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The Category of Person

Rane Willerslev reviews Yukaghir notions of personhood in this excerpt from his book, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood Among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Yukaghir hunters have sophisticated knowledge of the behaviors of the many species of animals they interact with in northeastern Siberia which helps them characterize these beings along a continuum of personhood; humans being just one among many varieties of persons. These rich and varied conceptualizations ramify more basic ideas about animism, demonstrating how indigenous traditions can be labeled “animistic” as a useful generalization, though this rarely means the same thing across different societies.


Originally published in:
(2007) Willerslev, Rane,
Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood Among the Siberian Yukaghirs
Berkeley: University of California Press.



Soul Hunters



In the world of the Yukaghirs, as we have seen, everything—human, animal, and inanimate object—is said to have an ayibii, or what we would call a soul or life essence. For the Yukaghirs, the whole world is thus animated by living souls in the sense of Tylorian animism. Although everything is understood to be alive, people do nevertheless differentiate between conscious and unconscious beings. On a conceptual level this distinction corresponds, at least roughly, to our categories of the animate and inanimate. An elderly Yukaghir hunter, Vasili Shalugin, told me that animals, trees, and rivers are “people like us” (Rus. lyudi kak my) [i] because they move, grow, and breathe, but they are distinct from inanimate objects such as stones, skis, and food products, which, he claimed, are alive but immovable. [ii] He continued by saying that things that are static are not people because they have only one soul, the shadow-ayibii, whereas things that are active are considered to be people because they have two more souls in addition to their shadows: the heart-ayibii, which makes them “move” and “grow,” and the head-ayibii, which makes them “breathe.” [iii] He ended by saying, “Only things that can move come to us [in dreams] and give us presents,” implying that hunters only engage in social relationships of sharing with animate entities that they consider to be persons.

It is important to realize, however, that Shalugin’s distinction between things that are “alive” and those that are both “alive” and also “persons” is far from rigid. Although the category of person recognized by hunters is by no means limited to humans (it includes various animate beings), there are nevertheless certain points at which this continuum of personhood breaks down (Descola 1996: 324). First, the status of person is not ascribed equally to all animate beings. Hunters generally seem to reserve this classification for the principal species of prey, including the elk and reindeer, as well as for the predatory mammals, including the bear, wolf, wolverine, and fox. Certain species of birds, most notably the raven, may also be thought of as persons. Other kinds of animate beings, including insects, fish, and plants, are hardly ever spoken of as conscious beings with powers of language and intentionality, and are in general seen to lead a mechanical, inconsequential existence. Therefore “nature,” as we understand it, may indeed exist for the Yukaghirs, but instead of being perceived as a unified realm, it is a randomly occurring series of ruptures to be encountered here and there within an otherwise highly personified world (Pedersen 2001: 416).

Moreover, although some animals are considered to be persons, there is nevertheless a difference between the ways in which human and animal personhood are conceived. As Ingold has pointed out, whereas northern hunters tend to refer to humans by their proper name, conferring upon them a unique identity, the animal is regarded more as a type of its species than as an individual, and “it is the type rather than its manifestations thatis personified” (1986a: 247; emphasis in the original). We see this revealed in the Yukaghir mythology, in which animals tend to bear the name of their species, sometimes with the suffix “man” or “woman,” such as “bearman,” “hare-man,” and “fox-woman,” in contrast to mythical human characters, who tend to have individual names. Ingold has suggested that this indicates that northern hunting peoples do not regard the animals themselves but only their higher-ranked spiritual owners as persons (1986a: 247). His argument, however, does not hold for the Yukaghirs. Although hunters do not usually distinguish between an animal and its associated spiritual being, the hunters I spoke to always insisted that animals do not simply derive their personhood from their master-spirits, but that both are persons in their own right. In his classic study of the Yukaghirs, Jochelson also seems to have observed this. He writes, “In the opinion of the Yukaghir, a lucky hunt depends on the good-will of the animal’s guardian-spirit but also on that of the animal itself. Thus they say: ‘tolo’w xanice e’rietum el kude’deti’—that is: ‘if the reindeer does not like the hunter, he will not be able to kill it’” (1926: 146).

It is therefore not simply that an animal’s personhood is an extension of its master-spirit’s personhood. Rather, animals are themselves persons. I suggest in the next chapter that this particular Yukaghir conception of the animal’s personhood—as a type for its species rather than as an individual attribute—derives in large part from the particular manner in which hunters tend to engage with their prey through mimetic practice.
It is important to point out that with the exception of the category of human, the status of an entity as a person is neither finite nor fixed. In the everyday life of hunters entities move in and out of personhood depending on the circumstances. This is true even of the large mammals, which next to humans are considered animate beings par excellence. I once unintentionally gave offense when, during an interview in the village, I asked Old Spiridon if the elk, bear, and reindeer were persons. At first he reflected a long while as if he did not really understand my question, then he looked extremely insulted and replied, “What do you take me for, a child?” In another situation, however, when I was out hunting with him, we came across a fresh elk track. I pointed at it and said, “Look. It won’t take us long to run down the animal and kill it.” He hit me hard with the staff of his ski pole: “Don’t say such things,” he said in a grave voice. “They [the elk] talk with one another. If one of them has heard what you said, it will tell the rest and they will all move away.”

At the end of the next chapter I shall return to the puzzling question of why it is that hunters see animals as conscious beings in some situations and not in others. For now, however, I shall describe Yukaghir conceptions of animals as persons in relation to those species that are most significant to their economy and spiritual beliefs, then go on to consider the more fundamental principles on which their ideas about personhood are based. [iv]

Yukaghir hunters see certain animals, including the bear, reindeer, and elk, as very similar to themselves in terms of their moral values and rules of conduct. [v] The last animal, in particular, is understood to be a highly sociable and moral creature. Myths describe the elk as always tidy and eager to assist its kin. However, these character traits should be seen not simply as a manifestation of mythical thinking, but also as a reflection of empirical knowledge about the behavioral characteristics of the animal. A hunter explained to me, for example, that unlike foxes and other predators such as sables and wolverines, who are attracted to dirty and smelly spots and whose dens have a terrible stench, elk find it impossible to live in such places. If the water is dirty or the air smells because of an abandoned oil barrel, the elk will move away. He also said that when an elk is being followed by a predator and is exhausted, it will often run to a larger group of fellow elk, which will help it to escape by spreading out in all directions. The predator will then have difficulty detecting which track belongs to the worn-out elk. Similarly, when the snow is deep, elk take turns making the path and will not let the weak ones fall behind. He ended by saying that every elk has a character of its own: “One finds nervous and self-confident ones as well as stupid and clever ones. But they always seem to care a great deal about each other.” These ideals are conceptualized in terms of gender. Thus, elk are generally conceived as women, who “give themselves up” to male hunters out of sexual desire for them. As I shall show later, hunters’ terminology is replete with symbolic parallels between elk hunting and sexual seduction.

The dog stands clearly apart from other nonhuman persons. [vi] It is the Yukaghirs’ only domesticated animal and thus occupies a strange position between the human and nonhuman realms. In some respects, the dog is considered closer to human beings than any other nonhuman creature, which is why hunters sometimes refer to their dogs as their “children.” Dogs warn and protect their human masters in dangerous situations. In the spring, for example, they will bark and alert people if a bear approaches the camp looking for food. Moreover, hunters are financially dependent on their dogs, not only for hunting, but also for transportation. Although snowmobiles are by far the most important means of transport today, some dog teams are still in use. In fact, the high cost of buying, maintaining, and fueling a snowmobile combined with the widespread lack of cash among hunters after the collapse of the Soviet Union has inspired a revival of dog teams over the past decade. Although the dog is appreciated for its loyal work and helpfulness in dangerous situations, the animal is also seen as “dirty” (Rus. griaznyi). Its presence can easily offend prey animals that are purer, and it is considered taboo to feed dogs the vital organs (heart and intestines) of an elk, reindeer, or bear. Hunters ascribe the dog’s impurity to its delight in sexual promiscuity, its taste for eating excrement, and its unpleasantly strong body odor, which they contrast with the exemplary behavior and pleasantly bland body odor of the elk.

Predatory animals such as the wolf, sable, fox, and wolverine are also seen as “dirty,” but for different reasons. Hunters ascribe the impurity of these animals to their uncontrolled lust to kill and their disrespectful treatment of the carcasses of slain prey. As one hunter said of wolves, “They are shameless in the way they kill and treat the elk’s body. Insofar as they share the meat at all, the strongest of them will eat first and take all the best parts for himself.” However, it is the wolverine that is seen as the embodiment of all that is antisocial. It is the greediest and stingiest of all the nonhuman persons, living on prey stolen from others. When it finds a dead animal, it urinates all over the carcass to make sure no other predator will touch it. I was instructed to kill the animal whenever I came across it, “because the wolverine is an anarchist and only thinks about its own well-being,” as one hunter put it.



Figure 1: Wolverine, Wikimedia Commons



For Yukaghirs, however, the important idea is that of difference, not of hierarchy, and there is no status hierarchy as such. I realized this when a wolverine once dragged away the carcass of an elk that I had killed. When I arrived at the location of the kill with Spiridon to carry home the meat, absolutely nothing was left of the dead animal. Instead, we encountered the unmistakable stench of a wolverine’s urine. “What a damn thief,” I complained. Spiridon replied, “Well, this is not how the wolverine itself sees it. It sees the meat that it finds as a gift from Khoziain [the spirit-master], in much the same way that the meat we eat is a gift. Everybody needs to eat, and Khoziain feeds all his children, as well as the wolverine. Therefore, the wolverine does not see what it does as theft. To the contrary, in the wolverine’s mind, we are the ones doing wrong when we try to kill it for stealing.”

Spiridon pointed to the fact that in the world of Yukaghirs, “good” and “bad” behaviors are not absolute but depend upon the perspective one adopts. I shall later discuss this notion in terms of what has been called “perspectivism” (Viveiros de Castro 1998). What is important to realize at this point is that whereas hunters may generally see wolverines as their enemies and will kill them whenever they get a chance, the animal does not represent an “evil” species in contrast to other species that are inherently “good.” Rather, every species is seen to behave according to its own particular social and moral code. The wolverine, therefore, only follows the custom of its kind and does not necessarily have evil intentions when it steals from hunters.

The category of person includes not only “natural” creatures, but also beings that we would label “supernatural,” such as the spirit-guides of animals, cannibal spirits that eat human souls (ku’kul in Yukaghir, but people tend to use the word abasylar, borrowed from Sakha), and many others. These beings cannot usually be perceived with the waking eye, but may appear only as a smell, sound, or feeling. The Yukaghirs, then, do not see the supernatural as a level of reality separate from nature. From their point of view, mystical beings are inhabitants of the same physical world as humans and animals, and they are experienced, at least in certain situations, as being just as real.

Notes and References

  • [i]. The Russian word lyudi, employed by Shalugin, is the plural of chelovek, which means “person.” Lyudi can thus be translated as either “people” or “persons.”
  • [ii]. I am not entirely sure whether Vasili Shalugin was referring to the master-spirits of rivers and trees or to the entities themselves when he described them as being persons. However, animals, I shall argue, are often conceived as persons in their own right.
  • [iii]. The Yukaghir word for heart, cobo’ye, also means “running” and “motion.”
  • [iv]. In his list of Yukaghir words, Jochelson includes the word no’do for “animal” (1926: 330). However, none of my informants who know the Yukaghir language recognized this word as meaning “animal,” but said instead that it means “bird.” They all insisted that their language has no word for “animal,” referring to all nonhuman beings. This is not unusual among groups of hunter-gatherers, who do not set themselves uniquely apart from the world of nonhumans (see, for example, Howell 1996: 131; Morris 2000: 140). Yukaghir hunters know the Russian word for animal, zhivotnoe, but I hardly ever heard it used. Generally speaking, they refer to the specific species concerned using allegorical expressions or special terms, since, as we shall see in the next chapter, animal prey cannot be addressed by their real names.
  • [v]. The bear’s position is rather ambiguous. Sometimes hunters will group it among the predatory mammals as a “dirty” creature.
  • [vi]. The dogs are a mixture of the traditional hunting dog of the area, the East Siberian Laika, and various European dogs. The latter were introduced with the Russians, and today no pure Laikas are to be found in the Upper Kolyma region.
  • Descola, Philippe. 1996. In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Howell, Signe. 1996. “Nature in Culture or Culture in Nature? Chewong Ideas of Humans and Other Species.” Pp. 127-45 in Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by P. Descola and G. Pálsson. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Ingold, Timothy. 1986. “Hunting, Sacrifice and the Domestication of Animals.” Pp. 243-77 in The Appropriation of Nature: Essays on Human Ecology and Social Relations. Manchester: University of Manchester.
  • Jochelson, Waldemar. 1926. The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, edited by F. Boas. New York: American Museum of Natural History.
  • Morris, Brian. 2000. The Power of Animals: An Ethnography. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.
  • Pedersen, Morten A. 2001. “Totemism, Animism and North Asian Indigenous Ontologies.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 7(3): 411-27.
  • Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4: 469-88.

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