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Sexual Love in the Primitive World

( Originally Published 1957 )

The examples we have considered are exceptions to the tendency of opinion regarding the occurrence of amorous experience among primitives. Finck attributes to Oliver Goldsmith (1764) the first modern expression of the view that "love is not the same everywhere and at all times." Lord Avebury asserted (1870) that "true love is almost unknown" among savages. Primitive people do exercise some degree of choice in their marriages, according to Sumner and Keller, but "it is necessary to realize both that romantic love is a comparatively modern phenomenon and also that there is a natural tendency to ascribe to all forms of savage behavior a depth and content of feeling which are really a projection from the mind of the observer." Present-day primitive peoples "exhibit a substantial unanimity in ignoring the love interest or at best in subordinating it decisively to other considerations." Else-where Sumner wrote (1906) that "love between a man and a woman is not a phenomenon of uncivilized society. . . . Realistic love stories are now hardly a century old. . . . Love in half-civilization and in antiquity was erotic only." " Another agrees that the "romantic" attachment is in general not found among primitive men: "To be sure, many travellers have mentioned cases of romantic love among primitives, at least cases where girls were known to oppose strenuously the choice of bridegrooms made by their parents, and who, if they could not obtain the object of their desires, have had recourse to suicide. But these are isolated and individual exceptions."

Briffault thinks it likely that emotional states similar to "falling in love" occasionally occur among primitives "above the lowest levels," but that these sentiments are not deep or lasting. "It is rare," according to Reichard, "to find a tribe where romantic love is appreciated." The idea that the sexual impulse has both physical and "spiritual" sides would be quite strange to primitive man, in the view of Bloch. The lower the level of civilization, the less is the idea of love known. He thinks that there is even a "notable difference" in this respect between upper and lower classes in a civilized European community, and cites the opinion that "from Eastern Friesland to the Alps amongst the common people the word love,' to us so indispensable and so exalted, is entirely unknown; in its place words expressing rather the sensual side of the impulse are employed." Havelock Ellis points out that words for "lust" are found everywhere in the world, while in many languages there is no word for "love." Linton's remark that the rarity, among most human societies, of violent emotional attachments between the sexes suggests that they are abnormalities was quoted earlier. Margaret Mead finds that "Romantic love as it occurs in our civilization, inextricably bound up with ideas of monogamy, exclusiveness, jealousy and undeviating fidelity does not occur in Samoa. . . . Even a passionate attachment to one person which lasts for a long period and persists in the face of discouragement but does not bar out other relationships, is rare among the Samoans." Of the culture of New Guinea, we are told, "There is no word for love in the language. There are no love songs, no romantic myths . . ."

Comparing all this with the evidence of amorous emotion among the Melanesians, it is plain that reports about the sexual experience of primitive peoples are not in entire agreement. They suggest, perhaps, a general rule with numerous exceptions. After recounting a story from Indian lore, Sapir remarks that "It contains all the elements of romantic love," and that, while not typical of primitive life, it is "not an isolated instance by any means." Primitive sexual love, Crawley thinks, has the same elements, "in a less developed state and capacity" as the modern love relationship. (8) Expressions of "truly roman-tic attachment" exist, according to Lowie, among the myths of the Menominee and Blackfoot Indians, and "the concept of veritably romantic love repeatedly crops up in the folk-tales" of the Crow Indians. (27) Examples of extraordinary emotional fixation are occasionally reported, like that of the daughter of a Maori chief, who was confined for several years in a dovecote-like enclosure supported upon a post, in which she could neither stand nor recline, because she wished to marry a man of low rank. Often a comment on the rarity of such cases accompanies the accounts.

Brinton found that the language of the ancient Peruvians was rich in words for affection, with some six hundred combinations of the word meaning "to love." " As in English, this term was broad in scope. It was applied to the love between parents and children, between persons of same and opposite sex, and to the love of divinity. It meant, we are told, a love based on "reasonable grounds." A different word was used for the expression of "blind, unreasoning, absorbing passion." This was, for the most part, restricted to the love of the sexes, and conveyed a sentiment "showing itself in action by those sweet signs and marks of devotion which are so highly prized by the loving heart." Another term, with less of sexual connotation, was expressive of tender affection, a sentiment in which the language was particularly rich.

If we could say that, apart from exceptional cases, sexual love is absent among people of low civilization, and if it were also true that these people enjoy a high degree of sexual freedom, then the case for amorous emotion as a "sublimation" of sexual impulse might seem well supported. While there is fair agreement that strong premarital emotional fixations are rather rare, the case for unlimited sexual activity is a poor one. The sexual freedom of the Dobuans and Trobianders is by no means common. Such freedom tends, in fact, to be itself the exception rather than the rule for primitive societies, in the opinion of Edward Sapir. There are savages whose attitudes toward sex are not very different from those of "our happily extinct Victorian ancestors . . ." (47) The amount of sexual liberty is insignificant, in the view of Sumner and Keller, "compared with the bulk of well-attested cases of rigid restriction with which the primitive mores surround the association of the sexes."

The old notion of "primitive promiscuity" is no longer held. Georgene Seward observes that "It is naively assumed by the layman that savages allow sex to run rampant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. All cultures impose restrictions on sexual expression, sometimes more elaborate than those in our own civilization." (48) Ellis notes that the same secrecy and re-serve that surrounds the sexual function in civilized societies may be found among the simpler peoples. Taboos may here be even more emphatic, and the repressions of sex "are in full working order in what we call a `state of nature.' Of New Guinea, Margaret Mead writes:

The whole picture is one of a puritan society, rigidly subduing its sex life to meet supernaturally enforced demands. . . . Dress and ornamentation, removed from any possibility of pleasing the opposite sex, becomes a matter of economic display and people only dress up at economic feasts. . . . An hibiscus in the hair is the sign of magic-making, not of love-making. The village lies fair in the moonlight, the still lagoon holds the shadow of houses and trees, but there is no sound of songs or dancing. The young people are within doors. Their parents are quarrelling on the verandas or holding seances within doors to search out sin.

Sumner and Keller find that "The taboo is always in evidence; it would appear sometimes as if both the primitive and the more developed human society had expended most of their energy in dealing with the sex-relation, so numerous are the varieties of restriction which are to be found . . ."

Possibly some of those we have quoted on the rarity of sexual freedom have tended a bit toward overemphasis. This could be, to some extent, intended as a corrective for popular notions to the contrary. There appears to be little question, however, as to the wide prevalence of checks upon the sexual impulse of the savage. In a survey of some 120 different primitive peoples, one investigation discovered that the number of cases in which pre-marital sex activity was condemned was not far from equal to the number in which it was approved. Westermarck finds this estimate in fair harmony with his own data. Murdock reports, for a sampling of 154 primitive societies, premarital sexual freedom in 70 per cent, with prohibition or disapproval among the rest.

It has been pointed out that the absence of specific prohibitions against sexual intercourse before marriage does not mean that sex is not subject to social controls. People who grow up, like ourselves, in a sex-restraining society are often much impressed, in reading accounts of the behavior of certain "savages," with their remarkably liberal and permissive attitudes toward sex itself. We may overlook other barriers that rest on grounds different from those most familiar to us. Some of these barriers are seen in the numerous rules about which persons are sexually available and which are not. Referring to cases of supposed complete sexual freedom, Margold states: "The sexual `freedom' individuals have among these peoples is . . definitely limited and clearly restrained through taboos, wherever current, regarding exogamy and incest. These constitute fundamental and all-powerful social controls of the sex con-duct of the boys and girls concerned." It seems possible that the taboo: "You cannot have intercourse with this girl be-cause she is a member of your own clan," may check the impulse as effectively as the taboo that rules: "You cannot have intercourse with this girl because she is not your wife." The barriers presented by such taboos may be larger than one might suppose, since blood relationships are sometimes given a broad meaning. The limits on marriage choice may be further narrowed because of the numerous divisions of tribes into smaller groups between which mating is prohibited.

Other taboos rest upon the "mystic dangerousness" that surrounds the reproductive organs and processes. Webster gives many examples, from various peoples. Sexual restraint may be imposed during preparation for war; during the performance of certain tribal ceremonies; at planting time; after returning from a hunt; in the course of activities connected with mining or with the making of beer or wine, or while making nets, or during the rites in rainmaking, or while attending a sick person, etc. Such periods of restraint may last from a few days to several months. The taboos may apply only to the persons concerned in an activity or they may be imposed upon the whole community.

Perhaps no final verdict can be reached on the truth or error of the sublimation theory by way of the information we now have about primitive people. Few studies of sex and amorous behavior approach that of Malinowski in thoroughness. On the whole, we may suggest that what seems to be amorous emotion in large part as we know it may appear in a setting where sexual freedom is very nearly complete. Again, that the many restraints upon the sex impulse among primitive peoples in general are not well fitted to the numerous reports on the rarity of amorous emotion if this emotion comes out of sexual restraint. Finally, it will be well to recall the advice of Crawley, that "in estimating the evidence of observers, it must be re-membered that their diagnoses of love are not based on one invariable scientific definition of the emotion."

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