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Róheim, G. (1932). Psycho-Analysis of Primitive Cultural Types. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 13:1-221.

(1932). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 13:1-221

Psycho-Analysis of Primitive Cultural Types

Géza Róheim


'There was once a little girl, who was playing with her dolls. She called out to her mother: 'Mother, I do love Mahommed'. The

Figure 1


Figure 2


mother answered: 'God give him bliss!' 'Not Mahommed the prophet', said the child, 'but Mahommed in our village'.

The same little girl was playing with her favourite doll. 'Haven't I told you to give up playing with that doll?' said her mother. 'But this doll isn't the camel-driver; it is a soldier, ' said the child.

The doll only seems to be a doll: in reality, it is the hero the little girl longs for. And the child's Oedipus attitude is the prototype and the basis of the adult's life.

Let us now turn to another question. Somewhere and at some time, whether in Arabia or North-east Africa, there must have been a group of peoples (Hamitic or Semitic) who first extended the practice of circumcision to include girls and combined it with the sewing-up of the vagina. Taking the Somali as representatives of this group we are naturally led to ask what psychic motives decided them to do so.

A Somali in Budapest told me the following dream:—'A Hungarian girl came to see me at night and wanted me to marry her. I took hold of her breast and hips and fondled her. She lifted up her dress and I saw her hairy vagina. I was seized by an appalling terror and cried out: 'There is a head in your vagina', and the fright woke me'.

The Somali do not in fact tolerate any hair on the sexual parts, either in men or women.

There only remains the question: whose is the head in the vagina? If we recall the story of the worm in the vagina and the notion that the clitoris is the woman's penis, we may justly conjecture that the reference is to a man's 'head'—in other words, his penis.

A figure which constantly appears in Somali fairy-tales is the wicked father-in-law, who demands an impossible sum, the suitor's whole fortune, as the price of his marvellously beautiful daughter. If we look at the dream of the young man who could not retain his excrement in his father-in-law's presence, we shall conjecture that, in the unconscious, the Somali bridegroom is castrated anally by his father-in-law. In the woman's vagina lies the dangerous worm, the penis regarded as an instrument of castration, and the wish nevertheless to find one there is repressed at such a cost of cathectic energy that the repression has to be somehow expressed in action. And so it is: the clitoris—the woman's 'penis'—is cut off.

When I asked my informants whether homosexuality was practised amongst the Somali, they denied it most emphatically, though there is a tern for it in their language. Besides the curse: 'Copulate with

your mother', there is another: 'Copulate with your father'. They told me that they had only learnt this from the Arabs within the last ten years. If you say it to any Habr Aual, nothing happens, they are already used to it. But if you said to an Eyssa: 'Copulate with your father', he would spring at your throat and might even kill you. He would say: 'What do you mean by that? My father hasn't got a vagina!' We thus see that with these tribes the negative Oedipus complex can only be repressed by a great expenditure of cathectic energy. They cut off the girl's 'penis' as a kind of demonstration that they do not seek the penis. but in treating their girls like boys (i.e. in circumcising both), they betray a far-reaching intermingling of homo-sexual and hetero-sexual tendencies. The women, however, also contribute their share to this. The girls fight like the boys and the women perhaps even more than the men. A woman in the heat of the fray hurled at her antagonist the taunt: 'Come on! Fight me if you are a woman!' The phrase describes the situation. We should say: 'If you are a man!' We should never think of co-ordinating fighting prowess with womanhood. At all events we have to note that the masculine tendency is very strongly developed in these women. But the best proof that we are not exaggerating the part played by castration anxiety in the unconscious of the Somali is to be found in their tribal myth.

'In olden times the Somali were ruled by an old woman, named Arranello. She had given strict orders that the testicles of every new-born boy were to be cut off. She ruled according to her pleasure, and none opposed her. Finally, the men who had no testicles found an old man who still had his. The queen bade the eunuchs bring her a load of Kirid (berries) on a camel, but without a sack. They were all terrified and begged the old man to advise them what to do. He lay hidden in a bush and he advised them to plaster the camel's back with soft earth and stick the berries in it. The queen was greatly astonished and said: 'Who gave you this counsel? I am surprised that there is still a man in the world'.

Then she commanded that a ladder should be made, to reach from the earth to the sky. The old man advised them to go to the queen and say: 'We will make it, if you will tell us the length'. Once more she was greatly astonished. The eunuchs then desired to water their camels and they asked her leave. She said: 'To-day I am going to wash my fingers in the water'. When her daughter bore a son, the queen immediately ordered him to be castrated. But the daughter

besought her so urgently that she allowed the boy to keep his testicles till he was six months old, as long as he was still a suckling. When the boy was a year old she saw that he was a strong child and she said: 'I am afraid he might kill me', and she tore one of his testicles to pieces with her nails. When he was nine years old, he killed the old woman and tied her body on to a camel's back. Then he whipped the camel till it went off at a gallop. Her body was rent in pieces and all over Somaliland one can see her graves. The passers-by throw stones or rags on these mounds. Women throw rags as a sign of reverence, and men throw stones in revenge. Drake-Brockman gives a somewhat different version of the latter part of this legend:

'One morning he (the young man) went to Arawailo and asked her if he should take the camels to water, whereupon she replied, "No", as she had not washed her little finger. On the following day he again went with the same request, only to be refused, but this time her reply was accompanied with the excuse that she had not washed her ring finger. This same excuse she made on seven consecutive days, only each day she said she had not washed a different finger.

… On the eighth day she consented, and accompanied the young man … to the wells. He had previously arranged with his friends that he would kill her at the well side, so that they might all see him do it, and he also told them that if Arawailo, when he speared her, uttered the words "Tolla aiydi", he would possibly request their help, as then everybody would know that she was a man, but if, on the other hand, she uttered "Ba aiyai" (the woman's exclamation on receiving a wound) they might leave her to him without interfering.

The much dreaded Arawailo, however, on receiving the first thrust, gave vent to the latter or woman's exclamation, and was forthwith rapidly despatched.

It is not difficult to explain the detailed features of this myth. How can the eunuchs without a scrotum [German: Hodensack —scrotum; lit. 'testicle-sack'] deliver the berries (the semen) to the queen? How can they build a ladder to the sky, i.e. achieve an erection? Only a proper man can accomplish these tasks; only with the penis can the 'dreadful' mother be overpowered.

Now she is overpowered in coitus, that is, when the man drives his house or camel (penis) to be watered at the well (vagina). Therefore

the queen refuses permission and prefers to dip her fingers in the water (masturbation). Nevertheless there by the spring she is speared by the man in the end, i.e. he performs coitus with her.

As at the inception of tribal life, so on the threshold of ontogenesis, we find the Somali's concern for his penis. When a male child is born they take pains to cut the umbilical cord in such a way as to leave as much as possible, and then they try to stretch it, for the longer it is, the longer will be the penis. They tie the part which has been cut off into a knot, which the mother keeps in her bag. If a delivery is not going smoothly, this piece of the cord is held over the fire and the woman sniffs the steam.

With the help of the myth of Arawailo we can now throw more light on the structure of this castration-anxiety.

When we consider the fact that the Somali extirpate the penis (clitoris, worm) from or out of the vagina, we may envisage two possibilities. Either the dread of the 'wound'—the vagina—is the real and main dread and the phantasy of the penis in the vagina is a way of consoling oneself with the thought that after all the wound is not so bad. Or else what is really repressed is the dread of the father, or of his penis, and the dread of the vagina is merely a substitute arrived at by displacement. In this case the mechanism would be that of a phobia, and the father's penis would be the true repressed which returns from repression (the vagina). The myth is in favour of the second alternative. The old man (the father) is hidden in the bush and from being the real enemy he is transformed into an ally. The doubt: 'Man or woman?' also suggests that behind the cruel queen there is after all the figure of the primal father. With the mother the son can deal alone through the sexual act, but in order to vanquish the primal father, the hero needs the support of the horde of brothers. So it is with the parallel situation in the life of the individual. Is castration-anxiety determined only phylogenetically, i.e. by the nature of sexual intercourse (ejection of semen, cf. Ferenczi)? Or is it a question of a real danger an actual threat of castration?

When we take account of what we were told about the practice of inviting the small boys to masturbate, we should be inclined to favour the first suggestion. but we learn what great care is taken that brother and sister should not sleep in the same bed and that coitus should not take place in front of children, or at least only in the dark. The most important contribution to this question, however, came from the Dalbahanta woman Fathumo. Her brother used to be quite

different she said. He used to take an interest in his mother and sister, but now he would have nothing to do with them. What happened was this. Their father was a dealer in Nairobi and there he married a Kavirondo woman. She never left him in peace and stirred him up against his son, who was already grown up. The old man was of a savage and cruel disposition, and one night he got up and want to where his son was sleeping, took hold of his testicles and began to press them and utter threats. From that time on, the son was completely changed and never spoke another word to his father, mother or sister. The father has now long been dead. She has sent money to her brother, who had formerly been very good to her, but she has had no answer, so thoroughly did this 'primal father' succeed in frightening his son away from mother and sister. Now with a people amongst whom an actual attempt at castration occurs, we need have no hesitation in assuming that the threat of castration is a real one.

Summing up, we may say that the peculiarly excitable, very quarrelsome and vain character of the Somali is, like the custom of infibulation, connected with a specific way of dealing with castration-anxiety. Part of it is dealt with by reaction-formation and manifests itself as masculine courage and exaggerated national pride. Part is repressed. But this repression is translated into action—and here we have a significant difference between this people and the civilized races. First, it is acted out in the form of autotomy. The prepuce and the clitoris are cut away; the Eyssa cut off an enemy's penis, for, without this trophy, they would not get a wife. Secondly, the repression is enacted in the form of scotomization (Laforgue), for, after the vagina is stitched up, it is actually no longer visible.

With regard to libidinal organization, we can say that the men are at the stage of phallic sadism and the women at that of an unresolved masculinity-complex and unsatisfied object-love. Like the women of Europe not long age, they run after poets and replay to the reproaches of their men: 'You give us no bahilaua (love-poetry); all you do is to come and have coitus with us'. In a word, the men's anxiety can only be imperfectly dealt with in the abridged dramatic fashion of the rites of infibulation, cutting open, etc. On the other side, the woman can hardly succeed in making good by libidinal cathexis so excessively sadistic a trespass on her. The Somali themselves sum up the relation of the two sexes in the following story:—

A woman once said to her husband: "There are two questions I want to ask you. First, why is it that all men love women and women do not love men? And secondly, when we have intercourse, I lose myself altogether and surrender all the lower part of my body to you. But you, why do you always want to press on further and further?" The man answered: "A woman loves a man more than he does her, but she is faint-hearted and cannot reveal her secret. And I always press forward in coitus because no man has yet fathomed the depths of a woman".

The woman loves the man and thinks that when she gives him her vagina she surrenders everything. What she does not trust herself to give, however, is object-love. 'Why should he always press on further, towards the upper part of my body—towards the whole being of a woman—when I have already given him my genitals?' So with the man. He says nothing in his answer about 'pressing on' to the upper part of her body. He simply has to pierce more and more deeply, that is all that he gives to the woman. But the phallic weapon is not love.

We see, then, that the sexual practices of a people are indeed prototypical and that from their posture in coitus their whole psychic attitude may be inferred.

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