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.)

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.”

 

Anthropology Friday: Totemism and Exogamy, part 1/3

Today’s post is on James Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy, published in 1910. This book came highly recommended, but I found it disappointing–too similar to a variety of works we’ve already reviewed, including some of the works that kicked off Anthroplogy Friday in the first place. Nevertheless, I’ve been hoping to do something on India, which the book covers, so here are some hopefully interesting excerpts (as usual, quotes are in “” instead of blocks).

The Pagai Islands are part of the Mentawai chain, Indonesia

Marriage Customs of the Poggi [Pagai?] Islanders, Indonesia:

“The contracting of marriages, in the sense of the Malays, Javanese, and other indigenous peoples, is amongst the Poggians a thing unknown. They live in that respect entirely as they please among each other. The whole of the women are, as it were, the property of the men, and the men on the other hand are the property of the women.

“When a girl has conceived, the child is her whole and undivided property. The father, who indeed is generally unknown, has never any right over it. However, it happens  that when men are tattooed all over and are therefore between forty and fifty years old, they take to themselves a separate wife : that occurs as follows. When the parties have agreed to enter into marriage, they give notice of it to all the inhabitants of the village ; then they step into a canoe decked with leaves and flowers and put off to the fishing. Returning after three, four, or sometimes eight days they are deemed to be married, and the men have then respect for the woman even as the women have for the man. The children whom the woman in most cases brings with her into the marriage then become the property of the man, and so if these children (the girls) get children in turn. It generally happens that girls who have one or more children are thus taken in marriage.

“Sometimes also it occurs that younger men, when they imagine themselves the father of such and such a child, take the mother to be their separate and only wife ; but in such cases the man is careful to be completely tattooed as soon as possible, for so long as that is not done he may not marry, or rather his wife would not be respected. The women, who are marriageable very early, are in their youth, from the age of twelve to twenty, very pretty, some of them even charming ; but they age soon and are generally, while still in the heyday of life, quite withered.”

EvX: I’ve been trying to find more information about the Poggi, which has been hampered by “Poggi” being an Italian last name and not, as far as I can tell, the relevant ethnic group’s actual name. I think they’re the Pagai, named after a couple of islands in the Mentawai chain. Here’s a more recent ethnography on the Mentawai people I just found but haven’t read, yet.

Similar Cases:

” Another people,” says the late Professor G. A. Wilken, “among whom marriage is quite unknown are the Loeboes. They practice absolutely free love and unite indifferently with any one in according to the whim of the moment.

“Communal marriage also exists among the Orang Sakai of Malacca. A girl remains with every man of the tribe in turn till she has gone the round of all the men and has come back to the first one. The process then begins afresh.

“In Borneo, too, there are some tribes, such as the Olo Ot (those of Koetei), which contract no marriage. Lastly, we find the same thing reported of Peling or Poeloe Tinggi, one of the islands of the Banggaai Archipelago.”

Totemism in Central India:

“In those regions of India where high mountains and tablelands present natural barriers to the irruption of conquering races, there linger many indigenous tribes, who, in contrast to the more cultured peoples of the lowlands, have remained in a state of primitive savagery or barbarism down to modern times. Not a few of these aboriginal hill-tribes, especially of the Dravidian stock, retain a social system based on totemism and exogamy ; for they are divided into numerous exogamous clans or septs, each of which bears the name of an animal, tree, plant, or other material object, whether natural or artificial, which the members of the clan are forbidden to eat, cultivate, cut, burn, carry, or use in any other way.

“Amongst such tribes are the Bhils or Bheels, a people of the Dravidian stock in Central Indian, who inhabit the rough forests and jungles of the rocky Vindhya and Satpura mountains. Into these fastnesses it is believed that they, like many other aborigines of India, were driven by the tide of Hindoo invasion. They are a race of dark complexion and diminutive stature, but active and inured to fatigue.

“The Bhils of the Satpura mountains have been little affected by civilisation and lead an existence which has been described as most primitive. A mere report that a white man is coming often suffices to put these savages to flight. They have no fixed villages. The collection of huts which takes the place of a village is abandoned at the least alarm, and even in such a hamlet every man builds his hovel as far away as he can from his neighbours, whose treachery and lust he dreads. …

“The majority of the totems are trees or plants. All the Bhils revere and refrain from injuring or using their totems, and they make a formal obeisance to them in passing, while the women veil their faces. When women desire to have children they present an offering called mannat to their totem.

“One of the clans is named Gaolia-Chothania after its totem gaola, which is a creeper. Members of the clan worship the plant ; they never touch it with their feet if they can help it, and if they touch it accidentally they salaam to it by way of apology.

“The Maoli clan worships a goddess at a shrine which women may not approach. The shape of the shrine is like that of the grain-basket called kilya ; hence members of the clan may neither make nor use such baskets, and none of them may tattoo a pattern resembling the basket on his body.

“The Mori clan has the peacock for its totem. When they wish to worship the bird, they go into the jungle and look for its tracks. On finding the footprints they salaam to them, clean the ground round about, and spreading a piece of red cloth lay an offering of grain on it. They also describe a swastika in the earth beside the offering. If a member of the clan knowingly sets foot on the track of a peacock, he is sure to suffer from some disease afterwards.”…

“The Kapus or Reddis are the largest caste in the Madras Presidency, numbering more than two millions, and are the great caste of cultivators, farmers, and squireens in the Telugu country. …

“However, these fine, powerful, well-dressed men, these gentlemen farmers, these substantial steady-going yeomen, these leaders of society with their neat well-built houses and jewels of fine gold, nevertheless retain the primitive institutions of exogamy and to some extent of totemism. So false is the popular notion that these ancient customs are practised only by vagrant savages with no house over their heads and little or no clothing on their backs. …

“Indeed we are told that Telugu is the most mellifluous of all the Dravidian languages and sounds harmonious even in the lips of the vulgar and illiterate. It has been called the Italian of the East. …

“The Koravas or Yerukalas, as they are also called, are a tribe of vagabonds, thieves, quack doctors, and fortune-tellers, who are scattered throughout the length and breadth and their of India. When railways spread over the country, these gentry travelled on them with enthusiasm, partly for the purpose of robbing passengers in their sleep, partly in order to escape expeditiously from places which they had made too hot to hold them. They speak a gibberish compounded out of Tamil, Telugu, and Canarese. The Koravas are
divided into exogamous clans or septs, …”

Maravars:

“The The Maravars or Maravans are a Dravidian tribe in the extreme south of India. … In the old days they were a fierce and turbulent race, famous for their military prowess. Their subjugation gave the British much trouble at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Once marauders, they are now to some extent peaceful tillers of the ground, but in the Tinnevelly district they furnish nearly all the village police and likewise the thieves and robbers, often indeed combining the professions of thieving and catching thieves. … the Maravan is a power in the land. He levies blackmail according to a regular system, and in cattle-lifting he has no equal throughout the Presidency of Madras.”

EvX: There is a theme to almost all of the accounts: First, whatever the clan totem, it must not be killed or otherwise molested by clan members–could you imagine a member of the Chicago Bulls mistreating a bull, or a Florida Gator mistreating an alligator? And second, tribe members prefer not to marry members of their own totem-tribe. This can create interesting effects where, say, if you inherit your mother’s totem but not your father’s, your maternal cousins may have the same totem as you do and so be off-limits, but your paternal cousins may have different totems and so be acceptable mates. But the exact details of totemic inheritance vary.

That’s all for today; see you next Friday.

 

Anthropology Friday: Emile Durkheim’s The Origin and Development of Religion:

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 – November 15, 1917), Karl Marx, and Max Weber are the fathers of modern social science and sociology, so I decided to read Durkheim’s essay, The Origin and Development of Religion.
According to Wikipedia,

Much of Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity; an era in which traditional social and religious ties are no longer assumed, and in which new social institutions have come into being. His first major sociological work was The Division of Labour in Society (1893). … Durkheim’s seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations, pioneered modern social research and served to distinguish social science from psychology and political philosophy. …

Durkheim noted there are several possible pathologies that could lead to a breakdown of social integration and disintegration of the society: the two most important ones are anomie and forced division of labour; lesser ones include the lack of coordination and suicide.[61] By anomie Durkheim means a state when too rapid population growth reduces the amount of interaction between various groups, which in turn leads a breakdown of understanding (norms, values, and so on).[62] By forced division of labour Durkheim means a situation where power holders, driven by their desire for profit (greed), results in people doing the work they are unsuited for.[63] Such people are unhappy, and their desire to change the system can destabilize the society.[63] …

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim’s first purpose was to identify the social origin and function of religion as he felt that religion was a source of camaraderie and solidarity.[44]

Durkheim saw religion as the most fundamental social institution of humankind, and one that gave rise to other social forms.[60][76] It was the religion that gave humanity the strongest sense of collective consciousness.[81]

His work on Suicide is notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page:

Durkheim explores the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, [in Germany] arguing that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration while Protestant society has low levels. …Durkheim concluded that:

  • Suicide rates are higher in men than women (although married women who remained childless for a number of years ended up with a high suicide rate).
  • Suicide rates are higher for those who are single than those who are in a sexual relationship.
  • Suicide rates are higher for people without children than people with children.
  • Suicide rates are higher among Protestants than Catholics and Jews.
  • Suicide rates are higher among soldiers than civilians.
  • Suicide rates are higher in times of peace than in times of war (the suicide rate in France fell after the coup d’etat of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, for example. War also reduced the suicide rate: after war broke out in 1866 between Austria and Italy, the suicide rate fell by 14% in both countries.)
  • Suicide rates are higher in Scandinavian countries.
  • The higher the education level, the more likely it was that an individual would choose suicide. However, Durkheim established that there is more correlation between an individual’s religion and suicide rate than an individual’s education level.

Well, that is enough introduction. Let’s get on to the essay. (As usual, I will be using “” instead of blockquotes for Durkheim’s work.) I have excerpted what strikes me as the core of Durkheim’s argument:

“The really religious beliefs are always common to a determined group, which make profession of adhering to them and of practicing the rites connected with them. They are not merely received individually by all the members of this groups; they are something belonging to the group, and they make its unity. The individuals which compose it feel themselves united to each other by the simple fact that they have a common faith. A society whose members are united by the fact that they think the same way in regard to the sacred world and its relation with the profane world, and by the fact that they translate these common ideas into common practice, is what is called a “Church.””

EvX: Note that Durkheim is not limiting his use of “Church” to Christian denominations.

“In all history, we do not find a single religion without a Church. Sometimes the Church is strictly national, sometimes it passes frontiers; sometimes it embraces an entire people (Rome, Athens, the Hebrews), sometimes it embrace only part of them (the Christian societies since the advent of Protestantism), sometimes it is directed by a corps of priests, sometimes it is almost completely devoid of any official directing body. But wherever we observe the religious life, we find that it has a definite group as its foundation. …

“It is quite another matter with magic. To be sure, the belief in magic is always more or less general; it is very frequently diffused in large masses of the population, and there are even peoples where it has as many adherents as the real religion. But it does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no Church of magic. Between the magician and the individuals who consult him, as between these individuals themselves, there are no lasting bods which make them members of the same moral community, comparable to that formed by the believers int he same god or the observers of the same cult. The magician has a clientele and not a Church, and it is very possible that his clients have no relations between each other, or even do not know each other; even the relations which they have with him are generally accidental and transient, they are just like those of a sick man with his physician. …

“Thus we arrive at the following definition: A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. … by showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from that of the Church, it make it clear that religion should be an eminently collective thing.”

EvX: I find it interesting that all of the “social sciences”–anthropology, sociology, political economy, psychology, and possibly economics–became prominent at about the same time (compared to, say, History, which got its start with Herodotus in the 5th century BC.) As we’ve been discussing, the late 1800s was a time of great social turmoil due to the economic dislocations and changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and mass movement of millions of peasants from their traditional homes in the countryside to ghettos and tenements of the cities.

Communism–most notably in its Marxist form–was one reaction to this dislocation.

Durkheim, while a socialist, was not an internationalist, and he seems to disagree pretty strongly with Karl “religion is the opiate of the masses” Marx on the importance of religion to society. To Durkheim, religion (as opposed to magic) was absolutely foundational to a functioning society, and believed that despite the increasing atheism of his age, nothing functionally similar to religion existed.

But–from an anthropological perspective–is Durkheim correct? Do the members of a “Church”–and note here the implication that for people to have this collective identity, there must be some homogenous thing that they all believe, not some hodgepodge of “individual interpretation–see themselves as a collective group, and do the believers in “magic,” inversely, fail to see themselves as similarly collective?

My personal experience with NeoPagans and the like suggests that they do see themselves as a collective thing, similar to other religions. So do, from what I have read, practitioners of Voodoo and perhaps other related animist religions. But these are modern (even “neo”!) beliefs, so perhaps these belief systems have been influenced by their practitioners’ familiarity with other “Churches.”

Wikipedia also notes:

Durkheim’s work on religion was criticized on both empirical and theoretical grounds by specialists in the field. The most important critique came from Durkheim’s contemporary, Arnold van Gennep, an expert on religion and ritual, and also on Australian belief systems. Van Gennep argued that Durkheim’s views of primitive peoples and simple societies were “entirely erroneous”. Van Gennep further argued that Durkheim demonstrated a lack of critical stance towards his sources, collected by traders and priests, naively accepting their veracity, and that Durkheim interpreted freely from dubious data. At the conceptual level, van Gennep pointed out Durkheim’s tendency to press ethnography into a prefabricated theoretical scheme.[84]

But perhaps we should let Durkheim defend his points.

Durkheim then runs through in the essay a couple of the more popular (atheistic) theories of his day on the origins of religion, such as “primitive man was amazed by nature and assumed therefore that natural phenomena must be the work of divine creatures,” and dismisses them on the grounds that they are inadequate to explain the fervency of people’s religious devotion. The fact that rain falls from the sky may be amazing, but even primitive man was not particularly wowed by this fairly regular and ultimately mundane occurrence.

(Personally, while I admire Durkheim’s quest for something deeper than “wow,” I think it might be adequate, at least when I look at the stars on a truly dark night. [Actually, I find being outside in true darkness with no lights and no other people pretty terrifying.])

Durkheim turns to Aboriginal “totemism,” deeming it the most “elementary religion,” from which animism and naturistic religions are derived:

“Finally, that which we propose to study in this work is the most primitive and simple religion which it is possible to find. … Not only is their civilization the most rudimentary–the house and even the hut are still unknown–but also their organization is the most primitive and simple which is actually known; it is that which we have elsewhere called organization on basis of clans. …

“At the basis of nearly all the Australian tribes we find a group which holds a preponderating place in the collective life: this is the clan. … the individuals who compose it consider themselves united by a band of kinship, but one which is of a very special nature. … This relationship does not come from the fact that they have definite blood connections with one another; they are relatives from the mere fact that they have the same name. … When we say that they regard themselves as a single family, we do so because they recognize duties toward each other which are identical with those which have always been incumbent upon kindred: such duties as aid, vengeance, mourning, the obligations not to marry  among themselves, etc.

“The species of things which serves to designate the clan collectively is its totem. The totem of the clan is also that of each of its members.”

So Durkheim goes on about totems for a while. Whether or not he is accurate I must leave to the experts–here is one take:

chyedaqwsaaiadw

I note that as we discussed in Anthropology Friday: Aboriginal Folklore, William Ramsay Smith’s book  Aborigine Myths and Legends, published 1930 (that is, after Durkheim,) also discusses totems:

This totemism plays an important part in the social life of the aboriginals. If, for example, a person has committed an offense, or has broken tribal law, he becomes a fugitive. He may travel to some distant part of the country. … He creeps along stealthily, listening intently for any sound, peering through the dense foliage in every bay or cove to see whether his path is clear, noticing every footprint on the way, reading every mark on the tree-trunks and on the surface of rocks, and scanning every mark to see whether there is hope of protection and friendship. To be seen would mean death to him. By and by the keen eye of the fugitive catches sight of the figure of his mother’s totem. Casting aside all fear, he walks boldly along the beaten track that leads to the camp, and presents himself to the chief. He produces a string of kangaroo teeth, made in bead fashion, and a bunch of emu feathers… . This is a sign that he belongs to the Kangaroo totem tribe, and that his mother belongs to the Emu totem tribe. He is received into either of these tribes, and becomes one with them, and participates in all their privileges.

Ramsay recounts a number of folktales in which tribal membership (symbolized by the tribal totem) is important, including a number of tricksters tales in which a character cheats members of another tribe by claiming to be a member of their tribe via some ancient union between their peoples.

Totemism of some form was likely therefore important to at least some of the Aborigines. The totem itself operates, in my opinion a kind of flag (or mascot.) The totem represents the tribe and is carved on things to show that they belong to the tribe or to mark the tribe’s territory, just as a flag represents a country and marks the country’s territory. Likewise, just as tribes award their totem animals a kind of “sacred” status that makes eating (or breaking objects inscribed with their image) them taboo, so do most Americans abstain from eating bald eagles or destroying American flags (indeed, some people think that burning the American flag should be illegal!)

I must caution against overuse of the word “sacred.” For while we might not approve of hunting bald eagles for sport, we wouldn’t typically call bald eagles “sacred” in the religious sense.

Anyway, back to Durkheim:

“Thus the totem is before all a symbol, a material expression of something else. But of what?

“… it is the outward and visible form of what we have called the totemic principle or god. But it is also the symbol of the determined society called the clan. … if it is at once the symbol of the god and of the society, is that not because the god and the society are only one? … The god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and presented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem. …

“In fact, a god is, first of all, a being whom men think of as superior to themselves, and upon whom they feel that they depend. … the worshiper, in the one case as in the other, believes himself held to certain manners of acting which are imposed upon him by the nature of the sacred principle with which he feels he is in communion. Now society also gives us the sensation of a perpetual dependence. … It requires that, forgetful of our own interests, we make ourselves its servitors, and it submits us to every sort of inconvenience, privation, and sacrifice, without which social life would be impossible. …

“Since religious force is nothing other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan, and since this can be represented in the mind only in the form of the totem, the totemic emblem is like the visible body of the god. …

“We are now able to explain the origin of the ambiguity of religious forces as they appear in history… They are moral powers because they are made up entirely of the impressions this moral being, the group, arouses in those other moral beings, its individual members; they do not translate the manner in which physical thing affect our senses, but the way in which the collective consciousness acts upon individual consciousnesses. Their authority is only one from of the moral ascendancy of society over its members. … It is this double nature which has enabled religion to be like the womb from which come all the leading germs of human civilization.”

Evx: So, to summarize: the collective moral force of the community gives rise to the idea of the sacred, which creates religion, which in turn creates society, civilization, and all of the good things.

Which is circular, but so is gene-culture-co-evolution, so I suppose I can’t fault him on that count. The obvious critique here comes from religion: believers would likely object that their religion hails from an actual, real encounter between men and God(s). This explanation, though, runs into the difficulty of explaining all religions besides one’s own. Durkheim is attempting to create an explanation that applies equally to all religions, without appealing to any actual divine agents.

Leaving aside the reality of divinity, does Durkheim’s theory ring true? I am not convinced that he understands totemism, nor am I wholly convinced on the matter of magic, either. However, I his basic theory about the importance of religion underlying society, and possibly the importance of society underlying religion, seems on the correct track. Some form of common belief in the unity of the people of a society seems important to an actual society.

Let us suppose, for a moment, a society in which there are many ethnic groups, but they all believe in the same religion. This seems like a reasonably workable society where people can see themselves as having enough in common to work together. For example, Israel is a nation composed of many different ethnic groups which, nonetheless, all believe in Judaism and share an identity of themselves as “Jewish.” This works for them.

Let us also suppose a society with one ethnic group, but many religions. Since people prefer to marry within their own religion, creating the conditions for ethnic differentiation, we must suppose that the religions involved are sufficiently similar that people are still willing to inter-marry. This also seems like a reasonably workable society.

According to Pew, Taiwan and Vietnam are among the world’s most religiously diverse countries, but they are (as far as I know) ethnically quite homogenous. I confess that I don’t know much about civic life in Taiwan or Vietnam, but they seem to be holding together.

But suppose a third society, in which people belong to many different ethnic and religious groups: this seems in danger of becoming several different societies living in close proximity to each other.

The US is an interesting mix of forms. The initial founding stock consisted largely of Christians from northwest Europe and animists from Sub-Saharan Africa who quickly converted to Christianity. Most immigrants to the US have been Caucasian and/or Christian of some variety, eg, Mexicans, Quakers, Italians, Ashkenazim, Irish, Poles, and Puritans.

By contrast, when Malcolm X decided to convert to Islam, this was–at least symbolically–a way of breaking from the religious continuity of American Christianity. As a black separatist, he was no longer linked to white American society.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal for a country to have small groups of disparate peoples within their borders. A few Buddhists or followers of traditional Native American religions aren’t hurting me. But large groups of people who see themselves as having nothing in common with each other seem problematic to the large-scale functioning of civic life in a nation, especially a democracy. (Might be just fine in an empire.)