Animals, animism
and vernacular theorising
1) proverbs as statements of belief,
2) animals in neo-animist studies
3) proverbs about animals’ identity
(Arvo Krikmann 1999)
4) Human-animal transformations: cases
from North Eastern India
5) Conclusion
Arvo Krikmann: “Proverb is a generalized sentence,
within the means of Estonian language a
generalised statement (Haukuja koer ei hammusta)
or a generalised imperative (Ära vanasse kaevu
sülita, kui uut ei ole)“ (1997: 52)
Wolfgang Mieder: “Proverbs are concise traditional
statements of apparent truths with currency among
the folk. More elaborately stated, proverbs are
short, generally known sentences of the folk that
contain wisdom, truths, morals, and traditional
views in a metaphorical, fixed, and memorizable
form and that are handed down from generation to
generation“ (2004: 4).
Why animals matter?
“Proverbs on Animal Identity:
Typological Memoires”
In: Proverb Semantics: Studies in
Structure, Logic and Metaphor”.
Edited by Wolfgang Mieder.
The University of Vermont: Burlington,
Vermont, 2009. 207-246.
= “Vanasõnad loomade identiteedist
(Tüpoloogilisi memuaare)”.
- Mäetagused 19, 1999.
Edward B. Tylor
(1832 – 1917)
• Religion – “belief in spiritual beings“ (1871)
• Its archetypal form – soul, spirit of individual
• Animism – assumption that all objects have a nonmaterial, spiritual element
Graham Harvey
Stewart Guthrie
• Animism – perceptual
strategy of personification
• Religion – systematic
anthropomorphism: the
attribution of human
characteristics to
nonhuman things or
• Continuity of humans and
Philippe Descola:
Animism – an ontology that endows humans and
non-humans with identical interiorities and
different physicalities
Distinctive features of animism:
1) the subjectivity, which is attributed to plants,
animals, and other elements of physical
2) person to person relations that are maintained
with these entities (Descola 2011: 18-19).
[a classic features of] “most animic ontologies is the capacity of
metamorphosis attributed to beings who have a similar interiority:
a human can take the shape of an animal; an animal can adopt the
appearance of another animal; a plant or an animal can discard its
bodily clothing to unveil its soul objectified in a human body” (ibid. 20).
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro:
Animism - an ontology which postulates the
social character of relations between
humans and non-humans (1998: 473)
Perspectivism –“Typically, in normal conditions, humans see humans as
humans, animals as animals and spirits (if they see them) as spirits;
however, animals (predators) and spirits see humans as animals (as prey)
to the same extent that animals (as prey) see humans as spirits or as
animals (predators). By the same token, animals and spirits see
themselves as humans: they perceive themselves as (or become)
anthropomorphic beings [---]. In sum: animals are people, or see
themselves as persons. Such a notion is virtually always associated with
the idea that the manifest form of each species is a mere envelope (a
‘clothing’) which conceals an internal human form…”
(“Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism” 1998: 470-471)
Arvo Krikmann:
“the semantic field of animals must be
the most productive one in proverbial
metaphors” (1999)
A. Proverbs concerning animal identity
B. Proverbs concerning the relationship between people and
animals (usually in metaphorical meaning)
C. Proverbs concerning the relationships between (metaphorical,
as a rule) animals
D. Proverbs concerning the relations of animals towards nonzoological nature and dimensions
Mrs Kre Lyngdoh (30.01.2012) Raid
Khatar Nonglyngdoh, Ri-Bhoi district,
● Mayong
Phandidhar Nath
(31. 01. 2012)
“This is a story I have heard. When a human
has to transform into a tiger, they first do
jara-puka with water. Then the human
transforms into a tiger by saying a mantra.
Before turning into a tiger the man says [to
his companion]: “When I become a tiger, I
obviously become greedy when I see
animals and humans because of the violent
nature of a tiger. If you see that I get violent
and I feel that I should attack someone, you
sprinkle some water on me, then I’ll turn
into a human again. If you are not able to
sprinkle water on me, if you are scared…”,
then he remains a tiger and goes to the
jungle. To identify him as a human tiger
(manu-bhag), some bejes used to wear rings
on fingers. Then the were-tiger can be
identified through the ring on the finger”.
Weretigers in the folklore of Mayong:
Human-animal transformations:
- instructions: man to tiger
- instructions: tiger to man
- weretigers in action
- weretiger characteristics
how to understand human-animal transformations?
• Genre and narrative world
• Genre system
• Animal metaphors and projecting human
psychology on animals are aspects of animist
world view
Thank you!
I also express my gratitude to
Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh,
Kishore Bhattacharjee,
Pallavi Dutta,
Margaret Lyngdoh,
Phanidhar Nath,
Prabin Saikia,
Utpal Nath,
Neelakshi Goswami,
Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory

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