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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Old Bering Sea
Socket Handle
Ivory, 2 ½” Length, c.600-800 AD
Old Bering Sea Socket Handle
Caribou Amulet Old Bering Sea, Okvik period

Among the essential components of the sea-hunting harpoon is the heavy socket piece, located two sections away from the point and lending it force. The hunter places his hand upon it, or just behind it, for balance and thrust. As such, it is the first manual point of contact between hunter and living animal, literally and symbolically connecting them like a bridge between life and death.

Given the animism of Old Bering Sea beliefs, it is conceivable to draw parallels between the imagery carved on these forms and the transformational concepts central to shamanic practices. Often, harpoon socket pieces represent fantastical animals, the so-called “mythical beasts” described by eariler authors such as Rainey and Larsen, and the carver packs as many of them onto the piece as possible.

Animals are depicted interlocked, one swallowing another, semi-obscured by rolling around the perimeter of the ivory, as if diving and resurfacing from the water. Carvings on a socket handle might be a tour-de-force of formal abstraction and hunting drama. No area of its surface is left without marking. The practical aspect of this, naturally, is that the over-all carved handle provides an excellent grip.

This particular example is an unusual variant, in that it is a miniature version. Many examples exist of small model forms, tiny harpoon parts which may have functioned as toys for children, or as practice models for a carver. It has also been speculated that miniature harpoons, and other essential tools, were amulets for shamans, or for hunters themselves, assisting them in summoning animal spirits, to ensure successful hunting.

It is likely that all of these suppositions are true. In a society which was both spiritually organized and dependent upon animal resources, all aspects of hunting would have been so regulated: the training and play of its children, the mystical aspirations of its leaders, and the skill and attitude of its hunters, all acting in unity.