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IV: Lust

In seeking to regularize the violence of sexual emotion, religion has been less concerned to encourage than to restrain it. The repressions involved in the incest-taboo may go back to a matri-central form of the family, when the mother’s blood, being regarded as the sole source of generation, provoked an awe that enabled her to enforce chaste relations within the home circle. In contrast marriage, being at first little more than a tolerated license, developes rites that are partly piacular, though partly making for communion between alien groups. As male ascendancy grows, the fertility cult gives way to forms of religion that reflect masculine authority.

FROM a biological point of view, the deepest mystery of life consists in its power of self-propagation in a related series of individual forms. Correspondingly we find that the most intense hopes and fears of humanity are concerned with the subject of generation, which in the conception of living as a life-and-death affair stands for the ‘and’—the pivotal point of connexion on which our feelings sway backwards and forwards between the joy of being continued and the sorrow of being left behind and cut off. Religion, then, is bound in its symbolic way to emphasize this antinomy, as also to do its best to resolve it, by lifting up the idea of birth from the physical to the spiritual plane. In so doing, however, it finds it hard to extend the same process of sublimation to the attendant notion of sex, the physical associations of which are too strong to submit readily to analogical reinterpretation. Thus a connotation of uncleanness comes to attach to the biological source of our being, and Nature and God appear to be at strife over a business which at any rate has the full approbation of our animal instincts. It follows that, in an historical survey such as we are attempting now, it is lust as something to be overcome, rather than sexual love as something to be encouraged, that will chiefly be in evidence, when the emotional attitude of religion towards the procreative act comes under review. For the anthropologist, indeed, no question arises as to whether religion is morally right or wrong in lending its support to a certain sexlessness as a condition of the serious life. His duty is simply to elicit from the facts whether it has this tendency or not; and the facts are to some extent contradictory, seeing that, if religion favours celibacy, it likewise consecrates marriage. On the whole, however, it looks as if human experience in its religious form had found it more profitable, in the sense of more conducive to the actual maintenance of life, to ration rather than to pamper the most greedy of the appetites. Certain it is at all events that here lies the crux of the problem how to humanize our animal nature—how to incarnate the spiritual by the disincarnation of the bestial.

Now a casual observer of savage life is apt to imagine it a welter of amatory confusion. Nay, responsible theorists have vied with each other in depicting a primal condition of society when marriage simply was not, and the habits of the barnyard or the rabbit-warren predominated instead. Whether termed crudely promiscuity, or cryptically hetairism, or pedantically agamy, or euphemistically communal marriage, or delicately primitive indifference, the state of affairs thus variously indicated was such as must have caused the student of early man to blush, had any power of television enabled him to look upon it. Fortunately, he has been spared the unseemly sight, and in the meantime is too busy to listen to disreputable stories about forerunners whose historical status is about on a par with that of the fairies. On the other hand, the real savage as we observe him is so far from being a votary of free love that he is rather the victim of an all-too-legal matrimony. Relentless taboos claim his life in forfeit if, however involuntarily, he violates the letter of their prescriptions. The dread name of incest attaches to the slightest breach of the regulations that forbid unions between kinsfolk, even though these are reckoned so by a convention having but a remote reference to the actual ties of blood. So universal and so profound is the horror caused by such a type of sin that the whole community deems itself polluted until an expiatory sacrifice is made by expunging the sinner. Such facts are well known to every anthropologist, though his knowledge abruptly ceases at the point at which the explanation of them begins. One school of thought is inclined to postulate a beneficent instinct against in-breeding; although this has, confessedly, been somewhat diverted from its biological aim by interference on the part of the primitive legislator. The other school, led by Freud, insists that the closest kind of in-breeding is permitted, nay recommended strongly, by nature, but that man in his wisdom or unwisdom has bound himself fast in the chains of an artificial system; the very terrorism associated with its enactments proving that their tenor is wholly against the grain. Far be it from me to spoil a good fight by proposing to arbitrate between opponents so well matched. I would merely note in passing that, in asserting that the trend of instinct is away from close interbreeding, or towards it, each party has passed beyond social anthropology into the more spacious region of biological genetics; while neither of them, so far as I know, had been at the pains to show by detailed reference to human history whether the cross-bred or the in-bred stocks—and in a relative sense such can with sufficient clearness be distinguished—have on the whole and in the long run had the better of it in the struggle for existence. While, however, the decision on these ultimate and almost transcendental questions is pending, we may at least take note of the fact that, whereas science still disputes, primitive religion has made up its mind. It might almost be said to declare, by the vigour that it puts into the enforcement of decidedly inconsistent principles, that any law pro-hibing incest is better than none at all.

Now, in the voluminous literature that exists on this subject, it is curious that all the stress should be laid on marriage as the constitutive ground of the taboo against incest—the substantive good which this mass of negative injunctions is implicitly designed to further. Indeed, it is usual to describe them comprehensively as the laws of exogamy, as if the positive precept involved was, ‘Marry out.’ But this is to view the matter from the wrong end. The true commandment is, ‘Be chaste within the home circle.’ In a sense the incest-taboo takes no interest in marriage whatsoever. So long as correct relations are observed within the kinship group, what goes on outside in the way of licit or illicit love is of no concern to the law. Thus when Lord Avebury in his picturesque way speaks of the Australian being entitled to ‘a thousand miles of wives’, he merely means, or at any rate ought to mean, that, even when he is on a journey and in the enjoyment of a certain kind of traditional hospitality, the native must rigorously avoid even a temporary liaison with a member of the group corresponding to his totem or matrimonial class. The same requirement holds good of those so-called supplementary unions characteristic of the Lake Eyre tribes, in which some authorities—though I do not agree with them—would have us recognize a survival of group-marriage. I could almost wish, however, that this theory were sound, so well would it in that case serve to illustrate my point. For there is nothing in the law of exogamy as it exists among these tribes or among any others to prohibit utter promiscuity outside what American writers are fond of describing as the incest-group. A nicer phrase, however, which at any rate will serve my present purpose, is the home circle. For nomad peoples, indeed, no home in a local sense can very well be said to exist; but there is always a social group, a more or less coherent body of messmates of both sexes, in whose midst the individual feels at home as nowhere else. Paradoxical as it may sound to us, the primitive view of intimacy is that it excludes the possibility of sexual commerce. We need hardly go out of our way, as for instance Durkheim has done, to saddle some obscure superstition about blood with the whole responsibility for a restraint so obviously bound up with the discipline of a stable and effective symbiosis. The choice lay between an ever-rampant jealousy and concord, and concord proved the more solid attraction. The exclusiveness of sexual appetite being incompatible with any constancy of sympathetic give-and-take, one of the two had to go under, and, fortunately for the future of humanity, the feeling of kin prevailed, to become the nucleus round which a whole phase of the organization of society was presently to develop.

Now it is hard for us, who for better or worse seem committed to the family, the nuclear combination of papa, mamma, and baby, to conceive the ideal home in terms of a domestic continence tempered by extraneous, casual, and almost furtive amours. Yet under mother-right in its extremer form, when the woman—one hesitates to say the wife—cleaves to her kin, while the male-element, singular or plural, must play the barely tolerated visitor, the romance of life, if it exists anywhere at all, is certainly not to be found in conjugal affection. But, because she is hardly a wife, the woman is none the less a mother. Though the word matriarchy is a bad one—only one degree less bad, in fact, than Bachofen’s beloved gynaecocracy—it conveys a modicum of truth; even if it has to be qualified by the use of a third phrase no less portentous, the avunculate—meaning the united strength of mother’s big brothers. In its executive capacity, perhaps, the kin is primarily a brotherhood. In another aspect, however, it is a motherhood, and there can be little doubt that this was the view of it taken on the whole by the earliest religion. We touch here, no doubt, on very speculative matters. Strabo’s naïve statement that all men allow woman to have been the foundress of religion is neither here nor there; for Strabo and his friends were no better informed on the question at issue than ourselves. At the same time it is likely enough that woman always had her say, and even the chief say, in regard to sexual matters. One has heard a great deal lately about the patriarch of the Cyclopean horde who in his own interest enforces a one-sided and therefore unstable continence upon his younger group-fellows. Granting that male jealousy and rivalry are basic facts which must be duly taken into account, one may still wonder why so little is made of the complementary evidence relating to the part played by the female in sexual selection. That this is not a wholly passive role is known to every biologist, even if his comparative studies do not carry him so far as anthropology. Meanwhile, to regard the human female, even in a love-affair of the so-called ‘cave-man’ type, as incapable of effective rejection, despite her physical inferiority, would be to put her below the level of her counterpart in many another animal species. Assuredly she could baffle the most importunate of her suitors by the simple threat of withdrawing the light of her countenance. Indeed one may even hazard the guess that the initiative in the skirmishes preceding the real affair lay with the lady all the time, even if nature taught her the art of masking her batteries. Instinct, in other words, bade her surround herself with mystery, and she may well have appeared half-goddess and half-devil from the earliest times to the mere man. Even regarded simply as the object of his sexual desire, she could but seem a blessing and a plague in one.

But woman has a second string to her bow. If she is mysterious as a mistress, she is doubly so as a mother. It may seem incredible that savages at the mental level of the Australian or New Guinea tribes should fail to connect conjugation and parturition as physiological cause and effect; but the evidence, after much adverse criticism, has been found to stand. So long, then, as human society remained unable to put two and two together on this subject, every birth in their eyes must have seemed a parthenogenesis or, at all events, a gynaecogenesis. From first to last the woman had all the responsibility and all the credit for the creation of new human life. Thus not merely in a titular sense but literally, the mother stood for the fountain-head of the matrilineal group. The men in their superior way might elaborate a mythology concerning the esoteric reasons why babies are born; but she was bound to get the benefit of it, seeing that it was all about her and about her only. Economically considered no doubt the male counted for a good deal; but viewed cosmically he was but as the rainbow in the waterfall—an epiphenomenon in the absence of which the movement of life could proceed just as merrily as ever.

Further, the division of labour between the sexes is strictly observed in primitive life; and religion was not slow to sanction an arrangement which perceptibly worked. One hears, it is true, mostly about the male side of the inter-sexual taboo—how a woman who interferes with masculine concerns puts a blight on them; so that on his own confession the strong man becomes as feeble and incalculable as she manifestly is herself. When our lady anthropologists have really got into touch with their savage sisters, one hopes to obtain an equally spirited description of the reverse side of the shield. On obstetrical occasions, for instance, the clumsy assistance of the male is rarely in request, unless indeed he has attained to a doctorate which confers a more or less sexless status on the man or woman that holds it. Not to labour the point further, there are functions in which one sex participates to the almost complete exclusion of the other; and correspondingly the mysteries of religion have a dual character, the excluded sex in each case proportioning its awe to its ignorance of the other’s secrets. Here, then, was the female portion of the group—the women’s camp, so to speak—in the strong position of being the sole accredited agency in charge of the all-important matter of genetics, with the male portion ready to believe that it was nothing less than a meta-genetics. One may be excused for dealing picturesquely with hypothetical beginnings that strict science cannot validate, so that the only alternative is to portray them in a kind of Platonic myth. It is sober truth enough, however, that the mother-goddess has a long history—so long, indeed, that one is inclined to rate her not only as the mother of men, but as the mother of the gods as well. I cannot refrain from mentioning how in the Island of Guernsey there stands, where I have often seen it, an even now most venerable statue-menhir, showing the full breasts of a nursing mother. It was disinterred some half-century ago from beneath the chancel of an ancient church; and many an invocation to the Virgin Mother has been sung over the resting-place where doubtful converts must have hidden it. This idol, with many like specimens of Neolithic age, is in its turn strongly reminiscent of those far more ancient female figurines in ivory or stone which in Late Palaeolithic times must almost certainly have been connected with some kind of fertility cult. Motherhood, then, was certainly a mystery in the days of old; even if it can never be certain that it first became so when, in place of the family, the unit of society was the kin, and the kin was in itself motherhood pure and simple.

To go back, then, to the question how exogamy, or rather the incest-taboo, arose, is it not possible that it was no Cyclopean sire of the type imagined by Atkinson and Freud, but some even more revered kin-mother who is to be hailed as the first to bring primal lust under the reign of law? Cherchez la femme. If the women chose, they could always tear to pieces the nascent society, the almost unorganized mother-kin, by stirring up one jealous suitor against another. When they chose to do so no longer, was it at the instance of the males, so peaceful a lot by nature, or was it because they themselves wanted peace in the home—not to speak of decency? As I conceive the Eldest of the Mothers, she was something of a witch, and, however inarticulate, carried curses in her eye. While she had the girls under her hand, she had the boys under this eye of hers, so that they would be well advised to slink off to their amourettes beyond the range of her dire disapprobation. But, however it came about, somehow within that narrow circle of intenser social life lust once for all was stayed. It had been transformed into incest, an accursed thing. Henceforth lust within the kin was as bad as murder or worse. Both were utterly abominable; for both were offences against the blood, the sacred blood, the blood of the mothers, the blood from which men are born.

In the same context a singular phenomenon must be noticed. In very low societies we occasionally hear of periods of licence when the laws of exogamy are deliberately broken. Many indeed of the so-called sexual orgies of which primitive peoples are accused will on careful inspection turn out to be hardly worse than ebullitions of the carnival spirit; but in certain cases it would seem that custom tolerates, nay, enforces in the name of religion, direct defiance of the curse of the blood. Whereas, then, the saturnalia of the more ordinary type can be explained readily enough in terms of repressed desire and its release, these radical abnormalities of savage life are at first sight harder to understand. It would seem that when they occur in Australia they are tried as a last resource in times of great trouble. It is as if the people hoped to complete the cycle and bring things round to being right again by making them still more wrong. The native theory, however, so far as one exists, is quite obscure, and at most one can make out a vague belief to the effect that a temporary reversion to the ways of the golden age will renew their prosperity. Now of course it would be quite impossible to treat this as a case of genuine folk-memory embodying some age-long tradition of the days before there was any law of incest. There being room, then, only for a psychological as contrasted with a historical interpretation, we must put an additional burden on the theory of repressions, and regard this as an indirect testimony to the strength of the effort required to hold down lust even in the bosom of the uterine family. Equally too may it be taken as a negative proof that religion was the cause of this moral revolution; for only what primitive religion has emphatically affirmed is it liable to contradict with like emphasis in the course of that violent oscillation of emotional tone to which it is subject in its cruder and more hysterical forms. For the method of religion is to stifle lust by generating another kind of lust; and, though carnal lust was effectually routed in this the first battle of a long series, the other kind of passion that won the day was not yet spiritualized enough to advance in a conscious and constant direction.

Passing on to consider the attitude of primitive religion towards marriage, we have to start from the proposition already laid down that, according to the primal law of chastity, there exists a substantive duty to observe continence within the kin-circle; whereas it is beyond its scope to formulate the alternative as a positive scheme of conduct. From such a point of view, then, marriage is at best a kind of chartered libertinism. It is a method by which two chaste kins are enabled to enter into an unchaste relation. Let it be remembered, too, that when such liaisons were at first tolerated, there was probably no idea of their physiological consequences. Thus they could hardly be more than dissipations at which custom winked, in pursuance of a general policy to allow human nature an occasional fling, while insisting on the strictest respectability at other times. Even when mother-right was beginning to give way to father-right, and that intermediate position had been reached when the woman lives with the man’s kindred, though the child in name and status still belongs to her own, there was at best a grudging acknowledgement on the part of religion that a decent and honourable tie had been contracted. Thus those tumultuous representations of a mock capture which form so frequent a feature of early marriage ceremonies may possibly be rites de passage—dramatic attempts to show that the woman is exchanging one home for another; but they bear a suspicious resemblance to a solemnly attested outrage, a sort of dramatized rape of the Sabines which implies no concession to female modesty but rather a concession to the salacity, and even sadism, of the male. For the primal law of chastity did not apply to the foreign woman; let her be visited or let her be carried off, she was still her lover’s plaything. For the rest, since the woman wanted the man less than he wanted her, and he was in any case the stronger and more ardent party, he had his way with her in the end, and she must part all-unwillingly from her own people to bear the lot of the outcast which could be little better than that of a domestic slave. Propitiated with gifts, a sort of blood-money, her kinsmen let her go, such gifts in their earliest form doubtless taking the form of similar offerings, namely the sisters of the strangers. First the animosities of rape and counter-rape; then the formalities of a cold-blooded exchange; and only as a last and most difficult step, the amenities of a friendly alliance—such may well have been the three stages of the evolution of father-right.

What, then, of the consecration of marriage by religion? Has it not always, in sympathy with its primeval tendency, been inclined to avert its face from a lustful proceeding which, however consonant with the promptings of nature, or with the conventions of civil society, nevertheless remains a perpetual scandal in the eyes of the pure; who would be celibate or at most parthenogenetic, if they could, in their relations with the life-process? If one confines one’s attention to the most primitive peoples, marriage rites of a sacramental kind are not greatly in evidence; while it not infrequently happens that cohabitation begins with hardly any ceremonial recognition of the fact on the part of the social groups concerned, however much they may have quietly led up to the affair by previous treaty. Even when one goes on to consider more advanced communities, it is to be noted how many of the rites wear a piacular appearance, as if, instead of helping to tie the knot more firmly, they would rather neutralize the shame of a licentious connexion. No doubt the object of ceremonies of this negative type may be partly to get rid of personal shyness on the part of the man and woman about to be initiated into the mysteries of sex, and it is for this reason that the anthropologist is wont to envisage marriage chiefly, after our modern fashion, as a crisis of the individual life, as indeed it truly is. But for primitive folk we may suspect that the social view of an institution ever tends to predominate. Nay, this is so even when it relates to a strictly individual affair such as birth or death, and not one which like marriage is inter-individual, that is to say, contractual. Now when two kins assist at the marriage of a pair of its members there is a great deal to be neutralized in the sheer amount of mutual suspicion and dislike that any meeting of rival groups is bound to entail. Religion, then, which is always ready to act as a civil servant, though without much display of enthusiasm for its task, must see to it that a truce is patched up; that the consentient parties do not turn the bridal into a funeral by forgetting their manners; in short, that the thing goes off as well as it can, and that, incidentally, the bridal couple are sent off to get on together as well as they can. But religion, at any rate primitive religion, has an interest of its own in the transaction which cuts deeper than any consideration for the maintenance of social convention. At the very heart of its ritual persists the ancient persuasion that bride and bridegroom are unclean. They are about to indulge in relations which tried by the standard of the primal sanctities are irregular and offensive—which may be more respectable than fornication or adultery, but are in value immeasurably below the chastity that abhors incest.

In his chapter on marriage in Psyche’s Task, Sir James Frazer, with his usual industry, has amassed examples of the ill luck associated by primitive peoples with breaches of marriage-law of every and any kind; and a careless reader might easily conclude that incest, fornication, and adultery are more or less on a par as regard the sinfulness imputed by religion to all alike. This is by no means actually the fact, however, as would have been made clearer if it had been part of the author’s plan to consider likewise the exceptions to the rule, the instances—and they are numerous—that tell exactly the other way. Thus incest, it would turn out, is the sin of sins, and is therefore tolerated only under the most exceptional conditions. Some reference to the matter has been made already; and, by way of further illustration, I would merely cite one highly significant fact taken from the chapter in question. Junod reports of the Ba-Thonga of South-East Africa that a hippopotamus hunter will sometimes commit incest with his own daughter in order to obtain power over the game. He thus reckons to become equivalent to a murderer; a perverse association of ideas assuring him that the deadliness imparted by deadly sin will be his by reason of his abominable act. On the other hand, an endless array of proofs would be forthcoming that adultery and fornication are within certain prescribed limits, as in the cases of wife-lending and pre-marital intercourse respectively, normal institutions of primitive society, as if in themselves they involved no taint, but were good or bad according to the circumstances. In any case it is mostly a matter of convention one way or the other, religion lending its support to this policy or that with a smug air of official indifference. Adultery and fornication, within certain limits laid down by the law, are wrongful acts, civil or it may be criminal, variously involving damages, the rod, or even the executioner’s knife, as current procedure requires. But in rare cases, if at all, do they excite horror. They are not held to pollute the entire community. They do not smite the people like a plague and the land like a murrain. Incest and the shedding of kinly blood together with witchcraft—these alone are the three deadly sins, as proclaimed by religion from ancient days, long before lawyers or lawyer-like priests had fussed their way into existence.

It remains to examine how far, when the physiology of generation came gradually to be understood, the vastly increased significance attaching to sexual relations made itself correspondingly felt within the religious sphere. Doubtless men always wanted their womenfolk to have plenty of children, even when it was supposed that these came more or less of themselves. Thus the Australians, proceeding on the general principle that all nature, including human nature, can be stimulated to increased fecundity by appropriate rites—rites which should mimetically explain what was wanted, rather than how the want could be supplied—devoted themselves to the metaphysics of child-production, though the physics remained entirely beyond them. One cannot help suspecting that the women, whose department had entire charge of the practical arrangements from the first signs of pregnancy onwards, may have whispered secrets to their daughters that were never passed on to the superior and more enlightened sex. Be this as it may, it is certain that in Australia father-right had been established before any implication of consanguinity attached to the idea of fatherhood in the male mind; while it is likely on the other hand that, from the establishment of father-right onwards, if not before, male influence greatly predominated over female in the shaping of religion. Sir James Frazer indeed has in oracular vein announced: ‘Men make the gods and women worship them.’ If gods are meant here to include goddesses, he must have made her not so much creatively as cringingly, by accepting motherhood as a mystery in which he could share only from without. Having assisted, however passively, in giving religion this turn from the start, he could not, even with the help of the social revolution that made him master in his own house, reverse the doctrine that, inasmuch as the blood is the life, it is woman who is the life-giver. Man’s part could only be to furnish something else, the need of which is not so crassly obvious—something immaterial and subtle, mana—the spiritual, as opposed to the physical, basis of any life worth having. At this point, then, religion was brought to a parting of the ways, and man, henceforth the predominant partner, worshipped mana, his own contribution to life, while woman was left on the down grade to worship her contribution, the cruder side of things as revealed in the experience of childbed and the nursery. Nay, were it not for the accidental association which brought child-bearing and agriculture together as alike the woman’s affair, the status of the fertility cult might have sunk even lower than it did. As it was, when plough-culture superseded hoe-culture, and for this or some other reason men began to work the fields by the side of their womenfolk, it was the latter who were authorities on questions of birth and growth as viewed from the mystic side; so that, orgiastic or not, their kind of religion had to this extent to be allowed full headway. But, as regards other most important matters, such as notably government and law, male religion kept clear of woman and woman’s religion, as if they were equally unclean. To woman the things of the body, to man the things of the soul—such was the principle involved in the division of spiritual labour henceforth approved by the male mind. The mother-goddess whose kingdom was of flesh and blood was dethroned. In her place reigned a father-god, who was fatherly hardly in a procreative sense at all, but on the other hand had all the moral attributes of the pater familias—strength, will-power, wisdom, and, most comprehensive gift of all, authority.

For the rest, male experience had discovered the value of training, and the ancient shyness of woman took on a new meaning when it was discovered that continence—the denial of the flesh—was salutarily conducive to the attainment of mana. To push such a view to its extreme was not to be expected of the layman, who by this time was fully aware of his physiological share in the raising of the family that he so much desired. The ascetic, on the other hand, who accepted complete celibacy as a necessary part of his task of acquiring spirituality in its absolute form, was doing nothing to offend the male conscience, but on the contrary seemed nearer than the rest to the realization in himself of the perfect man. As by parity of reasoning the same conception should apply to the perfect woman, a spiritual eugenics might seem in prospect that must promptly terminate the earthly career of our ill-starred race. Fortunately the common sense of mankind can distinguish between lust and love; and, without much help from religion, romantic love has fashioned a beautiful out of a purely carnal relation without unreasonably curtailing the rights of nature. Even so, however, human religion can perhaps be excused, nay justified, for the extreme line that it has preferred to take. Paradoxical as it might appear, the life-feeling must by deliberate exaggeration be intensified in the opposite direction to the all-powerful trend of the reproductive instinct, if, instead of merely living, man seriously desires to live well. Sexual passion, as Plato says, is a madness. At the animal level it recklessly flings out offspring, mostly to perish prematurely. At the human level, however, although it may have been almost as prodigal of cheap life in the earliest days, it was gradually reduced to sanity by a remedial process that as it were decentralized the madness—spread it out through the entire man, so that instead of bodily lust there could be a spiritual lustiness, a divine madness, an infinite passion to engender all things good.