Religion – a Marxist Analysis
HUNTING AND PASTORAL SOCIETIES
There is only one species of human being living on earth today, that is “homo sapiens sapiens” . There are no sub-species, offshoots, throwbacks, varieties – just one species. This species has probably existed for more than 100,000 years, the earliest archaeological evidence of “homo sapiens sapiens is dated at around 105,000 years ago. A previous species “homo sapiens neanderthaliensis” is known to have existed at least 250,000 years ago. However, the two species – according to present knowledge – shared the world until about 40,000 years ago. Since this time, it seems that our species has been the only species of human being.
However, the two species had this in common, they both lived in societies. The history of the human race is therefore the history of human society. The idea of the individual human or pair of humans living without society is a fanciful notion put forward by some who think that it is possible to understand human beings in terms of the individual and not in terms of a human system – that is a society. There is nothing new in this “Robinson Crusoe approach, it began with Adam and Eve. It is an indication though of how our society thinks – in terms of the private individual who decides to get educated, decides to get married, decides to have children, decides to believe or not believe in God, decides on a career and eventually decides to drop dead. However, society, is not just a group of individuals who decided to come together to help each other like the Masonic Lodge, it is a system that all are part of, none can escape from and conditions every thought we think, every word we say, and every decision we make.
The majority of people who dominate our thinking. are themselves part of the ruling class of our society who dominate our thinking as a whole. Therefore it can be expected that their descriptions, understanding of society are prejudiced by their role in dominating our society. However, this prejudice stretches back through the 100,000 years of human history, the same prejudice, taints pre-history As it does modern history. Here is an example from “Pre-History and the Beginnings of Civilisation by Jacquetta Hawkes, p 125.
“A life of a hunter is restless, dangerous and most uncomfortable, but blessedly free from the monotonous tedium that was to come with farming and reach a climax in the well regulated factory or office. It is probably, in fact, the life preferred by most men to all other (in contrast to women) they were conditioned to it for a million years. “
We can see here modern prejudice seeping through. The hunter is an individual who somehow appreciates that his life is more exciting than “societies who existed after him – as if he had a choice – but if our men find life boring in the “climax “ of society – capitalism it must be the “hunting gene that somehow has been transmitted to men but not to women, who, by contrast, enjoy the tedium of “well regulated society.”
When the same author comes to an understanding ancient religion then her prejudice is equally obvious. Page 207.
“It seems that while the individual mind was still bound up with family, society and nature and when, moreover, women and maternity were probably still dominant in family and social structure, there was a tendency for the idea of the divine life and fertility to be expressed in the form of the Great Goddess. As intellect gained in power, greatly increasing man’s isolation, and as law and prohibitions built up conscience, then the masculine god waxed and assumed the throne in the human mind.”
This is the modern mind interpreting the past in its own image. Firstly, the individual somehow “bound up is taken as the starting point. However, the first sentence does not describe ancient society but modern society. In ancient society there was no concept of the individual, it is in our society that the individual is “bound up with family, society and nature” . However, the greatest prejudice is to imply that the human intellect can grow independently, that laws and prohibitions do not emerge from every society that has ever existed and that the indication of this growth of bourgeois “conscience” is provided by the worship of a male god in the “throne of the mind” as opposed to the consciousness, intellectually weak, lawless and licentious worship of a Great Goddess.
Taking this approach, history becomes nothing more than the development of the human intellect expressed in its laws and prohibitions and belief in the male god. Given the vast number of laws and prohibitions we have today and the general belief in a male god, human society has reached its pinnacle of achievement – although there is probably room for more laws and prohibitions.
A System within a System
To understand human beings we have to understand human society as a system existing as part of the natural world, opposed to it and in equilibrium at the same time. Every human, in every society is part of its system and we cannot pluck the individual out and say how she/he thinks and acts without seeing what part that individual plays in that particular system.
Pre-history has by convention been given certain chronological categories which while more helpful than the nineteenth century designations of “Savagery , “Barbarism etc. do not clarify the types of society that we may wish to talk about. The designations begin around 130,000 years ago to about 9,000 B.C.
This immense period of time is designated “Paleolithic or “Old Stone Age . For convenience it is split into Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic.
The next period a mere 2-3000 years is called “Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age and covers the period from 6,000 – 3,000 B.C. Then we have the Neolithic or New Stone Age. After that we have the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, etc. These terms have some limited use as they are meant to describe the tools, the instruments of production with which human society comes into contact with nature. However, these tools have a limited story to tell. They do not specify how production with these tools was organised nor perhaps – equally important the other instruments of production like sheep, pigs, horses, dogs which human society manipulated and converted to instruments of production instead of being only the results of production. To call a society a New Stone Age Society categorises it as much as describing our own as the “Nuclear Age” or the nineteenth century as the “Steam Age” instead of describing it by its way of organisation of production – Capitalism.
Although these terms have a limited use and will therefore be used, I shall use designations that are not purely chronological and describe societies in terms of their organisation of production. Some terms will be a bit lengthy but that cannot be helped.
Categories Of Societies With Conventional Equivalents And Basic Class Type
Depending more or less equally on hunting animals and gathering wild plants, etc, (Paleolithic) (Nomadic) (Communist).
Depending more on hunting – ie. usally herding animals and less on gathering.
(Paleolithic, mesolithic) (gen. nomadic) (Communist –male).
3) Advanced Hunting (horse-hunting)
Production by hunting with domesticated animal e.g. horse, as an instrument of production.
(Mesolithic, bronze, iron) (nomadic) (warrior) (male)
Basic herd animal domesticated for production but without horses e.g. sheep, goats, cattle. Some hunting and gathering to supplement.
(Mesolithic, bronze, iron) (nomadic) (Communist — male)
5) Advanced Pastoral
Variety of animals e.g. cattle, pigs, sheep, goats with the horse as an instrument of production,. some hunting and gathering and plundering.
(patriarchal) (Mesolithic, bronze, iron) (nomadic)
Generally an interim stage to (7), Mostly gathering particularly wild edible grasses (wheat and barley) Hunting as a supplement.
(Neolithic) (Communist — female)
7) Slash and Burn Agriculture
Collection of wild seed and replanting. Beginning of domestication of plants. Hunting supplement.
(Neolithic) (Communist — female) (semi nomadic)
8) Matriarchal Agriculture (Neolithic)
Formed by fusion of (4) and (7) complete agricultural economy domestic plants and animals. No hunting.
(Neolithic) (Communist — female) (Settled)
9) Slave Agriculture
A fusion of (5) and (8) producing agricultural society exploited by warrior ruling class.
(Neolithic, bronze, iron age)
Further fusions ie. (9) and (5) strengthen system.
Chronology Of Social Evolution (Approximate)
The Hunter Gatherer
Hunting and gathering is the initial form of human production – it is the first type of human society. However, it must not be assumed, therefore, that the structure of society was uniform in all places. The exact type form of society depending upon the environment, what there was to be hunted, what there was to be gathered and what raw materials were available to work upon and convert into instruments of production e.g. flint for knives, axes, tools, wood for building and making weapons and so on. Hunting and gathering did not necessarily yield equal amounts of product.
In some areas, hunting was more productive and those societies tended to evolve towards a hunting economy; in others, others game was either scarce or difficult to catch but gatherable crops were more readily available and so those particular societies evolved in that direction.
Australian Hunter Gatherers
One of the few examples of a hunting/gathering society to survive until the recent past is that of the Australian aborigines – although their form of society is now in sight of total extinction.
People are thought to have begun to settle in Australia around 30,000 years ago. They appear to have arrived in several waves over a long period. As they arrived after Australia was separated by the sea from the rest of Australasia it appears that the original inhabitants had a different form of society from that which subsequently developed. For one thing, they must have had a high degree of technical skill to build boats to negotiate the difficult passage from the Asian continent to the islands and mainland of Australia.
The aboriginal economy as it was when Australia was first colonized by the British, did not include the domestication of either animals or crops or dependence on any one form of animal or gatherable crop. Nor did it involve the use of boats.
Despite the size of Australia, and the size of its fertile and temperate areas the whole continent did not support more than 250,000 people before the settlement of Europeans. This was after 30,000 years of continuous habitation. This implies a very low level of productivity which declined even further when the
English settlers pushed the people out of the fertile areas into the desert.
The Aboriginals were simply categorised as “Savage “ and useless to the English colonists. Their primitive form of production did not even make them worthy of exploitation – they had no surplus product to be stolen from them – unlike in other British colonies – India for instance. They were either driven into the desert or murdered and then ignored; even today, the original inhabitants of Australia are treated as subhuman savages by many white Australians.
Aboriginal beliefs, customs and social structure baffled all but a few of the English settlers. Christian missionaries dismissed any idea that they had any form of social structure at all, they were merely considered to be “promiscuous and immoral”. However, people like Lewis Morgan and Frederick Engels realised that the native Australians reflected a stage in social and economic evolution and in its own way Australian society was just as complex as that of the Europeans who, at the time, considered theirs to be natural and ordered by God.
However, Engels credits an English missionary, Lorimer Fison, for discovering and understanding the social structure and system of sexual relationships practiced by the Australian people.
The tribes of South Australia practiced a two class system of sexual relationships. Every person in the tribe was classed either as a “Kroki or a “Kumite . Sexual liaison with someone of the same class was strictly forbidden but a liaison with any one of the opposite class was unrestricted. In other words a Kumite woman could have a sexual relationship with any Kroki man she pleased and vice-versa. The class of an individual depended upon the class of the mother. Class was transmitted maternally and there existed no social recognition of paternity. This did not mean that the Aboriginal people did not understand the connection between sex and conception, there is no evidence of any society who did not understand such a simple thing; but the transmission of class through the maternal line had an economic and social function.
The two class system effectively prevented sexual relationships between all relations on the maternal side – as well as many who were not relatives, but permitted free intercourse on the paternal side. Although the system allowed father/daughter relationships – as the father and daughter are of opposite classes, Fison found no instances of it actually happening.
The tribes which inhabited Queensland in the nineteenth century took the class system a stage further. Every person here was a member of one of four classes. Each generation was split into two. Its operation can be illustrated if we called the classes, for convenience, A + B and C + D. All “A s were permitted free intercourse with all “B s, but not with their own class or with the other classes. All the children arising out of relationships with A and B would be either C or D. If the mother was “A then the children would be “C , if the mother was “B then the children would be “D . The C and D s were permitted free intercourse between each other, but not with their own class or with A and B. The offspring of these unions would revert back to A and B.
The effect of this was to prevent any inter-generation intercourse at all and cut out the possibility of father/daughter or uncle/niece relationships. Cousin relations on the father ‘s side were permitted – that relationship was not recognized – but cousin relationships of the female side were prohibited. We can discount the possibility of grandparent, grandchildren relations because it would have been rare to find three generations sexually mature or capable at the same time.
These rules were strictly adhered to and the penalty for breaking them was banishment from the community – a virtual death sentence, but Fison does not record any instances of it actually happening. It was probably extremely rare.
It is interesting to see how the system worked in practice. Fison noted that most of the people tended to pair up – not always for life but for long periods. There was no formality to this pairing up provided the class rules were obeyed, it was a purely voluntary arrangement on both sides. Both the man and woman were free to go off and find another partner if they wished and free to have sex with someone else if they wished. Occasionally, one man was found to be living with several “wives” but this was not usual.
However there were enough examples of “promiscuity” for the Christian missionaries to brand the Aborigines as “immoral”. When they, themselves, were offered sleeping facilities by women they thought were other men’s wives, but they witnessed – with horror – this hospitality offered to strangers. It was a fairly frequent occurrence for Aboriginal men to wander off on their own for a while, presumably hunting or prospecting. On coming to a camp, the missionaries often witnessed another man’s “wife” offering the stranger sexual hospitality. What astonished the missionaries was that neither the “wife” nor the “husband” seemed in the least concerned or guilty about this “infidelity”.
In fact, they would have been more concerned at the stranger’s refusal.
However, there was nothing strange about this behaviour for anyone who really understood these people, the stranger had no less right to have sexual intercourse with a willing woman than the man she had paired with. She had the right to sleep with any man she pleased provided that neither transgressed the class prohibition.
We can see that this basic hunter/gatherer system is free to evolve towards a matriarchal structure, the basic fundamentals of “mother right” are there and also free to evolve towards a patriarchal one as the hunting culture is also strong. Which way would evolve depends upon the evolution of its economy. In Australia, in a period of 50,000 years it evolved hardly at all until the British came and disturbed its equilibrium from which time its evolution was towards extinction.
In terms of religion, the Aborigines were also ambivalent inclining neither toward matriarchal religion or male dominated religion but having features of both. In this way they are the same as their European forebears who lived during the Paleolithic period. They believed in both the Great Mother Goddess who created the world. In many archaeological remains, ie. the “Venus figures – statuettes of women with exaggerated sexual features but no faces – as found in Europe. Also cave painting at Cogul in Spain show a ceremony of women taking place – a group of women with a man in the middle, which appear to be similar to matriarchal rites in the next section. Also, the hunter/gatherers seem also to have the animalistic beliefs common amongst all hunting peoples. The Australians had both types of belief and so did other hunter/gatherers – in America for instance.
With hunting comes animal gods, with animal gods come blood taboos, these blood taboos apply to women also. They are universal amongst hunting and pastoral societies, the hunter/gatherer religion has the basis of this as well as matriarchal religion.
No two hunting societies are ever exactly alike for there is such an enormous variation in possible circumstances. Some hunting societies lived on the margin of bare existence, others in relative prosperity.
In Europe, it appears that hunting reached a peak of prosperity during the last glaciation – around 18,000 B.C. At this time the plains of Northern Europe were swarming with wild game.
Grasslands may have been richer sources of nutrients for large ungulate populations than they are today and the world wide fall in sea level and the emergence of continental shelves added much exploitable terrain to the habitats available to hunter/gatherers. Not only was game more numerous than at later periods, but bigger. There were larger forms of many animals. Giant varieties of sheep, goats, deer as well as mammoths. horses and cattle all flourished in Europe and around the Mediterranean during this period. This period was one of great advance and relative prosperity. Archaeology had shown that tent and temporary house building reached a sophisticated level during this period.
Domestication of Dogs
Moreover, pottery remains have been found on sites of purely hunting societies. This shows that the people had a relatively large surplus product which gave them the time to develop such skills. Also it has been shown that it was during this Upper Paleolithic/Mesolithic period that society domesticated its first animal – the dog. It is usually thought that the dog was domesticated because it was a scavenger – a camp follower. However, dog skeletons found with human ones on Mesolithic sites were large animals related to the Southern wolf. Dogs were not domesticated as individuals but as packs.
Wolf packs hunted the same animals as humans, reindeer, etc. By initially following wolf packs, the hunters could share the kill- especially since wolves wound a great many more animals than they actually bring down. It was short step from that to domesticating their own pack by bringing up young animals to follow as a hunting pack – they would do most of the hard work for you. From an Upper Paleolithic hunting scene in Cueva de Los Cabollos, the hunters seem to be following a similar method. They are shown loosing off arrows at any reindeer they can see and most of the animals shown have arrows sticking in them. The hunters would then follow the crippled animals until they could be brought down.
A variety of new weapons were also developed, the bow and arrow – which never reached the Australians, spear throwers, specialised fish spears, fish nets, specialised arrows for bringing down birds, barbed harpoons, fish hooks, heavy axes and adzes – for woodwork and significantly – in the Mesopotamia – reaping knives. Carvings and artifacts of this time show a high degree of skill and beauty.
Hunting And Pastoral Religion
As might be expected the religion associated with hunting societies and partial hunting societies has much to do with animals. It must be remembered that societies that depend 100% on hunting were few – although there are some examples.
To understand the hunters attitude in religious terms we have to understand their comprehension of their world -in other words, try to see things through their eyes. The hunting society existed and functioned as a society – not as a group of individuals, they drew no distinction between themselves as individuals and themselves as a society. The animals around them, both their prey and their wild competitors existed in their perception in the same way. Animals, as far as they were concerned, lived in societies like human beings, the hunters did not distinguish between one animal and the species in general.
The ancestral spirit that guided their behaviour and society guided the animals as well. The animals to the hunters, therefore, were the equals of human beings in every way, in intelligence, organisation, and most hunting societies believed that humans and animals were closely related. Some animals were regarded as superior to humans, particularly competitors, those that hunted but could not be hunted by people.
Example (1) Acagchemen – California
This American people this is an example of a pre-horse hunting society with a very low level of surplus production. Their staple diet was buzzard but they also gathered wild millet.
Their chief deity was a god called Chinigchinich who was not a buzzard but a prairie wolf – the coyote. The buzzard was also sacred and once a year a festival in honour of the buzzard was held.
According to their legend, a woman of their tribe ran away to the mountains where Chinigchinich turned her into a buzzard. They believed that although the buzzard was killed the woman lived on – in other buzzards. Further to this, they believed that the more buzzards were killed – or should we say in their terms – the more of the Buzzard was killed, the more she multiplied, for they made no distinction between the individual buzzard and buzzards in general.
How do we account for the fact that the ruling god was male and a coyote? The coyote was their competitor, but also their superior. In a very primitive hunting society armed with stone and bone tipped weapons without the mobility of the horse, the coyote was a far superior hunter than the human. Given that no distinction could be made between one coyote and coyotes in general then the coyote was a superior being -a god. However, the coyote did not propagate the buzzard but merely formed it from a woman. It would be natural to assume – from the Indians point of view that the coyote had done this for his own benefit, so he could eat it, but would allow the humans a share. It had to be a female so that it could continue to propagate despite its frequent death. For the Indians there was only one buzzard and that was female, so she could continue to reproduce herself., For that reason the Indians held the coyote and the buzzard to be sacred.
Example (2) Egypt
In “Ancient Matriarchy” I show that Egypt was an important area of the matriarchal religion of Isis and Osiris. However, Egypt was made up in ancient times of a large variety of societies. From Thebes, the religion of Amon, the sacred ram, was introduced into Egypt. Once a year a ram was killed and an image of Amon clothed in the ram’s skin. In other areas, such as Mendes, the Amon took the form of a goat rather than a ram. The origin of Amon is no doubt similar to the Buzzard.
Further, the sacrificial ram who is himself a god in the origin of the Jewish Passover, a custom which the Bible inform us the Hebrews picked up in Egypt. The Arabian, Ramadan no doubt has the same root. Amon was introduced into Egypt after Isis and Osiris and was incorporated into the Egyptian’s ruling class’s mythology and was for a short period the chief Egyptian deity – until another group gained superiority and relegated Amon to a lower place in the hierarchy.
Example 3 The Zuni and Mogui Indians – New Mexico
Although by the end of the nineteenth century the Zunis had been taught the arts of agriculture and had become settled their recent dependence on hunting was shown in their religion. Their staple prey had been the turtle. Their chief deity was the fire-god Shu-lu-wit-si. Once a year, the priest of the god dressed up in turtle shells and led a procession out of the village to catch turtles. When they came back with basketfuls of them, they were distributed to all the households. The house’s turtle was wrapped up in blankets, as if it was a small baby, yet it was not fed or given any water. J.G. Frazer, in the “Golden Bough relates how he tried to question the Zunis about their treatment of the turtle. He asked one of the household.
“Why do you not let him go or give him some water?
“Poor younger brother! Know you not how precious it is? It die? It will not die, I tell you it cannot die.
“But it will die if you don’t feed it and give it water.
“I tell you it cannot die; it will only change houses tomorrow and go back to the home of its brothers. (Then turning to the turtle). “Ah my poor dear lost child or parent. Who knows which? My sister or brother? Maybe my own grandfather or grandmother?”
The next day with some grief and lamentation the turtle was killed and eaten, the shell was scraped and dried and made into a dance rattle.
Here we see the common hunting belief that humans and animals are one and the same. The belief is here that human beings were once turtles and will revert back after death. Also the individual is immortal because the individual lives as part of the society and while society lives the individual lives. Turtle society and human society are one and the same thing.
The Mogui – a related tribe held a similar belief. Here they divided themselves into totem clans such as the Deer Clan, the Wolf Clan, the Bear Clan. This was not done because they wanted to identify themselves with the swiftness of the deer or the ferocity of bears, but because they believed that each clan were these animals in human form. After death, they believed, each clan member would return to deer society or bear society whichever. Again they saw humans and animals as one.
Example (4) The Ainu – Japan
The Ainu were the original inhabitants of Japan and are now few in number and confined to the Islands of Hokkaido, Sukhalin and Kunil. Both in language and appearance they are unrelated to the Japanese. They are a Caucasian people and are distinguished by their exceptional body hair. Their language appears also to be unrelated to any other known language. Before the arrival of the Japanese from Korea – probably around 400-500 A.D. – they occupied much of present day Japan. Much of early Japanese history is concerned with the conquest of the Ainu. It appears that during the 9th century there was a major campaign against the Ainu after which they were confined to the three northern islands of Japan.
The Ainu live today in small villages near the sea depending on hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. Their traditional houses were pit dwellings – rather like the Upper Paleaolithic hunters, covered with reed thatch. Their clothes were exclusively made from either skin or from a fabric made from tree bark. In recent times, the Japanese have tried to encourage them to take up small scale agriculture but despite this the Ainu population is now a tiny remnant and is probably on the verge of extinction.
The main prey of the Ainu was the bear, but they also hunted eagles and foxes. The bear is a difficult and dangerous animal to hunt and the level of production must have always been very low but they had no alternative animal to base their production on. As a consequence of their low level of surplus production, their lack of other alternatives their society – like that of the Australians has evolved not at all, except in a negative sense – towards extinction. The bear was the main source of their production, salted bear meat provided their staple diet – supplemented by gathering, bearskin their clothes, and their bones made their tools and weapons. It would be no surprise therefore to find that the bear was their god.
The successful hunted bear was therefore treated with great respect and care for the god continued to live in other bears. The dead bear brought home had to be treated with proper ceremonial, otherwise it may not return in the form of another bear. The bear brought into the village – either dead or wounded was immediately offered food and drink and profuse apologies made to it for having to kill it. The skulls of hunted bears were always mounted on posts outside the houses – alongside the skulls of foxes – a lesser god.
The Bear Festival
The importance of the bear to the Ainu can be shown by their annual bear festival which took place each year at the end of winter. Households of the village took turns to stage the festival for the rest of the village. The staging of the festival required three to four years’ preparation by the particular household.
First a bear cub must be captured, preferably a suckling one. The captured bear cub was brought into the village and suckled at the breast of a woman who had milk. It was put into the hut where the children were kept, and was treated as if it were a child of the village, being suckled and weaned like the other children, played with and cared for. When the bear cub grew too big to be treated in this way, then it was put into a wooden cage, despite this it was treated with great care and affection – being well nourished on wild millet porridge and fish. The bear was also treated with great respect and reverence – the Ainu regarded him as the god.
After three years, the bear is mature enough for the festival and the householder who is staging it invites the rest of the village to this house, where they are all given a lot of millet saki to drink.
When all are assembled, the householder begins the ceremony. He starts by apologising to the god he is about to kill. He asks the bear/god to attest to the fact that it has been well treated during its stay, but now it is too big and he is obliged to kill it.
“My friends, he says to the gathering “come to the feast and we will unite in the great pleasure of sending the god away.”
The bear is then tied down with ropes and blunt arrows fired at it. This does not kill it but infuriates it. However, the bear is killed by strangling, a process in which most can play a part for its neck is enclosed in a split tree bough and all unite to push the ends together and strangle the bear. It is considered exceptionally bad luck to spill this bear’s blood at the wrong time. The carcass is then decapitated and all the men are given a drink of the blood to give them courage. However they must take care that no blood falls to the ground. The bear’s head is then set in a window and a piece of its own cooked flesh is given as an offering. The bear is then cooked and the feast shared by all making sure that all of this bear is eaten and none is left. The ceremony was witnessed by a Dr B. Schenke in the 1880’s, however, it is described also by a Japanese writer in 1652 and this is what he says.
“When they find a young bear, they bring it home and the wife suckles it. When it is grown they feed it with fish and fowl and kill it in the winter for the sake of the liver, which they esteem an antidote to poison, the worms, colic, and disorders of the stomach. It is a very bitter taste, and is good for nothing if the bear has been killed in the summer. The butchering begins in the first Japanese month For this purpose, they put the head between the two poles, which are squeezed together by 50 or 60 people – both men and women. When the bear is dead, they eat his flesh, keep the liver as medicine and sell the skin, which is black and commonly six feet long, but the longest measured 12 feet. As soon as he is skinned, the person who nourished the beast begin to bewail him, afterwards they make little cakes to regale those who helped them.
It is remarkable that two accounts, one from a visiting European, another from a Japanese, separated by nearly 250 years should be so similar. Provided that the Ainu could rely on the bear, then there was no reason to evolve either economically or socially, their slow decline was probably due to the loss to the Japanese of the better hunting areas of the country.
Although we see here all the typical aspects of hunting society and religion, the bear as a god, the lack of distinction between the individual bear and bears in general, its immortality, its equality with humans, and so on there is another extremely important lesson to be learned from the Ainu. For in this society, we see – petrified – the beginnings of domestication.
The Ainu took the first step in domestication by capturing the young bear cub and nurturing it in the village. Unfortunately, they could go no further because the bear is not able to be domesticated, it is too fierce, being a hunter itself so domestication never progressed beyond the first stage -the capturing and nurturing of the young animal – but it had to be destroyed before it was mature enough to be dangerous.
If we transfer this scene from Japan to early Europe where animals like sheep and goats were the prey – and not bears – it is possible to see how domestication began. It is also possible to see in this Ainu bear festival the beginnings of religions like Amon of Egypt and the Jewish feast of the Passover.
The Ainu, however, being stuck with the bear as their basic source of food were unable to domesticate it and evolve their society into a more productive pastoral one, which would have set their society off on a new course.
Example (5) The Gilyaks – Siberia
There were many other societies in the world similar to the Ainu, but it is worth giving another example to show despite the fact that they are in completely different parts of the world exactly how similar they are.
The Gilyaks were one of many peoples who inhabited the vast area of Siberia in the nineteenth century. Despite their remoteness at that time, L. von Shrenke, a another German traveller, witnessed the bear ceremonies of Gilyaks in Tebach.
Like the Ainu, the bear was the staple prey of Gilyak people, but the Siberian bear was a much larger and fiercer animal than the one the Ainu hunted. Like the Ainu, they tried to capture the young, but this involved a fierce struggle with the she-bear. Men were killed very commonly in this struggle, it happened often enough for the Gilyaks to accept it as nothing unusual. Men who died fighting the bear were thought to join the bear spirit.
Like the Ainu, the cub was taken home and fattened on fish, but here the whole village had to take turns to feed it. When it was mature enough it was ready for the festival – held like the Ainu – at the end of winter. However, in Tebech if more than one bear was ready they would all be used. In the feast witnessed by von Shrenke three were used.
The festival began with the bears being led in ceremony to each house in the village where it was given some food. On the eve of the feast day, the bears were led on to the frozen river. The following morning, once again the bears were led onto the frozen river – to the hole where the women drew the water.
From there the procession returned to the village where the bears were shot with arrows. The bears were then taken to a selected house to be skinned and cooked. Only the male heads of families were allowed to take part in the skinning and cooking, young men, women and children were not allowed in. The bears meat was placed in a large cooking pot and the pot filled with snow – to cook the bear in water was forbidden. When the bears were cooked, everyone else could now enter – the bears’ heads were mounted and the women tied bandages over the bears eyes to dry their “tears . The cooked meat is offered to the bears and then shared out. After the feast and all the bear meat had been eaten, the bones were put back in the cooking pot and every one left. As people filed out the door, the oldest father gave each person a light blow on the shoulder with a fir branch – a retribution on the bear’s behalf for eating it.
In the afternoon, the men carried the bear bones deep into the forest where they were buried except for the skulls which were impaled on stakes. While they were away, the women of the village held their own dance. The dance consisted of all the women doing a dance in turn with the fir tree branch while the other women accompanied her on drums.
The Gilyak’s god was, of course, the bear which they called Lord of the Mountain and they believed that if the god is properly respected he will not only keep coming but protect them from other evils.
The hunting society sees around it, not a hierarchy where man is the “lord of creation” but a world of closely related and equal species living in similar societies. In the case of the Californian natives, the coyote was seen as a superior hunter to man and therefore was elevated in the minds of hunters to god status. In other societies too, where sometimes the competing species are more fierce and dangerous to human beings, these animals are treated as equals. They are treated in the same way as competing human tribes, peace is easier than war and many tribes attempted to make non-aggression pacts with animals.
A good example was the Dyaks of Borneo and their relationship with crocodiles. The Dyaks will not hunt or kill a crocodile for fear of starting a feud with the crocodile tribe. If, however, the crocodiles start the trouble by taking a human victim, then, in return the Dyaks hunted down one crocodile in vengeance.
There was a similar practice on Madagascar, here the various tribes who lived around Lake Itasy believed the crocodiles and humans were kinsfolk and descended from the same ancestor. Annually the tribes would go to the lake and the chief would make a pact with the crocodiles – addressing them as “brothers . Basically, the chief indicated that if no humans were killed by crocodiles than no crocodiles would be killed by humans. If humans were killed then an equal number of crocodiles would be killed also. The people believed that the crocodile chiefs agreed to this and so when someone fell victim to a crocodile, the crocodiles would deliver the murderer to their vengeance.
When a crocodile had killed one of its human “kin” then the village went to the lake where the chief demanded that the crocodiles give up the murderer to them. A hook was baited and thrown in and the crocodile thus caught was believed to have been put there by its tribe and was the actual guilty crocodile. It was therefore dragged ashore, subjected to a trial, and executed. However, the dead crocodile was now treated as one of their own kinsfolk and buried in the tribal grave and tribal funeral rites.
In Bengal, the people had the same attitude towards tigers and they disapproved strongly of gratuitous tiger hunts by the British and Maharajahs, believing that the tiger tribe would blame them and seek vengeance. The Bengalis only went on a tiger hunt if one of their village had been killed by a tiger. If they succeeded in killing one then they tried to renew the pact by promising over the dead body of the tiger that they would never kill another.
Snakes And Wolves
Amongst the Seminole and Cherokee people of North America, the rattlesnake was recognised as Chief of the snake tribe. Therefore, rattlesnakes were left well alone for if one is killed then the rattlesnake will ensure that one of the murderer’s family will die of snake bite. Here again we have the lack of distinction between the individual and the general, the rattlesnake is one, killing one does not wipe him out, he exists in all rattlesnakes.
However, relations with snakes and wolves became more complex for obviously under certain circumstances it was necessary to kill a snake or a wolf. If a snake is killed then the medicine man had to make a long ceremony to appease the snake. Also, if wolves raided one of their fish-traps or food supplies, then a formal declaration of war might be made on the wolves. In this event, specially selected men, protected by strong magic from the consequences of their deeds, were sent out to hunt the wolves. It was generally regarded as preferable to keep the wolves away and avoid the necessity of hostilities.
The Choice Of Prey
The choice of a particular animal for prey is not haphazard. Generally one or two species are selected as staples with others as supplements. Hence the Ainu killed the bear as the staple but supplemented bear with foxes, fish, and eagles. The Californian natives subsisted on buzzard with buffalo as supplement. The choice of prey is determined by the greatest productivity – animals that have no productivity are generally left well alone.
The greatest productivity came if the prey animal available was a herding ruminant like sheep, goats, and cattle. Hunting these particular animals gave an opportunity for further evolution of that society – through domestication a pastoral economy can be evolved which had a much higher and reliable level of productivity than a hunting economy.
If, however, an animal like the horse was domesticated, then this animal instead of being a means of production i.e. meat, skin, bone, can be converted to an instrument of production – for riding and later, hauling. This vastly increases the efficiency of both a pastoral economy and a hunting economy and makes a combination possible – herding sheep and goats and hunting reindeer. It was among the latter forms of society that property – instruments and means of production developed first.
However, in every case where an animal was killed, the spirits of the animal societies had to be propriated or mollified. As in Siberia and Japan, bear hunters in North America would offer the dead bear food and drink and, in their case, a smoke from the peace pipe. Amongst the Nootka , the dead bear would be dressed in the chief’s war bonnet, put in the chief’s place and the best delicacies placed before it; only then could it be skinned and eaten. The Caffres of East Africa treated the elephant in a similar way as did the Bagurda treat the buffalo.
As a final example, we can take the Koryaks of North Eastern Siberia who hunted whales. They believed that whales lived in tribes and villages just like they did. When a whale was killed, it was hauled into the village and treated as if it was a visitor, a guest from a kin tribe. The Koryaks believed that given all the hospitality the whale would want to return and visit them again. Indeed they believed that every whale caught was the guest who had visited the year before.
The Blood Tabu
Here we approach an area that has been much misunderstood and will lead directly on to topics which have been even more misunderstood such as infanticide, puberty and menstruation and initiation.
A hunting society and, to an extent, a pastoral society lives by causing death. The death of animals is the life of society, so therefore life and death are inextricably interwoven. When an animal dies, it bleeds, its blood is its life, the animal’s life flows out of it in the form of blood. It was natural to suppose therefore that blood was life, in the blood rested the spirit, release the blood and the spirit of the animal emerged as the body dies. Therefore the blood was treated with care and fear and was subject to many tabus.
The successful hunters, although producing the means of life for society put themselves and the rest of the tribe in great danger from the spirit they had released and were in danger until the spirit had returned to its own tribe.
“Unclean” is a common concept amongst hunting and pastoral tribes, but it has no connection with a concept of “dirty” – unhygienic. The contamination associated with “unclean” is a spiritual one, blood makes people unclean which meant around them was a spirit, not yet departed, which was highly dangerous until it had returned home. A few examples will serve to show the rites undergone by the successful hunters.
Amongst the Inuit of the Bering Strait the successful hunters of a whale were not allowed to re-enter the village for few days during which time they had to stay with the body of the whale. At the same time, no one in the village was allowed to use a sharp instrument for fear of injuring or antagonising the whale’s spirit. After a few days of isolation, the spirit was thought to have re-entered the whale’s bladder. The Inuit held an annual festival in December where all the bladders of hunted animals caught during the year were returned to the sea and rejoined their own tribes – to return again as whales, seals, etc.
A similar practice was carried out amongst the Aleut of Alaska. Here the hunter was shut in an isolated hut where he sat and made snorting “dying whale” noises for several days. He was then allowed to emerge to return to the whale. The parts where the whale had received its wounds were cut out, and if, by chance, the whale was still alive, then the hunter returned to the hunt and waited a few more days.
Moving back to bears, in this case, the Lapps. The successful hunters were again regarded as “unclean and were shut for three days in an isolated hut. Also the sledge and reindeer used to bring back the bear’s carcass were unclean and could not be used again. After three days, the secluded men may emerge but must strip off their clothes while the women spit the red juice of alder bark into their faces. Now the men may dress and look for the bear meat and, like the Kilyaks, the women are excluded from this. After the feast there is a complicated fire dance and all except the hunt leader may rejoin their women, he must remain isolated a further two days. Moving into Africa, we find the Hottentot hunter isolated for three days after the hunt. In Borneo, the hunter has eight days isolation. Nearly every hunting society has similar restrictions and tabus on hunters.
Tabus On Warriors
The warrior and the hunter are one and the same – amongst hunting society the warrior is not a specialised soldier, the instruments of hunting are turned in this case against rival human tribes. The purpose of this is economic. A hunting society requires a certain range to support itself, encroachment onto this range will result in a drop in production, with possible catastrophic results. Even so most tribes preferred to avoid war where possible. Even if war was necessary, the aim was not to annihilate the rival but to push them away – bloodshed was generally kept to a minimum. Amongst the American Plains tribes, the killing of enemy carried no specific recognition except bringing to play, the blood tabus and rites. Recognition of courage amongst the Indians went with counting “coups – the touching of an enemy with the hand.
The killing of other humans was a more serious matter than of animals, and the warrior was generally unclean from the time that it was known that they were to set out for battle until well after he returned, particularly if he had killed. Amongst the Maoris, warriors could not touch anyone before or after battle, for a certain period. The Nootkas could not eat for a week before hunting or fighting and were unclean afterwards for several days. Amongst nearly all the American Plains tribes special eating and drinking bowls had to be used for the hunt and the warpath and were destroyed afterwards. In nearly every hunting society, there was a ban on sex before and after the hunt or the war. Warriors who had actually killed generally had to undergo an elaborate cleaning ceremony to rid them of the blood and spirit of the dead enemy. Amongst the Natchez , the warrior was forbidden sex and meat for six months and most American natives had to undergo similar rites after killing.
Most unclean of all was to kill one of your own tribe. Such an act involved the blood-feud vengeance far less than people imagine. The blood-feud tends to
be a feature of a class society which has a warrior ruling class, rather than a hunting society where the hunters are warriors solely in order to protect the tribe’s production of food. Unlike a class society where warriors exist to enforce their own class rule. In a hunting society, life is rarely taken for life inside a tribe although vengeance may be sought against a killer outside the tribe.
Most of the American Plains peoples had customs the same as or similar to that of the Omaha. The murderer was isolated from the tribe for four years. He was not allowed to eat warm food of any kind, nor to wear shoes, nor to speak, nor to take off his robe, nor to comb his hair. His tent had to be pitched about a quarter of a mile from the rest of the tribe. After four years he would be formally forgiven by the murdered person’s relatives and would be allowed to rejoin the tribe.
In conclusion, it can be seen that blood was thought to be the source of life and in blood was the spirit of the living and the dead. The way that blood was treated was extremely important. The mingling of blood in ceremonies made people related by blood and responsible for each other’s welfare. The blood of an animal was treated with reverence. It may be drank to infuse the drinker with the courageous spirit of the animal, or out of fear it may be avoided. The Jewish and Islamic custom of “koshering” meat stems from this belief. Amongst the Semites generally, the blood of an animal was considered highly dangerous and had to be buried in the dust before the animal’s body could be eaten.
FEMALE TABUS – PUBERTY, MENSTRUATION, AND CHILDBIRTH
In the 70’s the Women’s Movement was concerned about the oppression of women expressed in terms of puberty rites, menstruation tabus, slavery, veiling and barbaric practices like excism. Unfortunately, historically these practices are very much misunderstood being seen as the result and symbol of the violent oppression of women. Matriarchalists asserted that these practices were a perversion of a previous situation – a previous practice of veneration of these female occurrences, puberty, menstruation, and childbirth. This is not to say that such practices are not in themselves oppressive and as I have said brutal and barbaric, but they do have particular historical causes which initially was wrapped up in hunting and was part of the generalised blood tabus which all were subject to in these societies.
In no “Neolithic” Matriarchal Agricultural society that I have examined show any signs of any evidence of any religious significance either positive or negative attached to puberty, menstruation, virginity, or child birth. Yet these rites are still fairly widespread. What is significant is that they occur only in societies based upon hunting/gathering, hunting and pastoral economic structure. They have survived only in these societies which had a strong historical component of one of these societies.
Even in patriarchal Greece they faded, for Greece although ruled by a warrior aristocracy was built on the foundations upon the matriarchal economy and in such an economy menstruation rites are entirely unnecessary as I hope to show.
These rites, although modified have survived into Judaism and Islam but not into Christianity. Where female rites occur they always have their male counterpart in form of initiation and virility rites. In all the societies where female rites exist, male ones exist also. These male rites have also survived in Judaism – again modified – in the form of circumcision and Bar Mitzvah. These rites also did not survive into Christianity. Why did Christianity which was built upon the Jewish religion specifically reject both male and female rites?
Christianity, from a purely religious point of view was indeed based upon Judaism but it is also based upon the matriarchal religions of the Mediterranean area, and it owes as much to them. Christianity was not formulated
as a religion for pastoral people but a religion for an agricultural based slave economy.
Menstruation, puberty, virility etc. are all entirely meaningless to an agricultural economy, as the evidence will show. Islam on the other hand is likewise based upon Judaism, was a religion was formulated for a pastoral people who ultimately became a military ruling class. For this reason both female rites and male initiation still form part of the Islamic fabric. Such practices and others not specified in the Koran – excision is not mentioned in the Koran or Old Testament but probably predating it are the strongest in these countries that remained nomadic and pastoral.
Blood – as we have seen – was very important in hunting societies and this goes back to hunter/gatherer societies too. The spilling of blood was vital to life – so vital that it did not merely symbolise life but was held to the spirit itself.
The spilling of blood also meant death, death for the animal, death for those who fell hunting or fell in battle, the release of blood as well as giving life also released a vengeful and death-dealing spirit from the body – the paradoxical nature of blood.
Thus was the mystery of women, from the very place that the woman brought forth life from her body emerged also blood, the spirit of a dead being, malevolent and vengeful – all the more so since it had not been embodied. A woman’s body, therefore, held within it, both life and death. She might bring forth a child – a new life – she might bring forth blood – a bodiless spirit which could mean death. Certainly, the fear of death in a woman’s menstrual blood was strong enough to cause death in many who accidentally came into contact with it.
The Australian understanding of conception seems to enforce this idea. Many people think that primitive people have no idea of paternity; but the fact that a line is traced maternally does not mean that sex and conception are not linked.
There are economic reasons why matriarchy existed and it has nothing to do with ignorance. The Australians, far more primitive than any patriarchal society, who depended on hunting and gathering had a logical theory to explain conception.
The woman’s womb contained blood, not her own, but the blood and spirit of a new life. This blood would become the flesh and blood of a child, the man’s semen, being white in colour, would become the child’s bones. When the blood and semen were combined then the child grew. If no child grew then the spirit would be released from the mother in the form of blood and was was held to be highly dangerous until it departed. The woman passed on the class of the child for she had contributed its blood, its spirit. The mixture of substances was commonly held all through the ancient world. In India, for instance, it was held that a woman could not conceive unless she reached orgasm, as she ejaculated semen internally which mixed with the male semen. It was only when patriarchal class rule became the norm that women were seen as the vessel for the male seed.
Examples of Puberty and Menstrual Rites
For reasons that shall be explained later, in all hunting societies, the very first menstrual flow that indicates that a girl has reached puberty was held to be more dangerous and more significant than the subsequent monthly cycles. Subsequent menstruation involved a shorter and more modified version of the very first rite.
1) Australian Aboriginals
In this society, as already seen, property and class relations do not exist, hunting/gathering has the seeds of both male hunting society and matriarchal society. Therefore, despite their belief in the Great Goddess they practiced puberty or menstrual rites. The girl at puberty was isolated from men only during the period of menstrual flow itself. During this time an old woman was assigned to look after her although contact with other women were not forbidden. However, she had to stay inside a hut during the hours of daylight for if she saw the sun it was believed that her nose would become diseased. She was not allowed to eat any sea food or salty food for they thought that if she did so she would be bitten by a snake – significantly both a female and male divinity in Aborigine religion.
2) Zulus (South Africa)
During the nineteenth century these were an extensive and mainly pastoral people with developed property relations – property being cattle. Diet was supplemented by some agriculture, gathering, and occasional hunting. Hunting was still the form of male initiation but in a girl, when the first flow appeared she hid herself in the reeds for the rest of the day so as not to be seen by men. She covered her head carefully with a blanket so that the sun did not shine upon it and shrivel her up into a skeleton. After dark, she returned home and was secluded for the remainder of the period.
3) New Ireland (Papua New Guinea)
Here we see a warrior society developing and the daughters of the chiefs in particular were subjected to a severe puberty rite – very much modified in the case of the rest of the population. At the age of eight, the daughter of the chief was shut inside a small hut. Inside the hut were small, conical huts each on a raised platform – so that the girls would not touch the ground. Each daughter was kept, trapped and confined in the small hut for a period of five years. Only the old woman who was assigned to look after them were allowed to see and talk to them. When the time was up, the daughter was brought out and married off more or less immediately.
Here a similar rite to 3), above, was practiced on all girls. At the age of eight, the girl was shut into a tiny cell inside the family house, in almost total darkness. She was not allowed to leave this cell at any time for any reason. A slave woman was assigned to look after her. After seven long years, she emerged, her growth stunted and her complexion pale and waxy. When she emerged a slave man was sacrificed in her honour and her body smeared with his blood to symbolise her rebirth as a woman. This society – hunting and pastoral – had already developed property relations in cattle and slaves.
5) Chinook (North West United States)
A hunting, fishing society with no developed property/class relations. The girl at puberty was thought to be possessed with a malevolent spirit for a period of five days during which time she was hidden from view. It was believed that if she looked at the sky during this period, the weather would turn bad – if she picked berries it would rain or if she hung up her menstrual towel in a tree it would wither. After the five days she bathed in a creek which washed the spirit away and she could continue her life normally.
6) Nootka – Vancouver – Canada
A hunting, fishing society (beaver and salmon) – again no class property relations, here the girl is placed in a cage in the house, covered with mats for a few days. During this time she had to fast and not sit but squat. She could not touch her own body or hair, believed that scratches would scar and hair would fall. For a subsequent period of eight months she was forbidden to eat salmon.
7) Tsetsaut – British Columbia
A hunting tribe, here the girl at puberty was not confined or secluded but had to follow certain rules. She had to wear a hat so her exposed face would not cause rain. In her mouth she kept an animal’s tooth (to prevent her teeth from rotting) and had to avoid the sight of blood which would blind her. She lived in a hut specially built for her, although she was not secluded. Apart from these rules, she lived normally. After two years her hat was ceremonially thrown away by a man.
8) Tlingit – Alaska
This tribe lived almost exclusively by hunting and productivity was low. The puberty rite in this society was particularly severe. The girl was locked in a tiny cage with only a small air hole. Only her mother or a female slave may look after her. For a whole year she was locked up, only being allowed to drink from the wingbone of the white headed eagle. It was thought that her mere glance at a hunter would ruin his hunting for life. At the end of her confinement, her old clothes were burned and new ones made for her. She was initiated into womanhood by a slit being cut below her lower lip and a piece of shell inserted into it.
9) Koniag, Inuit
An exclusive hunting economy and a severe rite. The girl at puberty was placed in a tiny hut and was supposed to remain on her hands and feet. After six months like this, the hut was enlarged and she lay down for a further six months.
These are just a few examples of puberty rites amongst hunting and pastoral societies. Certain features can be inferred from them.
1) The more developed the relations of property or the lower the level of productivity of the society – the more severe the rite.
2) All are practiced in hunting and pastoral societies, there are no examples from agricultural societies whether matriarchal or class exploited.
3) All involve the fear of evil and its effect on the society i.e. weather, hunting.
4) All involved some kind of seclusion from contact with others – particularly men.
5) They all involve seclusion from the light. In relatively stable and prosperous societies, where property relations are undeveloped many restrictions are imposed to protect the girl from the consequences of the evil spirit escaping from her.
Apart from the sacrifice of individual men (See Next Section – Matriarchy) – in the form of a god no comparable rites were carried out in matriarchal society. There is no evidence that puberty, male or female, had any significance in matriarchal society. The reason for this has to be given, but we get a clearer answer if we put into the same context the practice of Infanticide and Geriatricide.
INFANTICIDE AND GERIATRICIDE
Nearly every school student knows that the Vikings had a practice of leaving some of their children out on the rocks to die just after birth. These were weak boys and surplus girls. This practice is regarded as proof of their barbarism. Yet nearly all hunting and pastoral societies have some provision in their culture for killing off old people or children under certain circumstances. Despite the civilised “horror” of such practices or blaming them on violent and aggressive men, such practices have an economic function, often vital and, therefore, incorporated into the ideology and social structure.
In some Polynesian societies up to two thirds of children born were killed. The Lagas, a hunting tribe in Angola, were said to have killed all their children when the tribe moved. The Mbaya of South America – the women killed all of their children except for one.
In the Ethiopian Highlands, the tribes who hunt wild sheep kill their old people by abandoning them in the mountains.
Each of these customs, there are many other examples, are regarded in these societies as perfectly normal acts and are sanctioned by their religion. It is not enough to call them “savage” or “patriarchal” for they are neither.
Each of these societies had a very low level of surplus production. The lower the level of social surplus the less able the society is to support non-productive members, – children, the sick, the elderly.
However, a constant turnover of population is absolutely essential for such societies to ensure a maximum proportion of productive members at any one time. Should the proportion become imbalanced. – too few producers, too many children and elderly then the whole society faces extinction. To maintain the proportion a constantly high birth rate and a constantly high death rate is absolutely essential. In such societies, the productive members have a priority over the others.
When the Lagas moved and went on the march, their production of necessities ceased altogether, they lived on accumulated surplus product. During this critical period it was essential that the productive members survived – so the children were killed. Once settled in their new hunting ground they could have more children but death of adults meant a great loss in productivity. The Lagas were much feared in Angola for when they did settle they raided other tribes and kidnapped children as a quick way of making up their own enforced losses.
The Significance of Puberty
The economic necessity of infanticide gives the clue to the significance of puberty in these societies. The easiest and simplest explanation for male virility initiation rites and female puberty rites is to call these societies “patriarchal” , “male-dominated” and say that men were feeding their own instinct for power and aggression and were in the business of controlling and degrading women.
Given the evidence of modern every day life – the aggressive “machismo” displayed by men and youths, the level of rape, sexual abuse, wife and baby battering and so on, then such an empirical explanation has a ready appeal.
However, such an explanation would be “biologically” determinist, that it says that this male violence exemplified in their puberty tests of courage and pain and the locking away and condemnation of women out of perverted jealousy for the creative function is in built, part of the biological structure of the human species.
Such an explanation may satisfy bourgeois apologists of male behaviour such as Desmond Morris, or radical feminist “anti classists”; but it does not satisfy the facts. Biologically determined behaviour has to be uniform throughout a whole species. If it is not – then it is not biologically determined. In fact, in many societies – as we shall see – puberty rites both female and male did not exist. There was neither an emphasis on masculinity, neither did the first or subsequent menstrual periods hold any significance. These rites were there because of economic conditioning in these particular societies.
In a hunting or pastoral society, the priority in the share out of produce – food, clothes, etc, is given to the adult population because it is they who do the producing. These societies produce a relatively low surplus product to support their non-productive members. As we have seen, in times of hardship, children may be sacrificed for the sake of the adults. Although it may offend our sensibilities, for a hunting society production takes first priority, reproduction of the species is a secondary matter and has to be fitted in at a convenient time. If the adults do not survive then the society will become extinct, if the children do not survive – then there will be time later to have more.
Puberty rites initiate children into adult society. From the time of their initiation onwards they receive the priority of adulthood and the responsibility as a productive member of the society. Male puberty rites are roughly aimed at ensuring that the boy can fulfil the role in production required in a hunting society to hunt and to protect the tribe from competition. Amongst the American plains peoples – the hunting ones – men who failed the initiation or refused it, had to take up the female side of the productive process, and could become wives of hunters.
Conversely, there were occasions when women insisted on taking male initiation rather than the female one, if they passed the test, they became warriors and were given wives. In theory, it was possible to have a female husband and a male wife. Whether this ever happened I do not know. However taking on the productive role of the opposite sex was a rarity. It proves though that male and female roles are economically not biologically determined. Female rites were also tied up with the question of menstrual blood, but the special significance of the first one, was the girl’s initiation into womanhood and the rights of an adult. In hunting society, male aggressiveness, virility, courage, strength and so on performed an economic function. Without these characteristics society would be vulnerable.
In capitalist society and all other forms of class society, these traits previously essential conditioning for the good of a hunting society as a whole, take on an oppressive character. Male aggression and female degradation which we witness and experience at any time today serve no function for the ordinary members of society as a whole. The function they do serve is part of an ideological structure which keeps the ruling class and its system controlling society. Male control of women benefits the ruling class -whichever society it is, society would function better without it .
In neolithic (matriarchal agriculture) society – a communistic system of production initiation at puberty was not necessary. Firstly, the productive power of these societies was much greater than hunting or pastoral societies. It was, therefore, better able to support none productive members. Children were given priority because they represented the productive power in the long term future – a hunting society can never plan ahead except in the short term. Also old people were venerated because experience is a productive factor in an agricultural community.
The Sun and the Moon
It is clear therefore that the religious significance of the two heavenly bodies, the sun and the moon are different for the two types of society.
The moon cycle was used in hunting and pastoral societies to measure the passage of time. The exact length of the year was not as important for hunters and pastoralists, so they tended towards a lunar cycle. So today, Islam and Judaism both use the lunar calendar – since their society stems from pastoralism. Christianity uses the solar cycle, which stems from the ancient matriarchal societies of Sumer.
However, Christianity has two parents, Judaism and the old matriarchy, so the moon features in order to make Easter coincide roughly with the Passover and the resurrection of Adonis. The Jewish religion itself has some matriarchal features and Passover does not move backwards every year. There are no matriarchal features in Islam, so their calendar is lunar based, thus Ramadan moves through the slowly through the solar year. I have never seen any specific religious connection with the female menstrual cycle and the lunar year.
Secondly, there was no particular significance attached to puberty because it had no economic significance. Children were introduced to the process of production at a very early age. At first they would be occupied in the simpler tasks, bird scaring, sowing and helping with hay making, harvests, and feeding animals. As they got older, their skills would be developed, shearing, butchering, tanning, sowing, spinning, weaving, preserving, cooking building, etc.
By the time any child in neolithic society reached physical puberty she/he had already been a productive member for many years and by that time had probably acquired a number of important skills. Therefore, the onset of puberty had no particular significance, growing up was a gradual process rather than the sudden achievement of adulthood.
Perversely, it is our modern capitalist society that has to some extent reintroduced the ideas of childhood – puberty, and adulthood in society. The technical requirements of the capitalist system means that children are banned from the productive process until a certain age, when they become producing adults.
Although the bourgeois rulers were slow to realize this, it is in the nature of capitalist production but it helps to lay greater ideological emphasis of becoming “a man” or becoming “a woman “ . Being banned from the production process also removes any rights from children, they are “owned” until they are initiated into earning their own “living” or having their “own” children. In the feudal village community the concepts of “childhood, “manliness , “virginity “ “chastity” and so on were issues for the patriarchs in the Manor House, not for the villagers themselves.
Childhood as we understand it today has a very short history. – probably a little more than 100 years, together with many other concepts like “dependency . “unemployment “ , and so on.
Where matriarchal agriculture formed a strong base of society, despite a patriarchal ruling class puberty rites declined and disappeared. Thus in Greece, even in Classical Mythology there is only the tiniest echo of female puberty rites once existing amongst the Greek invaders – in the story of Zeus and Danae and even that may be a misinterpretation. It is the strength at the base, that meant while patriarchal society ruled the Roman Empire and feudal Europe using Christianity as its ideology, puberty rites were not picked up from Jewish religion, in Europe it would have been alien and unnecessary and was, therefore, rejected.
Rinaldo Frezzato Religion – Marxist Analysis