In the Sixteenth Century, French-Dutch mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, launched the modern age with his words Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore, I am. With this new framework, he separated the mind from the body, freeing the mind from the body’s passions, and banishing the idea that sickness came from a sinful and impure mind. This concept complemented Francis Bacon’s scientific methods based on empiricism and inductive reasoning, and consequentially, humans gradually separated from ourselves as natural beings, no longer in tune with the spiritual gifts of wilderness. In Western society, animals became creatures to be feared or resources to be exploited, instead of interconnected beings deserving respect as cohabitors of our planet. Animals became veiled in our fears, our greed and our separateness.
And animal names became epithets hurled to mock and mark, or threatening masks donned to wield power.
- You are a vulture: They were tearing themselves to pieces, and their vulture lawyers, were picking at the carcass of their marriage.
- You are a snake: You’re nothing more than a lecherous snake in the grass.
- You are a wolf: Who do you feed to the media wolves?
In large part, we are divorced from nature. Wilderness and animals have become our adversaries instead of teachers with whom we share time and space. Indigenous peoples embraced animals as a bridge to the liminal, lifting the veil into the spirit world.
Hilary Stewart in Looking At Totem Poles writes “the people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things and their dependence on certain animal and plant species fostered belief in the supernatural and spirit world. Life forms, especially those taken for food…each had their own spirit…certain birds and animals were associated with particular behaviors, powers or skills, and people sought their help to achieve success…in the dark of long winter nights, when fires burned…then the spirits drew close to the village…a time of ceremonies, speeches, singing, dancing and feasting…through costumed spiritual transformations and re-enactments, they brought past histories and adventures into the present…thus the carved beings of crest and legend portrayed on the totem poles, often recreated in masks worn by dancers, sprang to life.”
On this Halloween, as you engage in the ancient rituals of Samhain welcoming the end of harvest and the return of winter’s long nights, contemplate the true meaning of the mask you wear to celebrate the season. And while I will never advocate for discarding the benefits of the Age of Enlightenment, I would argue for the necessity of balance, and a framework that envisions humankind as a part of the natural world, instead of outside of the natural world, where it is all to easy to don the mask of conqueror and exploiter.