Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives

By Philippe Descola; Gisli Palsson | Go to book overview

Chapter 11

Enraged hunters

The domain of the wild in north-western Europe

Bertrand Hell

Can the study of modern hunting practices in Europe tell us anything about the contested interface between nature and society in western societies? A purely sociological approach will show how hunting reflects the social order of its age. As they follow a strict cynegetic code, today's hunters abide by a wider social charter, just as those Greek and Germanic heroes did when they triumphed over terrifying wild boar, or those medieval knights when they went in search of the white deer. As in war, relations between men and wild animals follow a logic of institutionalised violence wherein, according to a tradition of cynegetic treatises that can be traced back to ancient Greece, the hunter appears as the archetype of the fully accomplished social man. 1 However, hunting also reveals specific conceptualisations of nature. Leach (1964) has shown how, among his fellow British citizens, the linguistic treatment of animal categories reflects the taboos or the ritual values by which they have been marked, thus expressing a cultural code and exhibiting a social distancing. Just as with linguistic categories, hunting techniques reveal a taxonomy of the animal world. In Europe, as much as in Amazonia or Africa, certain animals are either protected, trapped or hunted, while others are highly prized, shunned or destroyed. Their symbolic status thus constitutes an index of ontological boundaries and social classifications.

In this chapter, I propose to discuss the construction of the category of 'wilderness' in north-western Europe as it is expressed in the values attached to the pursuit of wild animals, in particular the 'beasts' of the forest which were seen by the collective European imagination as being par excellence the 'wildest' of animals.

Historical documents, folklore and ethnographic data on big game hunting reveal that the nature-culture opposition is mediated in this area by an ambivalent attitude oscillating between, on the one hand,

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