Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Can walrus ivory teach us about value?

I was given polar bear patterned pyjama trousers by my brother this year, and they remind me that some indigenous people in the arctic have traditionally worn polar bear fur pants as an indication of their adulthood and hunting prowess. Although I don't like the idea of anyone hunting polar bears, I respect the rights of indigenous people who have always done so for survival. Polar bear pants have come to symbolise for me the fact that people have beliefs that I may not share, but do respect. Most importantly, polar bear pants are objects that are valuable not in a monetary sense, but due to their meaning to those who wear them.

Here's another object like that. This exquisite carving is made of 'morse' or walrus ivory (thanks to the ExploreNorth site for the image). It is a magical object, a weapon with sacred power to the person who made it. I am deeply interested in the way objects can have such value. It makes them non-tradeable, or at least not easily tradeable. You can't buy someone's sacred amulet; mere money can't replace its meaning.

Conversely, when the sacred value of an object is forgotten, it can be swapped for any other. It becomes merely a commodity. Most objects in modern western society are like this, and they are inherently unsatisfying. The loss of such values leads to a kind of greed that cannot be satisfied and such greed can be seen everywhere now. It's one of the tragedies of our modern condition. To a modern trader, the value of an object like this walrus carving would be simply that it is rare, and thus worth a lot of money.

When Pytheas made his epic journey in 320 BC, walrus were much more widespread in the North Atlantic than they are now. Their population was decimated by unscrupulous over-hunting by Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although we don't know how far south they lived or how abundant walrus were in the Iron Age, it is certain that the ivory from their tusks was prized. I believe that the reason Pytheas went so far north was because he was searching for the origin of this beautiful material.

What's my rationale? Well, it is reasonable to assume that Pytheas was looking for the northern origins of various materials. Amber and tin are almost certain, and perhaps we can add walrus ivory to that list. Just as Cartheginian control of Galicia made access to tin difficult, and thus Cornwall's supplies became important, it could well be that Phoenician control of North Africa threatened the trade in elephant ivory to the Greek colonies. The Greeks would undoubtedly have known that there were northern sources of an alternative ivory, and I like to think that Pytheas was in hot pursuit when he travelled to Ultima Thule.

Whether he was consciously searching for walrus ivory or not, he would almost certainly have come across walrus hunters. I wonder what their hunting rituals were like and how they viewed ivory. My guess is that they would have considered the killing of a walrus to be a profound, ritual event, of great danger to the hunter and resulting in a sacred substance of great mystical power.

However, trading along the long and complex routes that led to the Mediterranean could well have diluted that sacred value, so that walrus ivory, or morse, would be reduced to just a carving material exchangeable for similar things, like the tusks of elephants or certain kinds of wood. An ancient Greek would think about a walrus ivory carving in a completely different way from a north Atlantic walrus hunter. And of course, how we respond to an ivory carving today is different again. 

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