Becoming Human, by Roberto CalassoTranslated by Richard Dixon
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From The Celestial Hunter, which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Translated from the Italian.

In the time of the Great Raven even the invisible was visible. And it continually transformed itself. Animals, at that time, were not necessarily animals. They might happen to be animals, but sometimes they were humans, gods, lords of a species, demons, ancestors. And humans weren’t necessarily humans but could also be the transient form of something else. There were no tricks for recognizing those that appeared. They had to be already known, as one knows a friend or an adversary. Everything, from spiders to the dead, occurred within a single flow of forms. It was the realm of metamorphosis.

The change was continual, as later happened only in the cavity of the mind. Things, animals, humans: distinctions were never clear-cut, always temporary. When a vast part of what existed withdrew into the invisible, this didn’t mean it stopped happening. But it became easier to think it wasn’t happening.

How could the invisible return to being visible? By giving life to the drum. The stretched skin of a dead animal was the steed, it was the journey, the gilded whirlwind. It led to the place where the grasses growl, where the rushes keen, where not even a needle could pierce the gray thickness.

When hunting began, it was not a man who chased an animal. It was a being that chased another being. No one could say with certainty who each of them were. The chased animal could be a man transformed or a god or simply an animal or a spirit or a dead being. And one day humans added another invention to the many others: they began to surround themselves with animals that adapted to humans, whereas for a very long time it had been humans that had imitated animals. They became settled—and somewhat staid.

Why so much hesitation before setting off to hunt the bear? Because the bear could also be a man. People had to be careful when talking, since the bear could hear everything said about it even when it was far away. Even when it retired into its den, even when it was asleep, the bear carried on following what was happening in the world. “The earth is the ear of a bear,” people said. When they met to plan the hunt, the bear was never named. And generally, if the bear were mentioned, it was never called by its name: it was Old Man, Old Black Man, Grandfather, Cousin, Worthy Old Man, Black Beast, Uncle. Those preparing for the hunt avoided saying anything. Cautious, wrapped in concentration, they knew the slightest sound could ruin the enterprise. If the bear appeared unexpectedly in the forest, it was a good idea to step aside, take off one’s hat, and say: “Go on your way, most honorable one.” Otherwise one tried to kill it. The whole of the bear was valuable. Its body was medicine. When they managed to kill it they ran off immediately. Then they would return to the scene, as if by chance, as though they were taking a stroll. And they would discover to their great surprise that someone unknown had killed the bear.

The first divine being whose name it was forbidden to mention was the bear. In this respect monotheism was not an innovation but a revival, a hardening. The novelty was the prohibition on images.

Knowing that the bear understood everything they said, they would talk with it before attacking, or immediately after. “It wasn’t us,” some would say. They would thank the bear for allowing itself to be killed. Often they would apologize. Some would add: “I’m poor; this is why I’m hunting you.” Some would sing as they killed the bear, so that the bear, while dying, could say: “I like that song.”

They would hang the bear’s skull in the branches of a tree, sometimes with tobacco between its teeth. Sometimes decorated with red stripes. They attached ribbons to it, wrapped the bones in a bundle, and hung them from another tree. If one bone was lost, the spirit of the bear would hold the hunter responsible. Its nose ended up in some secret place in the woods.

When they captured one of the bear’s cubs, they would put it in a cage. It was often nursed by the hunter’s wife. In this way it grew up, until one day the cage was opened and “the dear little divine thing” was invited to the feast at which it would be sacrificed. Everyone would dance around the bear and clap their hands. The woman who had nursed it would cry. Then a hunter would say a few words to the bear: “O thou divine one, thou wast sent into the world for us to hunt. O thou precious little divinity, we worship thee: pray hear our prayer. We have nourished thee and brought thee up with a deal of pain and trouble, all because we love thee so. Now, as thou hast grown big, we are about to send thee to thy father and mother. When thou comest to them please speak well of us, and tell them how kind we have been; please come back to us again and we will sacrifice thee.” Then they would kill it.

The oldest thought, the thought that for the first time felt no need to be presented as a story, took the form of aphorisms on hunting. Like a murmur, between tents and fires, transmitted like nursery rhymes:

“Wild animals are similar to human beings, only more sacred.”
“Hunting is pure. Wild animals love people who are pure.”
“How could I hunt, if before it I had not done a drawing?”
“The biggest danger in life is that the food of humans is all made of souls.”
“The soul of the bear is a miniature bear that is found in its head.”
“The bear can talk, but prefers to remain silent.”
“Those who talk to the bear, calling it by name, make it gentle and harmless.”
“An inept man who sacrifices takes more wild animals than an able hunter who doesn’t sacrifice.”
“Animals that are hunted are like women who flirt.”
“Female animals seduce the hunters.”
“Every hunt is a hunt for souls.”

In the beginning it wasn’t even clear what hunting was for. Like actors trying to enter the role of a character, they tried to become predators. But certain animals ran faster. Others were forbidding and circumspect. And then, what was killing? It was not much different from being killed. If the man became the bear, when he was killing it he was attacking himself. And all the more obscure was the relationship between killing and eating. Those who eat are making something disappear. This is even more mysterious than killing. Where does it go when it disappears? It goes into the invisible. Which eventually teems with presences. There is nothing more alive than absence. What, then, is to be done about all those beings? Perhaps they need to be helped on their way to absence, to be accompanied for part of their journey. Killing was like saying goodbye. And, like every goodbye, it required certain gestures, certain words. They began to celebrate sacrifices.

Hunting starts as an inevitable act and ends as a gratuitous act. It elaborates a sequence of ritual practices that precede the act (the killing) and follow it. The act can only be encompassed in time, as the prey is encompassed in space. But the course of the hunt itself is unnameable and uncontrollable, like coition. No one knows what will happen between hunter and prey when they face each other. But what is certain is that prior to the hunt the hunter performs acts of devotion. And after the hunt he feels the need to offload a feeling of guilt. He welcomes the dead animal into his hut like a noble guest. In front of the bear that has just been cut into pieces, the hunter murmurs a prayer of vertiginous sweetness: “Allow me to kill you even in the future.”

The prey has to be brought into focus: the isolating gaze reduces the field of vision to one point. It is a knowledge that proceeds through successive gaps, carving figures out from a background. Circumscribing them, it isolates them like a target. Indeed, the gesture of carving them out is already the gesture that attacks them. Otherwise the figure is not born. Myths, each time, are a superimposition of severed outlines. By pushing this way of knowledge each time to the extreme, by accumulating outlines, the backdrop from which they had been torn once again begins to form. This is the knowledge of the hunter.

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