Mysticism and Science
The beluga shaman petroglyph, Vyg River, Karelia
Interspecies.com's work of engaging whales through live music, sometimes puts me in debate about the conflicting value systems of those who perceive whales as mystical beings, and those who perceive them as intelligent biological entities. It is unexpected for some within the mystical camp, that I believe that science, environmental ethics, and aesthetics, obviates most of the claims of mystical phenomena. I choose to respect everyone's anomalous passion for whales as a positive sign of compassion, and so I generally promote the idea that, if the two worldviews were somehow freed of their binding dogma and recast in support of each other, the unforeseen unity might coax a more hopeful environmental future than any of us can now dream up either for whales or human beings. The only barrier preventing such a thing from happening, is that the two camps prefer to believe that both belief systems are mutually exclusive.
That stalemate somehow reminds me of a small group of anthropologists I worked with in Russia years ago. They employed the best forensic science, to research 6000 year old petroglyph art, which revealed a story of whales openly communicating, and possibly even mating with shamans. Did the anthropologists believe the story, themselves, or was their work only about reporting what ancient and "less educated" people believed? Actually, the moderns got so immersed in the meaning of the petroglyphs, that at some point they were no longer sure what was true.
The story of these glyphs can be found elsewhere on Interspecies.com. Do a search on the word "beluga" and you'll find two or three descriptions of two or three different Interspecies' field projects. However, those essays display a decidedly political and artistic spin that accurately portrays the emotions of the time I was working in Russia. The short essay, below, focuses more on the mystical-scientific dualism that weighs on my mind right now. For that reason, the story seems worth retelling.
Sand For Concrete
Fifteen years ago, I was a member of an expedition to the White Sea in Arctic Russia, a place rich, both in beluga whales and ancient petroglyphs. During the Soviet era, the White Sea had been the center of the brutal Gulag system, as well the home to the Soviet nuclear fleet, and was therefore off-limits to anyone outside the Soviet military. With the fall of the Soviet Union, we were the first Westerners to visit the area in 75 years.
Location of Belomorsk and Vyg River
Our first stop on the White Sea, was a run-down town named Belomorsk. The petroglyphs carved into bedrock alongside the nearby Vyg river had been covered in sand, for perhaps 4000 years, which kept many of them remarkably well preserved. That covering was shoveled away in the 1930s, when Stalin conscripted thousands of slave laborers to build the mighty White Sea Canal, which even today is still the longest canal in the world. The sand was used for concrete. When it was removed from the river bank, hundreds of petroglyphs were unearthed. Although some of the images were of the usual primitive ilk of footprints and stick figures, others depicted sophisticated scenes of an entire village gathered to strip a whale of its flesh, or longboats with 10 or more people aboard. The boat image is detailed enough that today, we can tell who is male or female, who was an adult, who was a child. And that the image itself depicts an initiation ceremony of young hunters.
One glyph displays a very ancient image of a Karelian female shaman communicating with a beluga whale. Some scholars believe that the glyph is the world’s oldest extant picture of a whale. Of special interest to our own group of adventurers, is the fact that beluga pods still reside nearby. But's not just whales and petroglyphs that have us excited to explore the region. On Zaitsky island, a few kilometers south of the beluga whales’ prime summer feeding ground, is another site comprising the oldest and largest labyrinth in the world. Thirty kilometers offshore lies Kusova Island, where prehistoric tombs are marked by boulders stacked into free-standing human forms. The sculptures so closely resemble the Inukshuks constructed by the ancient Dorset culture in Arctic Canada, that some believe the two cultures had to have been in contact, perhaps directly across the north pole. On Solevetsky Island, sits the architectural jewel of Russia's oldest monastery. Stalin converted it into one of his most infamous concentration camps. There's a 500 year old story that has it that the monastery’s cornerstone was dragged to Solevetsky across sea ice by a white horse. Unfortunately the ice broke, pulling the stone and the horse into the sea. The archangel Michael responded to the monk’s prayers to save the necessary cornerstone and the beloved horse. Michael lifted the stone, mortared it into place in the chapel, and then resurrected the drowned horse into the first beluga whale. Up to 200 beluga whales still reside today within site of the onion dome steeple atop the Solevetsky monastery. I asked our team members if anyone believes that beluga whales evolved from a resurrected horse. Everyone answers "no". When I ask if the Karelians were in contact with the Dorsets in Canada, 4000 years ago, everyone answers, "yes, almost certainly. When I ask if ancient Karelians communicated regularly with beluga whales, everyone answers, "Absolutely". Now go ask that same question at Scripps or Wood's Hole.
A few years prior to this expedition, I had staged a theatrical performance in Helsinki on the subject of whale shamanism, an event promoted by a poster displaying the beluga shaman petroglyph. As you can see here, it differs a bit from the image at the top of this newsletter. The poster image came from an old Russian book on Karelian rock art written by a Lithuanian archeologist V. I. Ravdonikas. Ravdonikas had discovered the petroglyph along the Vyg River in the 1930s, cleaned it up, and then used pen and ink to draw its outline. When I first saw the image, I was astonished at how accurately it reflected my own in situ musical experiences with whales. It sparked me to write an interpretation, which my Finnish sponsor published on a Finnish Internet site. That soon led to an invitation by a Russian Anthropological Institute, asking me to present my "findings" at a petroglyph conference held in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Karelia. Feeling a bit like Michael's white horse, I had been transformed from an interspecies guitar player into a petroglyph expert.
The beluga shaman petroglyph, by Ravdonikas
The Unidentified Sea Animal
The only previous interpretation of the glyph was made by Finnish anthropologist Eero Autio, who also attended the conference. Autio had never seen a beluga whale which prompted him to describe the rear figure as "an unidentified sea animal". Actually, the animal’s bulbous forehead, up-curved rostrum, blowhole, and lack of true dorsal fin makes for an anatomically precise rendering of a beluga whale. The straight diagonal line is actually a very ancient crack in the bedrock that clearly gives the animal the appearance of spy-hopping. This is probably no coincidence, since belugas often spy-hop while observing people. Belugas are also the only cetacean species to naturally vocalize in air. They were called "sea canaries" by 19th century whalers who marveled over the euphonious complexity of their chirping and chortling. My findings interjected a goodly amount of documented beluga behavior to suggest that this glyph was reporting an event where a human and a beluga were both making sounds at the same time.
The position of the arms and the shape of the oblong objects held in the hands of the human figure suggests the performance of a musical instrument, probably two stones struck together like the wooden claves popular in Latin music. This interpretation draws upon the persuasive work of the Russian ethnomusicologist, Alla Ablova, was a member of our own team. Ablova had actually discovered similar percussive "lithophones" at petroglyph sites throughout Karelia. Similar interspecies music-making activities have been documented half a world away along the north coast of Australia where Aboriginal fishermen strike "dolphin sticks" together, underwater, to initiate a remarkable ceremony of human/dolphin cooperation. Bottlenose dolphins respond to the clicking by corralling fish ashore which are then gathered by the tribe. The Imragen tribe of Mauritania have also developed a fishing relationship with dolphins by beating branches on the water, an event documented on film by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s.
The figure in the foreground of Ravdonikas rendering of the petroglyph was described by Eero Autio as a "humanoid wielding a weapon", suggesting that the arrow-shape is a harpoon, although why it grows from the left elbow and points away from the whale was never explained to satisfaction. My own initial interpretation was just as profligate as Autio's. I presumed that the mysterious arrow was directions to a dance step. In fact, many primitive cultures around the world developed totem ceremonies commemorating interspecies relations, often ornamented by music reflecting the animal’s own vocalizations. The likelihood that Karelian shamans used music to engage beluga whales has been further verified by a compelling historical source. In 1074 AD the German monk, Adam of Bremen, journeyed through northern Finland and Karelia.. Writing in Latin, Adam observed that:
"All People in the Northern countries are Christian, except those who migrate along the sea coast near the Polar ice. It is said that that they have great wisdom and that they use magic to communicate with one another even when they are far apart in the world. In addition, they sing songs with powerful words in a murmuring voice to persuade great whales to come close to shore. These people know many things firsthand, which the Bible tells us are the talents of wizards."
Adam’s Latin phrase "murmure verborum" has been translated by the Icelandic historian of whaling, Ole Lindquist, as a reference to overtone or throat singing still performed today by modern Saamis (Laplanders). I have also attained a modicum of success employing overtone singing with whales. In 1995, I invited a Tuvan overtone singer to join me to entice humpbacks to interact musically while sailing off Okinawa. In an area where no whales had been sighted for weeks, a humpback mother and her newborn calf swam close to our boat soon after the vocalist started singing accompanied by my Jew’s harp.
Ravdonikas's rendering of the beluga shaman petroglyph was emphatically wrong, an error that almost certainly resulted from his technique of sketching the poorly preserved petroglyph rather than relying on rubbings. When I finally got my turn to visit the site, I spent an entire afternoon on hands and knees, using chalk and crayons to generate the first rubbing of a glyph that has since proven influential to a proper understanding of stone age European culture. Ravdoninkas had also missed the star carved above the whale, as well as the circle, possibly signifying the sun. Add in the moon, that he did see, and the never-before-seen triangulation of three celestial objects ostensibly describes a time and date when the shaman’s ceremony occurred.
Eero Autio’s purported harpoon is nothing of the sort. My rubbing clearly shows the object in question originating directly from the shaman’s mouth. Many Karelian petroglyphs rely upon exaggerated anatomical features to describe the powers and abilities of those depicted: huge feet to describe a fast runner, big hands to depict a talented hunter, a big penis that describes a man with many children. The beluga shaman glyph shows a human with an outsized tongue, almost certainly the mark of a talented speaker or singer. In this case, the person is talking or singing (murmure verborum) to communicate with a whale.
My rubbing also shows the whale sporting a new appendage: a dynamically-articulated spout emanating from its blowhole. This proves that our whale is indeed spy hopping. And because beluga whales often vocalize in the air, it is no wild stretch of the imagination to conclude that this particular whale has been captured at the precise moment it is responding to the singing shaman.
Two adults in front, two at the back, all the rest children
Stone age Karelians killed and ate whales, an activity documented in this epic image of a boatload of adults and children Initiates harpooning a beluga. The ancient Karelians may have hunted belugas in the same way traditional Inuvialuit in Arctic Canada did it up to thirty years ago, by stationing a scout on top of a log tower. When a pod was sited near shore, the hunters would row their skin boats towards the whales and make a kill with a harpoon. This glyph is located less than a quarter mile from the beluga shaman.
Slaying and Eating God
It can be difficult for modern people disconnected from their food source to imagine ancient people worshipping as spiritual beings, who were the very same creatures they depended upon for food. A traditional Inuvialuit whale hunter had to refrain from work or sex for four days after a hunt because that was how long the animal’s ghost lingered near the carcass. No one in the village could use a sharp object for fear of wounding the ghost. No one made a loud noise for fear of frightening it. If the ghost was offended, bad luck would visit the village, which demanded more ritualized injunction.
Eero Autio’s original interpretation of the beluga glyph concluded that the hunter/shaman had been depicted at the moment of shape-shifting, his penis already transformed into whale flukes. The eminent Estonian archeologist, Vaino Poikelainen (another team member) strongly disagreed, pointing to the swell of the figure’s breast to pronounce the shaman a woman giving birth to a whale. That a small crescent moon — a universal symbol for the eternal feminine — can be seen floating in the air adjacent to the breast strengthens this argument. Autio himself has more recently challenged the Russian presumption that always depicts the petroglyph carvers as men. He draws upon the oral tradition of Karelia to point out that ancient Finnish shamans were often female, and that a fair share of the petroglyphs were constructed to encourage fertility.
A myth told by traditional people all across the Arctic describes a totemic marriage between a woman and a beluga whale, and mirrors the putative theme of the petroglyph so closely that it seems well worth retelling. A young maiden left her village one day searching for bird eggs, and returned with a whale skull which she wore like a hat. The spirit in the skull eventually pulled her out to sea where it turned into a beluga whale, named Keiko, who made the woman his wife. The woman's brother was bound to preserve his family honor so he built a boat and sailed out to rescue her. Keiko became frightened when the boat stopped directly over his home. His wife had grown fond of him, and now she tried to calm Keiko. She swam to the cliffs to gather eggs and birds for a feast to serve their guest. The brother ate little, while beckoning Keiko to eat more than his share. Finally, the brother whispered to his sister, "your husband has eaten too much. Sing to him now, that he may rest." So she sang a lullaby, and Keiko slept. When the whale awoke, he saw his wife was gone. He followed the boat's wake, and soon caught up to the pair on the village shore where many people arrived to stab Keiko to death.
The woman eventually gave birth to a tiny whale who was much beloved by everyone in the tribe. She kept him in a little cup. But he grew quickly and soon asked to be put into a pail. Finally he pleaded to be set free into the ocean, where he quickly grew to a full-sized whale. One night strangers arrived who killed the whale for food. In the Yakut Siberian version of the myth, the tribe responds to this murder by attacking the strangers. This story is told as a proverb, to explain how warfare first came to the human beings. In a version from Hudson Bay, the strangers were the first European whalers.
Music for August
I'm producing a CD of traditional tunes, featuring my own mandolin playing, and the talents of several locals in the town I live. This tune is "Swinging on a Gate" , played often at old time New England contra dances, and probably originating from somewhere in the British Isles. This recording features mandolin, and my wife Katy's excellent piano playing. We're looking for a distributor for the CD. Right now, we have 6 tunes completed, and will do 5 more. if you can help us find a label, we'll be most appreciative.
Check out this youtube video about a developing relationship between the US Government and the general public. The idea is that these new internet-based innovations will dramatically increase government transparency. Interspecies may soon be involved in this work on a consulting level, helping to design and implement new web sites that integrate and simplify a vast pool of information about whales and dolphins collected over many years by NOAA, the US Navy, and several universities and institutes.
Beluga Shaman, an interpretation
We think of whales possessing super-sensitive shearing, and fair to middling eyesight. We may have underestimated whales – not their size, but their senses. Dissections of bowhead whale brains point to a fully developed olfactory system, questioning assumptions that the largest animals on Earth have a lousy sense of smell. Anyone with an interest in cetaceans. will want to read this article.
On the same subject of sensory acuity, noise pollution created by humans is forcing endangered North Atlantic right whales and other whale species to increase the amplitude of their calls in an attempt to be heard by each other over the din, according to a new study.The paper, published in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters, provides the first evidence that baleen whales can modify the loudness of their calls in response to outside noise. This link, and the next several links, feature the exemplary animal journalism of Jennifer Vargas for the Discovery Internet Network.
And more about animal senses. In open water, there is often no place to hide. Some sharks have overcome this problem by making themselves invisible to both prey and predators. Light-based camouflage permits the optical illusion, described in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. The findings represent the first experimental tests of shark luminescence. Or watch a slide show of the unique sensory apparatus of sharks.
While it may seem rather obvious to most readers of this newsletter, the debate still rages over dolphin intelligence. Here's one recent overview. The real problem with all these assessments, is that they can also be interpreted as a tool catalog of all the latest measuring devices employed by mainstream science. What scientists are incapable to measure, they often label as not even existing. How do you measure dolphin intelligence, when we still mostly measure human intelligence in terms of a person's ability to fill in multiple choice boxes, and/or solve tricky math problems. Is a cook less intelligent than a Ph.D. engineer? Is a plumber? A fiddle player? Is an owl smarter or dumber than a mole?
Sperm whale waste isn't much to look at — a diarrhea-like substance with a few squid beaks floating around — but new research has found it removes carbon from the atmosphere, helping to offset greenhouse gases that have been tied to global warming. Sperm whales in the Southern Ocean release 220,462 tons of carbon when they exhale carbon dioxide at the water's surface, but their poop stimulates the draw down of 440,925 tons of carbon, according to the research, published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B. OK, I guess it means that sperm whales, I mean cachalot,are green, green, green. So how does humans poop compare? While the accompanying slide show, doesn't say a word about humans, it will tell you a lot about the carbon neutrality of jellyfish.
One thing I like about all these Discovery Network videos, is that they withhold the ads until the end of the feature. National Geographic could learn something.