Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": HUNTING IS A HOLY OCCUPATION

NASKAPI INDIANS OF THE LABRADOR PENINSULA


To the Montagnais-Naskapi hunters on the barest subsistence level- the animals of the forest, the tundra, and the waters of the interior and the coast, exist in a specific relation. They have become the objects of engrossing magico-religious activity, for to them hunting is a holy occupation. The animals pursue an existence corresponding to that of man as regards emotions and purpose in life. The difference between man and animals, they believe, lies chiefly in outward form. In the beginning of the world, before humans were formed, all animals existed grouped under 'tribes' of their kinds who could talk like men, and were even covered with the same protection. When addressing animals in a spiritual way in his songs, or using the drum, the conjuror uses an expression which means freely, you and I wear the same covering and have the same mind and spiritual strength.' This statement was explained as meaning not that man had fur, not that animals wore garments, but their equality was spiritual and embraced or eclipsed the physical.

There has been no change in these native doctrines since they were first recorded in the seventeenth century in the words of the French priests. 'They believe that many kinds of animals have reasonable souls. They have superstitions against profaning certain bones of elk, beaver and other beasts or letting dogs gnaw them. They preserve them carefully or throw them into rivers. They pretend that the souls of these animals come to see how bodies are treated and go and tell the living beasts and those that are dead, so that if ill treated the beasts of the same kind will no longer allow themselves to be taken in this world or the next' (Father Le Clerq, 1961).

The belief of this same character among the central Algonkian is expressed succinctly by William Jones: 'It was thought that every living creature possessed a soul and that to get control of the soul made it possible to get control of the possessor of the soul. It was on such a theory that the Ojibwas hunted for game.'

The killing of animals, then, entails much responsibility in the spiritual sense. Since the animals' spirits at death are forgathered in their proper realms to be reincarnated later, the slaying of them Places the hunter in the position, theoretically, of being their enemy. But he is not that in the ordinary sense of the term, because it is the ordained manner of procedure and one to which they are adjusted and inured. Requirements of conduct towards animals exist, however, which have to be known and carried out by the hunter. His success depends upon his knowledge, and, they -argue, since no one can know everything and act to perfection, the subject of magico-religious science becomes. even from the native point of view, an inexhaustible one. Therefore, failure in the chase, the disappearance of the game from the hunter's districts, with ensuing famine, starvation, weakness, sickness, and death, are all attributed to the hunter's ignorance of some hidden principle of behaviour towards the animals or to his wilful disregard of them. The former is ignorance. The latter is sin. The two together constitute the educational sphere of the Montagnais-Naskapi, and the schooling is hard enough in reality although it may seem to the civilized imagination a mere travesty of mental training.


F. G. Speck, Naskapi, The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (Norman, Okla: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935)

Bibliography for this page:

Books by Mircea Eliade:

Man and the Sacred | Main Menu | Keyword Search