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also"Fakery and Fame: The Price of the Walum Olum"
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Below: Anthony Quinn as the tribal leader Aouda, in Lawrence of Arabia.
The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance
By Elizabeth W Barber
(W W Norton 429pp £25)
American children are used to being told that something gives adults the ‘creeps’. As a child in Britain before the Second World War, I was often told by grown-ups that I ‘gave them the willies’. It’s the same thing. But I was confused because ‘willy’ was the accepted child euphemism for ‘penis’. Thanks to The Dancing Goddesses I now know that ‘willies’ are vili or rusalki: the spirits of girls who died before marriage and, since their fertility had not been discharged (as it were), became a special kind of ancestor spirit, at once powerful and dangerous. In southeast Europe and Russia, where these beliefs were most prevalent, the rusalki were water spirits – beautiful slender girls with long dark hair, diaphanously clad (sometimes with detachable wings), emerging from lakes and streams at crucial times to dance, swing and bestow or withhold fertility on the villagers. They appeared in folk tales and art across Europe as naked girls, sometimes with fishtails, sometimes wings or claws, sometimes all of these. If discovered without their chemises and wings they could be captured and married, but inevitably they retrieved their accoutrements and literally flew away.
The ballets Giselle and Swan Lake are adapted from these tales, and Dvořák wrote a whole opera called Rusalka. Vilja, about whom a ballad is sung in The Merry Widow, is one of them, as is Heine’s Lorelei, and the Greek Naiads and Nereids. Even Ophelia has some obvious connections: willows, long hair, death before marriage and by water, and flowers given meanings. These spirits are at home in eastern Europe, but in the West we find their like in Melusine, Ondine, Nimué (The Lady of the Lake), St Bridget and even selkies (fallen angels too good for hell, not good enough for heaven, who became marginal water spirits like the willies). In Wales they were the Gwragedd Annwn and lived in villages beneath lakes. Our water spirits, however, seem to be mostly rugged individualists, while the rusalki are collectivists: what they do is dance together. In the same way that the West is largely given to dancing in couples, the East prefers (or preferred) line dancing (mostly sex-segregated). In the crucial area centred on Macedonia this goes with a preference for ‘odd’ rhythms, such as 5/8, 7/8, 9/8 or even 13/8: steps that Western folk-dance enthusiasts have difficulty mastering. But the way that village girls try to tap into the generative power of the willies is by emulating them – in dance. For at a profound level dancing – in particular collective dancing – sought to ‘influence the flow of life’ by channelling ‘the female spirits thought somehow to dance life into existence’.
Alas, across the urbanised, electrified and technology-dominated world, even in the mountainous Balkans, these folk traditions have mostly become just that: ritual degenerated into ceremony (or even worse, festivity). The art is there, but the power is gone. What was once influencing the ‘flow of life’ directly is now fodder for tourism. Many years ago I had a student who wrote a thesis on folk-dancing and costumes in Tito’s Yugoslavia. These were allowed to exist by the central government in the hope that various ethnic groups, otherwise coerced into communist unity, would express their identities harmlessly and even compete without being a political threat. By focusing on the southeast corner of a changing Europe, this delightful, indeed remarkable book is an intellectual detective story that peels back the layers of folklore, tradition, history, etymology, ethnography and archaeology that surround the dancing spirits, and in so doing gets back to their historic origins among the first Neolithic agriculturalists in the Macedonias, and to their human core in the need to dance – and dance in unison.
Elizabeth W Barber starts with the calendrical dances of the ‘ritual cycle of fertility’ that consume the peasant year. We know the solstices and equinoxes, but what about the ‘cross-quarter days’, which fell halfway between them? Yet these deserve respect because the great Celtic festivals fell on them - Lughnasa, Samhain - as do our May Day and Halloween. The other magically intense times were Pentecost, Midsummer and the intercalary Twelve Days of Christmas, left over from the disjunction between the lunar and solar calendars, when the mummers, maskers and hobby horses that I knew as a boy in Somerset, and their spectacular equivalents still active in Bulgaria, ruled the ritual roost.
The underlying theme is the power of ‘analogical thinking’ – the ‘like produces like’ that was the anthropologist James George Frazer’s ‘sympathetic magic’. Today it still drives the industry that uses powdered rhino horn as an erectile aid. The connection of the willies with water meant that they were considered crucial to the production of the water that gave agricultural communities life. In the calendrical cycle of fertility, they were invoked and imitated in the spring and summer, when water was needed. In autumn and winter they took a back seat to more ‘male’ rituals. The power of the willies could go either way, and if angered they caused madness and sickness. Male masked dancing groups – rusaltsi and kalushari – which looked and behaved remarkably like morris dancers – carried out healing rituals with trances and resurrections, while groups of unmarried girls in direct imitation of the willies magically protected the villages from epidemics. There is so much more: the meaning of ultra-long-sleeve dances; the opposition of wormwood and garlic to roses and parsley; the dedication of Friday to the willies; the origin of ‘bonfire’ in ‘bonefire’. The beauty is in the details.
The narrative then switches to that other group of women truly crucial to fertility – young brides. Barber brilliantly uses a central folk tale, that of the Frog Princess of the eastern Slavs, to tie together the rituals of bride selection. We are used to the Frog Prince and the kiss that restores, but the Princess story is its inverse. The Princess-bride (echoing the unlucky willy) is metamorphosed into an amphibian – the story, my five-year-old grandson tells me, of Shrek. Analogical thinking links brides to birds, fish and above all frogs, the great egg layers. The long sleeves return and we meet the house on chicken legs, Baba Yaga and Koshchey, the ‘half-forgotten shaman figure’ who initiates the young men and whose soul is kept in an egg (see The Firebird).
Christianity and progress have changed and reduced these fractal elaborations of analogical ideas about fertility, not just in southeast Europe but wherever they occur in post-Neolithic agricultural societies. The morris dancers I recently saw in Oxford leaped, danced and thwacked their sticks to an accordion playing Beethoven’s Ninth, while Jack-in-the-Green, covered in a cone of leaves, chased the girls and ‘laid’ not eggs but empty Guinness bottles, while shouting, ‘Get your fertility here!' It was Oxford. But what is remarkable is the linguistic and archaeological continuity that can be traced back through the Middle Ages, to the dominance of Rome, classical Greece and the pre-Indo-European Neolithic farmers from Anatolia. Masks and staves, string skirts (going back to Palaeolithic ‘Venuses’), line dancing and even the overlong sleeve appear in the record. The maenads are a kind of Ur-willie and their prototypes are there in Bronze Age Minoan Crete and at the dawn of European agriculture in the Balkans.
Elizabeth W Barber ends with a set of intriguing and important questions. Why would societies struggling with subsistence invest so much time and elaborate effort in collective dancing? She examines a local phenomenon but the question is universal and she boldly looks for answers in cognitive psychology and neurophysiology. These might help to understand why dance is so concerned with trance and healing. I can see a great course emerging from this book, along with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets, Mary Douglas and Marcel Detienne on analogical thinking, Charles D Laughlin and Eugene d’Aquili on the physiology of ritual and trance, Lee Cronk and Beth Leech’s Meeting at Grand Central, on the evolution of cooperation, and Victor Turner on the physiology of communitas. I might just do it. But it would be hard to sell this approach in anthropology today. If Barber had called her book Gender, Ethnicity and Performance under Hegemonic Patriarchy, it might just have slipped by the censors. As it is, Barber, a teacher of folk dance, can go where she pleases – to our delight and instruction.
There is a story of the Jesuit, one of the first allowed into Japan, talking with his Shinto counterpart. The Jesuit asked, ‘What is your theology?’ ‘What’s theology?’ asked the Shinto priest. So the Jesuit told him about the first cause uncaused, the doctrine of the Trinity, the problem of evil and so on. ‘No,’ said the Shinto priest, ‘we don’t do that.’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘We dance.’
The following rumination on fakery and fame was intended as a preface to a book on the Walam Olum by David Oestreicher based on his Rutgers PhD Thesis. The book is still in progress but a summary of his brilliant argument and evidence can be found at:
David M. Oestreicher, "Unraveling the Walam Olum," Natural History, October 1996, 14-21.
Fakery comes in different guises, and the motivations for it are many and curious. There is the straightforward fakery of a van Meegeren in art, which, the legend has it, was so brilliant it raised the inevitable question: if the fake is indistinguishable from the original, then why is it not as good? And the answer is that it is derivative; it is a copy. The original artist had to think it up first. The forger has technique but no invention; he is simply a human color-copy machine. The motives of such fakers are usually venal, but there is sometimes also a desire to be revenged on an indifferent art establishment. Thomas Hoving, sometime director of the Metropolitan Museum, and hence an expert on art fakery, holds that scarcely any fakes are as good as the legends say they are, that they were denounced as fakes in their time, and that the faker always makes a fatal mistake. Even so, he reckons there are more fakes than originals in circulation in the fine art world.
One might almost say that the fake is in the eye of the beholder: if enough people want to believe in it, a fake passes imperceptibly into reality. The Shroud of Turin was recognized as a fake from its inception, and by its original owners. The Pope, knowing it was a painting, nevertheless instigated a cover-up since he could not resist its appeal to the faithful. He even threatened his own bishops, who knew of the fraud, with excommunication if they revealed it. We have only to look at the modern industry surrounding the “authentication” of the shroud to see how the will to believe can become self-sustaining.
There is a related motive to that of the discrediting of the orthodox involved in the “spoof,” a special kind of fake. The world of literary criticism was recently deeply embarrassed by the publication in one of its cutting-edge (as they like to say) post-modern journals, of a clever spoof – an article on physics and literature dressed up in all the jargon and pseudo-scholarship of the cult - by a scientist, Alan Skokal. His purely intellectual motive was to expose the pretensions and phoniness of the profession by showing that they could not tell fake from reality. In the case of the spoof, the faker actually does not want to get away with it. His business is to expose, and so he needs exposure. Skokal has been almost embarrassingly gleeful about his spoof article in the pages of Lingua Franca.
In the early part of the nineteenth century there had been an astonishing coup of this kind brought off by Joseph Smith. The story is well enough known. An angel revealed to him the whereabouts of gold plates containing mysterious writing, then dictated to him the translation. The plates then conveniently disappeared leaving only Smith’s translation, the Book of Mormon. Smith went on to found a successful new religion with his book as the bible. This was the Ossian phenomenon given a new twist. And it is significant that the content of Smith’s divinely inspired New Testament was largely concerned with the origin and fate of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. The new religion was derived from the purported visitation by the risen Christ to these American aborigines.
To those of us not Mormons, it seems obvious that Smith manufactured the whole thing. Even so, we know enough of religious psychology to know that he probably convinced himself of the divine origin of his composition, and was in that sense quite “sincere.” (Did Mohammed doubt that it was the archangel Gabriel who dictated the Koran to him?) The same cannot be said for Macpherson, who nevertheless had his own kind of influence on events. Napoleon greatly admired the poetic “translations” and carried a copy with him on his campaigns, for inspiration. Thomas Jefferson was equally a fan. Inspired, by both Ossian and Napoleon, David, Ingres and others – forming a veritable Ossian industry, painted great “historical” panels depicting the fictitious hero’s exploits and the poet’s immortality.
What he needed was a text comparable in scope and significance to Smith’s epic tale, but one that was of strictly natural origins, heavy with scholarship matching Champollion’s, and convincing to students of Native American languages and culture. Armed with a couple of Delaware dictionaries, a collection of works on signs and symbols, and a passionate theory about the history of man after the flood, he concocted a saga of songs and pictographs that was breathtaking in its ingenuity. Indeed, even while recognizing it as a complete fabrication, one is still entranced by its audacity. It is one of those proverbial fakes that is so good it almost counts as an original work of art. And in some sense it is. While grafting materials from everyone, Rafinesque did not, in his overall design, copy from anyone. His was, if you like, a completely genuine fake.
It was so good that it fooled anthropologists for the next century. There were always those who were suspicious, but they were a minority. The majority, as Oestreicher so admirably shows here, never seemed to grasp that Rafinesque had made it up from whole cloth; rather they tinkered with it, and “revised” it to fit their own preconceptions about the Native Americans.
Even those who thought it was a fake could not figure out how it had been constructed. And few paid much attention to the pictographs that accompanied the text. They rationalized their doubts by claiming that while this was not perhaps an ancient document, it was a genuine piece of Delaware “folklore” of more recent composition. They glossed over the glaring fact that Rafinesque could not produce the supposed originals, obtained mysteriously from people whose existence could not even be confirmed, any more than Smith could produce the gold plates, or Macpherson the Gaelic manuscripts.
So great was the need to believe in the Walam Olum, that Eli Lilly spent considerable sums employing anthropologists and linguists to produce a “definitive” translation and commentary, with accompanying archaeological “evidence.” An effort perhaps best compared to the stubborn attempts to prove there really was a flood and an ark exactly as described in Genesis. When I was a graduate student at Harvard in the late nineteen-fifties, I was presented with a sumptuously bound tome in heavy red and green cloth with gilt decorations, looking like a fine family bible. It was the product of the Lilly team’s effort, edited by the highly-respected C. F. Voegelin, and was shown to me with pride by the faculty as an example of the best of current scholarship. I had no reason to disbelieve this at the time.
Why was there – why is there still – this passionate need to believe in the authenticity of the Walam Olum? The need is so great that even when believers are presented with this incontrovertible proof of fakery, they insist that we should behave “as if”’ it were real, since otherwise we rob the Delaware Indians of a cultural treasure! They blithely ignore the proven fact that those Indians knew nothing of this document until modern scholars and enthusiasts showed it to them. The believers were overwhelmed by the realization that if the Walam Olum were genuine, it would constitute the only written record of an Indian people’s journey from Asia, across the Bering Straits, through the American heartland, to their settlement in the eastern woodlands. As such it would indeed be priceless: a Rosetta Stone of the Americas. It would have solved the major problem of Rafinesque’s time: the origin of the Native Americans (solved of course by Smith and the Book of Mormon.) This was a constant bafflement to people still convinced of the truth of the Biblical account of creation. How did the indigenous Americans fit into the creation story – particularly the dispersion of peoples after the flood? The same question lay behind Joseph Smith’s own recreation of their history. Above all perhaps for anthropologists, it would settle the vexed question of the Mound Builders, and demonstrate that they were undoubtedly natives and not Vikings, Irish or Egyptians.
Thus the reception of Rafinesque’s hoax in some ways becomes a story more interesting than the mechanics of the hoax itself. Fortunately, Oestreicher is not just a linguist, although he is one of the few people to tackle this text with a fluent knowledge of Delaware. He is a true scholar and great historian of ideas. His primary task, naturally, is to show in detail how Rafinesque engineered his hoax. Was it ever plausible that he had a Delaware “original” from which he produced his notorious “translation?” As the reader will see, it was in fact the other way round.
But I do not want to give too much away here, since following the story of both the ingenuity and the clumsiness of Rafineque’s method is part of the fun and excitement of the book. The reader who goes down “The Trail of Broken Stems” or follows the details of “Pictographs and Phonygraphs” will enter a bizarre world of highly methodical fakery that exercises an almost hypnotic fascination. For Rafinesque was nothing if not methodical. He had named many new species in his botanical researches, and his views on speciation were cited favorably by Darwin in The Origin of Species. When he came to create his massive hoax, he brought that same indefatigable energy to its concoction. So much genuine creativity, so badly misapplied, is surely a cause for sadness.
By looking for all the intellectual resources that Rafinesque called upon, and all the burning intellectual issues of the day which he attempted to solve all at once, Oestreicher brings to life a whole era of turbulent thought about “universal history.” In The American Nations, Rafinesque was going to undertake nothing less than a complete history of mankind since the flood. The Walam Olum was to be the linchpin, both accounting for the distribution of the Native Americans, and for their roots in Asia, the cradle of mankind (following Sir William Jones.) Further, it was to be evidence for the universal symbolic language (following Court de Gèbelin,) to which end he raided numerous sources from Hebrew to Tibetan, to construct his phony pictographs, and to supply “roots” that would link Delaware to Asian languages. There were similar attempts abroad at the time to make sense of everything, and wild as they may seem today, at least they were honest nonsense. Rafinesque was a total dissembler. But in a topsy-turvy way his dissembling gives us a genuine insight into the ideological torment of a time when received ideas were being shaken, and people longed for a new, definitive, scientific knowledge of their troubled world. They were poised at a time when they knew just enough to spark genuine questions, but knew too little to answer them. Rafinesque made his idiosyncratic attempt to fill the intellectual void.
Oestricher’s dissection of Rafinesque’s desperate attempt to rewrite intellectual history is brilliant in its scholarly detective work. But perhaps his exposition of the subsequent history of scholarship on the Walam Olum is even more devastating and certainly very depressing. The Eli Lilly episode is a terrible warning to academics not to make such Faustian bargains. The spectacle of two distinguished members of the profession, who had been bought and paid for by Lilly, announcing that they would publish their growing doubts about the authenticity of the document, and then simply reneging on this undertaking, makes very sad reading. But Oestreicher’s account of this sorry history, in which the Walam Olum became a kind of ink blot in which any anthropologist with an agenda could read what he wished to see, makes compelling reading as a literary detective story. To understand why the believers manipulated the tale as they did, is to understand the currents of thinking that ran through the anthropology of these last hundred years. Again, in a topsy-turvy way, the unmasking of the hoax is richly instructive.
If we think that fraud and fakery are things of the past, the sins of our “amateur” fathers, and that they could not possibly happen in today’s world of strict professional standards, think only of the incredible story of Carlos Castañeda’s Don Juan novels. Like the Walam Olum, these were cobbled-together monsters, derived with creative ingenuity, from ethnography and fantasy literature, to produce a whole “Yaqui” culture that did not exist. As fiction they are, like Harry Potter, either wonderful or tedious depending on one’s taste, but the author presented them as fact. That flower children, anxious to have their “alternative reality” vindicated, might be fooled is perhaps understandable, but the Anthropology Department at UCLA accepted this farrago as a doctorate, with no real evidence that Carlos had ever done a day’s fieldwork anywhere.
But the will to believe was overwhelming, and the books sold millions. When I tried, early in the debate, to point out the nature of the hoax at an anthropological conference, I was actually threatened by knife-wielding, tie-died devotees, some of whom are now respectable professors at mid-western universities. Even after a courageous battle led by Richard de Mille, the Library of Congress never reclassified the books: from “ethnography” to “fiction.” The department at UCLA never retracted nor apologized.
On an equal level of audacity must rank the “discovery” of “The Gentle Tasaday” on Mindanao in the Philippines: a tiny tribe of 25 “stone age” cave-dwelling people, supposedly isolated for ten thousand years and delightfully Rouseauian in their timidity and naiveté
Believers in the essential goodness of man eagerly recruited them as proof of the thesis. There was then a steadfast refusal, in the fé
ace of mounting and absolute evidence, to believe that they were not a truly isolated tribelet but a refuge-group of local people who had always been in contact. They were in fact discovered wearing western clothes and smoking cigarettes, and were told to discard these, wear leaves and look primitive. If they were not a complete fake – they did perhaps exist as a group, they were certainly cleverly manipulated by an unscrupulous local official to ensure his own fame and spur the flagging tourist industry. The will to believe that people can live without anger or violence had led, if not to fakery, at least to serious misrepresentation. This was close to the case with the Bushmen (!Kung San) of SW Africa. Billed as “The Harmless People” they turned out to be savage guerilla fighters, and to have a murder rate higher than that of Chicago.
All this devotion to fraud, fakery and misrepresentation probably tells us something profound about human nature: about the need to cheat and the gullibility of the cheated. Some evolutionary theorists see the detection and control of cheating as the major problem of human behavioral evolution. We might even see all of what we call “culture” as a vast web of deception that we construct to convince ourselves that there is more necessity than chance in our fragile existence. So the cheater, the trickster, the con-man, the sting artist, the shape-changer, the magician all fascinate us; they are us, however much we might like to avoid this realization. The massive scholarship of Oestreicher’s superbly written account of Rafinesque’s anthropological con-job is both a monument to human folly and a memorial to the power of reason: the double- edged sword that is our only defense against our own worst tendencies.