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‘The Soul of the Soul is the Body’:

Rethinking the Concept of Soul through North Asian Ethnographies

Rane Willerslev and Morten Axel Pedersen1

Forthcoming in Identities under Construction.Translocal Connections

and the Transformation of Bodies, Persons and Social Entities,
E. Halbmayer, P. Schwitzer & E. Mader (eds.). Oxford: Berghahn Books.


E. B. Tylor, who established anthropology’s classical theory of ‘animism’, defined

animism as a doctrine of the soul. ‘Primitive’ man’s reflections on such experiences
as death, trances, visions and, above all, dreams, Tylor asserted, led him to the
conviction that they are to be accounted for by the existence of some immaterial
entity, the ‘soul’ – which forms the ‘groundwork’ of all religions, ‘from that of
savages up to that of civilized men’ (Tylor 1871 [1958]: 426, 428). Tylor’s theory of
animism (along with its Victorian ‘twin’ concept of ‘totemism’) has been much
criticized by later anthropologists (see Durkheim 1995 [1912]: 53; Lowie 1936: 99–
135; Evans-Pritchard 1965: 25; Bird-David 1999; Willerslev 2007: 15–16) and his
evolutionistic perspective, with its set intellectual agenda to uncover the origin of
religion, has long ceased to interest and guide mainstream anthropology. Despite this,
however, his key concept of the soul is still alive and widely used by contemporary
anthropologists writing on topics of indigenous cosmology (see, for example, Ingold
1986; Viveiros De Castro 1998; Harvey 2005: 135–38).

But what exactly is meant by ‘soul’? Stringer (1999: 545) notes that Tylor
himself was ‘notoriously vague on [this subject]… and while he talks at times of
“phantoms”, at other times of “spirits”, of souls that are “vaporous and immaterial”
and so on, he never actually offers one master definition’. However, Tylor did in fact
define the concept of soul in Primitive Culture, when he writes:

[The] conception of the personal soul or spirit among the lower races, [can]

be defined as follows: It is a thin unsubstantial human image, in its nature a

sort of vapour, film, or shadow; the cause of life and thought in the individual
it animates; independently possessing the personal consciousness and volition
of its corporal owner, past or present; capable of leaving the body far behind,
to flash swiftly from place to place; mostly impalpable and invisible, yet also
manifesting physical power, and especially appearing to men waking or asleep
as a phantasm separate from the body of which it bears the likeness;
continuing to exist and appear to men after the death of that body; able to
enter into, possess, and act in the bodies of other men, of animals, and even of
things (Tylor 1871: 429)

It is likely that the reason why so few have taken notice of this definition is its
daunting wordiness. In fact, several of Tylor’s critics wanted to nail him down on his
vaugeness of terminology, and have tried to come up with more rigorous definitions.
Lowie (1936: 99), for example, used a simple dictionary definition of ‘spiritual’ as
‘any supernatural being, good or bad’, to clarify what he meant by ‘spiritual beings’.
Durkheim (1995: 268–71) defined soul as ‘none other than the totemic [collective]
principle incarnated in the individual … that represents society in us’ (1995: 251,
274). Tylor never offered any such succinct formulation of what he meant by soul but
described it differently each time to cover everything from the shadow image to the
highest ancestor spirits. This raises the question of what analytical value the concept
of soul really has ‘if [it] can mean whatever Tylor wants [it] to mean at any particular
time’ (Stinger 1999: 546).

Still, we shall argue that there is something about the ways in which
indigenous peoples conceive of the interplay between visibility and invisibility, or
materiality and spirituality, that makes it useful, necessary even, to define ‘soul’ in a
not-too-rigid manner so as to avoid turning it into a mere technical term with a fixed
referent (as did Durkheim and Lowie). Instead we take Tylor’s vagueness of
terminology seriously as an optimal – if largely unintended – reflection of the
ontological status of the phenomena at hand. A cursory glance through the vast
literature on ‘indigenous soul conceptions’ supports this idea. Devereux (1937: 417),
for example, who studied the Mohave Indians, wrote that ‘[r]eferences to other tribes
are omitted because the data on the Mohave [conceptions of soul] are contradictory
enough to make comparisons with other tribes undesirable’. Likewise, Bogoras
(1904–9: 332), who lived among the Siberian Chukchi for many years and collected
much detailed knowledge of their religious ideas and practices, stated that ‘very little
… is said about it [the soul], and its name even is mentioned in only a few

incarnations’. More recently, this paucity of discourse about the soul has also been
pointed out by Rival (2005: 306) in relation to the Huaorani of the Amazon: ‘More
targeted fieldwork may bring new evidence [about their idea of soul], or may not, as
the Huaorani are extremely elusive when it comes to esoteric matters.’

We are here reminded of the fact that indigenous understandings of what we

call the soul are often expressed through vague and contradictory terminology on part
of the informants. For the same reason, our aim in this chapter is not to try to provide
a clearer definition of the soul than that attempted by Tylor, if by this we understand
the positivist strategy of identifying a single prototypical term that encompasses all of
the seemingly contradictory senses of the vague concept under investigation (like
Durkheim did with ‘totem’ and Lowie did with ‘spiritual’). On the contrary, it is our
impression that, in many indigenous contexts, there simply cannot be only one
concept of the soul. However, this is not to say that indigenous conceptions of the
soul form part of the broader set of ‘counterintuitive ideas’, which, supposedly,
constitute the basis of all religious representations, as suggested by cognitivist
anthropologists like Boyer (1994) and Bloch (1998). Rather, our suggestion is that, in
North Asia and quite possibly elsewhere, ‘the soul’ by and large amounts to a relative
or more precisely a deictic phenomenon, which depends on who sees and from where.
In what follows, we show this by comparing two cases from North Asia – the
Chukchi of northern Kamchatka and the Darhads of northwestern Mongolia. While
the Chukchi live on Siberia’s tundra and subsist on a combination of reindeer herding
and hunting, the Darhad occupy the border between the forest and the steppe on the
Mongolian-Russian border, where they depend on animal husbandry and subsistence
hunting for their livelihoods. Despite these obvious differences in economy and
geography, the two groups share many common aspects of their cosmology, most
notably the fact that they both subscribe to a so-called ‘perspectivist cosmology’
(Viveiros de Castro 1998). However, before we can turn to describe this
perspectivism and how it relates to our search for a concept of ‘soul’ among the
Chukchi and the Darhads, something needs to be said about the analytical challenges
pertaining to the concept of soul more generally.

The soul as substance and spirit


As already pointed out by several scholars, one of the key problems with the concept
of soul is that it is already heavily formed by our own Judaeo-Christian tradition with
its inherent dichotomies between spirituality and physicality, inner and outer
(Hultkrantz 1953: 38; Valeri 2000: 24; Willerslev 2007: 57). Thus, the soul in our
Judaeo-Christian discourse is part and parcel of an ontological opposition of ‘spirit’
and ‘matter,’ which implies that the soul is immaterial. Its substance is spiritus,
‘breath’ – ‘what is most invisible in the visible, most immaterial in the material’
(Valerio 2000: 24). For us, body and soul are therefore seen as two radically distinct
substances, the one physical, and the other entirely immaterial. We find an early
expression of this dualistic thinking in Plato, for whom, as Alliez and Feher write:
‘The body and soul are different by nature and … the immortal soul’s residence
within the corruptible body is an exile’ (1989: 51). Plato’s followers within the
Christian tradition have emphasized ever since that, as soul, one is never really at
home in the body, and the human soul must be prepared to make an effort to extricate
itself from the bodily chains in which it has been ensnared. Indeed, it is this Platonic
line of thinking that seems to underlie the attempt by Christian philosopher Price
(2001 [1953]) to give meaning to the idea of a next world inhabited by disembodied
souls. In this world, Price asserts, human souls are aware of each other’s presence by
entertaining purely mental images, communicating with each other telepathically, and
having dream-like (as opposed to bodily) perceptions of the world.
However, among different indigenous peoples around the world, there are few
(if any) examples to be found of such an altogether immaterial soul (see, for example,
Lowie 1936: 99; Hultkrantz 1953: 387; Viveiros de Castro 1998: 481). Certainly,
none appears among the two North Asian groups, the Chukchi and the Darhad
Mongols, who are the focus of this chapter. The Chukchi term, uvi’rit, which is
usually translated as ‘soul’, belongs to the linguistic root, uvi’k, meaning literally
‘body’ (Bogoras 1904–9: 332). In fact, as we shall see, there is an important sense in
which Chukchi ‘souls’ are a form of bodies – an idea that does not fit easily into the
Judaeo-Christian opposition between spirit and matter. Similarly, the Mongolian term
süns is commonly translated as ‘soul’ (see Bawden 1997), and yet there are many
situations – particularly in the context of Darhad shamanism – where it denotes an
ephemeral but unmistakably material presence, which always hovers on the threshold
of the visible world. Thus, for both the Chukchi and the Darhads – as for many other
indigenous groups in North Asia – the soul is vested with a good deal of materiality,

something which is further underscored by the fact that the Chukchi carve wooden
amulets of people’s uvi’rit, which they feed with fat and blood from sacrificed
animals (of which more below). Thus, owing to its quasi-physical nature, the uvi’rit is
believed to have material needs: it eats and drinks, and can in turn be hunted and
eaten by other creatures.
Even so, these aspects of a materially conceived soul do not necessarily imply
that it is understood to be as grossly material as the bodies of ordinary physical
objects. Many Mongolians thus conceive ‘the soul’ (süns) to be ‘the exact … image or
shadow of the body’ (Even 1991: 184). For the same reason, it is ‘thought to go on
living after death, which is only the loss of the envelope, i.e. the flesh’ (1991: 185).
Likewise, the Chukchi believe that the uvi’rit reincarnates itself in the bodies of
newborn children, who are therefore considered to be ‘returned’ deceased relatives.
Tylor himself seems to have been alert to exactly this ambiguous combination of
matter and spirit when he described the soul of ‘primitive’ peoples as ‘a thin
unsubstantial image, in its nature a sort of vapour, film, or shadow … mostly
impalpable and invisible, yet also manifesting physical power …’ (1871: 429).
But what exactly is this baffling soul that combines the material with the immaterial,
so that they lose their polarity and swim in and out of focus, and how is it connected
to the body? And can we come to terms with its ambiguous combination of substance
and spirit without resorting to our own familiar body–soul dichotomy? These are the
kinds of questions that Tylor left hanging in the air, and which we will explore in this
article. In developing our analysis, we take much inspiration from the Amazonian
specialist Viveiros de Castro (2001), especially a statement of his which originally
appeared as a hasty footnote. Here he redefines the body–soul relationship among
Amerindian peoples as a ‘figure’ vs. ‘ground’ distinction, which he contrasts with the
traditional Platonic ‘appearance’ vs. ‘essence’ distinction:

In Amerindian cosmologies, the spiritual or ‘invisible’ dimension of

reality is often referred to as ‘the other side’. Such idiom, at first sight
identical to our ‘the beyond’, may actually mean something else. The
other side of the other side is this side: the invisible dimension of the
invisible dimension is the visible one, the soul of the soul is the body, and
so on. I suspect that traditional ‘Platonic’ reading of indigenous body/soul
dualities, which understands them to be synonymous with our
‘appearance/essence’ distinction, is entirely wrong. It should be replaced
with an interpretation of these two dimensions as constituting reciprocally
the figure and the ground of each other, that is, a relation totally different
from that between appearance and essence. (Viveiros de Castro 2001: 42,
emphasis in the original)

We believe that this statement reflects key aspects of both Chukchi and Darhad

cosmology. However, to reach this point, we first need to introduce the general
principles of Amerindian perspectivism and show how it relates to our North Asian

1. Ethnographic case study: the Chukchi

For the Chukchi, the world is perceived as a forest of traps, a dangerous place to
be. Everywhere in the landscape, from the crevices in the rocks to the cracks along the
riverbanks, dwell cannibal spirits who attack the lonesome traveller, or cling to him
invisibly, so as to be carried to his encampment where they can find human victims
aplenty. As one Chukchi shaman once explained to Bogoras: ‘We are surrounded by
enemies. “Spirits” always walk about invisibly with gaping mouths’ (1904–9: 295).
Indeed, much of what goes on in the world of the Chukchi is expressed in this idiom
of eating and being eaten. As described by Bogoras with regard to the much-feared
evil spirits, the ke’let (pl. of ke’lE):

[They] go hunting and fishing, and the old men sit at home and try to read
the future by the aid of divining-stones. The object of their hunts is
exclusively man, whom they usually call ‘a little seal’. Their divining-stone
is a human skull, while men often use for this purpose the skull of some
animal … After catching a soul, they chop it into pieces, cook it in a kettle,
and feed their children with it … [However] the ke’let are not exempt from
the attacks of shamans, who can deal with them in the same way as they
deal with men. The ke’let, on their part, call shamans ke’let. (Bogoras 1904–
9: 294–95)

Horrifying as this predatory and violent world may seem, it fits neatly into what
Viveiros de Castro calls ‘perspectivism’. It is an ontology ‘according to which the
world is inhabited by different sorts of subjects or persons, human or non-human,
which apprehend reality from distinct points of view’ (1998: 469). Yet these are not
alternative points of view of the same world, but rather result from a carrying-over of
the same point of view into alternative realities. Thus, the ke’let see the world in
similar or identical ways to human beings and behave just like them from their own
subjective perspective. This is because both humans and nonhumans possess the same
kind of intentional substance or soul, and, as Viveiros de Castro points out,

the ability to adopt a point of view is undoubtedly a power of the soul …

[And] since the soul is formally identical in all species, it can only see the

same things everywhere. (1998: 478)

The difference between viewpoints lies not in the soul but in the specificities of
bodies, with their distinctive dispositions for action and perception. Accordingly,
while the ke’let go hunting for prey in the same way as human beings go hunting for
prey, what each class of beings see as prey differs and depends on their distinctive
kinds of bodies. To the Chukchi hunter, with his particular bodily perspective, a seal
is prey, whereas he himself, or rather his soul, is a ‘seal’ from the bodily perspective
of a ke’lE.
It follows quite logically from all of this that a clear distinction can be made between
an ‘inner immaterial soul’, concealed beneath an ‘outward material appearance’.
Whereas the former is anthropomorphic and independent of its variable outward form,
the latter is likened to somatic ‘clothing’, which may be exchanged so that one can
take up the viewpoint of another being. This is, in fact, the kind of argument
proposed by Viveiros de Castro (1998) in his article on Amerindian perspectivism. In
Siberia there are numerous examples of this type of inter-species transformation,
where shamans and hunters cover themselves in fur clothing resembling an animal’s
outward form, so as to assume its bodily qualities and perspective (see, for example,
Chaussonnet 1988; Willerslev 2007: 89–90).
However, among the Chukchi, we find yet another type of transformation in
which an exchange from one bodily form to another takes place without indicating the
replacement of one’s physical appearance with that of another being. Essentially, this
is a form of reversibility of body and soul: People are turned ‘inside-out’, so to speak,
in that ‘inner substance’ and ‘outer clothing’ cross over and become the other, which
makes it difficult – in fact, impossible – to specify what is really body and what is
really soul. However, to understand the principles of this body–soul reversibility, we
need first to describe the workings of a particular type of amulet used by the Chukchi
and their Koryak neighbours.

The ka’mak-lu’u
Groups of Chukchi moved south into Koryak territory in the early 1800s (Bogoras
1904–9: 15) and now many locals in northern Kamchatka, where Willerslev carried
out his fieldwork, speak a dialect of the Koryak language (Chavchuven Koryak),

although they consider themselves to be Chukchi.2 Thus, the following names used
for the amulet were given in either the Chukchi or Koryak languages: ‘watch-keeper’
(Chuk. GinrIre’tIlIn), ‘guardian’ (Chuk. inendu’lIn), ‘assistant’ (Chuk. vinre’tIlin),
‘assisting companion’ (Chuk. vinre’t-tu’mgIn), ‘wooden spirit’ (ok-ká-mak), and

‘wooden face’ (Kory. ka’mak-lu’u). However, the prototypical name for the amulet is
uyi’cit, which Jochelson (1908: 101) simply translated as ‘soul’ in his classic
monograph on the Koryak. None of Willerslev’s informants could add anything to the
meaning of the word, but simply confirmed that it was the same as the Russian word
dusha, meaning ‘soul’. However, given that the Chukchi word for soul, uvi’rit,
literally means ‘body’ (Bogoras 1904–9: 332) and that the Chukchi and Koryak
languages are ‘but branches of one linguistic family’ (Jochelson 1908: 428), it is more

than likely that uyi’cit also means ‘body’.3 Besides, this was also the implied meaning
of the word when used in conversations with Willerslev (see below).
Let us now turn to the amulet, which takes the form of a small human figure
roughly cut from a tree branch. The amulet is forked at one end to represent legs (see
picture 1) and sometimes another branch indicates one arm with a two- or three-
fingered hand. There may also be the mere suggestion of a head with a simple line
representing the mouth, which its owner smears with tallow or bone marrow to ‘feed’
it. Still, there is nothing about the little figure that resembles a realistic portrait of a
human being. At best, it is an imperfect, at times even monstrous, depiction of a
human body. This puzzled Jochelson, who wrote:

Since the Koryak have attained quite a high degree of skill in carving figures
true to nature, and in endowing them with motion and life, we cannot help
being surprised at the crudeness of the outlines of their wooden
representations of the ‘guardians’. (Jochelson 1908: 115)

Later, we shall return to explain the lack of realism of these figures, which might not
be so surprising after all. First, however, we need to consider the function and use of
the amulet. It is fastened in the armpit of a person’s outer clothing or to the back of
his leather belt (see picture 1) and is believed to protect him against attacks by the
ke’let. As explained to Willerslev by an elderly Chukchi woman:

One time I had a bad dream. I saw my son riding on a reindeer sledge, which
fell apart and he was dragged over the hard tundra. When I woke up, I knew
that he was falling ill. So, I went out and found an alder tree with two
branches making a fork. I placed some Enelwit [a mixture of rabbit fur and
reindeer fat, which is said to be food for the spirits] in between the branches.
Then I said to the bush: ‘Now I’ll take you with me’, and I pulled the branch
towards me, so it broke off. At home, I carved a ka’mak-lu’u (small wooden
figure) that I attached to my son’s belt. We call the figure ka’mak-lu’u, but it
is also called uyi’cit. The person who wears it becomes altogether different.

Not that my son became different, he was the same as always, but to the kalau
[the Koryak name for the Chukchi ke’let, here understood as a disease] he is
different. They take him for one of their own and leave him alone … In
addition, a ka’mak-lu’u will help the person to whom it is attached in various
ways. At night time, when my son is asleep, his ka’mak-lu’u stands up and
goes out to protect his reindeer against wolves. Early in the morning, when he
wakes up, it is back hanging in his belt … But a ka’mak-lu’u is also
dangerous. You need to feed it or it can turn against you and suddenly kill

This passage is informative both in providing important details about the relationship
between human beings and ke’let, and in giving insight into the interplay between
one’s body and uyi’cit. As it turns out, these two aspects mutually articulate one
another. Let us begin by considering the ka’mak-lu’u. It is said to provide its human
owner with another body – not any kind of body, but a body that makes the ke’let take
him for one of their own, thereby preventing it from preying upon him. This body can
only be that of a ke’lE, which, if we follow the principles of perspectivism, implies
that the ke’let will see him as they see each other – that is, as a fellow human being as
opposed to animal prey. As Viveiros de Castro states,

[Beings that share the same species body] not merely ‘call’ themselves
‘people’; they see themselves anatomically and culturally as humans … The
difference between bodies, however, is only apprehendable from an exterior
viewpoint, by an other, since, for itself; every type of being has the same
form (the generic form of a human being): bodies are the way in which
alterity is apprehended as such. (1998: 477–78)

Indeed, this may explain the reason why the ka’mak-lu’u is made in such crude,
incomplete and sometimes monstrous fashion, because while the ke’let ‘see
themselves anatomically and culturally as humans’, from the human bodily
perspective, the ke’let (when not invisible) appear to have exactly such hideous
features. As Bogoras writes: ‘The Chukchi agree that they [the ke’let] … have faces
which are “of different sort” (a’lvam-va’lIt), not resembling anything else on earth …
Some of them have half bodies, a detail which is also met with among artificial
objects designed to work a spell’ (1904–9: 293, 294).
What is slightly more puzzling is the fact that the ka’mak-lu’u is also called
uyi’cit (i.e. the term usually translated as ‘soul’), and that the meaning of this word is
‘body’ (see discussion above). An answer may perhaps be found in Viveiros de
Castro’s statement about body and soul as reciprocally constituting the figure and
ground of the other: if indeed the ka’mak-lu’u provides its human owner with another

body, which from the viewpoint of the ke’let is recognized as such, then it follows
quite logically that from the viewpoint of this ‘spirit body’, the person’s own human
body is the soul to be protected against predation from the ke’let. That is to say, ‘the
soul of the soul is the body’ (Viveiros de Castro 2001: 42, our emphasis). Indeed, this
would explain why the Chukchi and Koryak words, uvi’rit and uyi’cit, usually
translated as ‘soul’ also mean ‘body’. It also gives meaning to the fact that although
the ke’let are said to be soul eaters, for the human person under attack, this is
experienced as his physical body being wrecked (such as during disease) (Jochelson
1908: 294; Bogoras 1904–9: 295).
Using the terminology of Viveiros de Castro (2001: 42), this means that for the
Chukchi and Koryak, body and soul function alternately as potential ‘figure’ and
‘ground’ to each other, because they reciprocally contain each other within. In other
words, soul and body are not conceived in terms of a finite or fixed ontological
opposition between spirit and matter as in the Platonic tradition. Instead the two
constitute the flip-side of the other by virtue of which they each may take the place of
the other: the soul becoming the body and the body becoming the soul. We can,
therefore, just as well say that the body is what is on the inside and the soul is what is
on the outside, because the two belong together as ‘reversibles’ – which, ‘unlike other
expressions of counterpoints – for example, contraries, antithesis, or polarities … are
opposites that self-contain themselves’ (Corsín-Jiménez and Willerslev 2007: 538; see
also Strathern 1987: 204; Green 2005: 128–59).
There is, however, a peculiar consequence, which appears to follow logically from
this, namely, that from the viewpoint of one’s ordinary human body, one’s ‘soul’ is in
fact a ke’lE. This links up with what the elderly Chukchi woman said about the
ka’mak-lu’u being a trickster that might kill its owner. To fully understand the
implications of this statement, we need to place it in the context of the great soul
exchange between the living and the dead, which defines the Chukchi cosmos.

The circulation of souls

The principle of body and soul constituting the flip side of each other is in fact an
enduring trait in Chukchi cosmology. It is simply a matter of ‘scaling up’ from the
micro-cosmos of body and soul to the macro-cosmos of the living human
community’s relationship with that of the deceased and we find the same principle of
reversibility at work. Thus, in much the same way as body and soul are reversible, so
the world of the deceased is conceived as a perspectival inversion of that of the living.
People live there in irangas (tents) with their families, just as the living do, and they
also keep herds of domesticated reindeer; yet basic things are turned upside-down and
inside-out: When it is night here, it is day there, and the same goes for winter and
summer. Moreover, the bodies of the deceased are turned the ‘wrong’ way round, so

that they have the colour of raw meat, while their heads and feet bend backwards.
Moreover, the deceased have plenty of reindeer when they are scarce among the
living, and vice versa.
To speak of the ‘deceased’ and the ‘living’ is, however, not quite correct, because
from the viewpoint of each of these categories of beings they are the living while the
others are seen as the dead ones. This is important to keep in mind when we turn to

describe the great exchange of souls that binds the two worlds together.4 When a
person in this world dies or an animal is sacrificed, their souls go to the next world,
where they are reclothed with flesh. Every newcomer joins his or her own relatives,
just as any reindeer killed joins the family herd. The deceased, the Chukchi say, are
always eager to receive the soul of the dead, because from their viewpoint this is
experienced as the physical return of a long deceased relative. The same goes for the
souls of the deceased, who upon ‘death’, conversely, return to this world through an
act of spontaneous rebirth. As soon as a child is born its family members will ask
‘what relative has come back’ and seek to discover the child’s true identity by using a
divining stone. The child will then be given the name of the deceased person he or she
is believed to be and take his or her place within the wider network of kin. Indeed, as
Guemple (1994: 118) describes it with regard to the Inuit, but which also holds true
for the Chukchi and Koryak, ‘the system … is regarded as a closed “circle”: no new
spiritual components can enter, and none are ever lost’. We are, therefore, at least in
principle, dealing with a fixed pool of souls, which simply go round and round in an
endless circle.
It follows quite logically from this that death is an integral and necessary part of the
creative circle of renewal. What is more, not only do the living depend on the
deceased for their supply of souls, but the deceased depend on the living to perform
the acts of sacrifice, which ensure the reproduction of their herds. Thus, during the
yearly ritual of commemoration of the dead, domesticated reindeers are sacrificed in
large numbers in order that the deceased can increase their herds of domesticated
reindeer. From this commitment to reciprocate springs also the tradition of ‘voluntary
death’, which, if not a frequent occurrence, is still practised among the Chukchi of
northern Kamchatka.5 It involves death inflicted by one’s relatives (through
strangulation, stabbing or shooting) at the request of the person who wants to die. This
type of death is conceived as analogous to a ritual blood sacrifice of a reindeer for the
benefit of the ancestors, and a person who wishes to die in this way sometimes
declares: ‘Give me a mortal stroke, since I have become for you like a game-animal’
(Bogoras 1901–9: 562) or ‘treat me like game’ (Batianova 2000: 152). It is not
surprising, therefore, that to die ‘voluntarily’ is praised by the Chukchi as the ideal
death, because it signifies a person’s direct and unmediated reciprocation with the

However, in general, people seek to postpone the moment of death as long as possible
by making use of various kinds of sacrificial substitutes (reindeer, dogs and models of
animals). In fact, the exchange logic operating between the two worlds make the
status of the deceased ambivalent: on the one hand, they are conceived as associates
in giving life, on the other, and perhaps even more so, they are seen as enemies in
demanding it back. Bogoras points to exactly this when he writes:

One line of native thought is inclined to consider the deceased as benevolent

protectors of their descendants … According to another belief, spread much
more widely among the Chukchee, the deceased become, after death, a kind of
ke’let hostile to man … (1901–9: 336–37).

‘Scaling down’ again to the relationship of body and soul, it is interesting to recall
that not only does the ka’mak-lu’u represent the body of a ke’lE; it is also considered
to be a ‘soul’. This soul can only be that of one’s previous incarnation – that is, the
deceased ancestor one is believed to be. All of which means that the ka’mak-lu’u is
not only body and soul at once, it is also ke’lE and ancestor; and yet these two beings,
as should be clear by now, are in fact one and the same. As such, the ka’mak-lu’u
plays a double role as both ‘helper’ and ‘betrayor’ of its possessor: While this is what
makes possible the formation of the person (the life-giving ancestor), it is also that
which threatens him with dissolution (the cannibalistic ke’lE). Indeed, this was what
the elderly Chukchi woman pointed to when she explained that the ka’mak-lu’u is
essentially a trickster, who may not only assist its possessor but also kill him, and, we
might add, is thereby feeding the great circle of soul exchange.

2. Ethnographic case study: the Darhad Mongols

Turning now to the case of the Darhads, a Mongolian people of hunters and
pastoralists inhabiting the Hövsgöl province of northwestern Mongolia, the first thing
to notice are the striking similarities between their shamanic conceptions of the person
and the concepts of uvi’rit, ka’mak-lu’u and ke’lE, which can be found among the
Chukchi more than 3000 kilometres away. People here also see themselves as cast
into a world of different perspectives, each corresponding to a specific kind of human
or nonhuman body that serves as the visible or exterior container of an invisible or
interior subjectivity, which under special (occult) circumstances can travel between
different bodies and therefore points of view. And also here, the term that is most
commonly translated as 'soul' (namely the Mongolian word süns) emerges as

irreducibly ambiguous with respect to several fundamental questions of Western

philosophy and theology. The problem is not only that it remains quite unclear
whether the word süns denotes something material or spiritual, but that we are more
generally confronted with 'various and contradictory accounts of the concept of the
soul' (Even 1991: 185) as underscored by the fact that Mongolians use a whole battery
of terms to describe 'metaphysical aspects of the person' (Humphrey 1996: 213), of
which süns is only one.
Before going into further detail about what these different terms are, and what
their internal relationship might be, it is useful to consider some other attempts to pin
down the Mongolian concept of 'the soul' (süns, alternative transliterations: suns,
sunus). This will also serve to introduce a number of key components of the shamanic
cosmos, which we need to keep in mind in our own pursuit of the Darhad soul.
It is by now well established that the shamanic ontologies of different northern
Mongolian groups are perspectivist in Vivieros de Castro's (1998) sense of the word
(Pedersen 2001; Empson 2007). However, while much energy has been spent on
exploring how this 'Inner Asian perspectivism' may be said to differ from its
Amazonian and Siberian counterparts (Pedersen in press; Holbraad and Willerslev in
press), less attention has been paid to precisely which aspect of the human or the
nonhuman person is understood to assume the point of view of another body.
According to the French historian of religion Marie Dominique Even, the answer is
clear: the subject of perspectivist transformation in Mongolian shamanism is 'the soul'

Mongols see the young child's soul as especially mobile and vulnerable ...
The adult's soul keeps mobility and ability to leave the body momentarily,
as in dreaming or when under shock, and to take another form (for
example, that of a small insect, a bee, etc). Mongolian folktales tell many
a story where the hero, ignorant of the fact that he is dreaming while his
soul wanders around, sees the world in an enlarged way, mistaking the
grass for the forest, saliva for the river ... If the soul does not return to the
owner, through ritual calling of the soul or curative séance by the shaman,
it can lead to the death of the owner. Hence the interpretation of illness as
the loss of one's soul, or its ill-treatment by some evil spirit; in fact, the
shaman's interventions are mostly based on the manipulation of souls. As
for the shaman's soul, which is of dual nature, it is able to travel in the
other world to meet the spirits, to adopt different (zoomorphic) aspects, to
'eat' – or to be eaten by – the soul of an adverse shaman. It usually has a
special external repository (a particular tree in the forest or a specific
animal being); if any harm is done to it, this is reflected immediately in
the person of the shaman. (Even 1991: 186)

One of the great advantages of Even's account is the intimate way in which it ties the
concept of the soul together with the central logos of the shamanic cosmos, namely,

that people, animals and spirits take each other's points of view, and that this is an
inherently violent and dangerous process, as evidenced by the fact that it is referred to
by means of a vocabulary otherwise associated with hunting, sorcery and more
'modern' forms of extraction (for example, just like someone who is cursed, a person
who is forced to pay bribes is said 'to be eaten' (idüüleh)). Less convincing, however,
is the implicit claim in the above account that the category süns constitutes a faithful
copy of the Western concept of soul. For Even, it seems, süns can be translated into
'soul' through a completely transparent mapping of meaning between the semantic
spaces of the two terms in question. The problem here is not only that Even is taking
it for granted that one-to-one translations of this sort can be made in the first place;
she also seems to work under the assumption that the meaning of süns is entirely
transparent and satisfactory to the Mongols themselves, its semantic space
representing all the states, guises and metamorphoses through which the invisible
aspect of a person reveals itself.
Yet, as hinted at by Even herself in her brief mention of certain 'zoomorphic
aspects' of the shaman's soul, süns is by no means the only term which is employed by
Mongols when referring to those metaphysical phenomena that are typically embraced
by the the Western understanding of the soul. In particular, among the shamanic
groups inhabiting the forest zone between Mongolia, Russia and China, one finds an
extraordinary variety of terms, which may be translated more or less directly as 'soul'.
Indeed, while süns always figures prominently among these, one often gets the
impression that it is not really able to stand alone – people always need to make
reference to one or more of the other terms as well. Among the Daur Mongols, for

the word sumus could refer to an immortal consciousness that after death
would become an ancestor, or to a consciousness that was normally
extinguished in sleep (but could leave the body in dreams), or to an entity
that separated from the body at death, 'changed appearance', and returned
to the world in some other form. There were also ideas of a life-energy
(ami (breath)) and an inherent might (sul'd or suli) both of which were
different from the sumus, according to Urgunge. Although the literature
on shamanism has called any of these 'souls' ... Urgunge said that living
creatures have only one soul (sumus), and furthermore that it made no
sense to talk of this in relation to someone who was alive and healthy.
One talked of sumus when people were suffering, dreaming, at death's
door, or indeed dead. Sumus was thus an overarching concept that implied
a human existence both in and beyond the confines of the body.

(Humphrey 1996: 213)

This account of Humphrey's conversations with Urgunge Onon on the Daur concept
of the soul captures the sense of vagueness, ambivalence and even contradiction,
which one also experiences when trying to discuss these matters with other Mongols,
including the Darhads. As Pedersen has often tried to ask, how can the süns both
constitute an inalienable aspect of a person (it is generally held that, if you lose your
süns, then you will die) and be a detachable part of the same person, which can
temporarily move beyond the confines of his or her body (as when people are
dreaming)? And why is it always stressed that persons can have only one süns, and
yet on many occasions the 'metaphysical aspects' of persons are talked about using
other terms, such as ami and suli?
In what follows, our solution to these conundrums will not be to try to
establish a clearer definition of the Darhad Mongolian soul in the positivist tradition
of Durkheim or Lowie. Rather, as in the Chukchi case, we need to take seriously the
idea that the Darhad shamanic cosmos is based on a perspectivist deictic, where what
is considered to be the 'soul' varies according to the point of view from which it is
seen. Indeed, as we are about to see, Darhad souls are not so much immaterial
inversions of Darhad bodies but rather eversions, which only become visible when
different bodies are turned inside out.

The hunting ongon

As Pedersen has described in detail elsewhere (2007), many Darhads are in
possession of various shamanic paraphernalia, which are understood to serve as
physical containers, receptacles or 'vessels' for the shamanic spirits. As elsewhere in
the Mongolian zone (see Heissig 1980; Even 1991) these are called ongod (sing.
ongon). As with the Chukchi word ka’mak-lu’u (as indeed in many other occult
vocabularies across the world (think, for example, of the word mana), this term is
used to refer to both the spirits in their invisible form and to their visible
manifestations in certain places in the landscape, different wild animals and (above
all) sacred artefacts. 'Vessel' seems to be a particularly apt translation of ongon in the
latter instantiation, given that this term is etymologically related to ongots, meaning
'vessel, receptacle, and boat' (Humphrey 1998: 427).
While anyone may be involved in ongod worship, it is the shamans, hunters and
those specialists whose activities require frequent interaction with the spirits (such as
the blacksmiths) who are in possession of most talismans. Unlike the family vessels
(yasgüür ongod) kept by some households in the northwestern corner of the yurt
which tend to consist of non-figurative 'bundles' made up of cotton ribbons, silk

scarves (hadag), leather strings, as well as animal fur, teeth, claws and beaks (see
Pedersen 2007), the hunting talismans (anchny ongon) that are kept by many hunters
inside or outside their homes have more recognizable zoomorphic designs. And unlike
the former, which ideally must be consecrated by shamans, the hunter has the sole
responsibility for designing, making, consecrating and interacting with his hunting
Most of the hunting vessels seen by Pedersen had a very simplistic (Tylor might have
said 'archaic') design, consisting of a small figurine made of fur, skin or wool from the
game animal in question. While this is not the place to discuss the general 'non-
representational' strategy that seems to underwrite the design of all Darhad shamanic
artefacts (see Pedersen 2007), it is clear that, like the Chukchi, the Darhad hunters are
not trying to make naturalistic representations of the animals in their vessels. Rather,
Pedersen was told, what matters above all is that the hunter is gifted (mergen), for
such a person ‘will automatically know how to make the ongon from his hunting’.
However, in a more general sense the function and use of the Darhad hunting
talismans also closely resemble the Chukchi's engagement with their uyi’cit or
ka’mak-lu’u amulets, as described above. As a prominent Darhad hunter explained:

Good hunters have many different ongod. It is important to wake (sergeh)

each of them in the right manner, to feed them with milk and other things,
and so on. The most common thing is to make a hunting vessel before
going hunting, but it is also possible to do this after returning, if one has
been in contact with a master (ezen) of the game. The point is to not be hit
by the süns of the animals. Take me for instance. Because I hunt a lot of
marmot, it is inevitable that I will sometimes return with some marmot
things (yum). Upon my return, my marmot vessel will absorb [these] and I
will be fine.

We see here that the hunting vessel is conceived of as a protector, which, like a sort of
occult lightning conductor, keeps the hunters shielded from the dangerous and
penetrating gaze of the shamanic spirits (ongod) in their momentary manifestations as
'animal souls' (angiin süns) or 'land masters' (gazryn ezed). For there are two kinds of
game: those animals that have not been 'hit' (tsohiulah) by any spirit and therefore are
unproblematic to hunt, and those that are potentially lethal to hunt because their
bodies have been overtaken by the ongon süns of a dead shaman. (Among the
Darhads, the great majority of ongod are known to originate from the souls (süns) of
dead shamans, which are believed to be released from their bodies years after they
have been buried on the forest (cf. Diószegi 1963; Badamhatan 1986; Pürev 2004)).

The two souls of the Darhad hunter

But the Darhad hunting vessel is more than a passive shield or armour, which enables

the hunter to hunt safely. It is also an active weapon or tool, which, under this
disguise, allows the hunter to attract the bodies and süns of the game:
As containers of souls (sünsnii sav), hunting vessels bring the game to
hunters. The point is that a hunter with a marmot vessel will become like a
marmot. For this reason, the marmot will not be scared. It will think of
him as [one of its own] people. As a person (hün). The marmot will not
recognize the hunter, for he has become a marmot. A hunter with a
marmot vessel gets a marmot süns; a hunter with a wolf vessel gets a wolf
süns. So, the wolf doesn't know [that the hunter is human], nor does the

This passage from the same hunter is valuable for our present investigation in several
ways. For one thing, it offers a good illustration of Darhad perspectivism: because the
hunter is equipped with a marmot vessel, the marmot does not see him as a hunter (i.e.
as a predator in whose eyes the marmot is prey) but as a person belonging to its own
people (i.e. as a human being). This account seems to fall in line with other data
which Pedersen has collected on Darhad shamanism, where the shaman is understood
to have two bodies (hoyor biyetei), one being his or her ordinary human body and the
other the extraordinary spiritual body afforded by the shamanic costume (which,
incidentally, is known as 'the armour'). In fact, if we follow the logic of reversibility
(see also Strathern 1988), 'the performing shaman can be said to personify an ordinary
Darhad person turned inside out, for ... the shaman is momentarily making visible
what normally cannot be told from a person's appearance, namely the hidden potential
for greediness, envy and violence, which constitutes what the Darhads describe as
their "black side" (har tal)' (Pedersen 2007: 159). The shamanic costume, in that
sense, constitutes an alternative body, which makes it possible to see the normally
invisible inside of ordinary persons, a substance which is sometimes referred to as the
'shamanic sensibility' (har sanaa) of the Darhads.
But a puzzle remains. If we look again at what the hunter says in the above
quotation we see that he does not really speak of hunters assuming the body of a
marmot (or a wolf), but rather the soul (süns) of a marmot (or a wolf). A given
hunting vessel, it would seem, does not equip the hunter with two bodies but with two
souls, namely his own süns and the süns of the specific animal to which this talisman
corresponds. How, then, are we to reconcile these two ideas, which seem to figure
simultaneously among the same group? On the one hand, we have the Darhad
shamans, who, while donning their costumes in the possession ritual, are imbued with
'two bodies', one human and the other spiritual. On the other, we have the Darhad

hunters, who, while using (feeding) their hunting vessels, are imbued with 'two souls'
(süns), one human and the other animal. Darhad shamanic cosmology, it seems, is a
contradictory or least inherently vague assemblage of ideas, and if Tylor was right in
not defining the soul in any clear terms, then it was because people are not at all clear
about it themselves.
Here we would like to offer an alternative interpretation to this pessimistic account,
one that is based on the premise that there is, in fact, no contradiction between the two
above scenarios. Instead of constituting two opposite ideas, we propose that the
Darhad shaman's two bodies and the Darhad hunter's two souls are mutually
reversible in precisely the same way as the Chukchi term for 'soul' (uvi’rit) was seen
to contain the sense of its own opposite ('body'). If, as Viveiros de Castro puts it, 'the
other side of the other side is this side' (2001: 42), then what from the one perspective
is a body quite logically must take the shape of a soul when seen from the other
perspective. If we apply this finding to the cases at hand, we realise that, in the case of
the shamanic ritual, the point of view is on this side: the shaman is seen to have two
bodies because, from the human point of view of the audience, the shamanic costume
constitutes an extra skin, which serves to make the black side of the Darhads visible.
Conversely, in the case of the hunting vessel, everything is seen from the other side:
the hunter is imbued with two souls (süns), because when a marmot vessel is seen
from the nonhuman perspective of marmots, it does not constitute a visible artefact (as
it does to us) but an invisible spirit, which automatically attracts the marmots, whose
bodies in that sense become 'possessed' by the ongon, or rather its master, the hunter.
Just as in the Chukchi case, then, 'the invisible dimension of the invisible dimension is
the visible one' (2001: 42), for what is visible to the eye of the hunter (the hunting
ongon as a thing) turns out to be invisible to his game (the hunting ongon as a spirit),
and vice versa. In that sense, the hunter becomes a shaman in his own right
(something that is also emphasized by the Darhads), for his hunting vessel plays the
same role vis-à-vis the game animals as the shamanic costume does with regards to
the spirits: both artefacts constitute a sort of occult attractor imbued with the capacity
to turn things inside out. The only difference is that, in the case of the hunting vessel,
what is eversed is not the bodies of humans (as in the shamanic ritual) but the bodies
of animals.

While the above case studies have focused on the most common Darhad and Chukchi
terms for soul (namely süns and uyi’cit), it should once again be emphasized that the
meaning of these terms by no means encompasses the meanings of all the other terms
that these and other North Asian peoples also employ when speaking about souls, or,
more precisely, various aspects or parts of them. For Mongolia, this was already
illustrated in Humphrey's discussion of ami and süld (1996: 213). These, however, are
only a small sample of the impressive repertoire of terms to which the Darhads have
access when speaking of the metaphysical aspect of themselves. Some of the most
prominent of these are: sanaa (‘sensibility’), uhaan (‘mind’), and, constituting a rich

subset of their own, huvilgaan (‘metamorphosis’), zarch (’helper’), daguul (’escort’)

and güidel (’path’), all of which denote the different instantiations, in places, animals
and artefacts, of the shamanic spirits (see Badamhatan 1986; Even 1988–89: 357–58;
Humphrey 1996: 101–3, 297–98). Likewise, as regards the Chukchi and the Koryak,
both Bogoras (1904–9: 332–33) and Jochelson (1908: 101–2) note the multiplicity of
soul concepts among these two Siberian groups (as underscored by the many terms
that are used for amulets described earlier).
We suggest that the seemingly ‘prototypical’ indigenous terms for the soul, such
as the Darhad Mongolian word süld (as well as ongon) and the Chukchi and Koryak
words uvi’rit and uyi’cit constitute singular analogues of the multiple bundles of
terms, which at the same time are employed to denote a given local concept of the
soul. Keeping in mind that, in Chukchi cosmology, the most common word for 'soul'
(uvi’rit) also means ‘body’, we may in that sense perhaps speak of the singular 'soul'
(süns, uvi’rit) as the sole 'assembly point' of its many instantiations (Dar: süld, güidel,
huvilgaan etc; Chuk: uvê’kkIrgin, tetkéyun, ya’nra-ka’lat, etc.), just like the body (or
more precisely the torso) is the only point of intersection between the different limbs
(arms, legs, wings). Indeed, the Chukchi say that besides the soul pertaining to the
whole body (the uvi’rit), a person also possesses special ‘limb-souls’ for the hands,
feet and other body parts (Bogoras 1904–9: 332–33). Although it lies beyond the
scope of this chapter to pursue this idea any further, it certainly makes a lot of sense in
light of the shared perspectivist logic which we have identified in the two North Asian
indigenous societies at hand. After all, it seems to follow quite logically that,
inasmuch as the soul (and, therefore, the body) is nothing more than a deictic
implication of the exchange between different points of view, then there simply
cannot be any single term (let alone definition) which encompasses all these positions
(doing so would amount to the same as using the personal pronoun 'I' for not only first
person singular, but for other grammatical combinations of number and gender).
With these observations in mind, let us return to Tylor and the much-lamented lack of
a proper definition of 'the soul'. If one takes a fresh look at Tylor's seemingly feeble
attempts to formulate what the soul is (see the introductory section), then it transpires
that he appears to have been aware of the fundamental ambivalence between what is
material (visible) and what is spiritual (invisible) in indigenous soul conceptions.
However, he evidently was not able to account for this fact by means of the
theoretical framework available to him at the time. He thus defined his own approach
as ‘Materialistic’ as opposed to ‘Spiritualistic’ (1871: 425), by which he presumably
meant an approach in the British empiricist tradition as opposed to a metaphysical
one, where people think in terms of entities, such as souls, ghosts, spirits and gods,

that are beyond empirical study. Yet, it was this very dichotomy between the material
and the spiritual which betrayed him, because it locked him into a Judaeo-Christian
understanding of soul as something spiritual and completely divorced from
materiality, despite the fact that his own attempt at a definition flatly contradicted this.
With perspectivism, however, anthropology seems to have been enriched with a
theoretical model that allows for dealing with indigenous soul conceptions,
characterized as many of them are by an ambiguous combination of materiality and
spirituality. Among both the Chukchi and the Darhads, as we have seen, what
constitutes the invisible soul (and the visible body) depends on the perspective one
adopts and each may trade places with the other. In this way, the material and the
spiritual become flip sides of each other. Such a deictic cosmos requires a veritable
bundle of names for the soul, because it cannot be nailed down to a simple technical
term with unambiguous or fixed referents. We can only praise Tylor for his sensitivity
to this fact (his vagueness), even though he lacked the theoretical tool-kit to fully
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Willerslev, R. 2007. Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the
Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
Deceased person? Or a ’disease’?Source needed here for this quotation. The authors have contributed
equally to this article.
2 It is in fact impossible to provide a set of consistent and rigorous distinctions between Chukchi and
Koryak, as stressed by Bogoras (1904–9), Jochelson (1908) and King (2002). The two groups are very
similar both in terms of language, culture and religious ideas.
3 According to Plattet (in press and personal communication) who did fieldwork in the same
community in Kamchatka as Willerslev, the term uyi’cit (or uzizit as he spells it) might be linked to a
series of others indigenous terms such as: uzizik (‘to (re)heat’, by cooking or playing) and uzizichvet
(‘[ritual] game’), and uzizichvetik (‘to play’).
4 Hamayon (1990) has described this life exchange of souls in Siberian hunting communities more
generally. We take much inspiration from her account.
5 While Willerslev was in the field, an elderly man killed himself. A few days before his death, he had
requested that his relatives kill him. However, according to their statements, they had all refused
because they feared being charged with homicide by the Russian authorities. Still, the fact that the old
man could ask for assistance suggests that ‘voluntary death’ is still practised, yet only in secret.
Moreover, Willerslev recorded several stories about voluntary deaths that took place as late as the
1960s and 1970s (see also Batinova 2000: 155). The commonest motives are old age, long-term illness,
and ‘bad luck’ in domestic matters (e.g., childlessness) or in reindeer herding. This is to be
distinguished from the so-called ‘youth suicides’ that are committed by young people in great numbers,
especially boys between 16 and 30 years of age. These youngsters do not sacrifice themselves to the
ancestors, but kill themselves to ‘worry their kin’, that is, to harm the feelings of a lover or close

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