This exciting special issue sets out to take the ‘anthropology of ontology’ (also called the ‘ontological turn’), along with its concern for indigenous animism, to a new level of analysis by pairing it with key issues originally raised by anthropology’s influential paradigm of reflexivity, the Writing Culture debate. A few years ago, I critiqued the inclination “to neutralize the challenge” that animistic ideas present to anthropological thinking (Willerslev 2007: 12). In their introduction, the editors of this issue, Katherine Swancutt and Mireille Mazard, describe the ‘reflexive feedback loop’ through which native thinkers, by adopting anthropological theories of animism, cast the anthropological gaze back upon itself. Here, instead of being neutralized by anthropology, native ideas feed into and play havoc with scholarly models of animism. It is this unexpected condition of inquiry that gives rise to the editors’ engagement with the ‘anthropology of anthropology’.
How do we take indigenous animism seriously in the sense proposed by Viveiros de Castro? In this article, I pose this challenge to all the major theories of animism, stretching from Tylor and Durkheim, over Lévi-Strauss to Ingold. I then go on to draw a comparison between Žižek's depiction of the cynical milieu of advanced capitalism in which ideology as “false consciousness” has lost force and the Siberian Yukaghirs for whom ridiculing the spirits is integral to their game of hunting. Both know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still they go along with it; both are ironically self-conscious about not taking the ruling ethos at face value. This makes me suggest an alternative: perhaps it is time for anthropology not to take indigenous animism too seriously.
Ludek Broz and Rane Willerslev
Two indigenous Siberian groups-the Yukaghirs and the Telengits-share rather similar ideas about success in hunting as an elusive and highly precarious tension between too little and too much luck. In the catalogue of semiotics, it corresponds to the homonym whereby one sound/spelling is the manifestation of two words with different meanings. The result, as we shall show, is that any lucky hunter always inhabits the alternative possibility of his own failure. In this sense, good luck in hunting might at any point be exposed as bad fortune.
A Study of Mortuary Ritual as Sacrifice among the Siberian Chukchi
Jeanette Lykkegård and Rane Willerslev
This article describes in detail a mortuary ritual among the Chukchi of Northern Kamchatka and points to its remarkable affinity with an ideal-typical reindeer sacrifice. We argue that this connection between human cremation and sacrifice plays a key role in the people’s attempt to maintain and ensure continuation of their particular kind of life in a cosmos that is replete with numerous other, mostly hostile, life forms. The article describes all stages of the ritual and contextualizes the ritual in the literature on sacrifice. We argue that seeing Chukchi mortuary rituals as a way of transforming any death into a blood sacrifice calls into question well-established understandings of sacrifice as a means of diverting human violence. We suggest that ritual blood sacrifice may instead be seen as a way of protecting the sacrificial victim against violent forces and in doing so, securing the well-being of the community as a whole.