Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.
The anthropologist Rane Willerslev once lived for a year in a Yukaghir community in north-eastern Siberia and became fascinated by how their hunters saw the relationship between humans and animals. The hunters, he wrote, think ‘humans and animals can turn into each other by temporarily taking on one another’s bodies’.1 If you want to hunt elk, you dress in elkskins, walk like an elk, take on an elk’s alien consciousness. If you do this, elk will recognise you as one of their own and walk towards you. But, Willerslev explained, Yukaghir hunters consider these transformations very dangerous, because they can make you lose sight of your ‘original species identity and undergo an invisible metamorphosis’. Turning into an animal can imperil the human soul. Willerslev included the story of a hunter who’d been tracking reindeer for many hours and ended up in an unfamiliar camp, where women he did not know gave him lichen to eat and he started forgetting things. He remembered his wife but could not remember her name. Confused, he fell asleep, and it was only when he dreamed he was surrounded by reindeer urging him to leave that he saw what he had done.