Santa’s Reindeer and Ours

Slowly word is finally getting around that all of Santa’s reindeer are females. Forget the names we gave them. They are not guys but gals. Male reindeer lose their antlers in the fall; female reindeer lose them in the spring after they give birth. So check out all those Christmas cards with the flying sleigh and antlered reindeer. We have been fooled by the wrong names.

But there’s no fooling about reindeer flying. Some of the oldest prehistoric rock art in northwestern Mongolia shows reindeer flying to the sun. Their bodies are stretched out and elongated with their legs splayed fore and aft to show that they are truly soaring. A large round sun hangs just above their antlers. Some pictures show great herds of them flying to the sun. What’s more, tattoos on mummified bodies found in central Asia show reindeer with antlers ending with a little bird head on the end of each tine. Some of the antlers are depicted to look like feathers. Perhaps for a little extra lift?

No one knows when humans began to domesticate wild reindeer, but today in the “reindeer lands” of Asia, the deer are used for pulling sleighs, for riding, for milking, and for meat, and even for hunting other wild reindeer. Humans and reindeer have had a long history together for thousands of years. And judging from this old evidence, it seems reindeer may have been some of our first teachers who showed us how to fly to the sun.

If you’re wondering how I know so much about reindeer, I have been reading a wonderful book called The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia by Piers Vitebsky, anthropologist and authority on Russian northern studies at the University of Cambridge. He is also an esteemed European authority on shamanism. It’s a long sprawling (450 page) book that recounts archaeological and anthropological information as well as his own personal experiences living with the reindeer people both before and after the Soviet Union collapsed. He made several trips to live and work with various reindeer “brigades” and families, and even took his own family on one of them. It’s a fascinating book.

Of course for folks like us who spend great amounts of time wondering what it would be like to live in a more “native” or indigenous way — with animals, and the land, and the spirits — the book is a treasure and a surprise. I feel like I was given a great gift (but it wasn’t, I bought it a couple days ago in a bookstore in Woodstock). I can spend this Christmas season, like Santa, with reindeer and gifts, lots of gifts. The book is filled with lots of gifts.

I always like to spend some time at this season of the year, when our official calendar changes from one year to the next, reviewing the gifts, blessings, and joys along with the disappointments and sorrows of the ending year. Each year I am always grateful for the shamanic experiences and lore that I have received over the year, and over many years. Who would I — you — we — be if shamanism had not come into our lives? How grateful we should be that for whatever reason the spirits saw fit to include us in their plans.

And so I am thrilled and grateful to be reading about people who are still living very much like their ancestors, close to the land, the deer, the spirits. I am grateful too that they are rediscovering the shamanic lore that they lost when Communist party bosses executed shamans for being superstitious and backward. Yes, sadly, one of the things that the reindeer book is reminding me is this strange irony: I live with a stronger network of shamans and shamanic practitioners here in America, than people speaking the language that gave us the word “shaman,” and still living with the deer and the land and the spirits very much as their shamanic ancestors did before the Russian Revolution. But one of the remarkable understandings that I am also grateful for is that every age produces the shamans it needs. Even in Siberia, shamanism and the old ways are returning where they have been stamped out, and growing stronger where they have miraculously survived.

And these teachings about a shamanic way of life come to us so many thousands of miles and time zones away, from those lands that we, who try to live a shamanic life, view as ancestral to who we are today. If this sounds like globalization, it is. Who would have thought a few generations ago that we in America would look to Siberia for ancestral knowledge? But globalization works both ways (and sometimes for the good).

On one occasion when Vitebsky was helping his Siberian friends load saddle packsĀ onto the reindeer to move to another camp, he discovered the books that the men in the camp were reading. Part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to modernize “wild,” tribal peoples was (along with killing shamans) to spread literacy. The books that the reindeer herders were reading were: “Lermontov’s poetry; a Russian translation of Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of the Emperor Hadrian; a patriotic history of the Second World War; Algebra for Beginners; a veterinary pamphlet on the intestinal parasites of reindeer; and a book proving that Inca gods came from another galaxy.”(page 117)

There’s a lot that reindeer herders know that I don’t. And I am grateful this holiday season that I can learn from them and about them, even if it’s only through the eyes of a man who I know is grateful that they came to be his friends.

As I sit here reading, I am reminded of a wonderful line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest that, unfortunately, has taken on a sinister tone in the past century. But Shakespeare never meant it that way. He meant it as one might mean it landing by helicopter in the taiga for the first time, amazed at the vast sweeps of land and larch trees, and seeing herds of deer flowing like water over the landscape, and then being greeted by smiling reindeer herders and a European anthropologist and his family. The line is “O brave new world, that has such people in it!”