Vol. IV, No. 3, Winter 1991

On man and the hunt

A conversation with Karl Luckert

Karl Luckert is a specialist in the study of religious origins. Reading his books on the Navajo Hunter Tradition, and on the Coyote Way, a Navajo healing ceremony, brought to our attention the relation of man and animals in the hunt as expressed in traditional cultures. He shared with us some chapters from his book-in-progress.

As a preface, we offer from that manuscript some of Professor Luckert's observations about interrelations in primitive cultures among hunting, male-female definition, religion, social development, values, etc. Do they have implications for modem societies ?

"Archaic hunters were motivated by their need for food and by sensations of hunger; love of family and status, gained through exemplary performance, could become a secondary source of motivation."

"While intelligent men as hunters manufactured more effective weapons, their intelligent women built better huts and made better carrying devices. Together they greatly improved their ability to feed, to defend, and to care for their offspring."

"The direction of drift in hominid evolution over several million years transformed hunting into a full time masculine passion. It became the key activity which defined masculine self-awareness."

"A nimble-witted hunter survived, scored, and was admired for bringing home meat. When he returned heroically from a successful expedition, his status among females was assured."

"Successful hunting expeditions called for noisy celebrations during which good hunters could boast a little--under the guise of ritualized joviality. They were during these celebrations honored, implicitly, for having killed in the field. Inversely, failure in the field called for their embarrassed retreat into states of silence."

"All hunters are tricksters. Hominid hunting with the use of tools and weapons is predator trickery amplified by intellect and artificial means."

"Human hunter-tricksters evolved into formidable artificers and killers. They used sticks and stones, spears, pitfalls and fire, bow and arrows, and nowadays firearms."

"Hunting and killing originally loaded males with guilt."

OZW: You point out that primitive man hunted because he needed food; but that other reasons existed as well. Would you comment on them?

Luckert: The basic biological reason is of course hunger and a propensity for liking the taste of meat. That taste for meat developed when primitive man, as a predator himself, competed with other large predators whom our ancestral critters respected as greater-than-human beings, thus as gods. That is a religious reason. Predators do a lot of fooling around and competing with superiors. They compete by imitating, and then by surpassing or eliminating the superior models.

Dr. Karl Luckert is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Southwest Missouri State University.


A milder form of competition exists in social relationships. Not everyone can be top dog, and for everyone who asserts himself above average there must be someone, or some victim, who exists below average. So in the realm of hunter religion you imitate and hide behind the hunting behavior of a god. In the social realm you are respected for bringing home the largest bear or deer. In short, there are many reasons for hunting, and, in the process of being explained, all these reasons are made out to be something more noble.

OZW: "Boys will be boys," the saying goes. What does that mean in light of your research into the definition of maleness? Does it imply that to be truly male, a man must hunt?

Lucked: It is the transition from hunting to domestication that has been the severest blow to the ego of human males. In an archaic hunter-gatherer society man had to hunt not only to be truly male, but to be anybody at all. In a domesticator society man had to find substitute goals and victims. You can see the results in the evolution of human culture--in head hunting, cannibalism, scalp hunting, secret men's associations, aristocracies, priesthoods, and military assemblies.

OZW: Why should women not hunt?

Luckert: That is the the wrong question. Widespread female abstinence from hunting is an evolutionary and historical fact. Our own society thrives a long distance from the ancient hunting and gathering ethos. It is therefore more useful to ask why women in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, with few exceptions, have not hunted.

An obvious biological fact is that women bear children. It was safer to leave them and the young nearer to a base camp. Generally among primate bands the males gather and hunt along the periphery so as not to compete for food with the younger ones.

But in time cultures and religions have answered this question more inclusively. Women participate in "Life," giving birth and providing nurture. The men as hunters wield "Death," bringing home meat from the outside. Life and death are opposites. Death, at home, kills kinfolk; by the same logic, traces of feminine life power adhering to the bodies of hunters spells "life" on the open range--and the animals are thus sometimes able to escape the hunters.

In most hunting cultures, a woman's failure as an agent of life, such as giving still birth, was blamed on wrongs men did during hunting. A man's failure in hunting, on the other hand, was blamed on the power of women. Humankind was split into two occupational "species"--into male predators and female foragers.

OZW: Are there religious implications for modern hunting? How do the great religions differ on hunting and killing?

Luckert: Yes, there are religious implications. By "religious" I mean anything that is defined by a relationship with greater-than-human reality. The old greater-than-human realities to whom ancient hunters related--lions, tigers, wolves--are no longer divinely superior to us. This means they are no longer gods. Still, even without these gods we do not go out and kill every animal in sight. We still submit to greater than individual realities and laws.

Hunting among later domesticators became butchering. And the butchering of share-animals for a deity came to mean "sacrifice." With animal sacrifices a herder paid his deity for the privilege of having been given, and owning, herds of animals. Later "grand domesticators," despots, applied the same logic; they paid God for human herds by sacrificing human victims.

The universalistic or "great" religions have all reacted, more or less, against such over-domestication excesses. They have all either abolished or greatly reduced the need of giving animal or human sacrifices to God. As a result, the sacrificial knife which univeralistic religions abandoned has been picked up by secular state cults. Secular governments now determine life, death, and occasions for human sacrifice.

OZW How much--if any--of emotion and meaning of primordial human hunting remains in modern hunting?

Luckert: In modern hunting we subscribe to a code of sports, which is actually a religious hybrid of ancient hunter passion and subsequent domesticator values. Our animals are "man-aged" by human authorities as if they were domestically owned animals. How small do the fenced areas in the Black Hills have to be before we recognize the buffalos there as domestic animals? Some cattle graze on ranges which are as large. Our hunting seasons are legalized slaughters, licensed by the authorities who act as trustees or owners of the wild herds.

Hunters call their activity "sport," matching the fact that the managed wild animals are called "game animals." Of course, we are using these designations merely to soothe our human consciences. Primitive hunters never thought of hunting as a sport or as a game. They knew that this business meant killing. To alleviate their guilt of killing, to soothe their consciences, they had to apologize to their victims--or they had to hide behind a greater hunter deity for whom or in whose name they hunted.


OZW: You speak of primitive males loaded with "guilt" as a result of their hunting activities. Why would this be so? And how did they compensate for this guilt?

Luckert: This question is difficult to answer--because guilt is seldom recognized by the guilty without some kind of cover of justification.

The guilt of primitive hunters leaked out from under their cover of justification at many places: There was a belief in resurrection of butchered animals from their bony remains. There was the practice of identifying with victims or of obtaining permission to kill from the victims themselves. There was hunting for a god by way of paying him with a sacrificial portion to which he is entitled. There was mystic identification with a greater predator deity, of hunting within, or as an aspect of, that predator tutelary; the hunter is not doing any killing himself--the hunter simply obeys the order of the god who sponsors him. There was the all-embracing mythology of prehuman flux in paradise according to which, in the beginning before hunting, humankind was still at peace with all the animal persons. And then there was the widespread belief that many, or all, types of illness result from the wrath of offended animal persons.

During hunting season modern man can go the secular route to be justified. He can buy a hunting license and hunt for animals which are "managed," and "protected" with the money obtained from hunting licenses. This is oldfash-ioned domesticator logic.

When all of that fails to justify us, we explain our hunting as a quest for necessary animal protein. But primitive hunters never were in quest of just "animal protein." They killed fellow animal kinfolk and robbed or "borrowed" their life essences.

OZW: You write, "obsolete hunters compensated for their male weakness with ceremonial and organizational hype." What do you mean by this? What are modern examples, if any?

Lucked: With that statment I had in mind primarily archaic hunters in tropical regions. These were blessed and cursed for having been too efficient at hunting, and blessed by equally intelligent women who could compensate for the lack of animal meat by way of gardening. Together, they made possible a growth in population which in turn so reduced the animal population as to make the male hunters obsolete.

In tropical areas "man the hunter" has become a joke to the women. Everywhere the transition from hunting to domestication has created an identity crisis among males. Hunters have unionized into secret defensive men's associations. All aristocracies, ail priesthoods, all warrior societies, business men's associations, lodges, etc. are leftovers of this ten thousand year old identity crisis among male hunterkind who had not enough animals to hunt anymore. Monasteries and the emergence of male-dominated universities are among the modern examples.

OZW: Hunting in advanced societies has been democratized. Though it requires time and money, hunting is open to all classes. Has that changed the hunt? Has it changed the perception of status enjoyed by hunters?

Luckert: Hominid hunting was democratic for millions of years before privileged aristocracies--grand or over-domesticators--claimed it for their recreation. The land areas on our planet are not enough to permit every domesticator and city dweller to return to a life of hunting. The cost of a ticket which admits into the club of part-time hunters will vary. And no! Our hunting is not completely democratized. I, for instance, can never have a vacation during deer season. But then, there are too many of us. We must keep it undemocratic. And just as well!

OZW: The hunter's equipment has changed from club and spear to scope-mounted high powered rifle, the kill from close-range to long range. Has the meaning of the hunt to the hunter changed commensurately?

Luckert: Yes, it has changed. When I was looking for my first Navajo hunter tradition to record, a potential Navajo informant told me that he had never learned the old hunting ceremony well, because with a high powered rifle he did not have to.

In long distance shooting you can kill your victims without having to look into their eyes. You do not have to recognize them as potential persons, and you can avoid immediate impressions of guilt. This is the same mental habit that also accompanies modern warfare; there is a lot of shooting from a distance, and abusive language. You have to reduce the other side to a less-than-human target beforehand, to justify your shooting.

OZW: A poacher may reject the notion that he is doing anything wrong on grounds that in his tradition season and bag limits do not exist. What about attitudes and values prompted by class and privilege?

Luckert: A hunter, in a society of domesticators, is a poacher. Primitive hunters never owned land or animals. Unchecked hunter trickery--theft, robbery, and killing--can not be tolerated among settled domesticators. The gods of hunters are tricksters too--greater than human tricksters. By contrast, the high god of domesticators is a creator, one who made and gave the domesticators' possessions. He is one who legitimizes private property.


So as primitive hunters in a domesticator society are condemned as poachers, trickster gods of the hunter religion are rejected as devils. Look at the make-up of the medieval portrait of our Western devil. He still looks like a collage of odds and ends from the realm of predators ....of former hunter tutelaries.

OZW: Primitive Man sometimes attached supernatural meaning to animals. Why was that? When were animals de-sacralized? Is any mystical meaning attached to animals today? Is the anthropomorphizing of animals at present different from the sacralizing of animals by Primitive Man?

Luckert: First, I do not think that the word "supernatural" is a good choice in this context. Primitive Man had no idea of "nature," consequently he also had no idea of "supernatural." As far as the de-sacralizing, it was a long drawn-out process. The first hominid who started hunting with artificial weapons was up against many "greater-than-hominid" animals. Some were predators and others were foragers. Being greater than the hunter, they became his gods.

Killing and desacralizing are aspects of the same process. By killing you reduce a living being to a dead body; you butcher, you cook, eat, and digest. Desacralization begins with mental killing, hypothetical or conceptual reapportioning, and is followed by analytic "digestion.'' These activities reduce greater personages to less-than-human things--and often to manure.

For some people in India the cow and the cobra are sacred animals. However, greater-than-human status for animals in the West is difficult to come by. We try to preserve some endangered species as super-important though less-than-human species; and we sometimes try to do it with the logic of the Golden Rule--by anthropomorphization--or by domesticator logic appealing to stewardship within a greater-than-human ecology.

OZW: Anti-hunting sentiment seems to be growing. Why? Is hunting really "violent," as some People say?

Luckert: Of course it is. Killing is violent. The justificational mantle of "sport" is full of holes. Raw violence shows forth from underneath.

Our society has been neglecting the Graeco-Christian mantle of justification for some time. Humankind, being conscious of their immortal souls, could justify killing animals because they had no souls. Now, with the modern theory of revolution, the boundary line between animals and humankind has become less distinct. Soul and mind increasingly appear to be matters of degree and perspective. Without the concept of soul as basis for our justification we have a problem. The smartest animals are more intelligent than the most stupid human beings. So where is the limit for killing?

Anti-hunting sentiment by non-vegetarians is contradictory as well. It is true that most of our domestic animals have been bred in order to increase docility and stupidity. But that does not establish the necessary boundary of killing between wild and domesticated animals.

OZW: Is fishing just a form of hunting, or is it significantly different?

Luckert: It is different in the degree of evolutionary distance from our victims. Most of us are unable to communicate with fish; we do better with fellow mammalians. Whenever we are able to form a personal bond with a water animal, as has been possible with some dolphins and whales, our homo sapiens consciences will be activated.

OZW: Does "hunting" with a camera, or releasing a fish after it is landed, represent a fundamental change in the meaning of the activity to hunter and angler?

Luckert: Let me respond to the second part of this question first. Landing a fish usually requires hooking it first. I do not see why this human game of torture should also be acknowledged by fishes as being "sport." If you do not want to finish what you started, why begin a process of torture?

Of course, I would make an ethical distinction, for the human partner in this sport, when it comes to releasing fishes which are undersized or otherwise illegal according to the statutes which guide our wild-life managers. These are domestication questions, not hunter questions.

Hunting with a camera signifies interest in the personal behavior of animals. It is a wonderful modern means for becoming better acquainted with other species. I am happy about the many educational nature movies which have been produced in recent decades. They are becoming increasingly more humane and downright personal, though I consider some of the scientific tagging games to be unnecessary and con-trived--a means for keeping scientists entertained at the primitive hunter level. As our love for animals increases, hunting or butchering them will become increasingly more difficult for human sentiment.

OZW: Are you a vegetarian?

Lucked: No I am not. My religious blanket as an offspring of artificer Primate hunters still covers me--as far as I can tell from where I am looking.


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