7th Jun 2015

Enforcement and non-enforcement of the “incest” taboo for political power

[…] Claude Meillassoux [suggests] that [incest taboos] were instituted “when control over marriages became one of the elements of political power. […] In other words incest is a moral notion produced by an ideology which is tied to the extension of power in domestic communities, as one of the means used to control the mechanisms of reproduction. It is not an innate proscription, (if it were it would in fact be the only one of its kind).” Meillassoux concludes by proclaiming that “what is presented as a sin against nature is in fact only a sin against authority.”

[…] [Meillassoux’s theory’s] value lies in suggesting that whatever may be the reason for their existence, the incest taboos may have been used to organize or control people. In other words, they may have been co-opted for purposes they were not created for and possibly extended or modified in ways that belie their origins. I will argue later that this helps explain why the incest taboos vary from society to society and why they are sometimes deliberately violated.

[…] Incest is no longer a crime in many European countries, but this is a recent development peculiar to governments whose legitimacy rests on grounds other than moral superiority or supernatural status. Political history tells us that elites almost always criminalized incest as part of the process by which they institutionalized their power.

The twelfth-century Hittites provide a vivid example. Hittite law tolerated couplings between persons related by marriage […], but prohibited on pain of death couplings between blood relatives. […] The Hittite concern is preserved in a rebuke issued by Suppiluliuma I to a vassal who was rumored to tolerate sex between cousins and perhaps even between siblings. It reads: “For Hatti it is an important custom that a brother does not have sex with his sister or female cousin. It is not permitted. Whoever commits such an act is put to death. But your land is barbaric, for there a man regularly has sex with his sister or cousin. […] But you must not desire to have sex with her. It is not permitted, and people are put to death as a result of that act. […]”

The Roman state was no more tolerant of incest than the Hittite.According to Percy Corbett, the punishment for incest during the Republic was to throw the offender from the Tarpeian Rock, it being “a familiar school of controversy in the first century of the Empire whether a woman who survived the fall should be thrown again.” […]Corbett notes that believing the frequency of incestuous marriages was on the rise in Osroene and Mesopotamia, “Justinian was driven to repressing them with the threat of death to both parties and their offspring.”

In imperial China incest was the only one of the “ten unpardonable offences” that did not involve treason […]. In Ming and [Qing] times (1368-1912) the punishment was strangulation for persons related in the second and third degrees, and beheading for those related in the first degree. Derk Bodde and Clarence Morris note the case of a man who was “sentenced to 100 blows of the heavy bamboo and three years penal servitude” for sexual relations with the daughter of his fifth-degree younger cousin. Severe as it was, this punishment was later felt to be inadequate and the law was supplemented to add “40 days [in the stocks].”

Japan provides a clear case of how the treatment of incest changes with the creation of a strong central authority. When in the seventh century, before the country was united, the Japanese adopted a version of the Chinese legal code, they did not follow the Chinese in making incest an “unpardonable offence,” instead leaving punishment of incest to supernatural agents. But when they revised their code in the seventeenth century, after hegemonic rule had been firmly established, they included the Chinese proscription, making beheading followed by public display the punishment for incest.

Politicization of the incest taboos is even more obvious in the case of the Inca. Garcilaso de la Vega informed the world that “it must be known that Kings Ynca, from the first, established it as a very stringent law and custom that the heir to the kingdom should marry his eldest sister.” […] But while requiring that the royal line be perpetuated by way of incest, Inca custom commanded that among commoners “no one may marry his sister or his mother or his first cousin, nor aunt, nor niece or female relative or god-mother, under penalty of punishment: their two eyes will be gouged out and they will be cut into quarters and they will be placed on the hills as a reminder and punishment, for only the Inca is to marry his carnal sister, according to law.”

[…] A complete account of incest taboos is possible but only if we recognize their political uses. These explain not only why the taboos are extended beyond the nuclear family, but also why they are sometimes deliberately violated. The general point is that while the emotions that motivate the taboos originate in the family, they are like all other human emotions, in that they can be co-opted to serve political purposes.

Arthur P. Wolf, Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos

Enforcement of the taboo has long been a tool used to increase the perception of the legitimacy of the state. It’s no different than how political and religious leaders in African countries and Russia have been using homosexuals as a “foreign” scape goat to rally support behind themselves and gain followers.


The psychological roots of the “incest” taboo

A natural tendency to see rare events as ominous would insure a basic similarity of response, and any disagreement would quickly be overcome by what Roger Brown calls ‘an almost ineradicable tendency for members of a group to move toward agreement.’

There is, then, no need to burden the incest taboos with the Herculean task of holding up society [which Freudians and their ilk propose]. They can be fully accounted for as the creations of two aspects of human nature – a fear of events perceived as abnormal or unnatural, and what social psychologists take to be a universal human need to ‘belong with’ those around us.

[…] Another [similar reaction] is the reaction to twinning. It is far more common than [post-puberty] incest but rare compared to singular births, the result being that it is commonly regarded as an abnormal event foretelling misfortune. […] [T]he Italian pediatrician Alessandra Piontelli found that while that part of Southeast Asia known as the Golden Triangle was home to many peoples, ‘they all shared one thing in common, a loathing of twins.’They were regularly disposed of at birth by strangulation for fear the mother had been impregnated by an evil spirit.

[…] There is [almost] always a consensus condemning incest because most people interpret incest as threatening and the few who do not, accept the majority view because they want to belong.

Arthur P. Wolf, Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos


The “incest” taboo has been very flexible over time

[…] [T]he Trobriand incest taboo had a sharp matrilineal bias. Where sex with a mother’s sister’s daughter was regarded as “a real crime” and could “lead to consequences as serious as suicide,” sex with a father’s sister’s daughter was approved to the extent of being recommended for inexperienced boys. In the Trobriand view she was “the prototype of the lawful, sexually recommended woman.”

In the Trobriand view, “the sister [is] for her brother the very centre of all that is sexually forbidden […].” When brother and sister had to appear in the same company […] a rigidity of behavior and a sobriety in conversation were required of all those present. “No cheerful company, no festive entertainment, therefore, is allowed to include brother and sister, since their simultaneous presence would throw a blight on pleasure and would chill gaiety.”

Where brother and sister were subject to the Supreme Taboo, father and daughter were free to interact frequently and casually. “Although father-to-daughter incest is regarded as bad, it is not described by the [Trobriand word for “incest”] […]. The reason, for Trobrianders, is that while a woman’s brother belongs to her clan, her father does not. He is only her mother’s husband.

Arthur P. Wolf, Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos


Many cultures historically have tortured consanguinamorous people to death

Margaret Williamson was told by the Kwoma that “if a man saw his son and daughter having sex he must immediately kill his son and cast his body into the bush.” Similarly, Grenville Goodwin found that among the Western Apache “if a close blood relative and clan-mate of the offenders, such as a brother, should actually see the culprits cohabitating or making love, he might kill one or both immediately.” One of the two cases recorded by Goodwin involved a man with two brothers and one sister.“One day he went off hunting. On his way home he came on one of his brothers out in the brush cohabiting with his sister. He shot them both.”

[…] In the Apache case the chief of the culprits’ local group summoned a council and told them what had happened. “The culprits were then sent for or, if necessary, brought by force. They were flatly accused of their crime, and if they denied it, as they were likely to do, they were strung by the wrists from the limb of a tree, just high enough to permit their toes barely to touch the ground. Culprits who would not talk could be left hanging all day, and a fire might be built under the man. … Ordinarily the woman was not killed for the offense, because she saved herself by confessing. The man might be put to death whether he confessed or not.”

[…] Rafael Karsten [reports] that among the Jivo “incest and any illicit sexual intercourse is regarded with the greatest horror and severely punished by cruel ill-treatment. One case of this kind came under my notices when a young Jivaro Indian eloped with his father’s sister. All the male relatives of the family were pursuing the couple, and they assured me that if they got hold of them they would kill them.

[…] Punishment for incest was as cruel in Ibo-speaking villages in Eastern Nigeria as among the Vedda and the Pashtun. M. M. Green found that “in the old days offenders would have been buried alive in the Agbaja market place, Orie Ekpa. This burying of them would purify and appease Ala [the goddess of earth and fertility].” Green’s informants “maintained that even now if such an offence were known to have taken place people would go secretly at night and cut a hole through the mud wall into the man’s house and kill him. He would then be placed at the foot of a palm tree, from which passers-by would imagine him to have fallen to his death.

[…] With regard to the Cayapa, one of the native peoples of southern Brazil, Milton Altschuler writes, “Incest is generally viewed by the Cayapa as being particularly heinous. In the older days, it is asserted, anyone guilty of such a crime would be placed over a table which was covered with lighted candles, and then, slowly roasted to death.

[…] When [the Jale caught and punished incest] […] the couple’s genitals were excised [i.e. cut from their bodies] and wrapped in leaves. [The genitals were then used in a ritual to purify the community of the couple’s sin.]

[…] The celebrated naturalist Charles Hose reports that while he was among the Murats, Klemantans, Kayans, and Ibans, “almost all offences were punished by fines only,” incest being the notable exception. “[…] If the guilt of the culprits was flagrant, they were taken to some open spot on the river bank at some distance from the house. There they were thrown together on the ground and sharpened bamboo stakes were driven through their bodies, so that they remained pinned to the earth. […] The other method of punishment was to shut up the offenders in a strong wicker cage and to throw them in the river. […]”

[…] Before they were colonized by the Dutch, the Toraja drowned incestuous couples or burned them to death. […] Our authority on the Miang Tuu, Herald Brach, tells us that “When incest occurred, the offenders were placed together in a large bamboo bubu [a kind of fish weir] and sunk in the sea. […]”

Arthur P. Wolf, Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos


Even without outright murder, cultures have still found a way to eliminate “undesirables”

According to Douglas Oliver and Lev Shternberg, [suicide] was also the response to incest among the Solomon Island Siuai and the Gilyak. Oliver notes that when a Siuai couple who “flaunted the convention against [sibling] incest by openly living together” were censured by their relatives the girl committed suicide by hanging, and Shternberg found that among the Gilyak “it was not uncommon for lovers belonging to prohibited categories to kill themselves at the instigation of their relatives. In one of the songs of such an unfortunate pair the woman complains that her sister called her a bitch, and her beloved a devil because he was her uncle; and that all her loved ones – father, mother, and sister – kept telling her, ‘Kill yourself, Kill yourself.’

Arthur P. Wolf, Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos