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Virgin Birth

Wyatt MacGaffey; Rodney Needham

Man, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 3. (Sep., 1969), pp. 457-458.

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Sat Oct 27 18:29:09 2007
talking, and asserting one's ego are all reflect an anthropological preference for
striking ways o f drawing positive attention to administrative units and processes rather than
oneself. (Today, o f course, nakedness, political ones. Accordingly, most writers
crawling, speechlessness, and depersonalisa- on the matrilineal BaKongo o f the western
tion attract still more attention-at least Congo have taken the rule o f exogamy, that
among adults. But the attention they attract 'those o f one blood may not marry' (Van
is clearly negative in type and virtually W i n g 1959: 54), as a predictable example
guarantees low hierarchical status to those o f a matrilineal doctrine, without inquiring
exhibiting these traits.) Individuals capable o f further. In fact the BaKongo regard the
not only drawing but also holding the father as the source o f the child's body, blood,
attention o f their fellows are, in effect, al- bones and spiritual qualities, and the mother
ready controlling the behaviour o f their as only the source o f nourishment. Various
observers. proverbs express this, e.g. 'Father engenders,
Initially, then, as I interpret them, tool- not mother. Mother is a bag to keep the child
carrying, bipedalism, speech and personality in' (Doutreloux 1967: 106). This doctrine is
were hominoid devices for achieving domi- consistent with political reality, since the
nance within relatively small conspecific estate o f each matrilineal descent group is
communities. Gradually, however, hominid created and maintained b y political activity
imitative virtuosity led to their diffusioneven in a field o f affinal and patrifilial relations;
among subordinate males, females and young. prototypically, the father endows the son with
W h e n this saturation point was reached, land and magical attributes which are sub-
I surmise, these four dominance devices sequently inherited in the female line. The
'overflowed' into the sphere o f interspecific 'blood' o f the descent group is the members'
relations, increasingly enabling men, first common rights in this estate. Success, for
through predation and later through domesti- individuals and groups alike, comes from
cation, to control other species. As a result, having a powerful father, i.e. a patron o f
by the Holocene epoch, man, through some kind. This political structure is accur-
concentrated application o f generalised ately reflected in Kongo religion, ancient and
primate dominance techniques, had made modern; the ancestor cult, for example, is
himself uniquely dominant among terrestrial primarily a cult o f the fathers. All this makes
species. a good deal o f sense. The inconsistency, i f
Roger W . Wescott there is one, comes from calling the total
Drew University society 'matrilineal'.
W y a t t MacGaffey
NOTE Haverford College
As orally cited by Phyllis Jay in the
Symposium on Primatology at the Annual Doutreloux, A. 1967. L'ombre des Jtiches.
Meeting o f the American Anthropological Louvain: Editions Nauwelaerts.
Association, Seattle, Washington, November, Leach, E. R. 1967. Virgin birth. Proc. R.
1968. anthrop. Inst. 1966, 39-49.
Van W i n g ,J. 1959. Etudes Bakongo. Bruxelles:
Du Chaillu, Paul 1861. Explorations and Desclte de Brouwer.
adventures in equatorial Africa. London.
Kortlandt. A. van 1965. Comment on: The dim,
essential morphdlogical basis for human The lively continuance o f the debate
culture. Curr. Anthrop. 6, 322. provoked by Dr Leach's lecture on virgin
Schaller, George 1963. The mountain gorilla. birth makes it seem useful to furnish some less
Chicago : Univ. Press. familiar references which have not been
Yerkes, R. M. 1951. A gorilla census and adduced b y the participants.
study. J. Mammal. 32, 429-36. I . Powell, as quoted by Leach, reports two
Trobriand views about human conception:
the Malinowskian version, according to
Virgin birth which the man is not the genitor, is attributed
to men and is said to be valid in formal
SIR, situations; whereas another explanation,
I share Douglas's doubts, expressed in an according to which the man's semen coagu-
earlier issue (Man (N.S.) 4, 133-4) that a doc- lates the menstrual blood to form a child, is
trine o f procreation which sees the woman as ascribed to women and children (cf. Powell
merely a bag for the foetus is clearly extremely 1968).
patrilineal, as Leach asserts (1967: 44). Hocart has written in this connexion: ' A
Patrilineal and matrilineal are not very good lady who has been in the Trobriands and
labels for comparisons o f this kind. As talked with the women assured me that they
characterisations o f entire societies they knew much more about it than the men and
deceived their husbands to conceal their Van Wouden, Lkvi-Strauss and Fortes
amours' (Hocart 1954: 99). This passage has
not much intrinsic value as evidence, but it 'IR9
may now be thought a quite interesting gloss AS M' A. Jaspan remarks in his
on the sexual partition ofideas which Powell review of Needham's translation of F. A. E.
relates. Van Wouden's Sociale structuurtypen in de
2. In Europe, the idea that a woman may
GrOOte Oost (Man (N.S.) 4, 1571, a
conceive without the physical intervention of work to 'Omprehend, it is con-
a man is not limited to ,-hristian theology or siderable theoretical importance. This lies
to the relationship between gods and men. In principally in its antedating the work of Ltvi-
1517 the Parliament of Grenoble declared the Strauss On structures
legitimacy o f a child born to Mme Montlkon some fourteen years. This fact, together with
four years after the departure of her husband, the latter" admitted knorance Of Van
accepting the lady's asseveration that she had Wouden's for some time, been a
conceived of her husband in a dream. The feather in the cap of Dutch anthropologists of
court took into account the depositions of the Leiden tradition (De Josselin de Jong
learned doctors of the University of Mont- 'g6O: 7 ) .
pellier to the effect that this could well Where I would disagree with J a s ~ a nis in
happen; and it relied also on the witness of his comparison of the work under review to
four or five other women of Grenoble who that of Fortes, in particular his suggestion
affirmed that they too had borne children that the historian of kinship studies will be
conceived by &imaginaryconjunctions7with forced to recognise Van Wouden rather than
their absent husbands and not by actual Fortes as the theoretical innovator. It is clear
copulation. hi^ case is cited by ~ ~van ~ that some
~ kind
l ofd theoretical similarity exists
Gennep, who makes it the introduction to an between Fortes's 'web of kinship' concept and
ethnographical survey of such notions pub- the structural approach of Van Wouden.
a concubitu9 Both are concerlled with kinship behaviour
lished under the title c ~ u c i nsine
in the R~~~~des idles, I, 1904, 554-8 (re- in relation to social structure, with its role as
printed in his Rites, moeurs et 1kgendes, Paris: 'a mechanism for the ordering of social
Societ&du M~~~~~~ de F ~ onthis
~1908). ~ relationships
~ ~ ,within a given society' (Fortes
topic van Gennep recommends [C. de] 1949: 347). Yet, apart from this, the two
Saintyves, Les vierges-mdres et les naissances works are surely of a rather different genre.
miraculeuses (Paris: Nourry, 1908) and H. de Jaspan himself acknowledges the clear
Charencey, Le ftls de la vierge (1879). affinities of Van Wouden's work to that later
3. The dogma of the Virgin Birth may in undertaken by Lkvi-Strauss, and this alone
some sense be regarded as having been, as nukes any comparison with Fortes appear
Leach asserts, 'orthodox among Christians somewhat obscure. It is doubtful whether it is
for about 1,600 years' (196~:42), but the at all meaningful to compare a synthesis of
orthodoxy was not that of an unchanging structural elements derived from a culture-
doctrine over this period. Its gradual develop- region, with, it is true, a large degree of
ment, as established by G. Herzog, in La homogeneity, with an analysis ofa much more
Sainte Vierge duns I'histoire (Paris: Nourry, localised community. Further, Types qf social
1908), has been outlined by van Gennep in structure in eastern Indonesia is based on, for the
'L'action individuelle et I'action collective most part, inadequate 2nd second-hand
dans la formation du culte de la Sainte ethnography, quite unlike Fortes's work, the
Vierge' (Revue des idJes, 5, 1908, 386-92; product of his own substantial and systematic
reprinted in Rites, moeurs et IJgendes, pp. 122- fieldwork experience.
36). His first concern is to urge, as does Leach, Whether or not Van Wouden's thesis is
that the comparative study of such meta- correct or not is still very much an open
physical ideas should begin with that religion question and will remain so as long as there is
which we know best and the history of which a paucity of good material from this area. But
has been most reliably attested. then, as Van Wouden was dealing, even in
Rodney Needham 1935, with historical records, it is unlikely that
~ n i v e r s i t yof Oxford fieldwork can either validate or invalidate his
ethnographical statements.
Hocart, A. M. 1954. Social origins. London: ~h~~ to vanWouden we owe a theory
Watts. which adequately explains the facts at his
Leach, E. R . 1967. Virgin birth. Proc. R. disposal, whereas F~~~~~~~ work derives its
anthrop. Inst. 1966, 39-44. very significance from the use of an intensive
H. A. Virgin fieldwork method, though he recognisesthat
birth. Man (N.S.) 3, 651-3. facts only acquire meaning in the light of an
[This correspondence is now closed- adequate theory (1949: vii). In this respect it
Hon. Ed.] is arguable, therefore, whether Van Wouden's