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Otter Strangeness: From The Bitter End to New Beginnings

January 3, 2016

Last night I was just about to indulge in the irritating habit of reading something out loud to my wife, who was quietly reading an article in the local paper, when she turned to me and said, “Otterbourne has got a mummers’ troupe”. Indeed it has, and this site describes the revival of a Christmas tradition in the village where my wife spent most of her childhood. Her accidental stalling of my interruption of her reading was striking for the fact that what had been on the tip of my tongue was this passage, written by archaeologist Julian Richards here, concerning research on an Iron Age chariot excavated in Wetwang, Yorkshire.

A repair, originally invisible, showed that the harness was far from new and traces of fur showed that an iron mirror had perhaps been wrapped in the skin of an otter, a strange animal, perhaps sacred to the Iron Age people.

Reeling from the coincidence that the two of us were on the point of uttering two tangentially linked pieces of ‘otter information’, I immediately performed a ‘sacred otter’ search, turning up this little story from The Welsh Fairy Book, by W. Jenkyn Thomas, uploaded to the Sacred Texts website here:

 ONE day two friends went to hunt otters on the banks of the Pennant, in Merionethshire. When they were yet some distance from the river they saw some small creature of a red colour, running fast across the meadows in the direction of the stream. Off they ran after it, but before they could catch it the little animal hid itself beneath the roots of a tree, on the brink of a river. The two men thought it was an otter, but at the same time they could not understand why it was red. They thought they would like to catch such an extraordinary specimen alive, and one of them said to the other, “You go home to get a sack, while I watch.” Now, there were two hole under the roots of the tree, and while one held the sack with its mouth open over one of them, the other pushed his stick into the other hole. Presently the creature went into the sack, and the two men set out for home, thinking they had achieved a great feat. Before they had proceeded the width of one field the inmate of the sack spoke in a sad voice, and said: “My mother is calling for me: oh, my mother is calling for me!” This gave the two hunters a great fright, and they at once threw down the sack. Great was their surprise when they saw a little man in a red dress running out of the sack towards the water. He disappeared from their sight in the bushes by the river. The two men were greatly terrified, and felt that it was more prudent to go home than meddle any further with the Fair Family.

The allusion to the ‘otter mother’ raised thoughts of an earlier sybilline geography-related post and an attribute of the Aquane, uncanny female beings in the folklore of the central-eastern Alps, sometimes conceived as ‘women who can change into otters’ (Fossati 2008: 40). Indeed, the aquatic connotations of the otter render it an alternative transformation for those strange female denizens of the waters, more usually depicted as mermaids. Of course, a common accoutrement of the mermaid or siren is the mirror.

Strange otters also came into a conversation that I had with one of the last Somerset coal miners sometime around 1999-2001 (his pit was closed in the 1970s). Our conversation had started in the radical bookshop we happened to be browsing in, and carried on in the Oliver Goldsmith pub next door. Our discussion ranged from the historical conflict between our respective political outlooks – my anarchist/situationist inclinations and his staunch Leninism – to a common desire for the overthrow of the capitalist class.

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Having been for some time immersed in research around shamanism in Buryatia, I was astonished to find that my Somerset friend was aware of the belief that the Paris Communards of 1871 had reincarnated as otters living in Lake Baikal in Buryatia. The deepest freshwater lake in the world, holding a fifth of the world’s fresh water, Lake Baikal plays a prominent role in the local ‘cosmology of spirits’, including the Uhaan-Khaalyuud (‘water-otters’), the animal metamorphosis of the defeated Paris Communards whose spirits took refuge in the lake, to whom sacrifices are now made (Humphrey 1983: 408). In her study of a Buryat collective farm in the Soviet era, Caroline Humphrey observes that

the emergence of new spirits, such as the Uhan-Khaalyuud, who give success in fulfilling the production plan shows that the faculty for creative symbolisation in the Buryat shamanist idiom is still in existence… The idea of the Uhan-Khaalyuud conforms in every respect to the concepts of spirits in ‘traditional’ Buryat shamanism, and the very fact of the intervention of new spirits is characteristic of this religious system: the Uhan-Khaalyuud (the Paris communards) are the representatives of an idea (‘communism’), they are located in the mythical past, their power derives from vengeance for persecution… they are ’embodied’ as animals… and they are understood to be the ‘spirit-owners’ of a locality (in this case Lake Baikal) which is crucially important in… the given endeavour, the fulfilling of their plan by the fishermen

(ibid.: 411).

From the perspective of the ‘new animism’ there is much to quibble with in Humphrey’s own ‘symbolisation’. It reduces the Uhan-Khaalyuud to a representation, to a ‘mental construction’, albeit ‘utterly at variance with the Soviet ethic of how properly to go about fulfilling the plan for fish’ (ibid.), a plan conforming to a productivist ethos inimical to the biodiversity upon which life depends, a lifeworld in which the ‘shamanist idiom’is grounded.

Theoretical disputes aside, sat in a pub formerly known as The Newtown Inn, then The Bitter End (in anticipation of its impending demolition for a hospital car park – it survived to become a ‘Best One’ convenience store), both of us were delighted with the continued potency of the Paris Communards in such an unlikely context.

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References

Fossati, A. 2008. Following Arianna’s Thread: Symbolic Figures at Female Rock Art Sites at Naquane and In Valle, Valcamonica, Italy. In Nash, G. and Children, G. (eds.) The Archaeology of Semiotics and the Social Order of Things. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 31-44.

Humphrey, C. 1983. Karl Marx Collective: Economy, society and religion in a Siberian collective farm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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