Predatory Animism

In the mid-1500s, a German seafarer named Hans Staden encountered a Tupinambá chief in the Amazon rainforest who was eating a human leg out of a “great vessel full of human flesh.”

Holding the limb to Staden’s mouth, the chief invited him to try it. Staden replied, “Even beasts which are without understanding do not eat their own species, and should a man devour his fellow creatures?”

At that, the chief took a bite and turning Staden’s argument on its head, replied, “I am a tiger; it tastes well.”

Such accounts serve, as anthropologist Carlo Fausto reminds us, that not all native cultures practice a “loving animism.” Indeed, sometimes, their practices are “better understood as a predatory animism.”

In our thirst for a meaningful relationship to the cosmos, one with a nourishing spiritual dimension, it’s easy for us Westerners to romanticize indigenous cultures and their “animistic” world views.

As I once heard the Apache writer and shaman, Martin Prechtel, say: “How can you be lonely or depressed when you wake up in a cosmos where you’re surrounded by companions and friends?” He meant a sentient world, filled with life that sings in our ears and stirs our hearts with messages from beyond the merely human.

More popularly, Disney’s Pocahontas sings,

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.

It can come as something of a shock, therefore, to discover that the “animistic” worldview can also be predatory, a thing practiced “in darkness and secrecy” as in Amazonian shamanism. Or in broad, consensual daylight, as among the warring Plains Indians of North America, whose torture of captured members of rival tribes would have made the Spanish Inquisition blanch:

“Indian torture rituals had a purpose beyond inflicting excruciating pain. The majority of tribes believed that all humans went to the same idyllic afterlife in the exact physical condition in which they had died. This breathtaking arcadia, bursting with ponies and game and populated by unlimited comely maidens, was a literal Happy Hunting Ground. But if the ghostly warrior had no eyes or tongue with which to see this paradise and taste its fatty meat, if he had no feet with which to chase the game, no hands with which to draw back a bowstring no genitalia with which to satisfy his carnal desires, then one man’s heaven had become another’s hell. This belief was universally accepted among the tribes.”

You can imagine the practical implications of such a cosmovision, although fine details such as punching a hole in the living war captive’s bladder and urinating or defecating in it might elude you.

Yet, leave it to the ancient Celts of Ireland to take predatory animism to the most refined artistic heights. As avid head hunters, their records and tales are filled with accounts of magically animated severed heads. Perhaps the most haunting and moving account is from the tale of Donn Bo in the Battle of Allen, from the Yellow Book of Lecan.

A battle was fought between Fergal, king of northern Ireland, and King Murchad of Leinster, whose territory Fergal invaded. The Leinstermen were victorious, and Fergal and many of his followers were killed. At the feast held after the victory, the king asked that someone should go to the battlefield and fetch a man’s head, for which he would pay a rich reward.

A man named Baethgalach went to where King Fergal lay, and as he drew near he could hear a voice commanding the musicians and poets on the battlefield to make music and to sing for their lord. Then came music unsurpassed in sweetness, and the head of Donn Bo began to sing for Fergal.

Don Bo was a youth famed for his skill in story-telling and song, who had been unwilling to sing for the king on the night before the battle but had sworn to make music for him the following night, no matter where they might be. Baethgalach asked if he might take the head of Donn Bo to the hall, and the head consented, if he promised to bring it back afterwards and lay it on his body.

The head of the minstrel was carried to the feast and placed on a pillar in the hall. All recognized Donn Bo, and grieved for the loss of the finest minstrel in Erin.

Then the head turned towards the wall where it was dark, and sang a lament, and so sweet was the song that none could refrain from weeping. Afterwards the head was taken back and replaced on Donn Bo’s body, and because saint Columcille had promised the youth’s mother that he would return to her unharmed, it was joined to his body again.