Totemism and Exogamy pt 2/3: Plagues, Polyandry, and Infanticide

Welcome back to James Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy, published in 1910. Here are some hopefully interesting excerpts (as usual, quotes are in “” instead of blocks):

“When an ox or a buffalo dies, the Madigas gather round it like vultures, strip off the skin and tan it, and batten on the loathsome carrion. Their habits are squalid in the extreme and the stench of their hamlets is revolting. They practice various forms of fervent but misguided piety, lying on beds of thorns, distending the mouth with a mass of mud as large as a cricket-ball, bunging up their eyes with the same stuff, and so forth, thereby rendering themselves perhaps well-pleasing to their gods but highly disgusting to all sensible and cleanly men.

“An unmarried, but not necessarily chaste, woman of the caste personifies the favourite goddess Matangi, whose name she bears and of whom she is supposed to be an incarnation. Drunk with toddy and enthusiasm, decked with leaves of the margosa tree {Melia Azadirachtd), her face reddened with turmeric, this female incarnation of the deity dances frantically, abuses her adorers in foul language, and bespatters them with her spittle, which is believed to purge them from all uncleanness of body and soul. Even high-class Reddis, purse-proud Komatis, and pious Brahmans receive the filthy eructations of this tipsy maniac with joy and gratitude as outpourings of the divine spirit.

“When an epidemic is raging, the Madigas behead a buffalo before the image of their village goddess Uramma and a man carries the blood-reeking head in procession on his own head round the village, his neck swathed in a new cloth which has been soaked in the buffalo’s blood. This is supposed to draw a cordon round the dwellings and to prevent the irruption of evil spirits. The villagers subscribe to defray the expense of the procession. If any man refuses to pay, the bloody head is not carried round his house, and the freethinker or niggard is left to the tender mercies of the devils.

“The office of bearer of the head is an ill-omened and dangerous one ; for huge demons perch on the tops of tall trees ready to swoop down on him and carry him and his bleeding burden away. To guard against this catastrophe ropes are tied to his body and arms, and men hang on like grim death to the ends of them.
… ”

15 So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men. …

18 And Gad came that day to David, and said unto him, Go up, rear an altar unto the Lord in the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. …

So David bought the threshingfloor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.

25 And David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the Lord was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel. –2 Samuel, 24

EvX: There’s not a whole lot of information on Wikipedia about the Madigas aside from the fact that they are one of India’s scheduled castes and were “historically marginalized and oppressed.” Since the tanning of leather is (or at least was) really rank, leather tanning communities have historically faced a fair amount of discrimination.

The use of sacrifice to end plagues is a fascinating part of older religions (and most unfortunate for the sacrificed.) I’ve long thought that Beowulf was really a story about a plague (personified as Grendel/Grendel’s mother) appeased by sacrificing a warrior by throwing his body into a lake or bog. Of course, the warrior isn’t supposed to “die” but travel to the spirit realm to slay the evil spirit causing the plague:

There came unhidden
tidings true to the tribes of men,
in sorrowful songs, how ceaselessly Grendel
harassed Hrothgar, what hate he bore him,
what murder and massacre, many a year,
feud unfading, — refused consent
to deal with any of Daneland’s earls,
make pact of peace, or compound for gold: …
But the evil one ambushed old and young
death-shadow dark, and dogged them still,
lured, or lurked in the livelong night
of misty moorlands: men may say not
where the haunts of these Hell-Runes   be. …
Many nobles
sat assembled, and searched out counsel
how it were best for bold-hearted men
against harassing terror to try their hand.
Whiles they vowed in their heathen fanes
altar-offerings, asked with words
that the slayer-of-souls would succor give them
for the pain of their people. …
Beowulf spoke: … with Hrunting [sword] I
seek doom of glory, or Death shall take me.”
After these words the Weder-Geat lord
boldly hastened, biding never
answer at all: the ocean floods
closed o’er the hero. Long while of the day
fled ere he felt the floor of the sea.
Soon found the fiend who the flood-domain
sword-hungry held these hundred winters,
greedy and grim, that some guest from above,
some man, was raiding her monster-realm.

In Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750, Stoclet quotes Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga:

Domald took the heritage after his father Visbur, and ruled over the land As in his time there was great famine and distress, the swedes made great offerings of sacrifice at Upsal. The first autumn they sacrificed oxen, but the succeeding season was not improved thereby. The following autumn they sacrificed men, but the succeeding year was rather worse. The third autumn, when the offer of sacrifice should begin, a great multitude of Swedes came to Upsal; and now the chiefs held consultations with each other, and all agreed that the time of scarcity were on account of their king Domald, and they resoled to offer him for good seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the stalls of the god with this blood. And they did so.

Stoclet continues:

Anyone familiar with Arthur Maurice Hocart’s anthropologocial wiritings on kingship will know that the ancient Swedes of Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga were anything but unique in believing that a strong connection existed between king and cosmos. This connection underlies a recurring explanation for plague, namely, that i was a direct consequence of the king’s sexual misconduct, specifically in its most extreme form of incest.

In King David’s case, though, the plague was caused by his taking a census.

(Actually, since King David’s census required the movement of the army throughout his kingdom in order to force compliance with the census-takers, maybe the census actually did cause a plague–there’s no doubt the movement of troops during WWI contributed to the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, after all.)

 

Toda Village, 1837, by Richard Barron

Todas:

“The Todas are a small tribe, now less than a thousand in number, who inhabit the lofty and isolated tableland of the Neilgherry Hills. They are a purely pastoral people tribe devoting themselves to the care of their herds of buffaloes and despising agriculture and nearly all manual labour as beneath their dignity. Their origin and affinities are unknown; little more than vague conjecture has been advanced to connect them with any other race of Southern India.

They are a tall, well-built, athletic people, with a rich brown complexion, a profusion of jet black hair, a large, full, speaking eye, a Roman nose, and fine teeth. The men are strong and very agile, with hairy bodies and thick beards. Their countenances are open and expressive ; their bearing bold and free ; their manners grave and dignified ; their disposition very cheerful and friendly. In intelligence they are said to be not inferior to any average body of educated Europeans. In temperament they are most pacific, never engaging in warfare and not even possessing weapons, except bows and arrows and clubs, which they use only for purposes of ceremony. Yet they are a proud race and hold their heads high above all their neighbours.

“The country which they inhabit has by its isolation sheltered them from the inroads of more turbulent and warlike peoples and has allowed them to lead their quiet dream-like lives in all the silence and rural simplicity of an Indian Arcadia. For the land which is their home stands six or seven thousand feet above the sea and falls away abruptly or even precipitously on every side to the hot plains beneath. …

A Toda temple in Muthunadu Mund near Ooty, India.

“Generally a village nestles in a beautiful wooded hollow near a running stream. It is composed of a few huts surrounded by a wall with two or three narrow openings in it wide enough to admit a man but not a buffalo. The huts are of a peculiar construction. Imagine a great barrel split lengthwise and half of it set lengthwise with the cut edges resting on the ground, and you will get a fair idea of a Toda hut. … Near the village is commonly a dairy with a pen for the buffaloes at night and a smaller pen for the calves.

“The daily life of the Toda men is spent chiefly in the tending the buffaloes and in doing the work of the dairy. … Women are entirely excluded from the work of the dairy ; they may neither milk the cows nor churn the butter. Besides the common buffaloes there are sacred buffaloes with their own sacred dairies, where the sacred milk is churned by sacred dairymen. These hallowed dairies are the temples and the holy dairymen are the priests, almost the gods, of the simple pastoral folk.

“The dairyman leads a dedicated life… If he is married he must leave his wife and not go near her or visit his home during the term of his incumbency, however many years it may last. No person may so much as touch him without reducing his holiness to the level of a common man. He may not cross a river by a bridge but must wade through the water at the ford, and only certain fords may be used by him. If a death occurs in the clan he may not attend the funeral unless he resigns his sacred office.

“However, there are different degrees of sanctity among the sacred dairymen. …

“The Todas have the institution of exogamy without the institution of totemism. The whole tribe is divided into two endogamous groups, the Tartharol and the Teivaliol.  Regular marriage is not allowed between these groups, though irregular unions are permitted… Each of these primary divisions is subdivided into a number of exogamous clans ; no man or woman may marry a woman of his or her own clan, but must marry into another clan. But while marriage is prohibited between members of the same clan, it would seem that sexual intercourse is not prohibited and indeed commonly takes place between them. …

Toda woman and two men (though the Wikipedia doesn’t claim that these are her husbands.)

“The Todas have a completely organised and definite system of polyandry, and in the vast majority of polyandrous marriages the husbands are own brothers. Indeed, when a woman marries, it is understood that she becomes the wife of his brothers at the same time. …

“When the joint husbands are not own brothers, they may either live with the wife in one family, or they may dwell in different villages. In the latter case the usual custom is for the wife to reside with each husband in turn for a month … When the joint husbands are own brothers they live together in amity ; in such a family quarrels are said to be unknown. The Todas scout as ridiculous the idea that there should ever be disputes or jealousies between the brother-husbands. When a child is born in a family of this sort, all the brothers are equally regarded as its fathers ; though if a man be asked the name of his father, he will generally mention one man of the group, probably the most prominent or important of them. …

“When the joint husbands are not brothers, they arrange among themselves who is to be the putative father of each child as it is born, and the chosen one accepts the responsibility by performing a certain ceremony …

“The ceremony takes place about the seventh month of the woman’s pregnancy and begins on the evening before the day of the new moon. Husband and wife repair to a wood, where he cuts a niche in a tree and places a lighted lamp in the niche. The two then search the wood till they find the wood called puv {Sophora glauca) and the grass called nark {Andropogon schoenanthus). A bow is made from the wood by stripping off the bark and stretching it across the bent stick so as to form the bowstring. The grass is fitted to the little bow to stand for an arrow. Husband and wife then return to the tree. … The wife then sits down under the tree in front of the lamp, which glimmers in the gloaming or the dark from its niche, on a level with her eyes as she is seated on the ground. The husband next gives her the bow and arrow, and she asks him what they are called. He mentions the name of the bow and arrow, which differs for each clan. …

If this were a Freudian blog, I’d tell you the arrow is a penis.

“On receiving the bow and arrow the woman raises them to her forehead, and then holding them in her right hand she gazes steadily at the burning lamp for an hour or until the light flickers and goes out. The man afterwards lights a fire under the tree and cooks jaggery and rice in a new pot. When the food is ready, husband and wife partake of it together. … Afterwards the relatives return from the village and all pass the night in the wood, the relatives keeping a little way off from the married pair. …

“This remarkable ceremony is always performed in or about the seventh month of a woman’s first pregnancy, whether her husbands are brothers or not. … When the joint husbands are brothers, it is the eldest brother who gives the little bow and arrow. The fatherhood of the child, or rather the social recognition of it, depends entirely on the performance of this ceremony, so much so that he who gives the bow and arrow is counted the father of the child even if he be known to have had no former connection with the woman ; and on the other hand if no living man has performed the ceremony, the child will be fathered on a dead man. An indelible disgrace attaches to a child for whom the ceremony has not been performed.”

EvX: Frazer goes on to describe a number of similar customs, including ones including beans (such as the throwing of beans and grains on a bride,) but seems to have missed Cupid’s use of the bow and arrow to induce love.

Lest you think that polyandry among the Todas and their lack of sexual jealousy means they live in some kind of free-love, feminist paradise:

“The custom of polyandry among the Todas is facilitated, if not caused, by a considerable excess of men over women, and that excess has been in turn to a great extent brought about by the practice of killing the female children at birth. It seems clear that female infanticide has always been and still is practised by the Todas, although in recent years under English influence it has become much less frequent.”

 

3 thoughts on “Totemism and Exogamy pt 2/3: Plagues, Polyandry, and Infanticide

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