Review of The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief

by Esther Jacobson
Book Reviewed
Book Title
The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief
Book Author
Esther Jacobson
Book Publisher
E.J. Brill
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Åke Hultkrantz
History of Religions
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September 9th, 2012

History of Religions

The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belie8 By ESTHERJACOBSON.

Studies in the History of Religions (Numen Bookseries), vol. 55. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993. Pp. xxii+291, 21 plates. $80.00 (cloth).

With this book the author, well known for her writings on south Siberian and Chinese art and prehistoric cultures, has made a great contribution to the study of ancient Siberian religious history. She has brought together much of what we know of the data that refer to these old cultures and their religions, evaluated these data in the light of current theories, and created a unified and meaningful, although partly questionable, interpretation of the origins and growth of religious symbols in this wide periphery of Old World culture, an area stretching from the western Scythes to eastern Mongolia. It is an impressive performance. Ex- cluding older Soviet Russian syntheses and some speculative European papers, we are here presented, for the first time, with a detailed historical perspective on the religions of southern Siberia and northern central Asia.

Jacobson has one leading idea that she finds confirmed in the archaeological material. According to this view there is "a mythic tradition substantially differ- ent from any which has hitherto been advanced," namely, that religion was orig- inally concentrated in the veneration of the Great Mother, who was also the animal mother of later Siberian shamanic traditions. The author tells the story of the successive phases of this inclusive divinity concept: it turns to reindeer and elk spirits and, later on, to cow-human appearance when hunting is transformed into pastoralism. This evolution also incorporates the changes in the concept of the world tree, or world mountain, that is somehow modeled on the Great Mother. (As we know, the southwest Asian concept of a goddess is often portrayed in close association with a tree.) Here belongs Jacobson's observation that the image of the deer in drawings and sculptures (such as the famous deer stones) resembles through its antlers and antler tines, pictured as birds, a tree of life (world tree) with the souls yet to be born (birds).

In order to illustrate these dramatic prehistoric changes, the author utilizes rich pictorial material from the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age, since only in exceptional cases are there written sources. Shamanic dress patterns and their symbolism enable her to coordinate the evolution of the animal mother with the growth of shamanism. The author suggests that the institution of shamanism emerged early in the first millennium A.D., which is a bit surprising since sha- manism is known earlier from, for instance, South America. She points to the close associations between the deer (animal mother), the tree, and the shaman's drum (created out of the tree). In Siberia, she argues, the great animal mother was reformulated in terms of individual spirits; in southwest Asia Hellenistic realism shaped her as a human-like goddess.

This simplified sketch can only partially do justice to the author's intricate account. It should be said without hesitation that she masters her material well and that her theory is most exciting. While I accept great parts of her investiga- tion, I must on methodological grounds doubt some of her major theses. She is obviously most conscious of the handicap inherent in the "search for meaning in visual symbols" when there is no text to guide the inquiry. However, she fails to underline the fact that this circumstance makes every effort to conduct research

284 Book Reviews

on religion at the prehistoric level hypothetical. This should never be forgotten. She relies, somewhat mysteriously, on recurring patterns of imagery over time to reveal a particular logic. But which logic? She agrees that ancient Siberian history both creates bewilderment and offers fascinating possibilities "without regard to chronological or spatial probability" (p. 171). "It is not possible to say this figure means that, or that here we certainly have influences from there. It is possible, however, to take parallel structures seriously" (p. 227). The author here calls attention to the elements that continually reemerge in varying relationships to female figures. The question is, of course, how we should interpret such relationships.

It seems to be that the author makes the mistake of confusing possible paral- lel symbolic structures with historical complexes. Thus, she contrasts in temporal terms the shamanic institution with the worship of nature, labeling the latter "pre- shamanic cults." However, we are facing here two configurations, or compartments, in the same religion and not two successive complexes. There is nothing here that necessitates a historical difference. Behind the author's reconstruction looms her reading of Soviet scholars who established evolutionary series on loose grounds. It is true that Jacobson warns against their evolutionism (see pp. 38 ff., 125, 204, 205). However, she adopts as her own convictions old Soviet theories that preshamanic religion reinforces clan unity and grants to everybody supernatural powers, whereas shamanism cares about the integrity of nuclear families and is practiced by chosen individuals. Add to these doctrinaire assessments cocksure pronouncements that beliefs in sacred mountains originated with pastoralism and that male gods appeared as creators much later than mother goddesses, and you really receive a picture of old-fashioned evolution tempered by modern feminism.

This criticism does not mean to say that this book is without value. By taking stock of and collating enormously rich archaeological material in a little-known but important part of the world, Jacobson has given us a welcome addition to our sparse knowledge of south Siberian religions. There are certainly intrinsic con- nections between the great goddess, the animal mother, the deer spirit, and all those mythological figures she mentions, although their chronological adhesions are difficult to judge. And, last but not least, she has found the background to the Scytho-Siberian animal style.

I think therefore that this book is a rewarding introduction to a most difficult religious area.


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AlibrisNear Fine in Fine Dust Jacket Small 4to, measuring 9.75" x 6.50" Chocolate brown boards with bright gilt lettering. 291 pp. 21 plates. Purple and white dustjacket, lettered in white. Fine, but for light foxing to top edge. SIGNED by author (as Esther Jacobson Tepfer) on title page. Quite scarce. ORIGINAL PRINTING. Not a reprint. Volume LV in the Numen Bookseries STUDIES IN THE HISTORY OF RELIGIONS, edited by H.G. Kippenberg, and E.T. Lawson. Central to this "study of the ecology of belief in prehistoric Siberia" is "the image of the deer within the iconography of the early Nomads of South Siberia". "The ersult is a study of the manner in which coneepts central to early belief systems shift in response to changing geographic, economic, and cultural forces..." US$ 300.00 US$ 3.50US$ 303.50
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