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Custom and Myth

Page: 87

gens,’ the exogamous prohibition in Rome was as complete as among the Hindoos. I do not quite gather from Sir Henry Maine’s account of the Slavonic house communities (pp. 254, 255) whether they dislike all kindred marriages, or only marriage within the ‘greater blood’—that is, within the kinship on the male side. He says: ‘The South Slavonians bring their wives into the group, in which they are socially organised, from a considerable distance outside. . . . Every marriage which requires an ecclesiastical dispensation is regarded as disreputable.’

On the whole, wide prohibitions of marriage are archaic: the widest are savage; the narrowest are modern and civilised. Thus the Hindoo prohibition is old, barbarous, and wide. ‘The barbarous Aryan,’ says Sir Henry Maine, ‘is generally exogamous. He has a most extensive table of prohibited degrees.’ Thus exogamy seems to be a survival of barbarism. The question for us is, Can we call exogamy a survival from a period when (owing to scarcity of women and polyandry) clear ideas of kinship were impossible? If this can be proved, exogamous Aryans either passed through polyandrous institutions, or borrowed a savage custom derived from a period when ideas of kinship were obscure.

If we only knew the origin of the prohibition to marry within the family name all would be plain sailing. At present several theories of the origin of exogamy are before the world. Mr. Morgan, the author of ‘Ancient Society,’ inclines to trace the prohibition to a great early physiological discovery, acted on by primitive men by virtue of a contrat social. Early man discovered that children of unsound constitutions were born of nearly related parents. Mr. Morgan says: ‘Primitive men very early discovered the evils of close interbreeding.’ Elsewhere Mr. Morgan writes: ‘Intermarriage in the gens was prohibited, to secure the benefits of marrying out with unrelated persons.’ This arrangement was ‘a product of high intelligence,’ and Mr. Morgan calls it a ‘reform.’

Let us examine this very curious theory. First: Mr. Morgan supposes early man to have made a discovery (the evils of the marriage of near kin) which evades modern physiological science. Modern science has not determined that the marriages of kinsfolk are pernicious. Is it credible that savages should discover a fact which puzzles science? It may be replied that modern care, nursing, and medical art save children of near marriages from results which were pernicious to the children of early man. Secondly: Mr. Morgan supposes that barbarous man (so notoriously reckless of the morrow as he is), not only made the discovery of the evils of interbreeding, but acted on it with promptitude and self-denial. Thirdly: Mr. Morgan seems to require, for the enforcement of the exogamous law, a contrat social. The larger communities meet, and divide themselves into smaller groups, within which wedlock is forbidden. This ‘social pact’ is like a return to the ideas of Rousseau. Fourthly: The hypothesis credits early men with knowledge and discrimination of near degrees of kin, which they might well possess if they lived in patriarchal families. But it represents that they did not act on their knowledge. Instead of prohibiting marriage between parents and children, cousins, nephews and aunts, uncles and nieces, they prohibited marriage within the limit of the name of the kin. This is still the Hindoo rule, and, if the Romans really might not at one time marry within the gens, it was the Roman rule. Now observe, this rule fails to effect the very purpose for which ex hypothesi it was instituted. Where the family name goes by the male side, marriages between cousins are permitted, as in India and China. These are the very marriages which some theorists now denounce as pernicious. But, if the family name goes by the female side, marriages between half-brothers and half-sisters are permitted, as in ancient Athens and among the Hebrews of Abraham’s time. Once more, the exogamous prohibition excludes, in China, America, Africa, Australia, persons who are in no way akin (according to our ideas) from intermarriage. Thus Mr. Doolittle writes: {256} ‘Males and females of the same surname will never intermarry in China. Cousins who have not the same ancestral surname may intermarry. Though the ancestors of persons of the same surname have not known each other for thousands of years, they may not intermarry.’ The Hindoo gotra rule produces the same effects.

For all these reasons, and because of the improbability of the physiological discovery, and of the moral ‘reform’ which enforced it; and again, because the law is not of the sort which people acquainted with near degrees of kinship would make; and once more, because the law fails to effect its presumed purpose, while it does attain ends at which it does not aim—we cannot accept Mr. Morgan’s suggestion as to the origin of exogamy. Mr. M’Lennan did not live to publish a subtle theory of the origin of exogamy, which he had elaborated. In ‘Studies in Ancient History,’ he hazarded a conjecture based on female infanticide:—

‘We believe the restrictions on marriage to be connected with the practice in early times of female infanticide, which, rendering women scarce, led at once to polyandry within the tribe, and the capturing of women from without. . . . Hence the cruel custom which, leaving the primitive human hordes with very few young women of their own, occasionally with none, and in any case seriously disturbing the balance of the sexes within the hordes, forces them to prey upon one another for wives. Usage, induced by necessity, would in time establish a prejudice among the tribes observing it, a prejudice strong as a principle of religion—as every prejudice relating to marriage is apt to be—against marrying women of their own stock.’

Mr. M’Lennan describes his own hypothesis as ‘a suggestion thrown out at what it was worth.’ {258} In his later years, as we have said, he developed a very subtle and ingenious theory of the origin of exogamy, still connecting it with scarcity of women, but making use of various supposed stages and processes in the development of the law. That speculation remains unpublished. To myself, the suggestion given in ‘Studies in Ancient History’ seems inadequate. I find it difficult to conceive that the frequent habit of stealing women should indispose men to marry the native women they had at hand. That this indisposition should grow into a positive law, and the infringement of the law be regarded as a capital offence, seems still more inconceivable. My own impression is, that exogamy may be connected with some early superstition or idea of which we have lost the touch, and which we can no longer explain.


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