It had been a long winter’s hunting season with only a few partridge shot. We had spent it strenuously combing the countryside in the day whilst sleeping restlessly with anticipation at night. Waking well before any cocks had crowed or signs of day had risen, we trudged for hours through bracken and bushes, and over mountains. It was a sport but it was not fun. It was serious play.
I am an anthropologist and spent five years researching hunters and hunting including spending two years with people who hunt in Northern Cyprus. Throughout this research I tried to crack the enigma of hunting, as something seemingly unfamiliar to myself, but one of life’s longest running activities. A theme that once vied for the top spot in my discipline of anthropology, both as hunting ‘back-there in prehistory’ and as hunting ‘over-there in the jungle’.
However, what I have been interested in is what can be learnt through studying contemporary European hunters. A sport participated in by at least one in every hundred people in Europe (FACE, 2010). Not taking into account unofficial, illegal and informal varities of hunting, trapping, culling and poaching, as well as fishing.
I have explored multiple explanations, running from a history of reliance on wild/free food, to blood-lust, the thrill of the hunt, masculine performance, to a lack of education. The problem is, hunting is not so much an enigma to crack, as a process of enigma cracking. It is serious play through which hunters make sense of the world. Free-food, blood-lust, the thrill, masculinity and education are descriptions of dominant themes in hunting. However they are themes that hunters explore through the play of hunting. So I asked myself, how were hunters in Northern Cyprus making sense of their society by playing this serious sport?
The hunters I followed treated hunting as a ritual space in which people of differing backgrounds, jobs and lives, followed customary rules, though there were cheaters. These rules served to equalise hunters into the basic state of a man, his dog and a simple shotgun, situated in a field of free animals and potential encounters. This was in contrast to hunters everyday life, which mostly involved following prescribed and predictable patterns of activity, left relatively unquestioned or unquestionable.On the one hand these predictable social patterns of everyday life allowed people to navigate the baffling complexity of existence, as well as the particularity of their local life. On the other hand following these patterns had itself become complicated by the bureaucracy entailed in being modern and compounded by the globalisation of local life. In short, everyday life was liveable by retracing patterns of activity that had been set out over time, whilst often requiring one to give up freedom to the hierarchies that had taken hold in these patterns. However, when a person became a hunter they entered into a sport, through which they made sense of their society, by ritually experiencing life absent of prescribed social patterns. In experiencing this they educated themselves in recognising the subjective nature of their society, as they sought to know themselves outside of history and in what they understood to be as natural a state as possible. They were cracking the enigma of complex society by ritually living life outside it, if even for a brief moment.
How to Play Outside History
During my time with Hunters in Northern Cyprus, they were ritually living outside of history by playing a very specific sport that had two main tasks.
The first task was for the player to establish an idealised natural world through being a ‘virtuous’ hunter. Being a virtuous hunter meant being prepared for a serendipitous moment of natural abundance manifesting itself, as embodied by a ‘free’ animal. Therefore, to be virtuous is firstly to be prepared, which meant demonstrating that one was capable of making sense of natural clues and thus serendipitously encountering a free animal.
Upon this moment of encounter, the final part of this first task was to then turn this serendipitous moment of abundance manifesting itself — when the hunter crosses paths with a free animal — into an idealised representation, of what is in fact a messy social world. A representation that depicts the messiness of society being cut back to its fundamentals — ‘objective nature’ — before the historical build up of prescribed social patterns made it a messy place.
This fundamental timeless relationship is that of the virtuous hunter being able harness the serendipity of play to capture manifestations of nature’s abundance, without the necessity of mediation by the social patterns of everyday life. The kill being the incontrovertible fact of their virtue, and a sign of the first task having been completed.
The second task was extending this idealised representation to the collective. This was done by hunting being replayed as stories, between hunters as trophy pictures on social media or verbally around the coffee table. However, the most poignant way to complete this task was to hold a celebration after a successful hunt. Crucially the hierarchies of everyday life, including those of normative work and œconomic life, were allowed little place otherwise they might have determined who was celebrated.
This sometimes emerged in material form when plastic trophies were given out at a celebration in such quantities, as to negate a formalised competitive hierarchy or repeat normative hierarchies amongst hunters. The mixing of clean cut government ministers with rough edged bin men, a strict atmosphere of solidarity enforced against the bullishness of ego, often enabled by a little inebriation, men cooked (meat) on an open fire whilst chewing on raw vegetables, these were just a few ways in which the formalised hierarchies and socio-material complexities of everyday life were pushed to one side.
This task was completed when the idealised representation of the hunter capturing manifestations of natures abundance, was both extended to and embodied by a collective. Often in the form of the sharing of a large scale post-hunt barbecue, consisting of raw ‘natural’ ingredients.
In short, an idealised collective established outside of everyday life. The occurrence of it — without giving into the inevitable protrusion of prescribed social patterns — being a sign of the second task having been completed.