Shame and cult secrecy
There is an event recounted in the book Naven (1936) by Gregory Bateson, on the Iatmul fisher-foragers of New Guinea, that I have not been able to get out of my head since I first read it a few years back.
Some fifty years prior to Bateson’s writing, the village of Palimbai was celebrating the wagan, an important ceremonial event where secret gongs—conveying the voices of the wagan spirits—are beaten for an extended period in the upper story of the men’s ceremonial house. During this time, public conduct in the village is strictly regulated. There is supposed to be no loud noises—no shouting, fighting, or breaking of firewood—and this is enforced with the explicit threat of killing any man or woman who disturbs the peace. Usually, such extreme measures are not considered necessary.
In this particular case, the ceremony had preceded without incident, up until it was time to prepare for the final public event. The initiatory group that was to produce the performance went to get the croton (Codiaeum) leaves which are used to adorn the giant representations of wagan (Figure 1).
The men followed tradition by sneaking out, so women do not learn the secrets of the production. The leaves were gathered and placed into string bags, and the men were on their way back to the village. Some children were playing near the mouth of the waterway that leads to the village, shooting stalks of elephant grass with toy-spear throwers. One of these projectiles managed to land in the men’s canoe and pierce the bag where the leaves had been placed. The men ran out, speared, and killed the small boy who had thrown the shot.
When they got back to the village, there was a fight, and three or four men of the Wainggwonda clan, who were all considered classificatory “fathers” to the boy, were killed.
At this point, the men of the Tshimail clan, who had been the primary participants in the killing, went to ceremonial house and pulled down all the wagan gongs. They showed the secret gongs to the women of Wainggwonda, and gave them the sacred gong sticks to keep in their houses. Notably, the men also did not add tassels to their lime sticks after these killings, as was normally done as a badge of homicide.
Here we have some themes I have touched on in previous posts on cult secrecy and the sounds of spirits. The men were following the norms of their cultural context in maintaining this tradition of secrecy and using violence to protect and enforce it. After their traditions compelled them to engage in behavior that appears to have offended their sense of honor, the penitent display to the women of the secret gongs and the bestowal of the gong sticks reflected the burden the men understood these objects to have imposed on them.
It is the logic of secrecy—a truth is withheld for a reason, and men may have good cause to fear its revelation. Shame leads men to protect their secrets, and shame leads men to reveal them.
Among the Chambri of New Guinea, a water-drum was used to convey the voice of the crocodile spirit. Margaret Mead says that when she asked Chambri women during a ceremony if they knew what makes the sounds, the women said, “Of course, it is a water-drum, but we don't say we know for fear the men would be ashamed.” And similarly, when she asked the young men if the women knew their secrets, they said, “Yes, they know them, but they are good and pretend not to, for fear we become ashamed. Also—we might become so ashamed that we would beat them.”
Decades of missionary and colonial activity led to the decline of tambaran men’s cult of the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. In 1984 several of the men rose during a church service and revealed the secrets of the cult to the women: “With newfound Christian enlightenment, they realized that the names which they had known this spirit—Nggwal, Holof, Waf, and, in Melanesian Pidgin, tambaran and kastam—referred in fact to only being: Satan,” writes anthropologist Donald Tuzin.
This previous system, the tambaran, required the men to deceive their wives and children, and enact violent dysphoric rites on the young men being initiated, including beatings and penile bleeding: “in discussing these matters with Arapesh informants I was often struck by the negative valuation that they themselves placed on certain of their ritual customs: the act was “cruel,” though the intention frequently was “not,”” Tuzin writes. Although this negative valuation they placed on their customs may to a significant degree reflect the rising influence of colonial and missionary activity at the time.
Yet the decline of the cult and the rise of Christianity led to new problems. While the women took well to Christianity, much of the male bonding and social teaching that occurred within the cult was gone, and without the outlet for camaraderie and ritual meaning many men apparently lost interest in public life. Tuzin reports a rise of alcoholism and wife-beatings with the death of Nggwal, as the social positions of the men became more unstable.
Evolutionary social scientists often love to focus on practical functions and motivations for human behaviors. You’ve got the “culture is smarter than we are,” emphasis of the cultural evolutionists, the fitness maximization logic of the behavioral ecologists, and the functional modularity focus of the evolutionary psychologists.
All of those models are useful, but they have limits. Cultural conventions are not optimal and can be quite suboptimal, people may follow them to the detriment of themselves and others, and the psychological mechanisms most relevant for understanding them are often those emphasizing the paramount importance of social learning and our norm psychology.
Much of our cultural constructions are genuinely mysterious and probably always will be. It is tempting and often valuable to reduce particular behaviors and institutions down to some very basic elements: this is what lets you make predictions and guide future investigation. But recourse to particular narrow functions or motivations will never capture much of what makes human behavior so curious.
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