In the moments after a successful hunt, when approaching a downed animal, we all—consciously or not—take a small moment to give thanks. Whether it’s to God or the spirit of the fallen animal itself, we feel compelled to send a small prayer of gratitude out into the astral plane. It’s a compulsion as old as the act of hunting itself. Since the dawn of time, humanity has realized that there is something out there greater than themselves. A guiding spirit that caused Cro-Magnon man to stop hiding in caves from what lurked in the darkness, and to instead start seeking it out for sustenance. It was this guiding spirit that helped us evolve into the world’s top predators, and no matter what name we give it, it has been part of our hunting culture throughout our history—and it remains with us today.
The connection between hunting and religion has long been documented. Depictions of hunting ceremonies with religious undertones and themes have been found in cave paintings. Ancient burial sites of hunters have been uncovered that showed the dead were laid to rest with their hunting tools and the skulls, hides, and claws of their trophies (because ancient people often believed they would be needed for the hunter to continue to hunt in the afterlife). Almost all of the ancient cultures and religions had some form of hunting ritual and many even had their own gods of the hunt.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped the hunting god Neith, believing hunting would prove their mastery over the animals and ensure their passage into the land of the dead. The Vikings, in all their savagery, believed that to hunt was to ensure their passage to Valhalla. Many Viking tribes would not allow young warriors to go on raids until they had become successful hunters, and before every hunt they made sacrifices to the god Skaði to ensure their success in the field. The Romans prayed to Diana, the Greeks to Artemis, and native tribes from the Americas, Africa, and Asia had too many hunting deities and ceremonies to count. This almost unanimous belief of all our ancestors that the act of hunting elevates us to a higher plane has been passed down through the generations to hunters in the modern age.
Though the methods and intent of hunting today have changed from what our ancestors practiced, many who hunt today still do so with belief and faith in a higher power, and even our own bits of ceremony. Every time we go out hunting, we enter the forests, fields, and mountains with an invigorated belief in our future success, and whether we’re successful or not, we return home with a clean and refreshed spirit. We still gather together in hunting camps the day before opener to sit around the fires of anticipation and to share stories of hope for the coming season.
Almost all of us carry our own talismans or traditions into every hunt we go on. From favorite weapons to lucky hunting shirts, to prayers and even mid-day meals, there are so many seemingly meaningless things that we believe directly contribute to our hunting success. Despite living in an “evolved” age, we hunters still do things like blooding a hunter after his first success, giving a slain animal a last meal of vegetation from where it has fallen, and hanging the skulls of trophies on the walls of our homes. We do these things because we understand the connections we have with the wild places and animals within the world. No matter how religious they are, hunters everywhere know that by hunting they are paying homage to something ancient and pure.
Modern-day hunters acknowledge the mysticism of hunting. We still have a respect, honor, and reverence for the animals we hunt. Animals with which we long ago signed a pact, a savage yet noble pact of predator and prey, one written in sweat, grit, and blood on the leaves and snow. Yet we know that the true spirit of the hunt is much more than that. We know the spirit of the hunt is about connections: with nature, with ourselves, and with each other. It’s about family and tradition. About the knowledge that meat we’ve harvested ourselves somehow tastes better than what we buy in the store. It’s about how a sunset over the bayou or over the mountains looks different, yet somehow feels the same. It’s about knowing that, somehow, we have to pass on our knowledge to future generations, for we know that as long as we believe in the hunting spirit, it will continue to exist, mystifying hunters for years to come. For this we pray.