ASA11: Vital powers and politics: human interactions with living things

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 13/09/2011 – 16/09/2011

(P09)

Cryptozoology: animals out of place or time

Location Room 2
Date and Start Time 16 Sep, 2011 at 09:00

Convenors

Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter)  email
Gregory Forth (University Of Alberta)  email
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Short Abstract

Cryptozoological entities epitomise Douglas' maxim 'matter out of place'. Rather than decreasing as scientific knowledge increases, sightings and accounts of cryptids surface with a frequency which demands serious academic scrutiny. This panel seeks to engage with these enigmatic creatures.

Long Abstract

Etymologically cryptozoology comes from the Greek kryptos which can be translated to mean 'hidden', 'unknown', 'secret', 'enigmatic' or 'mysterious'. Cryptozoology is thus best understood as the study of animals which, in the eyes of 'Western' science, are extinct, unclassified or unrecognised. However, as anthropologists are only too aware, 'scientific' categorisation and explanation is just one of a myriad of systems available to humans to enable them to classify and make sense of the world around them. In many cultural contexts, myth, folk classification and lived experience challenge the 'truth' expounded by scientists. The sheer wealth of anecdotal sightings, combined with a widespread and dogged willingness amongst a range of ethnographic informants to believe in the existence of creatures such as zombies, goat suckers, and thunderbirds, creatures which lurk in the realms of myth and superstition and defy 'rational' scientific explanation, makes cryptozoology of prime anthropological interest. Cryptozoological entities epitomise Douglas' maxim 'matter out of place' in the contemporary world. Moreover, rather than decreasing as scientific knowledge increases, sightings and accounts of cryptids continue to surface with a frequency which demands serious academic scrutiny. Consequently, the proposed panel seeks ethnographic case studies and critical engagement with the theoretical issues they raise.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Mermaids in Brazil: The (ongoing) creolization of the water goddesses Oxum and Iemanjá

Author: Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales Trinity St David) email
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Short Abstract

The paper focuses on the mermaid as representation of the water goddesses Iemanjá and Oxum in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. It addresses the question whether we can observe in Brazil the beginning of a new creolization process that can lead to an emergent pan-Brazilian deity.

Long Abstract

Half human and half fish mermaids are 'out of place' in both worlds, of humans and of animals. They symbolise the ultimate Other (Kramer 1986, 213). During the colonial time in Africa mermaids became associated with Europeans due to their light skin, long straight hair, their wealth and their Otherness. Soon later they were used to represent local water goddesses in West Africa who developed into a pan-African deity, named Mami Wata.

My paper focuses on the mermaid as representation of the water goddesses in Brazil, usually referred to under their local names Iemanjá and Oxum, two deities in the pantheon of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. The representation as mermaid not only for one but two water deities in Brazil opens the door to an interesting development, corresponding to the decline of ethnic differences between the various 'Candombles' within an urban context. I will discuss whether we can observe here the beginning of a new creolization process that can lead - similar to the African Mami Wata - to an emergent pan-Brazilian deity. My focus will be on the implication of this transformation from local goddesses into an urban, supra-local deity, a symbol of modernity and globalization, for Brazil and the Afro-Brazilian religions. And I will look at the potential connected to the transformation of the (local) Afro-Brazilian religions into a unified belief system located within the Brazilian metropolises.

Enigmatic Bush Dwarfs of West Africa: The Case of the Siyawesi of Northwestern Benin

Author: Sharon Merz (SIL International) email
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Short Abstract

The West African bush is inhabited by many creatures including those labelled as mythical by some outside observers. The siyawesi bush dwarfs are far from mythical for the Bebelibe of northwestern Benin and continue to play an important role in Bebelibe cosmology despite modernisation.

Long Abstract

The West African bush, whether forest or savannah, is not only inhabited by plants and animals, but also by enigmatic beings that have been called 'mythical' by some outside observers. One such being is the bush dwarf.

For the Bebelibe of northwestern Benin, these small and mischievous beings are known as the siyawesi. They like to come out at night, sow in peoples' fields and take or replace grain from their granaries. Invisible to most humans, they only reveal themselves to those they choose to relate to. Despite their seemingly capricious character, the siyawesi play an important role in Bebelibe cosmology and are treated with deference.

In this paper I explore the relationship between the siyawesi and the Bebelibe, which is important for several reasons. According to mythology, many Bebelibe recognise the siyawesi as responsible for helping them become settled farmers. One clan in particular claims a special relationship with the bush dwarfs and clan members are called the siyawesi owners. The siyawesi also play an important role in divination as they mediate between the diviner and God. Diviners, in turn, are consulted regularly, especially when problems occur. For some who have converted to Christianity, the siyawesi have become the devil's children who deceive the diviners. Thus bush dwarfs do not disappear from Bebelibe cosmology as a result of modernising influences, but rather undergo a character transformation that reflects new ideas.

Cats and carcasses: animal bones as evidence of big cat kills in rural Wales

Author: Ros Coard (University of Wales, Lampeter) email
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Short Abstract

Wales is subject to numerous reports of alleged sighting of big cats and predation by big cats on local animal stocks. This paper seeks to explore the use of discarded animal carcasses as evidence of such activity and predation by big cats in local communities.

Long Abstract

Wales, along with other rural upland areas of Britain, is subject to numerous reports by local stock-breeders and stock-keepers of their animals being predated upon and from alleged sightings of large felids. These carnivores are not naturally indigenous to the Welsh (or similar) landscapes and are known as either 'Big Cats' or ABCs (Alien Big Cats). Questions currently arise over the existence of big cats and, importantly how to demonstrate this existence. For naturally shy, notoriously independent and rare animals finding independent verifiable and scientifically accepted evidence proves difficult. One line of evidence is the examination of the material remains of the predation activity. Debris in the form of discarded animal carcasses remaining on the landscape after alleged predation attacks by 'a big cat' is not uncommon in rural areas. Such evidence can be used for several lines of research, particularly in the confirmation of the presence of a felid in the area and in attempting to identify which one. This paper seeks to explore the existence of large felids within rural upland Wales with reference to drawing on parallels of animal remains in the past. It attempts to outline some of the difficulties in recognising felid predation from discarded animal remains and in identifying which felid (from the many potential representatives of this carnivore group), may be the perpetrator.

Land of beasts and dragons: modern myth-making in rural Wales

Author: Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter) email
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Short Abstract

Wales is steeped in mythology and populated by numerous mythical beings. Recently there have been many sightings of non-traditional 'mythic' creatures; 'Big Cats'. This paper explores the liminality of these felids, the humans for whom they are a reality and the rural Welsh landscape.

Long Abstract

Wales is a country steeped in mythology and populated by numerous mythical beings; from the spectral Cŵn Annwn (hounds from the 'Otherworld') who appear in the Medieval Welsh text 'The Mabinogion', to Y Draig Goch (the Red Dragon) whose image adorns the national flag of Wales. In recent years there have been increasing numbers of sightings of other 'mythical' creatures; so-called 'Alien Big Cats'. These non-endemic felids occupy a liminal position in the hearts and minds of those who believe in their existence. Known collectively as 'Big Cats', they also take on individual, colloquial identities. Typified by the 'Beast of Bont' (who may or may not represent several animals as opposed to a single individual), sightings and the animals who are seen are appropriated by those who believe in their existence (and many sceptics besides) and an elaborate mythology develops around them. This paper seeks to explore this emergent mythology and the liminality of the cats themselves, the humans for whom they are a reality and the landscape within which their paths cross.

Seeing snakes and vomiting

Author: Luci Attala (University of Wales, Trinity St David) email
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Short Abstract

The snake appears to be a potent and meaningful symbol for the human mind. Cross cultural comparisons reveal interesting connections and associations between reached conclusions as to the meaning and purpose of ‘snake’. Looking at the persistence and correspondences of serpent mythology throughout human culture this paper aims to link symbolism, healing and knowledge with snakes and other serpent like creatures including parasites.

Long Abstract

Inspired by the work of Narby with the Ashaninka in Peru, this paper journeys round the planet to link snake mythology with healing practices and notions of knowledge. Knowledge is understood as the construction and communication of meaning using symbols including language, but is also extended out from the human into possibly discarnate sources such as 'hallucinations' or spirits. In an attempt to rationalise seemingly irrational explanations, Narby's work suggests that the DMT induced hallucinations created through drinking an ayahuasca brew cause 'insight' by redirecting sight inwards to view the weak photon emissions of neurological DNA. He links the pervasion of snake symbolism to our genetic code's molecular structure. The mythical serpent thus transforms to being the internal coding of life itself mutating throughout time into all form. Focusing on both positivistic scientific conclusions looking at ethnobotanical findings of parasitic infestation and ethnographic interpretavistic experiential subjectivities this paper joins meanings by linking parasite activity/motivations, genetic material, hallucinations and the possible consequences of purging with common associations of the physical form 'snake'.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.