Custom and Myth

Page: 90

Such is a summary of the evidence which shows that Aryans had once been totemists, therefore savages, and therefore, again, had probably been in a stage when women were scarce and each woman had many husbands.

Evidence from the Gens or yενος.—There is no more puzzling topic in the history of the ancient world than the origin and nature of the community called by the Romans the gens, and by the Greeks the yενος. To the present writer it seems that no existing community of men, neither totem kin, nor clan, nor house community, nor gotra, precisely answers to the gens or the yενος. Our information about these forms of society is slight and confused. The most essential thing to notice for the moment is the fact that both in Greece and Rome the yενος and gens were extremely ancient, so ancient that the yενος was decaying in Greece when history begins, while in Rome we can distinctly see the rapid decadence and dissolution of the gens. In the Laws of the Twelve Tables, the gens is a powerful and respected corporation. In the time of Cicero the nature of the gens is a matter but dimly understood. Tacitus begins to be confused about the gentile nomenclature. In the Empire gentile law fades away. In Greece, especially at Athens, the early political reforms transferred power from the yενος to a purely local organisation, the Deme. The Greek of historical times did not announce his yενος in his name (as the Romans always did), but gave his own name, that of his father, and that of his deme. Thus we may infer that in Greek and Roman society the yενος and gens were dying, not growing, organisations. In very early times it is probable that foreign gentes were adopted en bloc into the Roman Commonwealth. Very probably, too, a great family, on entering the Roman bond, may have assumed, by a fiction, the character and name of a gens. But that Roman society in historical times, or that Greek society, could evolve a new gens or yενος in a normal natural way, seems excessively improbable.

Keeping in mind the antique and ‘obsolescent’ character of the gens and yενος, let us examine the theories of the origin of these associations. The Romans themselves knew very little about the matter. Cicero quotes the dictum of Scævola the Pontifex, according to which the gens consisted of all persons of the same gentile name who were not in any way disqualified. {267} Thus, in America, or Australia, or Africa, all persons bearing the same totem name belong to that totem kin. Festus defines members of a gens as persons of the same stock and same family name. Varro says (in illustration of the relationships of words and cases) ‘Ab Æmilio homines orti Æmilii sunt gentiles.’ The two former definitions answer to the conception of a totem kin, which is united by its family name and belief in identity of origin. Varro adds the element, in the Roman gens, of common descent from one male ancestor. Such was the conception of the gens in historical times. It was in its way an association of kinsfolk, real or supposed. According to the Laws of the Twelve Tables the gentiles inherited the property of an intestate man without agnates, and had the custody of lunatics in the same circumstances. The gens had its own sacellum or chapel, and its own sacra or religious rites. The whole gens occasionally went into mourning when one of its members was unfortunate. It would be interesting if it could be shown that the sacra were usually examples of ancestor-worship, but the faint indications on the subject scarcely permit us to assert this.

On the whole, Sir Henry Maine strongly clings to the belief that the gens commonly had ‘a real core of agnatic consanguinity from the very first.’ But he justly recognises the principle of imitation, which induces men to copy any fashionable institution. Whatever the real origin of the gens, many gentes were probably copies based on the fiction of common ancestry.

On Sir Henry Maine’s system, then, the gens rather proves the constant existence of recognised male descents among the peoples where it exists.

The opposite theory of the gens is that to which Mr. M’Lennan inclined. ‘The composition and organisation of Greek and Roman tribes and commonwealths cannot well be explained except on the hypothesis that they resulted from the joint operation, in early times, of exogamy, and the system of kinship through females only.’ {268} ‘The gens’, he adds, ‘was composed of all the persons in the tribe bearing the same name and accounted of the same stock. Were the gentes really of different stocks, as their names would imply and as the people believed? If so, how came clans of different stocks to be united in the same tribe? . . . How came a variety of such groups, of different stocks, to coalesce in a local tribe?’ These questions, Mr. M’Lennan thought, could not be answered on the patriarchal hypothesis. His own theory, or rather his theory as understood by the present writer, may be stated thus. In the earliest times there were homogeneous groups, which became, totem kin. Let us say that, in a certain district, there were groups called woodpeckers, wolves, bears, suns, swine, each with its own little territory. These groups were exogamous, and derived the name through the mother. Thus, in course of time, when sun men married a wolf girl, and her children were wolves, there would be wolves in the territory of the suns, and thus each stock would be scattered through all the localities, just as we see in Australia and America. Let us suppose that (as certainly is occurring in Australia and America) paternal descent comes to be recognised in custom. This change will not surprise Sir Henry Maine, who admits that a system of male may alter, under stress of circumstances, to a system of female descents. In course of time, and as knowledge and common sense advance, the old superstition of descent from a woodpecker, a bear, a wolf, the sun, or what not, becomes untenable. A human name is assumed by the group which had called itself the woodpeckers or the wolves, or perhaps by a local tribe in which several of these stocks are included. Then a fictitious human ancestor is adopted, and perhaps even adored. Thus the wolves might call themselves Claudii, from their chief’s name, and, giving up belief in descent from a wolf, might look back to a fancied ancestor named Claudius. The result of these changes will be that an exogamous totem kin, with female descent, has become a gens, with male kinship, and only the faintest trace of exogamy. An example of somewhat similar processes must have occurred in the Highland clans after the introduction of Christianity, when the chief’s Christian name became the patronymic of the people who claimed kinship with him and owned his sway.

Are there any traces at all of totemism in what we know of the Roman gentes? Certainly the traces are very slight; perhaps they are only visible to the eye of the intrepid anthropologist. I give them for what they are worth, merely observing that they do tally, as far as they go, with the totemistic theory. The reader interested in the subject may consult the learned Streinnius’s ‘De Gentibus Romanis,’ p. 104 (Aldus, Venice, 1591).

Among well-known savage totems none is more familiar than the sun. Men claim descent from the sun, call themselves by his name, and wear his effigy as a badge. {270} Were there suns in Rome? The Aurelian gens is thus described on the authority of Festus Pompeius:—’The Aurelii were of Sabine descent. The Aurelii were so named from the sun (aurum, urere, the burning thing), because a place was set apart for them in which to pay adoration to the sun.’ Here, at least, is an odd coincidence. Among other gentile names, the Fabii, Cornelii, Papirii, Pinarii, Cassii, are possibly connected with plants; while wild etymology may associate Porcii, Aquilii, and Valerii with swine and eagles. Pliny (‘H. N.’ xviii. 3) gives a fantastic explanation of the vegetable names of Roman gentes. We must remember that vegetable names are very common in American, Indian, African, and Australian totem kin. Of sun names the Natchez and the Incas of Peru are familiar examples. Turning from Rome to Greece, we find the yενος less regarded and more decadent than the gens. Yet, according to Grote (iii. 54) the yενος had—(l) sacra, ‘in honour of the same god, supposed to be the primitive ancestor.’ (2) A common burial-place. (3) Certain rights of succession to property. (4) Obligations of mutual help and defence. (5) Mutual rights and obligations to intermarry in certain cases. (6) Occasionally possession of common property.

Traces of the totem among the Greek yενη are, naturally, few. Almost all the known yενη bore patronymics derived from personal names. But it is not without significance that the Attic demes often adopted the names of obsolescent yενη, and that those names were, as Mr. Grote says, often ‘derived from the plants and shrubs which grew in their neighbourhood.’ We have already seen that at least one Attic yενος, the Ioxidæ, revered the plant from which they derived their lineage. One thing is certain, the totem names, and a common explanation of the totem names in Australia, correspond with the names and Mr. Grote’s explanation of the names of the Attic demes. ‘One origin of family names,’ says Sir George Grey (ii. 228), ‘frequently ascribed by the natives, is that they were derived from some vegetable or animal being common in the district which the family inhabited.’ Some writers attempt to show that the Attic yενος was once exogamous and counted kin on the mother’s side, by quoting the custom which permitted a man to marry his half-sister, the child of his father but not of his mother. They infer that this permission is a survival from the time when a man’s father’s children were not reckoned as his kindred, and when kinship was counted through mothers. Sir Henry Maine (p. 105) prefers M. Fustel De Coulanges’ theory, that the marriage of half-brothers and sisters on the father’s side was intended to save the portion of the girl to the family estate. Proof of this may be adduced from examination of all the recorded cases of such marriages in Athens. But the reason thus suggested would have equally justified marriage between brothers and sisters on both sides, and this was reckoned incest. A well-known line in Aristophanes shows how intense was Athenian feeling about the impiety of relations with a sister uterine.

On the whole, the evidence which we have adduced tends to establish some links between the ancient yενος and gens, and the totem kindreds of savages. The indications are not strong, but they all point in one direction. Considering the high civilisation of Rome and Greece at the very dawn of history—considering the strong natural bent of these peoples toward refinement—it is almost remarkable that even the slight testimonies we have been considering should have survived.

(5.) On the evidence from myth and legend we propose to lay little stress. But, as legends were not invented by anthropologists to prove a point, it is odd that the traditions of Athens, as preserved by Varro, speak of a time when names were derived from the mother, and when promiscuity prevailed. Marriage itself was instituted by Cecrops, the serpent, just as the lizard, in Australia, is credited with this useful invention. {273a} Similar legends among non-Aryan races, Chinese and Egyptian, are very common.