The Golden Bough, Once Again

by Geoffrey Clarfield (October 2011)

No one who has seen the calm water of the Lake of Nemi, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. Diana herself might still be lingering by this lonely shore, haunting these woodlands wild. In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern shore of the lake stood the sacred grove of Diana Nemorensis, that is, Diana of the Woodland Glade. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. In that grove grew a certain tree round which, at any hour of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might have been seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon. He was at once a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he was watching was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. For such was the rule of the sanctuary: a candidate for the priesthood could succeed to office only by slaying the incumbent priest in single combat, and could himself retain office only until he was in turn slain by one stronger or craftier.

                              —Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1922, page 1

Yesterday I drove to the nearby mission hospital, an island of modern medicine in a sea of rural underdevelopment, in this unusually peaceful African country, in order to see if I still had malarial parasites in my blood. We drove through the surreal expanses of the mechanized farms, a donor driven, and so far successful project producing much food for an expanding population.

Everywhere we went we saw people walking in the same direction as we were driving, peasants well wrapped in Swahili style kangas and traditional pastoralists of the Nilotic cultures that over the millennia had spread from the Sudan and across the Great Lakes region, men almost naked, with just a blanket thrown around them, a spear and club in one hand and with a look that they had not been in water for days.

My housekeeper, a non literate, town-based woman in her late thirties who was also on her way to the clinic said that these traditional pastoralists have not yet adopted the habit of washing with water. She told me that they take a mixture of mud and animal fat, sometimes mixed with the urine of a cow and smear their body with the substance. Over time, it comes off and it is assumed that the person in question feels better for it.

Most of the people were on foot. The old land rovers, filled to the gills with people and produce, are going to a nearby town, beside a fresh water lake, which we could see from the road where the following day there was to be the monthly fair. This is where people from miles around, as well as traders of various sorts, set up their stalls and trade produce for manufactured goods, an ideal and logical place to find the indigenous entrepreneurs. They are slowly transforming the preindustrial African rural economy and by doing so, changing the mores of the tribes around them as more and more children are being sent to school, abandoning time honored tribal customs and joining the cash based economy.

With cash comes greater individualism and with greater individualism comes a desire for political participation, what we in the West call democracy. In Africa it is emerging, but the process is and continues to be non-linear.

On the way back from the hospital we stopped beside a house and walked down the path to a lake. It had that crater like feeling. There was a sudden and then steady descent from the road to the water, which was thick with trees, and vegetation, which surrounded the lake like an enormous green tiara of foliage. Within a few minutes it began to rain and sheer sheets of droplets moved from one side of the lake to another. There was no other noise.

This small lake with no hippos or animals should have caused me no fear or alarm. As I stared at the lake, its primeval simplicity got the better of me. I immediately thought of the enclosed lakes of the Mayas of Central America who had sacrificed people and artifacts and thrown them to the bottom of similar lakes to satisfy the cravings of ancestral spirits who drove these preindustrial tribes to acts of ritual violence. It also brought to mind the voluminous writings of what my teachers had called the “arm chair anthropologist” James Fraser whose Golden Bough was both an inspiration and foil to the founder of modern social anthropology, the Polish exile Bronislaw Malinowski.

Malinowski and his pupils called into question the factual basis of The Golden Bough, as so much of its material was drawn from missionary and explorers' accounts of the customs of non western peoples and which precipitated a revolution in field work which has since defined modern anthropology, until its recent navel gazing post modern trend.

No individual or group of scholars has ever seriously and fairly examined Malinowski and academic anthropology's dismissal of generations of fastidious traveler and missionary writers who had preceded them and who had little motivation to lie or exaggerate. Is it possible that the ethnographic world described in Frazer's sources, a world that was first seen at close quarters during the nineteenth century, at a time when the European empires had yet to conquer and pacify much of Africa and Asia, was dramatically different from the world that Malinowski and his intellectual descendants experienced since its conquest and administration by European powers and, during subsequent independence?

My housekeeper told me that until recently this was an area where only the pastoral peoples of Nilotic descent had once lived. She said that in the past, this tribe thought of all other people as enemies to be killed. She said that it was common for them to accost an unknown enemy, kill him or her, cut off parts of the body and throw the rest into this quiet, placid lake. She then explained that some cut off parts were dried and then shown to other tribesmen as trophies. She quietly added that the custom is dying out since the territory has been settled by other tribes from various parts of the surrounding countryside, as the National authorities had lifted the ban of the previous colonial regime that restricted ethnic groups from settling in the territory of other tribes.

After hearing this I thought of the essays of Jared Diamond. Diamond is a controversial Darwinian thinker whose vision of preindustrial society is somewhat different from the mainstream cultural relativism of so many anthropologists. He writes that:

…For the last ten thousand years of human history, unfettered travel was impossible…Each village or band constituted a political unity, living in a perpetually shifting state of wars, truces, alliances and trade with neighboring groups. Hence New Guinea highlanders spent their entire lives within ten miles of their birthplaces. They might occasionally enter lands bordering their village lands by stealth during a war raid, or by permission during a truce, but they had no social framework for travel beyond immediately neighbouring lands. The notion of tolerating unrelated strangers was as unthinkable as the notion of any such stranger would dare appear.

— From “The Last First Contacts” p.228 in The Third Chimpanzee-The Evolution and the Future of the Human Animal

My housekeeper also mentioned that among these traditional pastoralist known as the Barabaig, once a girl enters puberty it quickly becomes known to her family. If there is a young man who is interested in her as a potential spouse he goes to her father and asks his permission to gain her attention. It would appear that the woman has no choice in the matter. I was told that the man often sexually forces himself upon the woman in what we would call a from of licensed rape. This is a reasonable way of describing the act because her parents do not inform the woman in question that the man in question has been given permission to do so and so, she is often taken unawares. It is commonly reported that after the fact these young girls are known to complain that they feel that their parents have abandoned them. They are compensated with livestock, apparently to mollify them and in the hope that livestock being the central value of pastoral society, will cement the solidity of the marriage. These women are also circumcised without warning at the age of ten or eleven, their clitoris is trimmed by an elderly woman, so there is already a precedent of family endorsed violence against women. Such practices remind me of the theories of marriage put forward by English armchair anthropologists of the nineteenth century such as Marret and Tylor who argued that the basis of all marriage and the “ur form” of all marriage ceremonies was that of the violent pursuit of a woman.

Since WWII anthropological fieldwork in developing countries has become more and more difficult to do as the newly westernized and modernized elites of developing nations have set up bureaucratic obstacles whereby foreign researchers must get research clearance to study whoever and whatever topic they are proposing. On many occasions graduate students who have passed their exams, raised funds and are ready to roll have been refused this clearance at the last minute.

At the same time these same researchers (the ones who got their clearance and did their work) also practice a form of self-censorship. If they report practices or behaviour which offends the often public version of Victorian values (rarely followed in private) of these new elites, that is, if their picture of a society contradicts the public image of the national authority they will never be allowed back into the country. So, they give us a prettified picture of daily life overseas.

What is less understandable is the support of the Western academic institutions, especially departments of anthropology who often enter “joint research programs” with their counterparts in the newly independent, but mostly failed states of sub Saharan Africa.

The deal is very simple. All funds come from the western partners. Ideally it is then divided equally among the partners. This allows colleagues from developed countries to come to the west as research and graduate students at prestigious Western universities. More important, it gives graduate students and their professors the right to conduct long-term research in the rural areas of African countries. As time goes on and the universal standards of most newly created African institutions of social research have descended into caricatures of their mandates (the most recent example being the selling of BA diplomas from a major African University) there is greater and greater self censorship and pressure from the national authorities to direct research towards the publicly stated development needs of the country's elite and their UN advisers. This creates wild, wacky, wonderful, absurd and totally implausible development projects such as Columbia University's Jeffrey Sach's Millennium Villages project, which will have the same result as those 19th century American Utopian communities – disappointment and dissolution.

Of course researchers factor out so much of the corruption, violence, the retreat from universal standards and an almost phobic treatment of outsiders, especially researchers that is often the baggage of a ruling autocracy.

It is common for visiting researchers in developing countries to identify strongly with the people that they have come to live among. It is even easier if this experience is lived out within two related but contradictory ideologies, one stemming from Rousseau and one stemming from Marx.

That which stems from Rousseau assumes that preindustrial men (and sometimes women) are better off in their traditional societies away from the organized violence and inequality of modernity. Thus indigenous becomes morally superior. (Oddly enough there is some truth to this as we see with the widely celebrated Paleo Diet!) Once I met a colleague for dinner, a British ethnographer who spent many years among a relatively peaceful group of East African hunter-gatherers. He believes that they have a message of equality that should be shared with the rest of the world.

This man is by no means a revolutionary by any means. He is an older gentle, middle-aged English family man who bears a striking resemblance to the children's cartoon character Paddington Bear (whose only weakness is a love of marmalade sandwiches.) I met him after my first year of field work among an East African tribe that circumcises its young men a the age of sixteen, practices clitorectomy on its women the night before their marriage and honours men who have single handedly killed an enemy, the proof of it being their return to the main camp with the genitals of the deceased in their hands. Over tea in a quiet Nairobi suburb I expressed some doubt that all indigenous peoples had the same moral message to share with humankind.

The Marxists, on the other hand, still explain all failings of third world states as the result of the penetration of capitalism. Anyone who has read Freud or any of the milder dynamic psychologists will notice an unresolved conflict about sex in the choice of metaphor. In this worldview capitalism is stronger than even those who wield it. Of course its victims in the third world are twice removed morally from the pernicious effects that capitalism has and is having on the world economy. In these intellectual circles liberal democracy is merely “the handmaiden of capitalism” which is itself the “handmaiden of colonialism.” No one is really responsible, but the locus of blame is on outsiders.

This a marvelous platform from which intellectuals in colleges and universities (and particularly departments of anthropology) can come to the developing world and blame their funders. There is no accountability and they come and go according to the funding sources that support them. As African and third world countries have not quite yet given up on Marxist ideologies, there is no hint of regret or accountability in the social sciences as to their almost complete support of authoritarian socialism during the ninety sixties until the fall of the Berlin Wall, from these liberal bastions of the western democratic world.

Indeed the doctoral thesis of the head of the Khmer Rouge was produced at the Sorbonne and was followed to the letter in the killing fields of that tragic nation. There are many worthwhile studies which show the relationship between Nazi ideology and German intellectual decline in the nineteen thirties to the actions of the Holocaust, but so far as I know, there has yet to be committee of inquiry set up at the Sorbonne by former professors whose consciences should be active. I believe Foucault was silent on this one and he wrote so many, many words.

So in order to find out what is happening in those parts of the developing world where I do not have first hand sources of information I have mixed social science with historical studies and a judicious mix of investigative journalism. It is almost as if the journalist and social scientists are living in two different worlds. The journalist describes, albeit anecdotally, massive environmental destruction, populating growth, the aids pandemic, corruption and migration while the social scientists confine themselves to context less works with limited foci and which often ignore history.

One marvelous doctoral thesis by a colleague describes in great detail the contemporary pastoral economy of one nomadic tribe without mentioning that this tribe is continuously suffering losses from the raids of a more powerful tribe to its east, and which during the last thirty years has taken over thirty per cent of its territory through a combination of raids and migration.

The American research team that studied the tribe that is forcefully taking over the territory of my colleague's research study raised major funds from a European donor and conducted an in depth study of the pastoral ecology of that tribe, one of the best studies of that nature that I have yet to come across in the field of “pastoral development.” They used that data in that study to mount a major intellectual attack on the “tragedy of the commons.”

The tragedy of the commons is a theory put forward by the writer Garret Hardin. Simply put, Hardin argues that each pastoral nomad acting rationally will put as many animals on the range as he can. Since all do the same thing the range is destroyed by the collective actions of rationally acting individuals, a bit like a traffic jam in downtown New York. No one planned the jam but each commuter planned a rational route for his car to get to work.

These researchers show that traditional pastoralists have a series of customs, which limit access to the range, and they argue persuasively that the manner and style with which this tribe manages its range has kept them out of the refugee camps during the last major drought.

Since it is your and my tax dollars that ultimately supply the UN and other donors with the food that keeps these poor tribespople alive during drought, the research team has argued that this model of pastoralism could be adopted and encouraged from Dakar to Djibouti and by implication, it would solve the problem of pastoralism and drought in Africa's rangelands.

There is only one caveat or logical fallacy here and once again it is missed in the ahistorical worldview of much social science. The tribe in question went from a mere 25,000 people in 1925 to 350,0000 in1995. I imagine that despite the ongoing drought they now number more than 400.000 And, they have expanded their territory by many fold during those few decades by pushing out other tribesmen.

So just as the enlightened citizen of modern capitalism argues that the success of capitalism is temporary since their are environmental limits to growth and the ozone layer cannot support the desire of every family in China to have a car then, it could be argued that this pre industrial group is only in a temporary state of pastoral equilibrium when they are expanding their frontiers and occupying the weaker tribe's territory. Such a policy would not find favor in the eyes of donor nations if its full implications were spelled out.

It would appear then that the discipline which once and still sometimes claims to be a “natural science of society” often maintains its scientific objectivity by relegating unpleasant variables, such as history, outside the scope of its research frameworks.

Once when I was hired to train a group of indigenous ethnographers for a cultural documentation project, the day before I left for my post there was an article in the national papers that said something like, all researchers in district x are suspected spies. I saw the article, became very anxious and went to my boss. I asked him to call the appropriate authorities to explain to them that I had had clearance at the highest level of authority. Soon afterward I was under investigation by rogue elements of the local secret service who were accusing me of being a spy for the CIA without having been ordered to do so by their superiors in the capital.

If one reads the reports of journalists who have covered Africa there is a curious family resemblance between the material that they uncover and that of 19th century explorers, travelers and missionaries, the kind of sources that gave Frazer his facts and that until this day are looked upon with skepticism by many social and cultural anthropologists.

It was the great British anthropologist Arthur Edwin Evans Pritchard who wrote an article arguing that the divine kingdom of the Shilluk, a kind of ancient Egyptian style pagan kingdom of the Sudan, did not really kill and bury their king while he was alive but showing signs of infirmity. They only in essence created a discourse to that effect. Despite the fact that the most eminent American anthropologist and Africanist of the day wrote an essay demonstrating that the Shilluk probably did kill their kings, and that we should believe them when they tell us, it went against the climate of opinion.

Again let us turn to contemporary journalists' accounts to bring us back to the so-called nineteenth century errors of Frazer's sources. West Africa has had a tradition of kingship going back many centuries. Despite the facade of modern politics and parties, tribal as well as generational animosities run deep, religion and magical beliefs still provide an underpinning for what often looks to the outsider at least, the expected barbarity of totalitarian competitors. In China and the Soviet Union ideology was once taken seriously, in Africa only rarely.

The power of the preindustrial, the attitudes, beliefs and world view, so well described in the now discredited writings of Frazer are clearly seen even in those areas of West Africa which have been thought to have been most westernized. Consider the case of General ButtNaked:

It is 1982 and as day breaks in Liberia, the Krahn tribe prepares for the initiation of its high priest. Against the sound of the drumbeat, he is taken to an isolated area, led by a man in a carved black mask. The priest stands before an altar, naked. The elders bring a little girl, unclothe her and smear her body with clay. The priest slays the child.

In a ritual that spans three days, her heart and other body parts are removed and eaten. In the course of those days the priest has a vision: he meets the devil who tells him he will become a great warrior. The devil says to increase his power he must continue the rituals of child sacrifice and cannibalism.

The initiation is complete and the priest is now one of the most powerful leaders in West Africa. The priest is 11 years old. As prophesied, the boy priest grew up to become one of Liberia's most notorious warlords: General Butt Naked.  He and his boy soldiers would charge into battle naked apart from boots and machine guns. The initiation sacrifice that he carried out aged 11 was the first life he took out of the 20,000 deaths for which he now claims responsibility. His rivals dispute the number of deaths as impossible to prove.

Yet what is indisputable is that during Liberia's 14 years of civil war, the man became known as one of the most inhumane and ruthless guerrilla leaders in Africa's history…the former General Butt Naked confessed his past to Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008. His crimes included child sacrifice, cannibalism, the exploitation of child soldiers and trading blood diamonds for guns and cocaine, which he fed to boy soldiers as young as nine.

— Daily Mail, November 28, 2010 (reported by Edna Fernandes)

One is tempted to dismiss much of the violence in the third world as the result of environmental degradation, the destabilizing power of multinationals, uncontrollable population growth but, it would appear that the dynamics of divine kingship are facts that need to be reintroduced in to the discourse on violence and authority in the third world.

Likewise liberal anthropologists have argued that the incidence of cannibalism in the non-industrial world has been exaggerated in the extreme. They argue that no anthropologist has witnessed one case and that it is common for neighboring ethnic groups to stereotypically demonize each other as cannibals and head hunters. The recent experience of the Pygmies of the Congo shows that this is most definitely not the case. They have been hunted, raped, enslaved and eaten. The newspapers are full of eye witness reports.

I am reminded of an interview that I heard on the BBC some years ago when living among a group of pastoralists near the Ethiopian border. The revolutionary junta that had overthrown Emperor Hailie Selassie and a smart aleck BBC radio journalist managed to contact Bob Marley, the reggae star, for an interview. Knowing that Marley and other Rastafarians believed that Hailie Sellassie was akin to a living God in their eyes he asked the singing star if he was aware the Hailie Sellassie had been killed. Marley paused and quietly asked the journalist, “You got proof?” In some embarrassment he listed the sources of his information. Marley said,” You got proof..I want to see proof,” and the interview came to an abrupt end.

During the brutal campaign of Laurent Kabila to reunify the Congo, as the last “divine king” Mobutu Sese Sekou's rule was floundering, I spent much time on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, speaking to UN peace keepers and reading everything I could on the Internet about Zaire or as it is once again called, the Congo. One article that caught my interest was about an ethnic group who went into battle with various plumbing fixtures attached to their bodies. Warriors would go off to battle with a pipe tied to their arm or a toilet seat strapped to their back. These symbols of water were supposed to make them invisible to their enemies and or invincible. More than a century ago the Maji Maji rebels Africans against the Germans in Tanzania had similar beliefs, and as did the forces of the female prophet Alice Lakwena, who rebelled against the regime of Musseveni

Such behavior strikes the reader of modern newspapers or the Net surfer as irrational in the extreme but a good reading of Frazer's Golden Bough will help you see the inherent logic in what look likes such bizarre practices:

…we come to Africa where both the chieftainship and the kingship are fully developed: and hear the evidence for the evolution of the chief out of the magician and especially out of the rain maker, is comparatively plentiful…among the tribes of the Upper Nile the medicine men are generally the chiefs. Their authority rests above all upon their supposed power of making rain, for rain is the only thing which matters to the people in those districts, as if it does not come down at the right time it means untold hardship for the community. It is therefore small wonder that the more cunning than their fellows should arrogate to themselves the power of producing it, or that having gained such a reputation, they should trade on the credulity of their simpler neighbours…In the Dinka or Denka nation, to the north -east of the Bongo, men who are supposed to be in close communication with spirits pass for omnipotent; it is believed that they make rain, conjure away all calamities, foresee the future, exorcise evil spirits, know all that goes on even at a distance and can call down every kind of disaster on their enemies…The Banyoro also have a great respect for the dispensers of rain, whom they load with a profusion of gifts. The great dispenser, he who has absolute and uncontrollable power over the rain is the king; but he can depute his power to other persons so that the benefit may be distributed and the heavenly water laid on over the various parts of the kingdom.

— Frazer, Chapter Six, Magicians as Kings

Modern fieldwork among traditional peoples in Africa has allowed us to fine tune Frazer for it is clear that most shamans, sorcerers and conscious practitioners of witchcraft and sorcery believe that it does work. They are not charlatans but that is not the point.

For those who would smugly argue for the superiority of the “civilized European” versus the “uncivilized African” one only has to visit Auschwitz or any other Nazi concentration to see what happens when these tribal and ritual complexes are wedded to a modernity that turns its back against a Biblically inspired democratic morality.

As I stared out over the lake where the Barabaig used to sacrifice the body parts of their enemies, I realized that Frazer was and is close to the truth. Sixty years of civil war in Africa at least should have provided us with enough material to compare to some of the most obscure, gruesome and curious phenomena reported in the Golden Bough. Brave African journalists are writing about it all the time and it is covered in the local, national and regional newspapers of the sub continent.

If European Nazis could burn innocent children, based on a pseudo scientific theory no better and quite worse than sub Saharan witchcraft practices, certainly African tribesmen could murder their dying kings. And, if African intellectuals and foreign scholars of things Africans want a better future for that conflicted continent, we avoid reading the Golden Bough at our own peril.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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One Response

  1. “These researchers show that traditional pastoralists have a series of customs, which limit access to the range, and they argue persuasively that the manner and style with which this tribe manages its range has kept them out of the refugee camps during the last major drought.” – It would seem (to me) that these customs are a functional equivalent of property rights in the Western World.
    P.S. Am enjoying your articles.

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