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The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/Some Notes on the Primitive Horde



McLennan has introduced the term "Primitive Horde" into science. It has the right of citizenship therein, as a word which means the social organization of the human tribe in the remotest time, when our ancestors were living in the very low stage of culture. The term exists, but nothing moro is added to it. Only the biologists tried to throw a light upon this question, when studying the animal societies. Among the folk-lorists, I know but one note on the Primitive Horde, that of Mr. Gomme in the Journal of Anthr. Institute of Great Britain. Notwithstanding, I believe, the question can be explained and resolved only by the folk-lorist on the basis of ethnographical data. By the help of the statistical method, inaugurated by Mr. Tylor in his essay upon the primitive family, I have compared many rites of the most savage tribes. I am endeavoring to give here some conclusions, to which I am conducted by my studies.

Among the islanders of the Pacific and in other neighboring countries, we find this peculiar custom, that the sexes live in the utmost separation, and the men possess a special organization of club-houses. "Idolatry" so narrates W. Ellis[1] "had exerted all its withering and deadly infiuence, not only over every moment of their earthly existence, but every department of life, destroying, by its debasing and unsocial dictates, every tender feeling and all the enjoyments of domestic intercourse. The father and the mother, with their children, never, as one social happy band, surrounded the domestic hearth, or, assembling under the grateful shade of the verdant grove, partook together, as a family, of the bounties of Providence. . . . The institutes of Oro and Tane inexorably required not only that the wife should not eat those kinds of food of which the husband partook, but that she should not eat in the same place and prepare her food at the same fire. This restriction applied not only to the wife with regard to her husband, but to all the individuals of the female sex from their birth to the day of their death. In sickness or pain, or whatever other circumstances the mother, the wife, the sister or the daughter might be brought into, it was never relaxed. . . . The fires at which the men's food was cooked were also sacred, and were forbidden to be used by the females. The baskets in which their provision was kept, and the house in which the men ate, were also sacred and prohibited to the females under a cruel penalty." Yet another example: "At S. Cruz (Melanesia) the separation of the sexes in daily life is carried far, the men and the women never work together promiscuously or assemble in one group. ... In Nutilile the separation is complete, men and women are never out together "[2] Even the mother is separated from her son, the sisters from their brothers. In the N. Hebrides, " the boy puts on his malo dress, when his parents think him big enough. Before this he had lived at home, but now he eats and sleeps in the gamali club-house, and now begins his strange and strict reserve of intercourse with his sisters and mother. He must not use as a common noun the word which is the name or makes part of the name of his sisters. . . . He may go to his father's house to ask for food, but if his sister is within, he has to go away before he eats. If by chance brother and sister meet in the path she runs away or hides. . . . The reserve between son and mother increases as the boy grows up. If they talk together she sits at a little distance and turns away, for she is shy of her grown-up son."[3] These examples are sufficient to illustrate the separation of the sexes in the primitive life of Polynesians. The men are organized into club-houses, where they eat, lodge, sleep, etc. We find the elements of such separation also in other countries, the only difference being in the intensity of the custom: the woman is forbidden to do men's work, to touch their weapons, to enter in their councilrooms, etc.

The pictured separation begins when the first signs of the male instincts appear in the boy. There are certain rites connected with this moment of his life and known as the ceremonies of the initiation into manhood. The initiation changes its character during the evolution of the human society. The culture is higher, the rite is less savage and bloody. In the highest stage the initiation has nothing but religious purposes: it is a covenant with the tribal god and has lost its sanguinary features. But the aspect is a very different one in the lowest degree of culture, i. e., among the Australian blacks. The ceremony of manhood is here partially a sort of school: the candidates are carefully instructed by the old men in their traditions, in the very exact laws of consanguinity. But the character of the rites which accompany the ceremony is terribly cruel. The severity passes all limits. In all parts of the continent those to be initiated endure most rough treatment. "During the celebration of the rites the youth suffered severely, and he had sympathy from none. When the youth has been led to a suitable place, his hair is cut off with sharp chips of quartzite, the head is then daubed with clay. ... To complete the picture he is immediately invested with a garment of strips of opossum skins, strings of opossum fur, and the like, which serves to cover his middle only, and his body is daubed with clay, mud, charcoal and filth of every kind. Though this ceremony is performed generally in the winter season, when the weather is very cold, the youth is not permitted to cover himself with a rug. He carries a basket under his arm, containing moist clay, charcoal powder and filth. In this state he wanders through the encampments, day and night. He gathers filth as he goes. No one speaks to him, no one molests him, all seem to fear him. When he sees anyone come out of a miam he casts filth at him, but he may not intrude himself into any miam. The women and children scream when they see him and rush to their miams for shelter."[4] But in the case of that narration, the initiation, I believe, is a little changed, under the influence of the conditions which have been created in Australia with the white man. In most cases the ceremony is more cruel, and the separation of the youth from the community is more complete. The initiated boy is from seven to eight months under strict rule, eating only certain prescribed food and secluded from social intercourse, except of the old men. The long course of alternate fasting and suffering is a very severe ordeal. It has often been observed that young men come out of it exhausted and sometimes half dead.

I have said that the purposes of the initiation change during the social evolution, but the rites are the more conservative part of the ceremony. When, in time, the character of the initiation becomes very different, the rites remain the same or vary slowly, and contradict the new aims of the ceremony. If we compare the ritual sides of the ceremony among Australians, we find therein some absurdities, i. e., rites which are without real and rational meaning, or are quite useless, or even contradict the essence of the ceremony. We have a right to look at them as survivals of the more remote stage of culture, when the initiation had other destinations and they were in consent with its purpose; intelligent, rational and useful at one time, they become to-day more or less absurd in their connection with the ceremony. These primitive features consist in the following: (1) The youth does not know the time of his initiation. Among the tribes of the Darling river a dance is arranged at sunrise, a sham fight is got up to attract the youth's attention, and then he is caught and carried off into the bush. In Central Australia the boys run away when the camp cry aloud, and wander alone in woods; while a sham-fight takes place, the old men practise most horrible customs during the whole night; the women and children are ordered off to a distance from the camp, where they remain beating a kind of wooden trough with their hands, the men replying to the noise in like manner. When the youth is captured, the women of the tribe pretend always a sorrow and set up a lamentation, resist the seizure by throwing firebrands to his captors, until they are driven to their miams and compelled to stop there. (2) The youths are very strictly separated from their tribe, i. e., from the women and uninitiated boys. No woman is permitted to see either the ceremony or the youth. So strong is this feeling against the women knowing anything of the secret rites, that one of the Kurnai head men said to Mr. Novitt: "If a woman were to see these things or hear what we tell the boys, I would kill her." I think we know in Europe more about it than any Australian woman. Everything which the initiated possess, becomes sacred from the touch of women; even the bird hit by their waddies, or the kangaroo speared by their spear, even when these instruments are used by other hands than their own, is forbidden to all females. When admitted by the old men into the community, the young man no longer lives in the same camp with his parents and sisters, but in special encampment. (3) The youth is placed in a position of actual scarcity and isolation, stays away for months seeking for them, and goes through much fasting and privations. This is yet rational from the standpoint of the aims of the initiation. But there are many absurdities. The hairs, especially those of approaching puberty, are pulled out; the stages of the ceremony are named in a corresponding manner, i. e., plucked cheek. After all the boy is submitted to certain operations; fingers are cut off, teeth spat out, the circumcision is practised. The circumcision has a severe character. Yet one absurdity more: among Dieri tribes the youth, after the terrible rite of the Australian circumcision is permitted to appear before women without wearing anything to hide his person. (4) Only old male people direct the ceremony. There are remarkable peculiarities. In the Lincoln port tribe, during the performance of the rite of circumcision, the old people grow angry against the youth, stamp, throw the dust into the air, bite their beards, swing the youth with such fury as if they intend to dash it, but in the same time they assure the boy all the while, that they mean no harm. Among the tribes of Parkunji and Burgyarlee, some old men visit the youth's camp, where they meet some younger men, who arrange themselves in a row in front of the youth; they ridicule and insult them, until the old men get into a rage and throw sand in their own faces and then throw fighting sticks or boomerangs at the young men. The old men then rush forward at the young men, who seize and throw them on the ground, after which the old men retire to the camp, but return later and dance with the youth and his companions, repeating their friendly visits until the end of the ceremony.

Such are the facts. The conclusions are evident. Why these lamentations of the other sex, these secrets and mysteries? The ceremony of the initiation into manhood would have its actual meaning and would reach its aims without all those doings. Let us go further. Are these sham fights — now in a contradiction with the purposes of the ceremony — between the old people and the youth—not a survival of the real ones? Are these circumcisions, scars, cutting off fingers and other bloody customs not a survival of more serious wounds? The body of data I have collected and compared compels to answer positively. Yes, there, in some remote and obscure past, there was a stage in the evolution of the human society, when old men tolerated only little ones of their own sex in the horde. As the children were grown up and the sign of puberty appeared together with the male instincts, old people persecuted their future rivals and expelled them. Some tribal signs, now in use among the lower tribes, are probably of such an origin, and exist in the present as survivals of a half-animal past, i. e., the circumcision. The last operation possess very bloody forms in many cases; it is connected with loss of one testiculum in South Africa; the terrible rite in Central Australia is a horrible custom, the warriors who are present shed tears, and some authors (Mikhicho-Maclag) affirm that those subjected to it are probably often incapable of begetting children. We find the like spectacle and the same expulsion of the youth, as we contemplate the life of social mammalia. In the herds of guanacos, the mules persecute all young rivals and expel them out of the herd, when they begin to approach females. Such was the practice also in the primitive human horde. The rites of the initiation arose in later time, as a compromise between fighting males of different ages; male camps and club-houses appeared as an institution which permitted the youth to live in the community, but regulates their intercourse with the other sex in a manner more agreeable to the old people.

In my notes I have given only the general account of my studies on some absurd rites of the to-day savages. But there are other features connected with the seclusion of the youth. Young females of guanacos follow the expelled young males. The like custom must have existed partially in the life of the primitive mankind. The survivals of such a stage are in great enough quantities. Among Narrinyeri tribes the initiated youth is allowed the abominable privilege of promiscuous intercourse with the younger portion of the other sex that visit the camp of the young men. The armenegols of Pelew Islanders had arisen from the same custom. Further we can demonstrate, that monotheism, at its beginning, was the property of the males, no woman knowing anything about it. In the like way I hope to be in possibility of explaining many other features of the savage society and of throwing a light on some institutions, i. e., on the totemism. But, not wishing to go beyond the limits of my essay, I put these questions aside.

  1. W Ellis: Polynesian Researches, Lond. 1830.
  2. Codrington Melanesians, 233.
  3. Codrington, l. c.
  4. Brough Smyth, Aborigines of Victoria, I. 60.