Animal Studies Bibliography
Kwon, Heonik. 1999. Play the Bear: Myth and Ritual in East Siberia. History of Religions 38(4), 373-387.
(Summarized by Meghan Charters, Animal Studies Program, Michigan State University)
In early civilization, humans were known to attack and kill animal parents in order to capture cubs for menageries and zoo's – an act that has sadly carried on throughout much of human history. Play the bear is abound with similarities which present themselves through the form of ritualized bear hunting in East Siberia. The process goes something like this: Newborn bear cubs are taken from their mother, “nurtured” for several years, and then, as an act of festivity, they are slain, eaten and their remains are buried (pp. 373). The work of James Frazer is used to convey the difference between “we” and “they”, with the exclusive difference of those who identify nonhuman animals as “other” and those who identify them as “related to the human self”. We are to gather that what “they” do is more understandable and can be forgiven. The surprising vindication from Frazer is that the within Siberian tribes one can observe kinship idioms, where the captive bear is looked upon as a human child, rather than game.
In this article, Kwon looks at the dual dialogue presented by the actively divided “we” and “they”, in terms of “kinship and predation through the medium of the bear” (pp. 374). The purpose of this article, as Kwon explains, is to provide information for more exhaustive research of the Tungusic people – specifically Orochon of Sakhalin, the Ulcha of the Lower Amur, and the Oroch of the Maritime coast. Kwon postulates that the geographic location near rivers and social units of these people will be imperative to understanding the ritual of bear hunting.
Kwon uses the term “house bears” (pp. 375) to describe their state of becoming humanized, and second, the act of raising the bears for a number of years until they become too dangerous. In this case, they are kept in a wooden cage until they meet their untimely demise. One could argue, however, that this is fairly similar to early agricultural practices. The ritual continues via the act of community fostering. Each member actively supported in the humanization of the bear cub whether by feeding the cub reindeer milk or breast-feeding. The act of breast-feeding an animal, while controversial in modern periods, was seen as an act of charity whereby they bear cub always had proper nourishment. However, children would often grow jealous or angry and act out. In these situations the children were often scolded.
The entire act of bring a bear cub to the community has been made synonymous with the act of solitary birth within the tribe. Kwon describes the process by which females of the Orochon tribe, who begin their first labor pains, are sent away to a singular hut by themselves. The men are forbidden to her and only specific women within the tribe are allowed to facilitate in the process of childbirth, however, this is only in the direst of circumstances. She is meant to give birth on her own and await the completion of the birthing process before bringing the infant to the community – i.e. the similarities of bringing the cub to the community. Neither human nor animal are looked upon as being “born” of the community, but rather brought within.
The Orochon classified the bear-child into seven age categories with the “tributary” or Puyol (pp. 377) being the age at which the Orochon believe most bears begin sexual maturation. This age category is important in that it is typically when the bear sees its last remaining days. Note that a wild bear would still have three more categories of age to complete, according to the Orochon. While Zoologist's would disagree with this observation, due to female and male bears maturing at different ages, the Orochon seem to abandon the bear as a bear-child – and kill it – as soon as it begins playing with its genitals.
Bear fostering is contradictory to normal behavioral attributes that bear cubs would grow up learning. They are forced into a social process whereby they literally grow up with children and other humans; they are fed and cared for by people, and learn to associate themselves within this “family”. According to Ingold, it is this reasoning that separates the bear-child from animal domestication. The fact that the bear is not taken into an existing environment and controlled constitutes a humanized other , especially because it takes on the social body of its human captors. By nurturing the bear as if it were a child, the bear and community essentially achieve “perfect fusion” (pp. 378) until the bear reaches tributary.
From the House to the Playground exemplifies the actual act of fostering the bear. In different tribes it is known by similar phrases – most notably “play(ing) the bear” (pp. 378). Those who foster “play”, where as those invited to join later “gather”. In considering religious practices of the native Siberian people, it is understood that the concept of jouer (to play) is essential to the interaction of the shaman and his possessions. By playing with the bear the tribes show their affinity with him/her throughout his/her life (as a bear-child). Some tribes produce a special killing ground (playground), which is forbidden to the women until the male relatives by marriage have arrived and a bowman is chosen. After this ceremony, the bear is tied to a sled adorned with ritual adornments and bearskins from previous feasts. Once at the “playground” the bear is tied between two tree trunks and the chosen bowman is shoots an arrow into the bear's heart.
Once dead, the animal is skinned, the eyes are removed and thrown far away, the tongue is offered to the eldest man, and a fire is set near the head. It is here that we see an interesting separation of visuality and orality – the eyes are discarded far away inferring the hunter's misguided perception, where as the tongue is held with high esteem. The carcass is then boiled by the host men and consumed by the entire present community in a feast that last anywhere from fifteen to twenty days, which then gives way to festivity. Due to a strict rule of sexual abstinent s before the killing ritual, the active games, along with the killing ritual itself, produce growing sexual tension among the community and many members engage in sexual activity. When all signs of bear meat have been consumed, the bones are gathered and wrapped in the bark of a tree, the men of the host group move to a new campsite and eat the meat of the bear's head. Afterward, they smoke the bones of the bear head with the remaining bones, thus completing the ritual ceremony.
Between Marriage and Hunting describes the sexual nature between man and wife during the ritual. Typical a hunter finds a den and brings the wife giver with him to aid in poking and noosing, and eventually the skinning, of the bear cub. A feast follows their hunt where the wife giver waits on the man who found the den and the hunter remains passive. Two cycles of exchange follow: one of women and one of game. The wife taker is considered inferior to the wife giver, mediates this by the act of game giving. Part of the debt (the wife) is settled by giving the gift of distributing the game to the wife giver. Through this sub-ritual the community defines the hunted animal and the bodies of women as objects of exchange. It is also seen through myth and ritual that marriage plays a large role within the community and the ritual of bear hunting itself. Marriage and sexual rules are very defined within the Siberian tribal communities. Before the hunt, men are to refrain from intercourse while during the hunt women are to refrain from extramarital affairs. Whereas when the wife is menstruating, the husband should not hunt – this also applies to the entire month after birth.