…This phenomenon is similar to what is still known today as animalism (or nagualism or theriocentrism). It is characterized by close magical and religious ties of humans with animals, especially with wild animals. It is also characterized in terms of otherworldly and superworldly realms and practices, such as placating and begging for forgiveness of the game killed, performing oracles with animal bones, and performing mimic animal dances and fertility rites for animals. Animals were thought to be manlike, to have souls, or to be equipped with magical powers. Animalism thus expresses itself in various conceptions of how animals are regarded as guardian spirits and “alter egos,” of the facile and frequent interchangeability between human and animal forms, and also of a theriomorphically (animal-formed) envisioned higher being—one who changes between human and animal forms and unifies them… Britannica
The first human art ever found in the Silawesi island in Indonesia, approximately 44,000 years old features depictions of therianthropes , that is creatures that were half human half animal. It is often seen as an early sign of animalistic religion but the argument is retrogressive, based on what we know about human beliefs in our not so distant past. Later the famous cave paintings in Spain and elsewhere depicted mostly animals, with humans being a sketchy detail compared to the elaborate likeness of the animals. As Barbara Ehrenreich says in TheGuardian.com (*) the centre of the universe for those who painted the cave walls for millennia were not the humans but the animals. Humans (Sapiens, Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo Floresiensis) rose from the soil, the mud, the dirt of nature into what we call “civilisation”, with humility. Fragile and uncertain about their survival they were compelled to propitiate the wild forces around them, or so goes the conventional explanation. Yet another attitude can be discerned, that in those first steps the separating line between humanity and the rest did not exist. Unlike contemporary Sapiens our species was aware that our emergence as a dominant species was not inevitable, it was an accident and not a teleological process, a fortune that could be reversed. The Löwenmensch (**) figurine is a combination of two equals, not an abomination as modern culture would see it. If it is the beginning of religion, then man, when creating God according to his own image, did not perceive a separating line between themselves and the animals. This approach remained intact as late as the time of the Ancient Egyptians who believed that animals had souls like humans and many of their divinities were therianthropic.
But then came the classical Greeks and Romans who put themselves and their humanistic gods at the centre. Though some divinities and mythical figures like Pan, Satyrs, or the Centaurs were still respected, the vast majority of therianthropes – mostly female it should be noted – were terrifying monsters – Gorgon, Medusa, Cerberus, the Minotaur, the Sirens, Hydra, Scylla, Charivde. This, as Robert Graves notes was the standard demonisation of the previous religious symbols to establish the authority of the new one. Trees, plans and landscape features like mountains and rivers were also present as divinities in this pre-classical religion, surviving as horrific demons later, as was the case of Lethe or Styx. It is beyond my knowledge to cite more examples from the wealth of world religion, but time and again we come across the way nature was cherished in the original religions.
Following suit Western thought moved through the patriarchal religious of Hebrew, Christianity, and Islam to a complete detachment of humans from nature and the assumption that humans are the privileged masters of the earth, culminating in the Renaissance and later in the enlightenment. Animals were nothing but tools or, in their natural habitats, enemies. Remnants of this attitude are still around in modern Cyprus where wildlife is either food or a nuisance, death by slaughter, hunting, poisoning, or traffic being the result in both cases. Descartes regarded animals so devoid of any feelings or emotions that, as Yuval Noah Harari writes, he was comfortable to dissect living dogs without anaesthetic.
Maybe too little and maybe too late but things are changing. Two major factors undermined humanity’s conviction that they are by right the rulers of the Earth. First the rise from the 19th century onwards of the suspicion that something is rotten in the Kingdom of logic. From Nietzsche and Marx and Freud all the way to Heidegger and Foucault (most people who read these lines are probably better informed than me), the idea of Sapiens as the logical species has been undermined, despite, or because of, language in our toolbox. Dark, compulsive, self-centred, sadistic forces that govern human actions instead of rationality have been exposed, while every day scientists discover new facts about the inner world of animals, even of plants. Animals are not so dumb afterall and what is lacked in analytic powers is compensated by their intuition and astute perception. The case of the Hans the Horse[***] which curiously I personally came across it in scientific books only recently, exemplifies this . For some anthropologists and zoologists, our only mental advantage is language, but others dispute even that, as complex systems of communication in other species are discovered.
The other factor is the environmental crisis, the looming pandemics, the population explosion, and the potential destruction of the biosphere made us feel vulnerable once again, we are as helpless when confronted by the wild uncontrollable nature as the early humans. Our technological civilisation will not work out the solution. Firstly because it is the problem in its present form, and there is a great reluctance to change it, but more importantly, because the chain of events that are already set in motion might turn our technological and industrial mode unsustainable in the near future. We may find ourselves back to basics, without the current industrial comforts and the security they provide. Extinction is not a far-off word, the circle seems to be closing. If we will survive, we need to show nature respect, approach it once more with humility. The fact that it was us who dominated the planet and not the whales, the octopus, or the elephants was as much of an accident as the fact that it was the Europeans and not the Chinese, the Indians or another civilisation that colonised the world from the 16th century onwards. We are not masters – we are part of it.
Yiannos Economou, August 2020