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Custom and Myth

Page: 88

Thus far, the consideration of exogamy has thrown no clear light on the main question—the question whether the customs of civilised races contain relics of female kinship. On Sir Henry Maine’s theory of exogamy, that Aryan custom is unconnected with female kinship, polyandry, and scarcity of women. On Mr. M’Lennan’s theory, exogamy is the result of scarcity of women, and implies polyandry and female kinship. But neither theory has seemed satisfactory. Yet we need not despair of extracting some evidence from exogamy, and that evidence, on the whole, is in favour of Mr. M’Lennan’s general hypothesis. (1.) The exogamous prohibition must have first come into force when kinship was only reckoned on one side of the family. This is obvious, whether we suppose it to have arisen in a society which reckoned by male or by female kinship. In the former case, the law only prohibits marriage with persons of the father’s, in the second case with persons of the mother’s, family name, and these only it recognises as kindred. (2.) Our second point is much more important. The exogamous prohibition must first have come into force when kinship was so little understood that it could best be denoted by the family name. This would be self-evident, if we could suppose the prohibition to be intended to prevent marriages of relations. Had the authors of the prohibition been acquainted with the nature of near kinships, they would simply (as we do) have forbidden marriage between persons in those degrees. The very nature of the prohibition, on the other hand, shows that kinship was understood in a manner all unlike our modern system. The limit of kindred was everywhere the family name: a limit which excludes many real kinsfolk and includes many who are not kinsfolk at all. In Australia especially, and in America, India, and Africa, to a slighter extent, that definition of kindred by the family name actually includes alligators, smoke, paddy melons, rain, crayfish, sardines, and what you please. {259} Will anyone assert, then, that people among whom the exogamous prohibition arose were organised on the system of the patriarchal family, which permits the nature of kinship to be readily understood at a glance? Is it not plain that the exogamous prohibition (confessedly Aryan) must have arisen in a stage of culture when ideas of kindred were confused, included kinship with animals and plants, and were to us almost, if not quite, unintelligible? It is even possible, as Mr. M’Lennan says, {260} ‘that the prejudice against marrying women of the same group may have been established before the facts of blood relationship had made any deep impression on the human mind.’ How the exogamous prohibition tends to confirm this view will next be set forth in our consideration of Totemism.

The Evidence from Totemism.—Totemism is the name for the custom by which a stock (scattered through many local tribes) claims descent from and kindred with some plant, animal, or other natural object. This object, of which the effigy is sometimes worn as a badge or crest, members of the stock refuse to eat. As a general rule, marriage is prohibited between members of the stock—between all, that is, who claim descent from the same object and wear the same badge. The exogamous limit, therefore, is denoted by the stock-name and crest, and kinship is kinship in the wolf, bear, potato, or whatever other object is recognised as the original ancestor. Finally, as a general rule, the stock-name is derived through the mother, and where it is derived through the father there are proofs that the custom is comparatively modern. It will be acknowledged that this sort of kindred, which is traced to a beast, bird, or tree, which is recognised in every person bearing the same stock-name, which is counted through females, and which governs marriage customs, is not the sort of kindred which would naturally arise among people regulated on the patriarchal or monandrous family system. Totemism, however, is a widespread institution prevailing all over the north of the American continent, also in Peru (according to Garcilasso de la Vega); in Guiana (the negroes have brought it from the African Gold Coast, where it is in full force, as it also is among the Bechuanas); in India among Hos, Garos, Kassos, and Oraons; in the South Sea Islands, where it has left strong traces in Mangaia; in Siberia, and especially in the great island continent of Australia. The Semitic evidences for totemism (animal-worship, exogamy, descent claimed through females) are given by Professor Robertson Smith, in the ‘Journal of Philology,’ ix. 17, ‘Animal Worship and Animal Tribes among the Arabs, and in the Old Testament.’ Many other examples of totemism might be adduced (especially from Egypt), but we must restrict ourselves to the following questions:—

(1.) What light is thrown on the original form of the family by totemism? (2.) Where we find survivals of totemism among civilised races, may we conclude that these races (through scarcity of women) had once been organised on other than the patriarchal model?

As to the first question, we must remember that the origin and determining causes of totemism are still unknown. Mr. M’Lennan’s theory of the origin of totemism has never been published. It may be said without indiscretion that Mr. M’Lennan thought totemism arose at a period when ideas of kinship scarcely existed at all. ‘Men only thought of marking one off from another,’ as Garcilasso de la Vega says: the totem was but a badge worn by all the persons who found themselves existing in close relations; perhaps in the same cave or set of caves. People united by contiguity, and by the blind sentiment of kinship not yet brought into explicit consciousness, might mark themselves by a badge, and might thence derive a name, and, later, might invent a myth of their descent from the object which the badge represented. I do not know whether it has been observed that the totems are, as a rule, objects which may be easily drawn or tattooed, and still more easily indicated in gesture-language. Some interesting facts will be found in the ‘First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology,’ p. 458 (Washington, 1881). Here we read how the ‘Crow’ tribe is indicated in sign-language by ‘the hands held out on each side, striking the air in the manner of flying.’ The Bunaks (another bird tribe) are indicated by an imitation of the cry of the bird. In mentioning the Snakes, the hand imitates the crawling motion of the serpent, and the fingers pointed up behind the ear denote the Wolves. Plainly names of the totem sort are well suited to the convenience of savages, who converse much in gesture-language. Above all, the very nature of totemism shows that it took its present shape at a time when men, animals, and plants were conceived of as physically akin; when names were handed on through the female line; when exogamy was the rule of marriage, and when the family theoretically included all persons bearing the same family name, that is, all who claimed kindred with the same plant, animal, or object, whether the persons are really akin or not. These ideas and customs are not the ideas natural to men organised in the patriarchal family.


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