“Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture”
by Marvin Harris
1974 Random House
Why do Jews and Muslims refuse to eat pork? Why were thousands of witches burned at the stake during late medieval Europe? These and other riddles are explored by famous anthropologist Marvin Harris, and his conclusions are simple: people act within social and ecological contexts that make their actions meaningful. Put another way: cultural ideas and practices that seem strange to us may actually be vital and necessary to the people of those cultures.
Harris is especially good at explaining how societies create elaborate rituals to avoid harming the natural ecosystems they depend on, which clarifies the Middle Eastern ban on pig products. It turns out the chubby animals compete with humans for the same foods. Raising them in large numbers would place great strain on a land made fragile by thousands of years of deforestation and desertification. Better to ban them entirely and not risk further ecological damage.
This logic is then extended to elucidate why the institution of warfare probably first arose as a way to limit population pressure on the environment. In Harris’ words, “In most primitive societies, warfare is an effective means of population control because intense, recurring intergroup combat places a premium upon rearing male rather than female infants.” Since the rate of population growth depends on the number of healthy women, privileging males by making their larger bodies necessary for combat is a way of reducing the need to “eat the forest.” Not that male supremacy and violence is the BEST way to curb population growth, but it’s one ritual that societies have adopted to meet that goal.
This discussion of patriarchy leads to an exploration of class. The emergence of “big men”, chiefs, and finally the State is explained as a cascading distortion of the original principles of reciprocity into the rule of redistribution. “Big men” work harder than anyone in their tribe to provide a large feast for their community – with the only goal being prestige. Chiefs similarly pursue prestige, and plan great feasts to show off their managerial skills, but they themselves harvest little food. Finally “we end up with state-level societies ruled over by hereditary kings who perform no basic industrial or agricultural labor and who keep the most and best of everything for themselves.” At the root of this construction of inequality is the impetus to make people work harder to create larger surpluses so that greater social rewards can be given out to show off the leader’s generosity. But only at the State or Imperial level is this hierarchy enforced not by prestige but by force of arms, to stop the poor and working classes from revolting and sharing the fruits of their labor.
The most provocative sections of the book deal with revolutionary movements that fought for this liberation, within the context of the religious wars of Biblical Judea and Late Medieval Europe.
First, Harris tackles the Messiah complex by showing that Jews around the time of Jesus waged near-constant guerrilla warfare against their Roman rulers and oppressors. Perhaps half a million people died, in probably hundreds of Jewish uprisings, all led by religious insurgents called Messiahs. Whether Jesus was one of these revolutionary warriors is disputed, but Harris argues that the concept of the “peaceful messiah” only gained prominence later during Roman backlash, as a way to distinguish between the “harmless” Christians and the rebellious Jews. Finally, when Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, its emphasis shifted once more to be compatible with evangelizing the largest military on Earth as it colonized the Mediterranean and killed insurgents.
Christianity would come full circle and provide the ideological backing for revolutionary movements against the dominant social order of Europe during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. At the time feudalism was in crisis and huge peasant movements like the Anabaptists, led by messiah-like zealots, were gaining large followings against their noble and clergy overlords. These Christian messiahs called for breaking up large land estates and providing for the poor masses, who were suffering from unnecessary poverty and disease. The threatened defenders of Church and State needed to cook up some kind of distraction that would divide the population, while authorizing to executions of revolutionary leaders (who were mostly female).
Witchcraft fit the bill nicely. With the Pope’s approval, the accusation, torture, and execution of hundreds of thousands of “witches” effectively disrupted the enormous peasant movements and brought legitimacy to the forces of law and order. Harris explains, “The clergy and nobility emerged as the great protectors of mankind against an enemy who was omnipresent but difficult to detect. Here at last was a reason to pay tithes and obey the tax collector.”
If this crackdown on an invented evil parallels the spectre of “terrorism” today and the war on anti-American Islamist movements, then perhaps Marvin Harris’ effort to explain the seemingly insoluble mysteries of distant cultures can also come full circle to help us make sense of our own society. If Washington is the new Rome, then who are the new messiahs? Or, in a secular sense, who are the people concerned for the poor majority that suffers unnecessarily in our own time?