Men use musical instruments to impersonate the sounds of great beasts or other powerful beings, they put on costumes and pretend to be ghosts or spirits and terrorize their community, they perform their sacred rituals and keep their secret paraphernalia in the largest and most central buildings of their settlements.
Women have secrets too—less overwrought and perhaps more effective at remaining hidden as a consequence. Anthropologist Maurice Godelier writes among the Baruya of New Guinea that, “In male power, violence combines with ruse, fraud, and secrecy, all of which are used consciously to preserve and widen the distance that separates and protects men from women, as well as ensuring their superiority.” Importantly though, he adds, “we must not forget that Baruya women have their own secrets, protecting them from men and constantly reminding them that women have powers too.”
In one of her letters from the field while she was working among the Mountain Arapesh of New Guinea, Margaret Mead described hiding in a house with a native woman as the men’s sacred carvings—which women were barred from seeing—were being carried through the village. Mead writes that the woman, “spent her time showing me an abortive drug and commenting sharply that men could not see the drug, that they could not even hear the name of it. Thus feminine self-esteem was avenged.”
While the men had their ostentatious Tambaran cult, women’s secrets remain more mysterious.
Mead’s one-time husband Reo Fortune did fieldwork among the Kamano of the New Guinea Highlands, writing in his journals of male initiation rites and men’s emphasis on supernatural punishment and secrecy. “But Fortune was aware that women had secrets too,” writes his niece and literary executor Ann Mclean, working from his unpublished notes:
“there is a little spiritualistic seance religion run by women.” He recorded the angry outburst against the uselessness of women by a man who implied that women turned the teaching about female pollution against men, and that women manipulated male fears to escape the drudgery of women's lot of gardening and cooking to spend time off in seclusion on the pretext of being, as Kamano men conceptualized it, in bad odor. This practice left the menfolk furious but impotent to do anything against it. Fortune regarded the severe postpartum and menstrual taboos, and the physical and supernatural sanction invoked for adultery, as proceeding quite logically from these male fears [emphasis added].
This sexual antagonism over menstrual beliefs is particularly important. There is a kind of competitive dynamic to this, where the sexes may strategically battle over their use as a tool of male dominance or female subversion of it. I’ll have a longer post on menstrual taboos and rituals up at some point, though I touched on some of the ritual aspects here.
In the 1930s, physician and anthropologist Neil Munro—accompanied by his wife, a trained hospital nurse—set up a health clinic in Hokkaido, offering free treatment, and studying the culture of the native Ainu hunter-gatherers. Due in part to the presence of his wife and the confidence they gained among the local people, Munro was able to learn of the women’s secret girdles, knowledge of which was conventionally forbidden to men.
Working from his notes and letters, anthropologist Brenda Seligman writes that, “Every woman inherits from her mother her type of kut [secret girdle]; men are supposed to have no knowledge of them and are never allowed to see them; even among themselves women are cautious about talking of them or exposing them. Girls are taught that they must not reveal the secret of their girdle to anyone.”
The early anthropologists and missionaries who described their contact with traditional societies were overwhelmingly male, and almost certainly failed to witness, understand, or in some cases care at all about many of the women’s more secretive or sacred practices. One Russian priest assigned to the Aleutian Islands in the early 19th century, in an otherwise relatively thorough and nuanced work, writes that, “Women had their own omens and charms for pregnancy, childbearing, etc., the details of which I do not know and, it seems to me, are not worth knowing.”
In many societies with highly coercive and secretive male cults there is also the belief that, in the distant past, women were once in charge of the powerful secrets, which men discovered and then appropriated. Anthropologist Herbert Baldus writes that,
the Indians in Tierra del Fuego narrate that in ancient times they were completely dominated by the woman, because the latter had joined together in secret leagues and performed rites thanks to which they kept the men in permanent fear. But one day the men discovered this stratagem and then did the same with the woman; and since that time the latter have been intimidated by means of practices of sorcery and dances.
The recent film The Northman obliquely touched on some aspects of this theme. In the scene where Amleth is being initiated, he is instructed to respect women, and informed that they know the mysteries of men. Proper conduct towards women is commonly taught to young novices in men’s cults, though this is often mixed with an emphasis on the supernatural dangers they are thought to pose.