A Falconer’s Ritual: A study of the cognitive and spiritual dimensions of pre-Christian Scandinavian falconry
By Karyn Bellamy-Dagneau
MA Thesis, University of Iceland, 2015
Introduction: In 2012, UNESCO has inscribed falconry on their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a consideration that is long overdue. Indeed, where the historical bonds between humans and dogs and horses, for example, is well known, the cooperation initiated between mankind and birds of prey is comparatively less recognized—at least in our modern western world.
Falconry is a practice that has had an historical impact on mankind, one that is of course different, and yet complementary to the impact of horses and dogs. However, birds of prey are very different from mammal species, and their differences impose limits and possibilities in our interaction with them. They remain wild animals that cannot be tamed nor domesticated, which means that they are acquired from their natural habitat.
Before the training period properly begins, they must accustom themselves to humans, something called “manning”. Their training inculcates in them behaviours they wouldn’t normally adopt in the wild, such as hunt bigger prey. Sometimes, as a result of manning, a strong bond with their human owner is formed. They otherwise constitute a high maintenance responsibility that can easily overwhelm those people lacking time, means, space and dedication.
And yet, despite all this, birds of prey are primal beasts at their core. Given the chance, they will return to nature, where they reproduce best. This perforce imposes restraints in their acquisition and in the management of their number. This short summary briefly explains why birds of prey are not as famous companions to humans as are dogs and horses. The relationship that emerges between raptors and mankind is essentially a personal one, as opposed to social, and it is also a temporary one. Indeed, unlike dogs and horses, falcons are not kept for life. They are eventually released. Falconry is not so much about a successful hunt as it is about a successful flight, which is a direct result of the training process. Falconry is thus something that is practiced. It is humankind’s ability to successfully and temporarily harness the wild, only to let it loose, without altering its innate nature.
Top Image: Falconers with horse from, ‘De arte venandi cum avibus’, 1240-1250.