Ongoing series on male cults
Should any man, Halimink warned me gravely, confide to a woman or an uninitiated lad anything of what went on in the Hain [men’s lodge], both he and the person to whom he had spoken would be killed—E. Lucas Bridges, The Uttermost Part of the Earth, 1948.
For the last five years or so I have been doing research on male cult secrecy in small-scale societies. This work did not begin with any particular interest in or knowledge of the topic, but simply reading ethnographies of various societies and coming across certain persistent patterns which I did not understand. It has now grown into a broader interest, and I have covered quite a bit on the topic over the years, which I will give a short overview of here.
My first post on the topic, On secret cults and male dominance, provides some background and focuses on a few functional dimensions of male cults, mostly in terms of male reproductive competition and preparation for warfare. The piece is a bit broad, and probably overly focused on selective functional elements, as I was not aware of just how widespread and diverse male cults were when I wrote it.
The next post, Why headhunting men’s cults develop in lowland riverine rainforest areas, discusses the role socioecological context plays in the development and persistence of certain kinds of warrior cults. Environmental context helps incentivize or constrain particular cultural practices, and this is a too easily and commonly neglected dimension.
I followed that up with Notes on Nggwal, a piece exploring some facets of the tambaran men’s cult of the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. The piece was my first to touch on the topic of homicide costumes, which I also delved into in The Assassin’s Footprint, Leopard Society and the Man-Leopard Murders, and Notes on the use of Homicide Costumes. See also my paper Disguises and the Origins of Clothing published in Human Nature.
I touched on some of the artistic and musical elements involved in Sexual Selection Through Mate Choice Does Not Explain the Evolution of Art and Music, The Bullroarer, and Some Uses of Musical Instruments in Hunter-Gatherer Societies.
I discussed some of the initiation aspects in The Creation of Men and Women in Hunter-Gatherer Societies, the evolutionary dimensions in my Quillette article A Girl’s Place in the World, and deception and male control of desirable occupations and resources in Sacred Metal and Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and the 'Loving Deception' of the Mountain Arapesh.
I considered women’s own ritual practices in Women’s secrets, while my most recent post, Shame and cult secrecy, gets into the role of the emotion of shame in both the maintenance and destruction of male secrecy.
This is an ongoing project, and I plan to update this page as I continue to work on it.
Traditions of Conflict is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.