As promised, this post will consist of unabashed speculation about where the taboo on incest comes from.
You might know about the Kibbutzim – the great Israeli experiments in communal living. Though as societies they did not do badly, as experiments in socialism, they were failures. A lot of studies were conducted by many learned and wise men on what we can learn from those experiments and a lot of interesting things were learnt. For example, one of the interesting things that these wise people learnt was that gender roles invariably came back, even though the participants in the Kibbutz were nominally committed to stamping out gender differences – i.e. men and women invariably ended up doing different things, and they ended up doing the same things that men and women do in the outside world.
But the study that I am interested in looked whether adolescent boys and girls in a Kibbutz got attracted to girls and boys from the same Kibbutz. Remember that they’d typically have parents who were extremely liberal as far as sex went, so you couldn’t blame society for any taboos.
It turned out that the opposite happened. Girls would dress ultra-conservatively when boys from the same Kibbutz were around. Intra-Kibbutz marriages were very rare. Why did this happen?
The theory was that having been brought up practically within the same household, the adolescents would unconsciously think of others as brothers and sisters and thereby forbidden for sexual liaisons – this of course would imply that the taboo on incest has genetic origins, not just social origins.
The “natural” unit of human society is not the nuclear family – it is a tribe consisting of an extended family. Before humans learnt to distinguish between “brother” and “cousin”, it would have made more sense to intuitively distinguish the world into “boy-from-my-tribe” and “handsome-stranger-from-outside” and learn to prefer the latter. The young people in those Kibbutzim were applying the same pre-rational logic, at least that is the speculation.
The second example is from closer (if you are in India). Kingsley mentioned that South Indians have this weird practice of marrying their cousins. True, but in fact it is more complicated than that. You can’t marry just any cousin, and here I am afraid the resources of the English language fail me in describing the situation – I’d have to resort to block diagrams and stuff. But basically the idea is that your mother’s brother’s daughter is allowed, but your mother’s sister’s daughter is your sister. Similarly, your father’s sister’s daughter is allowed, but your father’s brother’s daughter is your sister. In fact this rule goes even at the second cousin level – your father’s father’s brother’s son’s daughter is your sister, but you can marry your father’s father’s brother’s daughter’s daughter.
All this might seem very complicated, but that is only because I cannot use a South Indian language or a diagramming tool to explain it to you. South Indian languages have a symmetry that make the whole thing seem completely natural. For example, the word for “father-in-law” is exactly the same as the word for “mother’s brother”. “In North India” you cannot marry your mama’s (i.e. maternal uncle) daughter” is basically impossible to translate into Kannada, because you end up saying “You cannot marry your father-in-law’s daughter”, which is absurd. Your mama’s daughters bear exactly the same relation to you as your wife’s sisters.
Now if the Kibbutz experiments told us that the taboo on incest is probably inborn, what does South India tell us? How is the poor sod who has some innate ideas about incest that he probably has no control over, to know that his Chikkappa’s daughter is his sister while he is allowed to flirt with his Mama’s daughter? My guess is that while we have innate categories for “boy-from-my-tribe” and “handsome-stranger-from-outside”, who we put into those categories is to some extent influenced by society.
To what extent? There is the example of Ancient Egypt of course. My understanding was that the weird practice of actual brothers and sisters marrying was an extreme example applicable only to the Pharoahs, to preserve royal blood and all that. My understanding was also that both the husbands and wives took on lovers from outside routinely, so the practice was not actually successful in breaking innate taboos.
But a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York challenged that idea – it turns out that in Ancient Egypt, it was routine to use “brother” (or “sister”) to address your lover. I heard a love-song where the terms are used to convey the idea of “soul-mates”, i.e. someone who is so close to you that you are practically one body. Further research told me this
From the close family relationships in Egyptian mythology and the fact that Egyptians seemed to have no taboo against incest, many have concluded that incest was rife in ancient Egypt.
There were probably some brother and sister marriages, but more likely than not, the siblings in question would have been half-brothers and half-sisters. The problem arises from the limited Egyptian terms of kinship, which are very confusing. A ‘father’ could refer to the actual father, the grandfather or male ancestors, while ‘mother’ could be the same, but for the females of the family. ‘Sister’ could mean a lover, a wife, a mistress or concubine, niece or aunt!
The royal family, on the other hand, did have more incestuous marriages. The royal blood ran through the females, not the males. To become pharaoh, a man had to marry a royal princess… which would be his sister or half-sister
So may be they weren’t so weird after all.