Fertility Rites and the Married Body: Remembering an ancient past through symbolic imagery
Published in anthro.philica.com
Before spoken language images were used to convey meaning. Across the globe cave art, monuments, and human remains point to the earliest type of communication, nonverbal, spoken through imagery. It is known that these images heralded the achievements of the earliest hunter-gatherer societies and paid homage to their gods. Unfortunately, the meaning behind many of these images had been forgotten by the time written language appears. As a result, it is unclear how or what these societies nonverbally communicated in everyday life. We can surmise, based on customs, rites, and physical artifacts that status, kinship, and spiritual beliefs were "written" into the tribal record through images. Over time customs and rites developed independently from their original meaning. However, remnants of their original meaning may remain in the form of symbolic imagery. In spite of this most societies choose to maintain the customs and rites either because of necessity or fear of the spirit world.
One result of these customs and rites is kinship, specifically marriage. Marriage functions to unite a group at the familial and societal level in pursuit of a common goal. This can be physical, to protect members of the unit; economic, to maintain and feed the unit; or spiritual, to appease the spirits who control nature. At the individual level marriage functions as a means by which men are given sexual access to women and women are given the right to bear offspring . Anthropologists have clarified this functionalist theory of marriage to include the legitimatizing of any children born during the marriage. In the end marriage becomes an interpersonal relationship, independent of gender, which has been sanctioned by society. This relationship through kinship must be communicated to the other members of the society in some form that is immediately evident. In most cases, this is nonverbally communicated through the marking of the bride and/or groom.
Once a society establishes categories of status, lineage, and spiritual affiliation, the body must be manipulated "in order to create a mechanism for viewing social relations". Manipulating the body in order to communicate marital status employs three methods of ornamentation: mutilation, application, or attachment. Mutilation of the body includes head deformation, constriction of the waist, and filing of the teeth. Application of a pattern to the body is done through scarification, tattooing, and painting. Attachment of an object onto the body includes both jewelry and clothing. In all cases the ornaments have been imbued with meaning that has been taught to members of the society from generation to generation. Therefore, members of the society are given nonverbal cues as to how they are to behave around a particular individual. Marking the body "tells" the trained viewer that a bond has already been established; thus, neither party should engage in flirtatious or "inappropriate" behavior.
According to Edward Westermarck the original meaning behind marriage customs and rites "are often not mentioned at all, or the interpretation given of it shows that the idea originally underlying has been forgotten" (Westermarck 1922). On the surface marriage customs and rites, specifically marking the body, function to communicate kinship. However, I believe the original function of these markings was to promote fertility or to honor the gods and goddess whom prehistoric man saw as "giving life". Analyzing marriage customs and rites across cultures, rather than in isolation, I will demonstrate that commonalities occur in terms of location on the body, pattern, color, and material used. From there I will discuss the links between these commonalities and Neolithic fertility iconography.
As stated earlier, ornamenting the body to convey marital status occurs in three ways: mutilation, application, or attachment. In order to find meanings behind the various forms employed we must look to similar cultures to establish commonalities. To accomplish this, samples were gathered on wedding customs and rites from anthropologic, archaeological, ethnographic, historic, and sociological sources. Whenever possible literature was collected from nine geographic areas; Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America, Oceania, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. These samples were then compared to Neolithic fertility iconography as outlined in Ariel Golan's Myth and Symbol.
Mutilating the Body
In anthropological terms mutilation is defined as altering the shape of bone or skin (Bunzel 1962). It includes such customs as head deformation, constriction of the waist, and filing of the teeth. Of the three, mutilation is the rarest form of marking the body. Unlike application and attachment mutilation usually occurs on a location of the body that can not be hidden. As a result the individual is constantly reminded of their relationship to another either through personality changes or physical deformity.
Bridegrooms in Ethiopia are flayed prior to the wedding ceremony. The procedure involves having the skin below the navel and down the thighs cut and peeled off leaving the stomach, pelvis, genitalia, and inner leg uncovered . During this test of endurance the bride may reject the groom if he flinches during the ceremony. Although the mutilation does not create a permanent alteration of the skin it does present the members of the society and the married couple with a temporary, visible reminder of the young man's status.
Two forms of mutilation of the mouth, in particular the teeth, are extraction and filing. In the Awka (Somalia) a bride's teeth are filed. Here the bridegroom traditionally asks for and funds the procedure. The meaning behind the rite is unknown but it was seen as enhancing beauty. Today the practice is loosing favor as younger generations choose to embrace Western ideas of beauty.
The Seniang (Vanuatu) require a bride's incisor teeth be knocked out prior to the wedding ceremony . In most cases the suitor has provided payment for the procedure. The main meaning cited for the ritual is that it signifies the woman's transition from a child with "milk teeth" to a wife and mother.
The Arunda (Australia) practice nasal piercing. During the male puberty ceremony the nasal septum is bored through and a nose bone inserted. The piercing is also done to wives by their husbands immediately following the ceremony. After a number of years the nose itself will flatten out at the nostrils. For the male this type of ornament conveys his strength and endurance. For a female it communicates her strength, endurance, and status as a married woman.
Another form of mutilation that is physical but not visible is genital mutilation. Examples of genital mutilation include the removal of a testical or the clitoris. Practiced around the world the custom "modifies the personality of the individual in a manner visible to all". In most practicing cultures it is a prerequisite for marriage; however, it is not applicable to this discussion since it is usually performed on unmarried individuals.
Iconography of Mutilation
In these four examples we have two areas of the body that are marked, the face and genitalia. In the Ethiopian example the reproductive area of the male is mutilated. The ability to endure pain is usually accomplished by moving "outside" one's body. The flaying in this case brings the groom closer to the male god of fertility as he moves from the physical world filled with pain to the spiritual world filled with peace. If he does not "cry out" he is not denied the right to create offspring. In the Awka and Seniang examples the teeth represent the Neolithic, male, sun god. According to Dr. Golan, a prehistoric sun deity popular in Africa and Asia was represented as a disk surrounded by triangular "rays" resembling jagged teeth (Golan 1991). In these cases the woman's symbol for the female "earth" goddess, the mouth, is cleansed of the male deity and becomes ready for conception. The Arunda example is the most symbolic of intercourse as it is a "piercing" of an orifice. In terms of fertility the animal bone used to pierce and fill the hole symbolizes the viral male deity of the hunt, while the nose that contains the breath of life symbolizes the female deity of birth.
Adorning the Skin
The application of a pattern to convey marital status is applied to the body by scarification, tattooing, and painting. Together they are the second most popular form of body marking and occur on almost every continent. According to anthropologists Ludvico and Kurkland scarification is a rite of passage from one state to another (Ludvico & Kurland 1995). Scarification and tattooing indicate permanent membership to a particular group, "married people". They also mark the individual's transition into adulthood and place a value on the individual's level of maturity, evidenced in their resistance to pain.
Scarification entails making incisions into the skin and applying ash or medicinal herbs. Eventually, the incisions form faintly visible scars. Tattooing involves using a needle and ink to form a series of dots, which when viewed from a distance form solid lines. Painting is often a temporary procedure that usually lasts for a month. During that time members of the society are provided a visual clue that the individual is bonded. In every case the symbols incised on the skin are the same as those found decorating everyday objects like pottery and textiles.
The Awka (Nigeria) use scarification symbols called, mbubu, down the chest of a bride after the marriage ceremony . The mbubu is a tree representing "respectful fear" . According to the Awka the location on the chest serves to mark her marital status and her right to bear children. The Ghilzai bride (Afghanistan) has a tree design tattooed on her forehead before the ceremony . The tree-of-life is a traditional symbol of fertility in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Therefore, one could surmise that the tattoo serves to not only communicate marital status but also promote fertility.
The G/wi (Botswana) shave and tattoo the bride and groom . The two are marked together from head to toe with a design of their choosing. As they are tattooed female attendants rub blood from one to the other, making them of "one blood". Afterwards ashes of magic and medicinal roots are rubbed into the cuts, leaving black cicatrices. G/wi believe the scars bring prosperity and happiness.
For the Kodi (Indonesia) tattooing is a female rite reserved for wives who have bore live children . In many cultures a couple is not seen as "married" until they have successfully reproduced. After a woman's first live child is born her forearms are tattooed in a pattern similar to those found on their textiles. Patterns include diamonds, radiating lines, and chevrons. The Kodi believe the more tattoos the greater the value of the wife; therefore, most mothers get a tattoo for every live child.
The highest concentration of tattooing can be found in Polynesia. A Maori wife employs complex wave-like designs on her lips and chin to indicate her marital status. In Motua (New Guinea ) a woman's last tattoo is a V-shaped design added to her chest to signify sexual fidelity to her husband (Sanders 1991). On the Fiji Islands the groom builds his bride a house while the bride is tattooed along the buttocks and lower abdomen. A Samoan groom's face is tattooed before the ceremony and on the Marquesas both the bride and groom are tattooed. Examples of Polynesian tattoos include wave-like curls, rosettes, and lines with triangles running above and below.
The most popular use of paint of a temporary nature is henna or mendhi. Derived by drying the leaves of a shrub found in India, North Africa, and the Middle East henna is applied onto the bride's hands and feet before the ceremony . Designs usually involve stylized feathers, swirls, paisley, and radiating lines. Henna temporarily marks the marital status. As it fades, usually in a month, the message of kinship has been "sealed" into the group's memory. Another application of paint occurs in Hindu wedding ceremonies. Upon completion of the ceremony vermillion is applied to the bride's parted hair to purify and bring spiritual blessing. From then on she will always wear vermillion either through the parted hair or on her forehead.
The Havasupai (Arizona) use red paint on a married couple immediately follow the woman's first menstruation as a wife. According to Whiting the couple's respective mother's cover the couple in red paint, give them a lecture, and send them running around the camp. Red is the color most often associated with menstrual blood. It was often used in Neolithic iconography to represent the earth goddess who brings forth vegetation (Golan 1991).
Iconography of Patterns
Patterns and colors used on the body mirror those found on textiles, pottery, and sculpture . Images of feathers mimic the winged underworld god who flies towards the sun goddess, represented by rosettes, impregnates her causing life-giving rain, symbolized by lines or triangles. Other symbols for goddess life-giving water include waves leading into curls and zig-zags. Finally, messages of fertility are often conveyed on areas of the body, specifically the reproductive areas like breasts, thighs, and bellies for women and chest, shoulders, and legs for men.
The most common means to convey marital status is the attachment of an object onto the body. These include items of jewelry like rings, bracelets, anklets, and earrings; as well as, items of clothing like skirts, shawls, veils, and hats. The majority of African, European, Middle Eastern, North and South American, and South Asian cultures now use jewelry or clothing to communicate marital status. Because hundreds of examples exist from around the world I have chosen a few to highlight two types of objects: jewelry and clothing.
For jewelry the most common shape is circular. According to many cultures, an unbroken circle is unbroken symbolizes the couple's indissoluble unity; however, a more sinister interpretation concludes that it represents the fetters used on female slaves . In terms of the material used, it can vary from extremely precious, like gold, to everyday, like grass. The symbolic meaning has evolved to include the strength of the married couple's bond (Westermarck, 1922). The more "precious" the material, the stronger the bond.
The material used for jewelry can also convey messages. Romans used iron to symbolize strength and durability while the Irish used human hair to symbolize the bodily exchange of two becoming one. Sometimes the groom's wealth dictated the material used. This is evident in medieval peasant weddings where grass, wood, and leather was used. The most popular material for jewelry is gold. Considered the purest metal, gold has been used to represent the bride's virginity, the romantic bond, or a husband's wealth.
Inscription maintains an important role in marriage jewelry. In many cultures in Europe and the Middle East the names of the bride and groom are inscribed inside the item. The inscription serves a portable "document" of kinship.
The ring is the predominant piece of jewelry used to represent marital status. Although the most common place to find a wedding ring is Europe, it is found elsewhere. In Japan the bride and groom exchange rings, usually made of gold . Among the Fors (Central Africa) the bride and groom exchange rings seven days after the marriage ceremony (Westermarck 1922). Among the Augila (Libya) the husband receives the ring that had adorned his wife's nostril after the marriage has been consummated .
The finger a ring is placed on can vary according to tradition. In Europe the most popular location is on the fourth finger of the left hand. In ancient times it was thought that a certain vein ran from this location directly to the heart. According to C.J. Thompson "most people wore the ring on the left hand since most were right handed and the left was considered inferior or weak. Thus it symbolized submission and obedience". The notable exceptions are Judaism, where the bride's ring is worn on the second finger of the right hand; and, Russian Orthodoxy, where both spouses wear a ring on the forefinger of their right hands.
The second most common item of jewelry used is the necklace. It has been theorized that the necklace, like the bracelet, harkens back to a time when women were bonded to their partner through capture rather than consent. Like other pieces of jewelry it can be created out of most any material, the most common materials are metal or leather.
Masai wives (Kenya) wear necklaces of iron and earrings called "surutya" to communicate their marital status. Unfortunately it is not known whether iron represents fecundity, kinship, or wealth. Among the G/wi the husband is responsible for making a necklace for his wife. The G/wi are married before puberty. After the wife's second menses the husband must cut two small sticks, decorate them, thread them on a thong, and present them to his wife who must always wear it around her neck. The G/wi consider this a "badge" of her new status as wife.
From the time they are young girls the Samburu women collect necklaces made of wire and wooden beads . Over the years until her marriage, she can amass a collection around her neck that weighs twenty to thirty pounds. The beads serve to elongate her neck and create a pleasing "whoosh" sound when she engages in courting dances. During the wedding ceremony she will remove half of her beads and award them to other women in her family. She will then add an mparo, a set of necklaces featuring a frontal and central red bead, to her remaining collection. The red bead may convey fertility representing the color of menstrual blood.
Another culture that favors the bead is the Igbo (Nigeria). An Igbo wife withholds consummation of the marriage until her husband presents her with costly colored beads that are worn around the waist. The more beads a woman receives the more valued she is as a wife. The location of the beads around the waist could signify fecundity, as it is where the fetus is "housed" during pregnancy.
In most Hindu ceremonies a necklace called a ta:li, a M-shaped piece of gold inscribed with the husband's name or the name of a goddess, is threaded onto a turmeric coated string and tied around the wife's neck. Not only communicating the woman's marital status, the gold is said to represent longevity for the couple. It should be noted turmeric, said to generate sexual "heat", is rubbed on the couple on the day of the ceremony to give them a "glow".
Bracelets to convey marital status are used primarily in Africa and Asia. Unfortunately, in all the cases analyzed no specific meanings beyond a marker of marital status could be traced to the materials used. Among the Samburu a married woman wears an iron "wedding band" on her wrist as well as the mparo necklace described earlier. An engaged Iriqwe girl is presented an iron bracelet called an angra, which she will never remove.
The Nandi (Kenya) use a sprig of sekutiet grass on each other's wrist (Westermarck 1922). Grasses and wheat are always associated with fertility. During the wedding ceremony of the Basuto (Lesotho) the father kills the fattest ox, cuts off the dewlap, cuts it into two, and ties one piece onto the groom and the other onto the bride (Westermarck, 1922). Early man sacrificed animals to the gods of fertility; therefore, the dewlap from the ox could be what remains of the ancient practice. During a Bengal wedding ceremony the bride is presented with conch-shell bangles from her father and an iron bracelet from her husband. The conch-shell bangles represent her dowry and the iron bracelet signifies she has a living husband. Iron could be used here to convey the strength of the bond since the bracelet must be broken when the husband dies.
We have few examples of anklets as a marker for marital status. One interesting example comes from the Wamba (Congo). According to tradition the copper anklets worn by wives were once used to prevent wives from running away. Over time women have used them as a means of displaying their husbands' wealth, similar to a platinum ring in Western cultures.
Bahima wives (Uganda) undergo a number of alterations during and months after the marriage ceremony. Immediately prior to the ceremony her head and pubis is shaved. A few months after the ceremony she will return to her familial village and undergo a second shaving, have her nails trimmed to points, and her ears pierced and jewelry added. Among the Samburu husbands replace their flamboyant ivory earring of bachelorhood with smaller ones and the women will adopted specific pendant style earrings (Cole 1979). It should be noted that the process of piercing could also fall under the heading of body mutilation as it permanently alters the skin.
Iconography of Jewelry
During the Neolithic period the finger and ring symbolized the phallus and vulva. Put together they represent the earth goddess and her consort, the underworld god, in the act of procreation. The M-shape resembles the ancient symbol of the comb associated with the rain goddess of the Neolithic period (Golan, 1991). Beads, by their shape and unique sound when in mass, represent rain clouds. Metals, because they come from underground, are said to represent the viral underworld god, necessary for procreation (Golan, 1991).
Like other forms of ornamentation clothing "speaks" to a group and expresses their public memory. Women's clothing does much of the talking since many cultures require wives and mothers wear particular garments, styles, patterns, or colors. Color plays a crucial part in the message with the most common colors (red, black, and white) symbolizing the three bodily fluids of blood, excrement, and milk.
Pre-World War II Europe clothing was employed as a tool to express marital status. In the Shetlands after a bride was married she was "given the permission" to wear white at subsequent weddings (Hutchings, 2004). Polish brides would wear a white hood until they bore a son (Gaya 1687). This would symbolize their eternal unity. In Austria a white "matron's cap" would be placed on a bride's head immediately after her maiden's crown was removed (Hutchinson 1897). Hindi wives wear colored saris, while widows and divorcees wear white or light colors.
Triangular shapes are used often in clothing style and patterning. Before the 1920s Yoruba wives (Lagos) wore a shawl called an iborun . Dyed in colors of orange and yellow the iborun was worn around the neck or worn diagonally across the body. The Atuot wives (Sudan) wear a triangular skirt that they have receive from their husbands . The skirt is seen as a token of affection and is venerated through tribal songs. A wife from Badaga (India) wears a triangular head cloth tied across the brow and behind the ears to cover the back of the head and nape. In ancient symbolism the triangle resembled a hanging breast which produces milk. It is possible that beyond marital status the skirt and head cloth are used to bring fertility.
Edward Westermarck recorded an interesting custom among the Ath Ubahthi (Morocco). The belt of a wife's robe was tied around the husband's head covering as long as she was ungirdled (Westermarck 1922). This signaled that the man was unavailable and reminded him that he had a "vulnerable" wife at home.
Covering the body in the presence of males who are not immediate relatives is a common practice in the Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Zulu wives (Central Africa) must cover their bodies before any male . Today Khanty wives (Siberia) and Bahima wives (Uganda) must veil their face from male in-laws to remove "temptation".
A final analysis of clothing concerns religions whose members are not concentrated in one area. Hasidic wives cut off their hair and will never be seen in public without a wig or turban (Rosencranz 1972). Muslim wives around the world may practice purdah. The custom calls for wives to remain completely isolated from men, including their husbands. When they are required to travel outside the home they must be completely covered in a burqa, with only their eyes visible.
Iconography of Clothing
As stated earlier the use of color in clothing is symbolic of blood, excrement, and milk. But these are surface interpretations, further interpretation reveal color's link to fertility. In some earlier cultures white represented the fertility goddesses who gave breast milk, in the form of rain, to the crops and animals. In other cultures vibrant colors represented virility and fertility as they were in such contrast to the muted colors of nature . The shapes of garments also give clues to earlier man's worship of fertility deities. The triangle, when pointed heavenward, represented the male god in the form of a cloud and the female god when pointed towards the earth . Finally, covering the upper torso or head with a veil or other cloth symbolized the "Great Goddess", mother of the pantheon, who brings life and death.
Throughout a review of the literature hairstyles emerged as another form of marking the body. Before the 1900s it had been the tradition for European wives to wear their hair up, oftentimes in elaborate styles (Westermarck 1922). In China, wives wore their hair in elaborate up-do's held in place with blunt thick needles. Today husbands and wives around the world still maintain specific hairstyles to convey marital status.
The most common "married" hairstyle is braided. According to Klaus Ferdinand, Pashtun wives (Afghanistan) change their hairstyle from "maiden's fringe" to a parted style with many small braids. The Ghilzai (Afghanistan) braid the bride's hair in an elaborate style on her wedding day, after which it will always be worn that way. A Yoruba wife (Nigeria) wore their hair in an agogo . The style consisted of small side braids pulled together to form a crest on the top of the head. It should be noted that from the side the style resembles the outline of a breast. Thus the style could have been used as a symbol of fertility. In Somalia wives arrange two braided circles behind their ears (Puccioni 1936). The Ait Tameldu (Morocco) would smear the bride's hair with henna and arrange it in two braids, the married style. When a Hopi (Arizona) girl reaches puberty her hair is dressed into two whorls representing squash blossoms, which are symbols of fertility (Bunzel 1962). When she is married her hair is worn in a single plait.
Shaving the head bald is found primarily in Africa and Oceania. Bachelors from the Samburu, shave off their elaborate braids after they marry (Cole 1979). The Nuer wife has her head completely shaved by a member of her husband's family after the union has been consummated . The procedure is done to remove her "maiden's hair". Wives in Fiji would shave off their yellow, dyed ringlets once they were married. Both bride and groom from the Bahima have their head and pubis shaved in separate huts, on the same day, and before sunrise (Oberg 1949). Later the wife will undergo a final shaving in her familial village. At that time her head will be shaved in the spiral pattern used to denote marital status. Shaving the hair into patterns is also found in Botswana and Cameroon. After her first menstruation as a wife a G/wi couple are shaved simultaneously in a matching pattern (Silberbauer 1963). During an Etap wedding ceremony the bride has her head shaved into the form of a crescent.
Iconography of Hair
Braiding the hair into two plaits mimics the antlers of gazelle or deer. During the Neolithic period these animals were not only used in typical hunting scenes but also symbolized the "Great Goddess", the giver of life . Through her benevolence early man was gifted with life-sustaining game. The Neolithic goddess of rain was often depicted as vertical waves . Thus hair, when left long and flowing, represents rain falling from the sky. The interpretation is that prehistoric men and women sacrificed their hair to the goddess in return for fertile crops and children.
Looking back to Neolithic symbolism we find clues to the meaning behind contemporary, physical manifestations of marital status. Today, ancient symbols have been reinterpreted to denote tribal affiliation, kinship, and devotion to a particular deity. Early hunter-gatherer societies relied on plentiful game and a bountiful harvest in order to survive. They saw nature as being controlled by deities who ultimately controlled their very lives. Fertility, procreation and children insured that early man had more warriors to hunt and women to work the fields. Over time they paid homage to their gods of nature through images. Talismans, worn on the body invoked the power of fertility and birth. By ornamenting the body early man sanctified themselves to their chosen deities, reinforcing the fragility of life.
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Information about this Article
Published on Tuesday 6th February, 2007 at 20:03:53.
Peer review added 7th February, 2007 at 19:42:51
Lists of anthropological exotica such as this article consists of easily fall victim to a kind of prurient Orientalism, even when that is not the author’s intent. The two safeguards to this are to carefully document the sources, and to embed the information in some meaningful context. I would have liked to see more of this in the article (although clearly it is heavily researched).
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