Looking at this figure, what creature would you think it represents? Man? Animal? Both?
Collected in 1999 by Rane Willerslev, during his fieldwork in the blistering cold of Siberia, this figure tells the story of an important link in the complex process of the Yukagir hunters’ preparation for killing prey.
The figure represents the soul of the hunter, ayibii, which, in the hunter’s dreams, travels to the house of the spirit of the prey. Here, his soul takes the form of an elk to make the spirit think it is being visited by its own kind. In this way, the figure can seduce the prey in order for the hunter to kill it later on – and for this reason, the figure is represented as half man, half elk.
During the actual hunt, the act of balancing the mimicry of an elk and at the same time staying focused as a hunter, is valued as a great skill, and as such, what defines power among the Yukagir is the ability not to confuse analogy with identity. As described by Willerslev himself:
“When approaching an elk, the hunter wears wooden skis, covered underneath with smooth skin from the leg of an elk, so as to imitate the sound of the animal when moving in snow. In adittion, he moves his body like an elk: from side to side in a waddling manner. Provided that the hunter’s mimetic performance is convincing, vivid and alive, the elk will leave its hiding place between the trees and bushes and begin to walk towards him, apparently taking him for one of his own kind rather than a human hunter. The two parties will thus approach one another with each doing what the other is doing – that is, each imitating the actions of the other. (…)during this situation of mutual mimicry, the hunter must act simultaneously within two motivational spaces, which we might term ‘the space of predatory mastery’ and ‘the space of animal imitation.”
The figure thus represents the imitation, seduction and deception inherent in the art of mimicry and the skill of hunting, but also the great respect for what it takes to personify and manage the perspective of other creatures. Not quite man and not quite animal, the figure is somewhere in-between.
// Ciara Coogan
Rane Willerslev (2006): “To have the World at a Distance: Rethinking the Significance of Vision for Social Anthropology”, in Grasseni, C. (ed.), Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards, pp. 24– 46. The EASA Series: Learning Fields, vol. 6, Berghahn Books, New York and London.
Photo: © 2014 Jacob Due, Photo/Media Department of Moesgaard Museum.
Byline portrait: © 2015 Line Beck, lbmfotografi.wix.com