Totemism and Exogamy, pt. 3/3: Mundas, Khonds, and Herero

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

Mundas:

Birsa Munda, 1875–1900, “Indian tribal freedom fighter, religious leader, and folk hero who belonged to the Munda tribe.”

“Another large Dravidian tribe of Chota Nagpur who retain totemism and exogamy are the Mundas. Physically they are among the finest of the aboriginal tribes of the plateau. The men are about five feet six in height, their bodies lithe and muscular, their skin of the darkest brown or almost black, their features coarse, with broad flat noses, low foreheads, and thick lips. Thus from the physical point of view the Mundas are pure Dravidians. Yet curiously  enough they speak a language which differs radically from the true Dravidian. … This interesting family of language is now known to be akin to the Mon-Khmer languages of Further India as well as to the Nicobarese and the dialects of certain wild tribes of Malacca. It is perhaps the language which has been longest spoken in India, and may well have been universally diffused over the whole of that country as well as Malacca before the tide of invasion swept it away from vast areas and left it outstanding only in a few places like islands or solitary towers rising from an ocean of alien tongues. …

“Another well-known Dravidian tribe of Bengal among whom totemism combined with exogamy has been discovered are the Khonds, Kondhs, or Kandhs, who inhabit a hilly tract called Kandhmals in Boad, one of the tributary states of Orissa in the extreme south of Bengal. …Their country is wild and mountainous, consisting of a labyrinth of ranges covered with dense forests of sal trees. They are a shy and timid folk, who love their wild mountain gorges and the stillness of jungle life, but eschew contact with the low-landers and flee to the most inaccessible recesses of their rugged highlands at the least alarm. They subsist by hunting and a primitive sort of agriculture, clearing patches of land for cultivation in the forest during the cold weather and firing it in the heat of summer. The seed is sown among the ashes of the burnt forest when the first rains have damped it. After the second year these rude tillers of the soil abandon the land and make a fresh clearing in the woods.

“The cruel human sacrifices which they used to offer to the Earth Goddess in order to ensure the fertility of their fields have earned for the Khonds an unenviable notoriety among the hill tribes of India. These sacrifices were at last put down by the efforts of British officers.”

The text says no more on the subject, but Wikipedia recounts:

Traditionally the Kondh religious beliefs were syncretic combining totemism, animism, Ancestor worship, shamanism and nature worship.The Kondhs gave highest importance to the Earth goddess, who is held to be the creator and sustainer of the world. Earlier Human Sacrifices called “Meriah” were offered by the Kondh to propitiate the Earth Goddess. In the Kondh society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invited the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values were greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed. The practise of traditional religion has almost become extinct today.

Meriah sacrifice post

Castes and Tribes of Southern India, (1909) assembled by K. Rangachari, recounts:

In another report, Colonel Campbell describes how the miserable victim is dragged along the fields, surrounded by a crowd of half intoxicated Khonds, who, shouting and screaming, rush upon him, and with their knives cut the flesh piecemeal from the bones, avoiding the head and bowels, till the living skeleton, dying from loss of blood, is relieved from torture, when its remains are burnt, and the ashes mixed with the new grain to preserve it from insects. Yet again, he describes a sacrifice which was peculiar to the Khonds of Jeypore. It is, he writes, always succeeded by the sacrifice of three human beings, two to the sun to the east and west of the village, and one in the centre, with the usual barbarities of the Meriah. A stout wooden post about six feet long is firmly fixed in the ground, at the foot of it a narrow grave is dug, and to the top of the post the victim is firmly fastened by the long hair of his head. Four assistants hold his out-stretched arms and legs, the body being suspended horizontally over the grave, with the face towards the earth. The officiating Junna or priest, standing on the right side, repeats the following invocation, at intervals hacking with his sacrificial knife the back part of the shrieking victims neck. O ! mighty Manicksoro, this is your festal day. To the Khonds the offering is Meriah, to kings Junna. On account of this sacrifice, you have given to kings kingdoms, guns and swords. The sacrifice we now offer you must eat, and we pray that our battle-axes may be converted into swords, our bows and arrows into gunpowder and balls ; and, if we have any quarrels with other tribes, give us the victory.

Let’s return to Frazer:

“While totemism combined with exogamy is widely spread among the aboriginal tribes of India, it is remarkable that no single indubitable case of it has been recorded, so far as I know, in all the rest of the vast continent of Asia. In the preceding chapters we have traced this curious system of society and superstition from Australia through the islands of Torres Straits, New Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, Indonesia, and India. On the eastern frontier of India totemism stops abruptly, and in our totemic survey of the world we shall not meet with any clear evidence of it again till we pass to Africa or America. If we leave India out of account, Asia, like Europe, is practically a blank in a totemic map of the world.”

EvX: Too bad there’s no MAP. A map would have been useful.

Herero woman

Africa:

“When we pass from Asia to Africa the evidence for the existence of totemism and exogamy again becomes comparatively copious ; for the system is found in vogue among Bantu tribes both of Southern and of Central Africa as well as among some of the pure negroes of the West Coast. We begin with the Herero, Ovaherero, or Damaras as they used to be called, who inhabit German South-West Africa.

“The Herero are a tall finely-built race of nomadic herdsmen belonging to the Bantu stock, who seem to have migrated into their present country from the north and east some hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago. The desert character of the country and its seclusion from the world long combined to preserve the primitive manners of the inhabitants. A scanty and precarious rainfall compels them to shift their dwellings from place to place in order to find pasture for their cattle ; and an arid, absolutely rainless coast of dreary sandhills affords no allurement to the passing mariner to land on the inhospitable shore. … But when the first rains, accompanied by thunderstorms of tremendous violence, have fallen, the whole scene changes as by magic. The wastes are converted into meadows of living green, gay with a profusion of beautiful flowers and fragrant with a wealth of aromatic grasses and herbs … Now is the time when the cattle roam at large on the limitless prairies, and beasts of all kinds descend from their summer haunts in the mountains, bringing life and animation where the silence and solitude of death had reigned before. …

“In their native state the Herero are a purely pastoral people, though round about the mission stations some of them have learned to till the ground. They possess, or used to possess, immense herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats. These are the pride and joy of their hearts, almost their idols. Their riches are measured by their cattle ; he who has none is of no account in the tribe. Men of the highest standing count it an honour to tend the kine ; the sons of the most powerful chiefs are obliged to lead for a time the life of simple herdsmen. They subsist chiefly on the milk of their herds, which they commonly drink sour. From a motive of superstition they never wash the milk vessels, believing firmly that if they did so the cows would yield no
more milk. Of the flesh they make but little use, for they seldom kill any of their cattle, and never a cow, a calf, or a lamb. Even oxen and wethers are only slaughtered on solemn and festal occasions, such as visits, burials, and the like. Such slaughter is a great event in a village, and young and old flock from far and near to partake of the meat.

“Their huts are of a round beehive shape, about ten feet in diameter. …

“A special interest attaches to the Herero because they are the first people we have met with in our survey who undoubtedly combine totemism with a purely pastoral life ; hitherto the totemic tribes whom we have encountered have been for the most part either hunters or husbandmen…”

EvX: The text claims that the Herero do not wash the vessels they use for holding and storing milk, but if I recall correctly, they actually use urine to this effect, due to their area being quite dry. (Frazer may not have considered urine a cleaning agent, or may have simply been ignorant on this matter.)