The Spirit of the Hunt -- Part 1 -- Traditional and Eastern Religions

Nov 29, 2018

Editor’s Note: Today, we begin “The Spirit of the Hunt" a series of features that address the spiritual aspects of hunting. Part 1 takes a look at the traditional and Eastern religions’ attitudes toward hunting. Many will be surprised to learn that hunting isn’t considered beyond the pale. In fact, hunting in many religions is a downright spiritual pursuit.

I grew up on an island in the Detroit River as it empties into Lake Erie, Grosse Ile. My first experience with hunting was going duck hunting with my father when I was six or seven. We sat in blind in a marsh along the shore of Lake Erie in the afternoon as swarms of black ducks came out of a the lake to feed. My father had his limit quickly, but we just sat there watching more and more ducks come in until it was dark. I was mesmerized. Recalling that experience makes me aware of how hunting can touch the soul.

On Grosse Ile many people hunted ducks and went up north for deer. If you got a buck, you came home with it mounted on top of a car, and people congratulated you. Hunters donated wild game meat to local churches for special celebrations.

Living downriver and downwind from Detroit, there was also serious air and water pollution. I wanted to do something about it. So, in college I began as a wildlife management major, but gradually I came to see that pollution is really a people problem. So I got my Ph.D. in psychology, studying what moves people to practice conservation and care about nature.

My initial research focus was a search for the most effective environmental education. Several others and I found that first-hand positive experiences with nature, “significant life experiences,” like mine in the duck blind, are the most powerful environmental education experiences. Some say they have an almost religious quality.

I’d never thought much about the psychology of hunting until I moved to the West Coast and encountered anti-hunters. The passenger pigeon went extinct and the buffalo nearly went extinct due to market hunting, but with the development of wildlife law enforcement, and wildlife management science, it’s very clear that legal and ethical hunting doesn’t lead to extinctions. Hunters, in fact, support conservation.

I’ve covered what behavioral science has to say about hunting in an earlier article but to summarize; in his widely-acclaimed book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm, one of the most widely-respected behavioral scientists of the twentieth century, summed up opinions about hunting by Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Karl Menninger, Marie-Louise von Franz, Jerome Bruner, Colin Turnbull, Melvin Konner, and many other behavioral scientists.

Fromm said that: "In the act of hunting , a man becomes, however briefly, part of nature again... there is a considerable body of information about still existing primitive hunters and food gatherers (and modern hunters) to demonstrate that hunting is not conducive to destructiveness and cruelty…”

I’ve also interviewed a number of hunters, including two Christian priests. Both told me that they had felt the presence of God strongest in their lives in two situations. One was the birth of their first child. The second was when they killed their first deer.

Opposition to hunting, therefore, is based on emotions and opinions, not science. The two priests, and the writings of Fromm and others suggest a connection between hunting and religion, which is one reason why hunters are such ardent conservationists. This article is the first of a series exploring some of the spiritual aspects of hunting, which is something that modern hunters seldom talk about, although it’s important to the future of hunting.

Knowing how modern psychologists view hunting, I wanted to see how traditional cultures perceived hunting. I began with Native Americans. Hunting to them isn’t just gathering food, it’s ultimately a spiritual pursuit. Traditional Indians didn’t build churches, but they conducted ceremonies and rituals at special places. One is Grimes Point, which is located east of Fallon, Nevada. Grimes Point, is known as a “hunting increase” site. It’s an area with hundreds of boulders with petroglyphs that have been dated back at least 6,000 years. PHOTOS

I also traveled to Hawaii and American Samoa. There isn’t that much land to hunt on in Polynesia, but for Polynesians fishing and hunting for sea creatures are associated with spirituality.

World-wide, traditional cultures conduct ceremonies to honor animals and spirits associated with hunting. For example, in the Yoruba religion of West Africa, the guardian spirits of the hunt are: Ogun, who presides over fire, metal working, hunting and war; and Oshosi, who presides over archery. In Scandinavia, Saami hunters recognize Alderman as their guardian spirit. Norwegians recognize Ullr as the god of hunting and archery. PHOTO --

Finns pray to the forest spirit, Tapio, before a hunt. The Greek hunters’ gods are Artemis and Acteon. The Celtic hunter’s deity is Cernunnos. PHOTO Cernunnos.

What do modern religions say about hunting? Christianity is the most popular religion in the world with 2.1 billion followers. I will cover Christianity and hunting in the next article.

Islam comes second with 1.3 billion, followed by non-secular atheists or agnostics (1.1 billion); Hinduism with 900 million; Chinese traditional religion (394 million); Bhuddism (376 million); and, primal-indigenous 300 million.

Nearly all Muslims eat meat. According to the Qur'an, meat eating is one of the delights of heaven. However, Islam prohibits eating of some kinds of meat, especially pork, and one of the most important Islamic celebrations, Eid ul-Adha, involves animal sacrifices. There is a Muslim Code of Conduct for ethical hunters. It advises Muslim hunters to silently say a prayer before shooting an animal.

Certain casts of Hindus also don't eat meat, however 70% of East Indians include some meat in their diet, and some Hindus practice animal sacrifice. The Hindu hunter's god is Bhadra, and Hindu scriptures describe hunting as an acceptable occupation. However, the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act of India states that almost all hunting in India is forbidden. The only animals that can be hunted are those that can do crop damage, crows, fruit bats, rats and mice. You must get a special permit to hunt a man-eating tiger or leopard, or wild boar or blue bull, that are damaging crops.,_1972#Hunting_(Section_9)

There are about 4.4 million Jains. The only major religion that categorically doesn’t support hunting or eating meat is Jainism. Jain dietary codes say to only eat fruits and vegetables and stay away from underground vegetables, like garlic and carrots.

The First Precept prohibits Buddhists from killing people or animals, but they can eat meat. The Dalai Lama eats meat. So do the singing Guyuto monks. (I helped produced one their concerts and they all ordered Big Macs before going on stage.) There are many different Buddhist sects. In Mongolia and Kazakhstan many Buddhists definitely hunt for food, clothing and sport. There, falconry is a national sport.

Sikhism, the world’s fifth largest religion, is also based in India. Sikhs originally could only eat meat obtained from hunting, or slaughtered with the single slice of a sword. The Official Sikh Code of Conduct says you can eat meat provided it is not “Kutha meat." (Kutha = Slowly killed). Early Sikhs were ardent hunters, however, today a growing number are vegetarians.

Taoism is practiced by about five million people in China, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam. Taoist monks sometimes eat vegan during festivals and fasting days. Non-vegetarian Taoists sometimes abstain from beef and water buffalo meat. Wild animals, however, especially deer, are valued as their meat has more life force, “chi.”

About 80% of Japanese practice Shintoism, “the way of the Kami” or spirits, one of which is the god of hunting, Hoorai. Shintoism is very tied to nature. People in Japan have hunted from the very beginning. However, recent strict restrictions on gun ownership have caused a significant reduction in numbers of hunters – 518,000 in 1975 and 198,000 in 2011. One result is a rapidly growing population of deer, wild boar, and rabbits that are eating crops. Perhaps more Japanese should take up bowhunting.

There are currently about 14.4 million Jews in the world. The Torah says Jewish people should eat only “kosher” animals. An animal is kosher if it has both a) split hooves, and b) chews its cud. Examples of kosher animals include cows, sheep, goats and deer. Examples of non-kosher animals include pigs, rabbits, squirrels, bears, dogs, cats, camels and horses. Kosher birds include the domestic species of chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and pigeons. However, a number of modern Jewish groups promote vegetarianism, apparently this is due to opposition to guns.

— James A. Swan, Ph.D.


Two suggested books on Native American hunters are: Make Prayers to Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest by Richard Nelson, and Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Symbols, Stories and Ceremonies by Bobby Lake-Thom. More about all religions can be found in my book, The Sacred Art of Hunting: Myths, Legends and Modern Mythos