The Trophy (An Essay on Ritual and Understanding)

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By Wayne Allensworth

The trophy hangs in my office nowadays. When I was a boy at home, for a time it faced my bed. The black centered eyes gazed at me at night, the head looking wise somehow. The thick neck. The “points” of its wide antlers. The ears seemingly on alert. It had hung in our kitchen when I was very young, just over the kitchen table. The kitchen was small, as was the house, and the great trophy dominated the space.

The trophy has always held an outsized place in my memory. A relic of our past life, a talisman of sorts, strangely united with us by its death, which in my mind had always held an aura of ceremony. Of sacrifice. Of sacred roles played out in a world that could not be any other way. My father was hunter, provider, and leader. A model of the best common man. Competence without a hint of self-consciousness.

And the buck was his natural counterpart.

I realize now what they both meant to us. At the time, we were not fully cognizant of what the hunter and the deer represented in our children’s eyes. They were archetypes from the very well of experience and being that we would draw on for the rest of our lives. Our mothers also had their archetypal roles to play, as did the old folks. We learn to live and to be human, to interact with the world through those archetypes, patterns of behavior and imagery that lend structure, meaning, and purpose to our lives.

We hunted on land my grandparents owned in Central Texas. It occurred to me at some point, after I had witnessed the hunts, and participated in them myself, that there was a certain ceremony and ritual involved,* and some definite rules. Ideal hunters, following the example set by our elders, were not booze swilling yahoos blazing away at anything, but people who took the hunt seriously and always played it out a certain way. There was no gratuitous killing, for instance. The killing was legitimized within the confines of the hunting ritual. At the same time, the hunting cabin was a place for good humor and family and friends. I was glad I got to see it and that I came to understand it.

I was not as enthusiastic about the hunt as some of my friends and relatives. I was not someone who hunted at every opportunity. I was just a boy who was trying to emulate a certain way of living, of experiencing life and our part in it. Living means dying, and violence is part of existence. How one understands and processes death and violence were (and are) important aspects of understanding. Handling firearms was part of the world we knew. The hunt was a rite of passage, and, I think, a means of learning certain responsibilities, including for the power of life and death that humans especially have taken into their hands. Of course, my elders did not articulate such things, and would likely be puzzled by my efforts to do so. They did not consciously perform the rituals of the hunt. But they believed in them, since actions are beliefs made manifest in the world. I watched and learned from them. That life and death drama is what Hemingway so artfully portrayed in his best writing.

My father had shot the trophy buck when I was an infant. It was a big deer by white tail standards. I’m not sure how often my father hunted after he had taken it, apart from showing his children the ropes. The taking of the trophy seemed like the culmination of a trial. The successful completion of a journey that he never spoke about, and probably wasn’t fully aware of. He had taken the buck near Normangee, Texas and had finished cleaning it as the body hung from a tree limb in Aunt Peggy and Uncle Kenneth’s yard. My grandfather and great grandfather were there, and the pictures show a host of children about, as it would have been in those days, when working class people hunted and brought their kill back home with them. My grandfather would clean, skin, and “process” the meat himself in his garage.

I miss that world very much. And I lament, as noted in this space many times previously, the chaos and fragmentation that follow attacks on and the destruction of the story we lived out in the behaviors and models that supported it. Hunting has now become something of a subculture, with a certain self-consciousness and air of commercialization about it. That’s too bad, but I’m glad that, come hunting season, the remnant will head for the countryside and the drama will be played out again.

*I wrote an essay for Chronicles back in 2019 on The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s tragic masterpiece on war, loss, and a restorative heroic journey that included a depiction of the ritual significance of the hunt for, in that case, Pennsylvania steel workers. The film struck a chord with me first of all for its portrayal of the hunt, rich in ceremony, myth, and symbolism.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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Wayne Allensworth

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