The Salience of Animals and the Trickster in San and Hunter-gatherer Mythology

Session Date: 
May 19, 2023

The cultural setting of my talk about myth, animals and the trickster is provided by the San Bushmen of southern Africa. The theme of my talk is the extraordinary prominence of these two beings in San Bushman mythology. Animals are the preeminent characters in the San World of Myth and the trickster is the favorite character in their World of Story. Why? Is there a connection between these two beings of San mythology? Some sort of mutual resonance or complementarily between these two myth-and meaning-charged beings that might mutually reinforce the beguilement quotient of each? And how are they both linked to real-life animals and humans? The key to the answer to these questions, I argue, lies in the ontological ambiguity of animals and humans, a state of being explicit and flamboyant in the huamnialian (therianthropic) constitution of the animals Myth Time. This being-state culminates in the trickster, not only ontologically, because of his irrepressible penchant for transformation (shape-shifting) but also socially and morally, because of an equally irrepressible penchant for transgression. As regards present time, the connection between humans and animals – or, to use terminology from relational ontology (the theoretical framework of my talk), human persons and other-than-human persons – is less overt. Implicit, as a postulate of San Bushman cosmology, the human-animal nexus can become explicit, at times in visceral-somatic ways, in certain experiential contexts. One such is a shamanic trance dancer’s or intiand’s transformation into a lion or eland, respectively. Another is a hunter’s “tappings” in his body at certain moments in a hunt – using the words of the /Xam San Bushman story teller and hunter //Kabbo (a beguiling notion which I will expand on in my talk). Mythology, cosmology and experience reiterate and mutually reinforce the connection between humans and animals in the world view of this hunter-gatherer people. I will also consider other hunting-gathering folk, by extrapolation, such as the Eastern Arctic Inuit and Australian Aborigines. In extrapolating even further, back in time, to prehistoric horizons, I offer some surmises – of the food-for-thought kind -- on the human-animal nexus in the mythology and cosmology of our human ancestors. I do so on the arguable and much argued premise, ethnographic analogy-based, of comparability, of extant and extinct hunter-gatherers, in terms of adaptive-ecological and patterns and parameters and structurally linked social-cultural ones. The latter include the ideas and imaginings here considered, about mythic beings and animals. Held by a contemporary hunting-gathering people and empirically accessible, these ideas and imaginings -- as well as imagery, conveyed in an extraordinarily rich body of rock art, some of it older than European Palaeolithic cave paintings -- might offer clues for understanding some of the thought world – and cave art -- of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. (Here I am thinking specifically of the enigmatic and much-pondered “Sorcerer” at the Trois-Frères site.) Glossary Therianthrope (Greek, animalhuman): A fantastical hybrid being, in which human and animal traits are blended. Examples from myth, folklore and popular culture are the minotaur, the werewolf and Donald Duck, respectively. Relational ontology : Gaining knowledge of one’s own being (ontology) by relating to a being that is – or is held to be – categorically “Other”, and perceiving oneself from its perspective. That Other is usually an animal onto whom personhood is projected through this sort of inter-subjective encounter. Another term for this notion is New Animism. Ethnographic analogy: A methodological and analytical process by archaeologists for reconstructing features of a prehistoric society and culture that leaves no direct archaeological imprint. Palaeolithic: A period in prehistory, from about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago during which people lived as hunter-gatherers and used stone tools. Also known as the Old Stone Age, the period ended with a flourishing of culture, not only in the manufacture of new stone (and bone tools) and other innovations (such spear thrower, bow and arrow, eyed needle, fishing implements) but also the development of splendid cave art paintings and engravings.