Spirits of Animals, Totems, Animal Guides, and Hunting

The world of the forest and waters is the home of wild animals upon whom
man relies to survive. Animals are called amitan, “having an ami soul”,
because like human beings they possess an ami body soul which provides the
breath and warmth of the living body. Ami souls of animals usually
reincarnate as newborn members of their species, so deer return as more
deer, seals return as seals, or bears reincarnate as bears. Since they have
souls animals are considered to have personalities, language, and even
psychic abilities just like humans.

The master spirit of all the hunting animals is known as Bayan Ahaa (rich
older brother). Hunters appeal to him for fortune in finding game. The
highest ranking animals of the wild are the Siberian tiger, the snow
leopard, and the bear. Buryat call the tiger Anda Bars (best friend tiger)
and pray to him for good hunting. In much of Siberia the bear is seen as a
master of the animals and revered as an ancestor. Many Siberian tribes have
special ceremonies for honoring the bear after he is killed.

Because animals possess reincarnating souls, there are many rules regarding
the killing of game so that their souls will not be offended. Otherwise,
they may become angry and refuse to return to the tribal hunting grounds or
tell other animal spirits to stay away. When a large animal is killed or a
large fish is caught, the hunter or fisherman may cry over its death to
appease the animal spirit. Hunters also apologize to animals when they are
killed, saying that they needed to take the meat and hide for their
survival. Domestic animals are also killed in a respectful manner. Heads
are not chopped off because cutting the throat injures the ami soul. The
head, throat, lungs, and heart, which is collectively called the zuld, is
the residence of an animal’s ami and should be removed from the body as one
piece. When an animal is killed for a sacrifice the hide and the zuld are
hung up on poles pointing to heaven. After bears are eaten the skull or
sometimes the whole skeleton is placed on a pole or platform in the forest.

This respect for animal spirits dictates certain rules for hunting. First,
when entering the forest one should act reverent and not laugh, run or
yell, but move gently and stealthily like an animal. Throwing sticks in the
woods is an insult to Bayan Ahaa and the forest spirits and therefore taboo
(nugeltei). Urinating or throwing rocks into bodies of water is likewise
forbidden. Animals should never be killed except for food or fur, and it
should be done in a quick and humane way. Game must be shared in the
community and not hoarded, and the carcass must be butchered in a customary
(yostoi) manner. Following these simple rules ensured the return of game
and a good relationship with the animal spirits

Rivers, lakes, streams, and the ocean is the residence of the water animals
as well as a passageway for spirits traveling between the worlds. The loon
and goldeneye duck are considered to be special water birds. There is a
legend among many Siberian peoples that in the very earliest time the earth
was covered with water, and that the loon and goldeneye duck brought up mud
from the bottom of the sea and piled it up until land appeared. The loon is
a very special water bird because of its diving habits. Water is full of
spirits and the loon above all other birds is believed to communicate with
the souls in the water. The cry of the loon is frequently imitated in the
songs of Mongolian and Siberian shamans. Among the fish the pike is
considered powerful and images of this fish are used in shaman rituals from
the Samoyed in the west to the Tungus in eastern Siberia.

Animals who appear in nature are sometimes shamans who take on animal forms
while traveling in spirit to do their work. They may take the form of
birds, mammals, reptiles or even fish. Some stories recount occasions where
an animal has been killed by a hunter and a shaman falls dead while
conducting a ritual because the animal had actually been his soul. Ancestor
spirits or ordinary people’s souls may also occasionally take on animal
form The Dagur Mongols say that the porcupine, snake, fox, weasel, spider,
and pheasant are especially likely to be shamans who are soul traveling;
most of these are not normally eaten.

Certain animals are considered to be totems or symbolic ancestors for
tribes or clans. The most famous are Blue Wolf and Red Deer, the mythical
ancestors of the Mongols. The Buryat also recognize a bull as their
ancestor. Throughout Siberia the eagle is also looked at as a totemic
ancestor, and in Mongolia the eagle is associated with the shaman
tradition. Among the Yakut individual clans recognize a specific mammal or
bird as its totem animal. The name of the animal is taboo and it is
referred to in everyday speech by other names. In Mongolian the lack of a
literal name for the bear is probably due to this custom because the bear
is recognized as an ancestor by almost all Siberian peoples. In Mongolia
the name of the wolf is also taboo among many groups.

Animal spirits are also guides and teachers for shamans. According to Yakut
tradition, once a shaman has contacted his shaman spirit, it will introduce
him to the power animal which will be his guide. This animal is called the
“animal double,” or “animal mother.” From that time onward not only would
the shaman be taught by the animal, but would also take on its form while
traveling in spirit. As a shaman grows in power he will add to his
collection of power animals. A shaman’s outfit normally has whole skins or
pieces of fur from several different kinds of animals which are ongon
spirit houses for the power animals to which they belong.

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