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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T46


Review of G. W. Locher, “The Serpent in
Kwakiutl Religion: a Study in
Primitive Culture” 11

The attempt has been made in a number of recent works to interpret
from the viewpoint of systematic sociology the ethnological data
relating to the Kwakiutl Indians which I have assembled over a long
period of time. George Davy's work, “La foi jurée,” V. Larock's, “Essai
sur la valeur sacrée et la valeur sociale des noms de personnes dans les
sociétés inférieurs” and the present volume belong in this category.

Dr. Locher's investigation is based on the assumption that every mythology
must be systematic. He says, “Of much greater value than the
statement that certain foreign elements have penetrated into a culture
is the answer to the question, why and in what manner these elements
have been accepted. And for this we need some insight into the cultural
system as such. This is pre-eminently true of mythology, which is dominated
by a strict system and which by no means consists of a fortuitous
hodge-podge of figures and motifs.”

There are no criticisms to be raised against the first part of this statement.
The conditions under which cultural traits are accepted or rejected
present one of the most important and, at the same time, most
difficult subjects of ethnological investigation. On the other hand, I
have grave doubts regarding the second part of the author's statement.

It has become customary to emphasize the unity of culture and to
attempt to discover the “function” of each and every act or thought in
the cultural system. The complaint has been made often and by every
earnest student that the stereotyped ethnographical description provides
us only with disconnected fragments of the living culture. If the
old method is still being pursued, this is due rather to technical difficulties
that often cannot be easily overcome than to a lack of recognition
of the fact that a penetrating investigation would bring to light
much that is important and new. However, it is not justifiable to conclude
446from the defects of the available descriptions which do not reveal
a unity of culture, that the whole culture must be a compact unit, that
contradictions within a culture are impossible, and that all features
must be parts of a system. We should rather ask in how far so-called
primitive cultures possess a unity that covers all aspects of cultural life.
Have we not reason to expect that here as well as in more complicated
cultures, sex, generation, age, individuality, and social organization will
give rise to the most manifold contradictions?

Dr. Locher seeks a systematic interpretation of mythology without
asking himself whether there is such a thing as a mythological system.
His method of proving this point, as that of other investigators who work
toward a similar goal, appears to me as follows: Myths are not what
they appear to be. They hide a deeper significance which we must
discover. The investigation is based upon a comparison of the stories
which are grouped around the different mythological figures, upon an
examination of their names, attributes, actions and associations with
other figures. It is hoped in this way to recognize their “true” significance
which is unknown to the living native himself, in part, because
the original meaning has been forgotten, in part, I presume, because it
is taken for granted that the real “system” is just as little known to him
as the grammatical system of his language.

It seems to me that such attempts to discover the “true” essence of
myths are analogous to the primitive way of thinking as assumed by the
same investigators. As myths to the student of mythology are not what
they seem, so to the primitives sun, moon, stars, lightning, clouds are
supposed to hide a deeper meaning. They are conceived as a system, as
a form of human life endowed with greater powers. The logic in both
cases appears to me the same.

If we assume that the mythological system was at one time clearer
than it is today, we are obliged to examine this theory by means of an
historical analysis. Thus we are thrown back upon the much-maligned
analytical method which proves that the material of every mythology
does not by any means represent an old system, but has been assembled
from many sources, partly in times long gone by, partly quite recently.
If in spite of this fact a system should exist, it would have arisen out of
the reorganization of all the native and foreign material into a new

It can be shown in many cases, and especially in the instance of the
Kwakiutl and Bella Bella with whom Locher deals, that parts of the
447mythology have been introduced quite recently and have never been
worked into a system.

I do not deny that in exceptional cases the whole mythology, or at
least a great part of it, may have developed into a system. This is especially
true when an orthodox mythology is being cultivated by a small
priestly group, whose thoughts revolve essentially around matters of
religion. Even in these cases the exoteric mythology seldom agrees with
the esoteric system.

The second assumption which may be made by the interpreter of
myths is that a system is present even though it never finds clear and
conscious expression. This assumption is likewise contradicted by the
constant changes of the contents of mythology which absorbs contradictory
stories without any difficulty.

All this is particularly apparent in the material treated by Locher.
In these tribes unity of culture is based essentially on the valuation of
social position. Every individual must have something, possession of
which raises his social standing above that of his fellow tribesmen, and
this possession must be defended under all circumstances. We can
clearly recognize the influence of this underlying principle upon the
mythology. The tribes are divided into groups which are based essentially
on blood relationship. Each group has its myths and each one
embellishes its legends with ever-new additions in order to maintain its
social standing.

My accounts of personal reminiscences of the Kwakiutl go back
approximately to 1850, and a number of earlier dates are well authenticated,
so that many details of their history can be traced back to the
beginning of the nineteenth century. I conclude from these reports that
the complete cycle of cannibal myths did not penetrate into Kwakiutl
mythology before the first half of the nineteenth century, and that the
related ritual has been introduced piecemeal as a result of intermarriage
with northern tribes. Even at the present time the scene of the principal
myth of this cycle is laid in Rivers Inlet, outside of Kwakiutl territory,
and the myth is narrated as belonging to one of the subsidiary
groups of that tribe. The countless stories in which the cannibal spirit
has been substituted for wolves, bears, and other creatures, which bring
supernatural gifts, are obviously new inventions to prove the rights of
other groups to the highly esteemed ritual. The ceremonial “cannibal-post,”
the symbol of the house in which the ceremony takes place, was
introduced about 1850; the woman associate of the cannibal, perhaps
4481858. Not a single one of the myths 12 characteristic of the spirit presiding
over her ceremonial has taken hold among the Kwakiutl.

One of the most interesting cases is the myth of the supernatural birth
of the son of a dead woman, who later becomes the wanderer who is
always hungry. I recorded the story for the first time in 1888 in
Nahwittee, close to the northern tip of Vancouver Island; and again
about 1900, this time also from a native of the same village. In 1931
no one in Nahwittee remembered this story. Inquiries with reference to
the former narrators brought forth the information that the first one
was the descendant of a man who had lived with the Tsimshian for a
long time as a slave. Unfortunately I do not know how my second
informant was connected with this family. The story belongs to the
Tsimshian raven cycle, was for a time a favorite with a certain Kwakiutl
family and inserted by them into the main cycle of this region.

Dr. Locher emphasizes particularly the tale of Qā'tenats, who discovers
that the chief of the sea is the double-headed serpent. This is the
only instance of this identification among the Kwakiutl. The name of
the hero of this story, which comes from the southernmost part of the
tribe, indicates that we are dealing here with a Comox story. Moreover,
the same story is told by a Comox tribe. 23 The Comox narrator
does not speak of the sea spirit, but rather of the double-headed serpent.
Presumably the Kwakiutl narrator, who was not familiar with
the double-headed serpent as an inhabitant of the sea, introduced in its
place the sea spirit he knew. Consequently it may not be identified with
the serpent.

The entire method by which the double-headed serpent is to be set
down as the fundamental concept of Kwakiutl mythology seems to me
to rest upon a complete misunderstanding of the relation of the Indian
to his mythology and of the development of the mythology of these
tribes. Objections such as those here touched upon, could be raised
against practically every step of the author's consideration.

It seems to me that every non-historical explanation of myths which
seeks to establish a systematic symbolism suffers from the same error in
logic. It is probably possible, wherever sufficient material is available,
to recognize that mythologies are not stable. According to the cultural
character of the people, material of heterogeneous origin develops into
449a loosely connected whole, influenced by the basic concepts and the art
style of the tribe. Almost always it reveals gaps and breaks which go back
to its origin. In a theoretical treatment, mythological narratives and
mythological concepts should not be equalized; for social, psychological,
and historical conditions affect both in different ways. A systematic
explanation of mythological stories seems to me illusory. We may
accept the fundamental concepts of the myths, the supernatural creatures
of the sea, land, sky, and the underworld, for what they are; we
may likewise assume their partial identification with natural phenomena;
but the attempt to find in the stories a symbolic significance which
is not immanent will rarely lead to acceptable conclusions.450

11 Deutsche Literaturzeitung (1933), pp. 1182-1186.

21 “Bella Bella Tales,” Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, vol. 25 (1932),
p. 74 et seq.

32 Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, vol. 24 (1892), Verhandlungen, p. 63.