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Mariya Zrazhaeva. Sunset at the steppe, 2017 / Facebook, «Sil–Sol»


On the way to civilization, domestic animals go hand in hand with humans for many thousands of years. We used to consider them an important element of human progress. At least two global bestsellers have been published on this subject: geographer Jared Diamond’s «Guns, Germs, and Steel» and historian Alfred Crosby’s «The Columbian Exchange».

However, not all cultures have considered animals as creatures to be put in a stall, then fattened and killed. Our story is about how the «animal fear» of Europeans gave way to the Indigenous «mysticism».




Attitudes towards animals depend on the nature of the culture. A new seminal work on the subject — Marcy Norton’s «The Tame and the Wild» has recently been presented.

It explores the history of European colonization of the New World, which began in the late 15th century. In these territories, they encountered cultures that practiced relationships with animals differing from the European norm. Norton studied dozens of sources: treatises on hunting and natural history, Indigenous beliefs, soldiers’ reports, missionaries’ notes, records of the Inquisition trials, and so forth.

This resulted in a fascinating account of how an encounter with a different worldview changed both the Old and New Worlds. It affected both human interpersonal relationships and human-animal relationships.




Norton analyzes human-animal relations in Europe, the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and the Amazon River basin. Most Indigenous peoples of the Americas believed that all creatures were interconnected, in not only physical but also mental contact, and thus could influence each other.

Therefore, American Indians tried to think like the animals they hunted. They wore their skins, ate their meat, and made jewelry and magical amulets from their bones. In this way, the Indigenous people of the Americas adopted some of the properties of these living creatures: their strength, beauty, agility, endurance, stealth, etc. This was the case until people appeared on their lands, whose views of nature and animals differed radically.

The European worldview, formed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, understood the relationship between humans and animals in a fundamentally divergent way. In this picture of the world, humans are not just «something one», and animals are «something else». Man is the pinnacle of creation; he is superior to animals in all respects and, therefore, lords over them.




Thus, we can talk about the collision of different, very dissimilar worldviews. The way of life of Europeans and Americans differed significantly. They categorized animals differently. First, they considered them to be «companions of desire, emotion, and even reason». Second — did not.

Marcy Norton identifies four ways in which people interact with animals. The first two are specific to Europe — hunting and animal husbandry. The other two, purely American, are «predation» and «familiarity». The latter method is not to enslave animals permanently: Indigenous people tamed and fed individuals, but they were free to come and go.

The animal thus tamed became «familiar», almost a member of the family. And in the Great Amazon, for example, it was not consumed as food. It was like eating a relative. However, in Mesoamerica, the eating of «familiar» animals was allowed in exceptional cases — only during rituals.




In Europe, there was a class of animals that could be called «vassals». Such were, say, hunting dogs, horses, and falcons. The status of «vassals», of course, was different from that of wild animals — deer, boars, wolves, bears, and others.

For a hunt to be considered successful, hunters had to at least partially recognize that their victims had something like minds, needs, feelings, experiences, and motives. After all, what would be the essence of hunting prowess if your opponent was completely devoid of any of these things? But it was a «kind of mind», not a consciousness equal to a human one.


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The European view of animals deprived them of their «subjectivity». Not only wild animals but also domestic animals were seen simply as objects. Without such a rigid division into human subjects and animal objects, no animal husbandry would have been possible.

The European economic system was determined by this worldview. It was based on the objectification of everything that provides sustenance, food, and clothing. By objectifying animals, people created a distance not only between them and themselves.




Simultaneously, Europeans also created a distance between two classes of people — those who owned and managed live animals and those who taxed this activity and processed animal carcasses. Slaughterhouses were separate from butcher shops. They were located outside the city, far from the final consumer.

Thus, in the XV century, Europeans were isolated from the reality in which the raising and killing of animals took place. But they could not wholly distance themselves. In the catacombs of the collective unconscious of European culture, there was still a feeling that «something was wrong» with these animals.

The suspicion that they might still have some thoughts and feelings beyond hunger or sleep found an outlet in fear of the «forces of evil». It is no coincidence that horns, hooves, claws, and tails were constant attributes of witches and sorcerers.

Innocently killed animals took revenge on man on the spiritual territory he had solely appropriated — with the help of his own culture.




The devil treated humans the same way they treated animals. European art drew pictures of hell that were written off from a slaughterhouse: animal-like demons forced people to kill other people, then eat them, roasting them on spits or boiling them in cauldrons. Theologians argued that the animal world and the world of hell were virtually identical and undoubtedly different from the human world.

It was believed that witches had an unnaturally close relationship with animals. Not only do they engage in bestiality, but they also have typically animal-like, inhuman abilities. For example, they can fly. Not that in the XV, but even in the XVII century, to take care of a pet «just for fun» seemed suspicious.

An animal must «work». If it idles in spite of the collective idea of its purpose, it means that there is something wrong with it and its owner — witchcraft was involved! Historians have calculated: from XV to XVIII century in Europe, such suspicions caused the execution of 50,000 people.

After the discovery of America, Christian missionaries brought their idea of the animal nature of evil to the New World.




Belief in nahual, a guardian spirit, also familiar to us from the animals in which the heroes of Carlos Castaneda’s books are embodied, regularly brought Indians to the stake of the Inquisition. The worldview gap between Indians and Europeans was huge. For the former, stone, wood, man, and jaguar possessed a full-fledged personality. The latter strongly doubted whether the Indians themselves had a soul and whether they could be recognized as human beings at all.

In a sense, the Christians could be understood. After all, the Indigenous man perceived himself as something like a predatory animal, his relations with birds and animals were built on the principle of prey and predator. Emotional ties with animals did not require them to perform any service or function. And this is exactly what the Indians taught the Old World.

«Useless» pets were no longer the personification of witchcraft. At first, the overseas exotic animal became a status symbol for aristocrats. Over time, all Europeans began to treat pets in a purely «Indian way» — as their companions, relations with whom are significant and desirable.

When we say the joking phrase «all dogs look like their masters», are we unwittingly resurrecting the Indigenous people’s notion of the nagual?


Original research: How our love of pets grew from a clash of world views


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