The differentiation between culture and nature, shown by Lévi-Strauss as the central theme of Amerindian mythology, is not a process of differentiating the human from the animal, as in our own evolutionist mythology. The original, common condition of both humans and animals is not animality, but rather humanity. The great mythical separation reveals not so much culture distinguishing itself from nature, but rather nature distancing itself from culture: The myth tells how animals lost the qualities inherited or retained by humans. Humans are those who continue as they have always been; animals are ex-humans, and humans are not ex-animals.

The common point of reference for all beings of nature, then, is not humans as a species but rather humanity as a condition. The distinction between the human species and the human condition has an evident connection with the idea of animal clothing hiding a common spiritual essence and the issue of the general meaning of perspectivism. It is important to note one of its many corollaries: The past humanity of animals is added to their present-day spirituality hidden by their visible form in order to produce that extended set of food restrictions or precautions. These restrictions or precautions either declare certain animals inedible that where mythically consubstantial with humans, or demand their desubjectivization by shamanistic means before they can be consumed (neutralizing the spirit, transubstantiating the meat into plant food, semantically reducing it to other animals less proximate to humans). This all comes under the threat of illness, conceived of as a cannibal counter-predation undertaken by the spirit of the prey turned predator, in a lethal inversion of perspectives that transform the human into an animal.

These views illustrate how Amerindian perspectivism has an essential relation with shamanism and the valorization of the hunt. The hunting ideology is also, and above all, an ideology of shamans, insofar as it is shamans who administer the relations between humans and the spiritual component of the extra-humans, since they alone are capable of assuming the point of view of such beings and, in particular, are capable of returning to tell the tale. If Western multiculturalism is relativism as public policy, then Amerindian shamanism is multinaturalism as cosmic policy.

Nature and Relations With Humans: Animism in Amerindian Culture

In recent studies, Descola (1986) distinguishes three modes of objectifying nature: (1) totemism, where the differences between natural species are used as a model for social distinctions (i.e., where the relationship between nature and culture is metaphorical and marked by discontinuity); (2) animism, where the elementary categories structuring social life organize the relation between humans and natural species, thus defining a social continuity between nature and culture, and founded on the attribution of human dispositions and social characteristics to “natural beings”; and (3) naturalism, typical of Western cosmologies, which suppose an ontological duality between nature (the domain of necessity) and culture (the domain of spontaneity) as areas separated by metonymic discontinuity. Animism is characteristic of societies in which animals are the strategic focus of the objectification of nature and of its socialization, as is the case among the indigenous peoples of America, reigning supreme over social morphologies lacking in elaborate internal segmentations. But this mode can also be found coexisting or combined with totemism, wherein such segmentations exist.

The contrast between animism and naturalism is not only classificatory, but primarily cosmological. Animism could therefore be defined as an ontology postulating the social character of relations between humans and nonhumans: The space between nature and society is itself social. Naturalism is founded on the inverted axiom: Relations between society and nature are themselves natural. Indeed, if in the animistic mode the distinction nature/culture is internal to the social world, humans and animals being immersed in the same sociocosmic medium (and in this sense nature is a part of an encompassing sociality), then in naturalist ontology, the distinction nature/culture is internal to nature (and in this sense, human society is one natural phenomenon among others). In Western naturalist ontology, the nature/society interface is natural: Humans are organisms like the rest, body-objects in ecological interaction with other bodies and forces, all of them ruled by the necessary laws of biology and physics; productive forces harness, and thereby express, natural forces. Social relations, that is, contractual or instituted relations between subjects, can only exist internal to human society.

The problem with this view is that given the universality of nature, the status of the human and social world is unstable and, as the history of Western thought shows, it perpetually oscillates between a naturalistic monism and an ontological dualism of nature/culture. Culture is the modern name of spirit, or at least it is the name of the compromise between nature and grace. Of animism we would be tempted to say that the instability is located in the opposite pole: There the problem is how to administer the mixture of humanity and animality constituting animals, and not, as is the case among ourselves, the combination of culture and nature which characterizes humans; the point is to differentiate a “nature” out of the universal sociality. Animism, interpreted as human sociality projected onto the nonhuman world, would be nothing but the metaphor of a metonymy. Among the questions remaining to be resolved, therefore, is that of knowing whether animism can be described as a figurative use of categories pertaining to the human-social domain to conceptualize the domain of nonhumans and their relations with the former.


Connecting spirit and body between myth and cosmic world remains a challenge. As we know, the status of humans in Western thought is essentially ambiguous: On one hand, humankind is an animal species among others, and animality is a domain that includes humans; on the other hand, humanity is a moral condition that excludes animals. These two statuses coexist in the problematic and disjunctive notion of “human nature.” Our cosmology postulates a physical continuity and a metaphysical discontinuity between humans and animals, the former making of man an object for the natural sciences, the latter an object for the “humanities.” Spirit or mind is our great differentiator: It raises us above animals and matter in general; it distinguishes cultures; it makes each person unique before his fellow beings. The body, in contrast, is the major integrator: It connects us to the rest of the living, united by a universal substrate (DNA) which, in turn, links up with the ultimate nature of all material bodies.

In contrast to this, Amerindians postulate a metaphysical continuity and a physical discontinuity between the beings of the cosmos, the former resulting in animism, and the latter in perspectivism: The spirit or soul (here not an immaterial substance but rather a reflexive form) integrates, while the body (not a material organism but a system of active affects) differentiates. The body appears to be the great differentiator in Amazonian cosmology. However, the Amerindian emphasis on the social construction of the body cannot be taken as the culturalization of a natural substract, but rather as the production of a distinctly human body, meaning naturally human. Such a process seems to express not so much a wish to de-animalize the body through its cultural marking, but rather to particularize a body still too generic, differentiating it from the bodies of other human collectivities as well as from those of other species. The body, as a site of differentiating perspective, must be differentiated to the highest degree in order completely to express it. As bundles of affects and sites of perspective, rather than material organisms, bodies “are” souls, just, incidentally, as souls and spirits “are” bodies. Indeed, body and soul, just like nature and culture, do not correspond to substantives, self-subsistent entities, but equally to types of bodies, endowed with properties—affects—sui generis.


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