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From the master’s point of view:
hunting is sacrifice
Ti m Ingold University of Aberdeen

In their dazzling speculations on reindeer domestication and the origins of sacrifice,
Rane Willerslev, Piers Vitebsky, and Anatoly Alekseyev (2015) left me yearning for the
days when anthropology could unashamedly devote itself to solving the intellectual
conundrums thrown up by detailed cross-cultural comparison. Not only is their article
a fine example of the genre, it is also gratifying to see them return to one of those classic
puzzles which already seemed anachronistic when I was writing about it almost thirty
years ago. The article amply demonstrates that the puzzle is far from dead and buried
but actually very much alive, reinvigorated by the new ethnography that has become
available since Siberia was reopened to Western-trained fieldworkers in the 1990s, and
also by contemporary debates surrounding human-animal relations, animism, and
perspectivism in northern circumpolar societies.
In my essay ‘Hunting, sacrifice and the domestication of animals’ (Ingold 1986), I
proposed that the cosmologies of circumpolar reindeer hunters and pastoralists are
broadly similar, that the principles of sacrifice are prefigured in the hunt, and that all it
takes to trigger the shift from hunting to pastoralism is a transfer of control over herds
from the animals’ spiritual masters to humans. Taking their cue from this proposition,
Willerslev et al. maintain that usual explanations of the origins of reindeer domestication, which prioritize considerations of economic gain or ecological adaptation, are not
in themselves sufficient. Whatever economic or ecological incentives may have
favoured domestication, only by attending to cosmological understandings can we
account for how and why these incentives were actually taken up. More particularly,
their argument is that domestication resolved a double bind in which erstwhile hunters
found themselves: how to deal with the discrepancy between the ideal, in which the
docile animal gives itself up, in a spirit of love and beneficence, to the hunter, and the
reality, in which animals are manifestly capricious and bent on escape, and in which
hunters have to resort to deceit and trickery to bring them down. The sacrifice of the
domestic reindeer, in effect, enacts the perfect hunt.
The argument is ingenious; however I am not wholly persuaded by it. To be sure, it
is not hard to see why hunters might have cosmological objections to domestication.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 24-27
© Royal Anthropological Institute 2015

receiving the meat in return for services rendered. watching over all that transpires. 2015: 11. are human sorcerers who ‘play pastoralist’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N. and I could find nothing in what the authors of the present article have to say to indicate that there is anything wrong with it. and would be tantamount to father-daughter incest. But it does not explain why others – such as in Siberia – did.. according to the authors. expanded northwards into the forested taiga. whose task is absolutely not to sacrifice the animals but to perform the immolation on the master’s behalf.. What other alternative do we have? Should we seriously believe – as Willerslev et al.) Perhaps. or between what people say and what they do. This argument seems entirely sensible to me. he is but a ‘bit-part’ player in the process. Hunters say that animals give themselves up. the sacrificial victim is even tethered by ropes that are invisible to the hunters. 24-27 © Royal Anthropological Institute 2015 . and the dire consequences that can follow from human attempts to control this spirituality by seeking to capture and tether living beasts. is the animal master’s story. that the difference here is rather one of perspective: indeed I am surprised that the authors do not draw on the well-established literature on northern perspectivism – to which at least one of them has made major contributions – to argue the point. (The master is of course precluded from performing the immolation himself since killing is equivalent to sexual penetration. 1986: 271). Thus when pastoralists sacrifice reindeer. 2015: 13) who claimed a magical control over moose of a kind that could only be rightfully exercised by the animal master. already accustomed to riding on horseback. as told by humans.) 21. claim the authors. though not without difficulty. Moreover. precisely such mystical tethering is explicitly described in the story of the Yukaghir grandmother (Willerslev et al. but cannot do’ (Willerslev et al. in the perspective of the animal master. or regard with abhorrence. ‘[W]hen . while the hunters trust the master to provide them with animals to kill and consume. then. original emphasis). they substituted the reindeer for the horse as a beast of burden since it was so much better suited to the rough terrain. however. and the granny and her family paid with their lives for her presumptuousness! The story of the perfect hunt. Indeed. lies in the apparent disjuncture between ideal and reality. The master got his revenge. it also helps to explain how people who would never dream of imposing their will on animals that are not theirs to control could nevertheless do just that when it comes to the parallel population of animals already incorporated into the human fold.S. It seems to me. In this story. This may certainly help to explain why some hunters – notably in North America – did not become pastoralists. would not the whole episode of the hunt appear as the ‘ideal narrative’ proposes? Of course from the mortal hunter’s perspective it appears quite differently – after all. What the hunters fear. If you were the animal master. This is that in the hunt. actually they have to be pursued and tricked into submission. it is not the hunter but the master of the animals who is sacrificing one of ‘his’ herd.From the master’s point of view 25 The spiritual indomitability of animals. pastoralists sacrifice a reindeer’. ‘they are effectively doing what the hunters say they do. intimate – that hunters remain hunters because the solution to the cosmological double bind that pastoralists found in the sacrifice of domestic animals has somehow eluded them? Are we to suppose that hunters are so retarded in their cultural evolution that they failed to recognize an escape from their existential dilemma that was staring them in the face? The dilemma. they are doing what hunters say the animal masters do. The standard argument is that as steppe-dwelling peoples. are recurrent themes of hunting narratives throughout the northern circumpolar region (Ingold 1980: 282. the master (who is really a spiritual pastoralist) dominates the animals. but trusts the hunters to do their job.

Where the animals are flesh-and-blood individuals. which rests in turn on a combination of autonomy and least among circumpolar hunters.between the fleshly and the spiritual. Rather. through the imposition of the will of one party upon the other. namely the ‘joking relationship’. Willerslev et al. which combines elaborate respect with what looks like utter humiliation (Willerslev et al. The bear is invited in as an honorary guest. given the episodic and fraught circumstances of actual encounters with animals. the so-called ‘domestication’ of the bear is an entirely different matter from that of the reindeer. to which the present article also succumbs. By missing this rather obvious point. Could the bear’s treatment. That is why it is so dangerous for the hunter to ‘play pastoralist’ with the master’s herds. do recognize that there is a difference.animals in the flesh are the body of the animal master turned inside out (Willerslev 2012: 351).Willerslev argues. Nor am I convinced by their explanation of the bear’s curious treatment. which at least accords with Inupiaq ideas about the master of the caribou. I am fully prepared to admit to weaknesses in the ‘trust to domination’ account of the transition from hunting to pastoralism. Since this is an exercise in classic anthropology. the principal weakness. In retrospect.S. inevitably compromises the autonomy on which trust is founded. to say the least. I wonder whether we might go back to another classical anthropological theme.Another way of putting this. One is the patriarchal model. Those such as myself. Willerslev goes out of his way to discredit it! There can be no simple opposition.These all centre on the issue of whether. and which humans would rather like to annex for themselves if only they could. For mortal hunters. therefore. The animal master’s story is. Willerslev et al. concerning the Eveny. The alliance is tense. have succeeded in spinning out a string of ingenious yet wholly illusory paradoxes. on the other hand. I have argued (Ingold 2000: 61-76) that the relation between hunter and prey is based on a principle of trust. that the tension played out in the oscillating moods of the bear is here played out between categories of wild and domestic deer. that eye is the sky and the specks are actual animals (Ingold 2000: 125). 2015: 14-16). though I’m not sure that they put their finger exactly on what the difference is. Finally. Willerslev et al. applicable to Near Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.26 Tim Ingold with the herds. that relations are established. in a comment on Knight’s article. 2015: 17). in the second it is embodied in the herds that emerge from the bear’s innards. hunters can establish any kind of social compact with their prey. seeking to dominate them by mystical means – or to tether them with magical ropes – and angering the herds’ rightful masters in the process. is that individual animals are like specks in the master’s eye. but he is also the master of a domain that is structurally opposed to that of the human. of course. like the joking relationship. Clearly. 24-27 © Royal Anthropological Institute 2015 . The axis of alliance and opposition is identical in both cases: in the first it is embodied in the figure of the bear. the spirit master is the incarnation of an abstract species essence. there’s the issue that keeps cropping up of trust and domination. since the bear is the master of the animals. Domination. have – according to Knight – confused the animals with the spirit master who bestows them: it is with the latter. be an expression of the combination of friendship and hostility that is the hallmark of structural alliance? This would tie up very nicely with the observation(Willerslev et al. also the bear’s story. appear to agree.The former is no more distributed among discrete individuals than the latter is pinned to an abstract category.) 21. who have suggested that they can. Yet elsewhere. stating that Knight has a ‘valid point’ (205: 8). John Knight (2012) argues that they cannot. and not the former. seems to me now to lie in my conflating two quite different models of domination. however. In a recent contribution to the journal Current Anthropology.

then. and with it the origins of domestication and sacrifice. Knight. Comment on Knight. R. introduced by Roy Wagner). Might it be possible. to describe the transition from hunting to pastoralism. ———. Hunting. language and tool use. could better be described as anthropomorphic (Viveiros de Castro 2012: 100-1). Current Anthropology 53. Cambridge University. environmental perception. 2012. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N. Hau Masterclass Series. and has written on the comparative anthropology of the circumpolar North.ingold@abdn. London: Routledge. Current Anthropology 53. evolutionary theory. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood. ——— 1986.) 21. human-animal relations. Vol. Aberdeen AB24 3QY.From the master’s point of view 27 and Middle Eastern pastoralism as represented in biblical accounts and associated with the proximate power of ancient kingdoms. which has provided such a rich repertoire of metaphorical resources for the Judaeo-Christian tradition. and skilled practice. If the one kind of domination. is anthropocentric. In The appropriation of nature: essays on human ecology and social relations. Department of Anthropology. Viveiros de Castro. Manchester: University Press. sacrifice and the domestication of animals. in line with an ontology of animism. pastoralists and ranchers: reindeer economies and their transformations. E. ‘The anonymity of the hunt: a critique of hunting as sharing’. 2012. 2012. ——— 2000. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21. February-March 1998. archaeology. dwelling and skill. Cambridge: University Press. Vitebsky & A. Willerslev. 1. He has carried out fieldwork in Lapland. The anonymity of the hunt: a critique of hunting as sharing. Cosmological perspectivism in Amazonia and elsewhere (four lectures given in the Department of Social Anthropology. Hunters. His current work explores the interface between anthropology. 243-76. J. where the control of the pastoralist over his herd is not at all like that of a ruler over his subjects but very much like that of the spirit master over animals which are really just refractions of his own being. 350-1. P. UK. T. art. Sacrifice as the ideal hunt: a cosmological explanation for the origin of reindeer domestication. and architecture.S. Alekseyev 2015. The other is the northern circumpolar model. University of Aberdeen. School of Social Science. tim. then the other. in terms not of evolutionary progression but of the exchange of perspectives? REFERENCES Ingold. 334-55. Tim Ingold is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. 24-27 © Royal Anthropological Institute 2015 .