A Re-interpretation of a Male Initiation Ritual: Back to Freud via Lacan
In general, anthropology and psychoanalysis have not established a working relationship with each other, despite a cross fertilization of ideas between the two in the early days of both disciplines. Thus Heald, Deluz, and Jocopin say: “the most notable feature of European anthropology and psychoanalysis over the last sixty years has been their estrangement”(1).
Anthropology, as Wallace points out (2), has drawn mainly ideas from Freud’s psychological writings, rather than his anthropological ones. Within Freud’s Totem and Taboo it is the ideas of ambivalence, incest taboos, and projection that have been worked with by anthropologists, rather than his theory of totemism and the primal parricide. Even Wallace thinks that the former were Freud’s most important contribution to anthropology and the latter his least (3).
Anthropologists have generally been opposed to psychoanalytical interpretations of rituals as similar to obsessional neurosis and as about individual experience. Evans-Pritchard says of Freudian interpretations of ritual: “…the acquisition of rites and beliefs precedes the emotions which are said to accompany them later in adult life (4)”, so therefore the emotions cannot explain the ritual that precedes them. He points out that ritual and rites are cultural products, not individual ones:
…Durkheim tells us that a psychological interpretation of a social fact is invariably a wrong interpretation.(5)
Douglas castigates those who interpret initiation rites in terms of symbolism based on the individual psyche and says that psychologists turning to tribal studies:
…will find it difficult to isolate any strictly psychological levels of meaning which derive from the common experience of sex and reproduction.(6)
She says the rituals are rather about “functioning tribal systems” and that their object is to reflect and sustain a particular social order. Periodic bleeding of the penis, for example, is not about individual psychological envy of women, as Bettelheim says, but the similarity of male bleeding to women’s menstruation is a symmetry by means of which is made a statement about the dual division of the tribe (7). Hage, also, stressses the fact that an explanation of these rites has to be at a structural and not just at a psychological level (8).
However, since psychoanalysis was founded, various psychoanalysts and a few anthropologists, using psychoanalytical theories, have looked at some aspects of this initiation phenomenon, which is not surprising, for as Keesing, an anthropologist, says (9):
The Phallic flutes and bullroarers, the genital mutilations, the nosebleeding in explicit or implicit imitation of menstruation, the transparently pseudo-creative rituals should make the most hardened Lévi-Straussian turn to Freud and Bettelheim.
Heald, Deluz, and Jocopin speak of the need for anthropologists to look at psychoanalysis again: it provides “a crucially important perspective” for dealing with the human existential situation (10)and with “subjectivity” (11). Herdt and Stoller question why anthropologists cut the life from their work (12) and they believe that psychoanalysis can help to put the life back into ethnographies.
Kessing says of the study of religion and ritual that:
A psychoanalytically sophisticated view of the dynamics of the unconscious and of Oedipal conflict is necessary if we are to understand the source of the fantasy material that in these societies are crystallized into myth and ritual.(13)
Heald asks: How should an anthropologist use psychoanalysis and what can it add to our accounts? (14) My account attempts to show how a psychoanalytical approach is of use in understanding the phenomenon. I attempt to show how Freud’s social theories are as important as his individual theories, and also to elucidate Lacanian concepts by such an analysis. It answers the call of Crapanzano for psychoanalysts to consider the works of psychoanalytic anthropology in formulating and testing their theories (15) and to “…attempt to integrate social and political reality into its theoretical perspective (and not simply incorporate it)…(16)” in order to avoid political misuse of psychoanalysis.
I do not consider the interpretation I give in this paper to be the only or the total interpretation, but I put it forward as a contribution to an explanation of the phenomenon of the ritual.
Even in psychoanalysis the ideas of Freud on culture and society, expressed in Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, were largely rejected and discredited. Psychoanalysis concentrated on the individual and his pathology. One of the key concepts became that of the “ego”, with psychoanalysis seen as strengthening this ego. Freud gave central importance to the Oedipus complex, and to its related ideas of the phallus and of “penis envy” in women, and castration anxiety in men. But in some subsequent developments of psychoanalytical theory, the importance of the penis and penis-envy were played down, with biology or culture, as an external factor, stressed as fully determining. Thus Horney postulated a related “envy of women” in men (17), playing down the importance and universality of the Oedipus complex (18).
The first psychoanalytical theories which were applied to ritual initiation phenomena took the castration anxiety and the Oedipal scenario as tools for analysis. Freud directly connected circumcision to castration:
There seems to be no doubt that the circumcision practiced by so many people is an equivalent and substitute for castration (19).
In Totem and Taboo the dead father allows for society to develop, but at a price-the rejection of incest. It is a type of symbolic castration that enables the sons to have wives of their own, but not their mothers and sisters.
Most early psychoanalysts such as Fenichel, Reik, and Roheim, endorsed this view. Roheim, while talking of the bullroarer symbolism and the initiation of men, said that the “… initiation ritual is essentially the attempt of the old men to castrate the young (20)”. He aligns this to separation anxiety.
Bettelheim (21) rejects the emphasis in the literature on the theme of castration anxiety. Instead he opts for pre-phallic and pre-Oedipal themes, that of the infants’ attachment to the mother and the consequent male ambivalence over their role, and envy of their mothers’ ability to give birth-what he calls “vagina envy”: i.e envy of female breasts, lactation, pregnancy and childbearing. He points out that castration anxiety results from fear of both the mother’s and father’s ability to castrate. Here he mentions myths concerning circumcision that seem to see women as originating these rituals. (Indeed, the Sambia believe that the sacred flutes were once in the possession of women.) Bettelheim rejects what he and others call negative, destructive, sex-inhibiting anxiety evoking aspects of the Freud’s explanation of castration, particularly in Totem and Taboo. For Bettelheim, ritual transvestism, which for him expresses the desire of the male to play the role of the female, supports his view of these rituals being about envy (22).
In the Sambia, we also see, in part of the ritual complex, men dressed as women. The penis-bleeding ceremonies are for the Australian aborigines explicitly related to having a vagina, like the women, Bettelheim says. Some men in Australia, after subincision, always urinate as women do, crouching down. The Sambia have only nose bleeding ceremonies, where bleeding is associated with getting rid of any pollution by women. The nose for the Sambia is explicitly related to the penis. Bettelheim points to couvade (perhaps Sambias’ idea of men giving birth to men is related to this), as an example of men’s envy of women’s ability to give birth. He also alludes to male homesexuality in some cultures, as giving the experience to the male of trying on the role of the women (23).
Bettelheim also points out that the initiation rituals in these societies occur late in a child’s life, well after the Oedipus complex is formed, and thinks that Freud’s views on circumcision and castration relate to Western cultures where the father inspires more fear than in non-Western societies.
Dundes, in a paper on the bullroarer complex (24), rejects for the most part the phallic interpretations. Drawing on Ernest Jones’ work on the Madonna and the Holy Ghost, with its themes of anal eroticism and birth through wind (he associates the bullroarer sounds with wind), Dundes asks how the symbolic castration of a boy could turn him into a man. Would it not make him into a woman? (25) Thus, for him, the bullroarer is a substitute symbolic procreative instrument, purloined from women, its original possessor, allowing the possessor to symbolically give birth, thus indicating that an envy of women’s procreative power is at play. Rightly, he connects this bullroarer with the symbolism of the sacred flutes and furthermore associates explicitly homosexuality in some of the male initiation rituals with the envy of women and with a further rejection of women. Men do not need women’s help.
Dundes’ view is that rather than making men of boys, the rituals make women of them, a point which Heald also makes in regards to Gimsu circumcision (26). As Dundes points out, anthropology claims that the intitiations make men out of the intitiates and psychoanalysts claim that the rituals make men into women (27).
Lidz and Lidz (28), in their paper on “Male Menstruation: A Ritual Alternative to the Oedipal Transition”, as suggested in their subtitle, also see some of these initiation phenomena-the playing of the sacred flutes, the nosebleeding, the vomiting-as not so much castration themes as themes based on envy:
The men reproduce symbolically all the important elements that women have naturally, the flutes are reproductive power, nose bleeding is menstruation, and breaking the tissue first … is breaking the hymen. (29)
While the Lidz’s move away from an explanation based on the idea of castration, they do deal positively with the role of the ritual in dis-identifying the boy from his mother and redirecting him towards the father.
Hiatt, speaking of similar rites among the Australian Aborigines, criticizes Bettelheim’s explanation as not covering all such rites (30). He does see phallic rites as serving to affirm men’s position in society. But he keeps to Bettelheim’s type of explanation, when talking about what he calls the existence of “uterine rites,” which reproduce youths as men, cutting them off from their mothers. He does, however, also see phallic symbolism present in these uterine rites. In the case of the Ilahata Arapesh in New Guinea, Tuzin rejects a Bettelheim type of explanation of blood letting from the penis as being about male envy of women, as too simplistic (31). While probably imitative of menstruation, they are more about a proclamation of “the transcendental power of masculinity” (32).
So, early psychoanalytical literature on ritual initiations uses early Freudian theories to explain the phenomena. But various problems arose in regard to these explanations: the place of women in the ritual and in the mythology attached to it, the fact that some rites were explicitly said to be imitative of women, the problem of how the ritual can make a man of a boy by making him more like a woman. Explanations such as womb envy were developed. But these theories have themselves been questioned, e.g Hiatt (33) and Tuzin (34). There is the further question of the relationship of interpretations based on individual psychology being applicable to cultural material, and this question influences some of the above interpretations of the ritual phenomena.
Benvenuto, a Lacanian psychoanalyst, in The Rites of Psychoanalysis (35) looks at psychoanalysis as a ritual in relationship to the Dionysian mysteries.
An anthropologist, Obeyesekere (36), has attempted a very interesting account of the relationship of individual symbolism to cultural symbolism, without pathologizing cultural phenomena, and using traditional psychoanalytical concepts. Kurtz attempts to get beyond some of the limitations of Obeyesekere’s work, which he values, and other works in this area. He thinks that:
… contemporary schools of psychoanalytic thought (e.g. self psychology), no less than classical theory, yield pathological oriented results when they are applied to non-Western cultures without serious reshaping.(37)
A Lacanian analysis of the phenomena can cope with many of the above problems and offer a significant contribution towards solving them. Unlike Begoin-Guignard (38), who thinks Lacan is confused in relating the Oedipal triangle to group processes, I contend that such a relationship helps us to understand and to transcend the dichotomy of individual versus social types of explanation. This dichotomy has plagued both the anthropological and the psychoanalytic world. A Lacanian analysis-emphasizing the importance of the phallus as derived from Freud’s ideas on the Oedipus and castration; drawing on Freud’s social works, particularly Totem and Taboo and the themes of the primal horde and primal father; and using, particularly, the concepts of symbolic, imaginary, and real, in relationship to both castration and the father-can help us work with the above mentioned problems and give us a valuable understanding especially of the Sambia initiation ritual.
The Sambia are a tribal people living in the South-Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. They are subsistence horticulturalists. Their population is two thousand. They are surrounded by similar tribes in the Mountain district, the whole area having a population of twelve thousand people. Various alliances are made between these tribes, including marriage alliances. Historically, the Sambia are a warrior tribe and warfare amongst the various tribes was chronic.
The Western Highlands of New Guinea lack initiation rites, although there is widespread ceremonial exchange which facilitates the development of masculine identity (39). The mainstream Eastern Highlands have initiation cults, like the Sambia, although, there is no ritual homosexual activity. With the modernization many of the traditional practices no longer exist.
In Sambia culture the nuclear family is a residential unit (40).. Girls continue to reside with their parents until marriage (15-17 years). Boys are removed to men’s clubhouses at the beginning of the initiation ceremonies (7-10 years). For the Sambia the initiation ceremony makes men of boys and allows them to leave the world of women and enter the aggressive masculine warrior domain characterized by jerunga (strength, power). The initiation cycle, which covers the ages of a male’s life from about 7-8 years to the early twenties, is divided into six main stages: the first three stages are collective initiations of several hamlets, and the later three are performed in individual villages.
Third stage initiation is performed first for youths aged 15-18 years, after the building of the culthouse. Few weeks later, the second stage initiation is staged for those aged 11-14 years, after which first stage initiation (choominuku) is held.
After each of the initiations all the new initiates live in a makeshift hut in the forest, for a few months, before returning to the clubhouse of their hamlet.
The first stage initiation is particularly important and is longer, more elaborate and dramatic than other initiations, carried at over a seven-days period. There is usually little sleep, food, or water, and at times, total silence for the initiates. The level of initiation is indicated by the wearing of different noseplugs. Only fully initiated grown men can wear pigs’ tusks. During warfare they are worn pointed up, the men say like “an erect penis”(41).
Mysterious piercing cries are heard from the forest around the beginning of initiation: these are the sacred flutes, nombocla aambelu (“female frogs”). The children are told that the cries come from old female hamlet spirits, over which men have power. The boys are teased, “The spirit wants to get you, to kill you, to eat you”. Anxiety and panic are installed into the boys. They do not know what is going on, they can not escape, there is no return to their original state. They are detached from their mothers:
Whom they can never again be with-touch, hold, talk to, eat with or look at directly.(42)
The elders control the ritual process and each of the boys has a ritual sponsor, who is called, and often is, “his mother’s brother,” who is responsible for protecting the boy from too many beatings, for teaching ritual lore, etc. The guardian is selected by the boys’ father. Herdt notes that the sponsor is like a surrogate mother, with some of the same taboos surrounding him (43). The sponsor is to motivate the boy to engage in homosexual behaviour, although he himself cannot engage in sex with the boy.
On the first day of the ceremonies the boys come out of a guarded seclusion, on the backs of their sponsors, head covered. They then walk through the village, the women wailing as the boys pass. The boys are teased about what is going to happen to them.
Then, outside the village, the boys resume the position on the backs of their sponsors and, when men in warrior garb suddenly emerge from each side of the path, the boys are beaten as they charge through the gauntlet. The first purificatory ritual with the shaman’s involvement then takes place, wherein they are rubbed with palm leaves and a cloth. After their nose plugs are taken out, the children are locked up and guarded. Although in most cases the septum has already been pierced, a symbolic septum piercing ceremony is then carried out. This draws attention to the nose and to their new status. The nose for the Sambia is associated with the penis.
In the afternoon, a new noseplug is fitted. The male food, taro, is given to the boys, the first food of the day, and the last before next morning.
In the evening, dancing takes place around a bonfire. Altercations occur between the men and the women. Women are accused of sacrilege, of being uncooperative, rebellious and polluting. Women are then given the limelight. They start beating the boys, then exit from the scene. Finally, at about four in the morning, there is the frog feeding ceremony. Here the mother and son are reunited for the first and last time in the rituals. They sit and talk together and eat frogs which are then tabooed until marriage. The second day repeats much of the above. On the third day a purificatory ceremony and a public thrashing take place. Mothers try to shield their sons and are also hit. From now on the boys’ backsides will be covered by bark. The possum spitting ceremony is then held in a hut, with the boys having to spit up to the shaman who is on the roof.
The most painful of the ceremonies is the nose bleeding ceremony. The boys are led down to a stream and then, caught by surprise, are forcefully penetrated in the nose with grass reeds by the elders. Later, the boys are rubbed all over with stinging nettles which for the Sambia burn off the childhood skin. In each of the ritual activities, jokes, and comments with homosexual connotations are bandied about.
Then boys for the first time see the flutes, which are inserted into their mouths. They are hit with the flutes, and an association with fellatio made. Their former old pubic aprons, which the women also wear, are removed. They are warned against adultery on pain of castration.
The boys then enter the culthouse. This is the last time the women can ever look at them intensely. At this time some of the women are physically abused by the men. They are criticized for having stunted the boys’ growth, and are told that their sons had to be killed to make them into men.
In the cult house, flutes are played by men dressed as women. The boys are told about semen, and the necessity to ingest it, if they are to become men. Throughout the night and over the next few days, the boys are initiated into “homosexual” oral intercourse.
The next day various purificatory rites take place, some involving hallucinogenics. Various ritual instructions are given, and various taboos are explained, to the boys.
In this first initiation, boys lose their childhood names and receive their adult ones. Finally there is a bullroarer ritual. Grown men engage each other in a final vicious thrashing, allowing the boys, perhaps, to view the final end product of the masculization process.
The second stage initiations are simpler. During the days the boys cannot sleep, eat, drink or speak. Certain taboos of the first stage are lessened. Purificatory rituals are undergone, stinging nettles are used, a new noseplug is given to them. They are told to ingest as much semen as possible.
In third stage initiation, the above rituals are performed again. The boys can neither sleep nor move about. Singing takes place all night, nose-bleeding is done and warrior armbands are received.
After this third stage, initiation becomes the responsibility of the bachelors’ village. Up to now all heterosexuality has been ruled out. Henceforth, boys will switch to an active role in homosexual intercourse. But still, between third stage and fourth stage initiations, where the formal marriage rite takes place, no interaction with women is permitted. Several youths usually undergo this ceremony together, where the possums captured by hand are given to the bride’s family. The brides resemble men in their attire. Still the men cannot look directly at women, and still no sexual intercourse can take place.
In the fourth and fifth stage initiation ceremonies, the men also learn how to replenish their semen, lost in intercourse, by drinking the white tree sap, called “tree mother’s milk”.
The first sexual contact with women is fellatio and takes place after female menarche.
Fifth stage initiation takes place around the time of the woman’s menarche. Here the man learns purificatory techniques to ward off being polluted by his wife-a private nose-bleeding ritual which will have to be carried out in the future after his wife’s menstrual period. A man can now have genital sexual intercourse with his wife.
Once the woman has a baby, sexual intercourse with boys stops for the man, and the sixth stage initiation takes place with purificatory ceremonies, nose-bleeding and semen replenishment teaching. Now, with final initiation, full manhood is just about completed, but to achieve this a second child must be born. In the final initiation the man is told the myth of male parthenogenisis.
In Sambian sexual philosophy, females are believed to become women naturally, as their bodies contain a menstrual blood organ, tigu, that hastens physical and mental development, puberty and eventually menarche. Womb blood and maternal care are said to hold men back and to endanger their health. Males need semen to reach puberty. Their bodies, said not to produce semen naturally, require insemination by obtaining semen from older youths through oral sexual contacts. Symbolic equations are made between ritual flutes, the penis, and the mother’s breasts as between semen and milk. Women need oral insemination of semen in order to produce milk.
Herdt (44) mentions both the Oedipal and pre-Oedipal aspects of the rituals, the pre-Oedipal being about the close relationship of the child to the mother and then the separation from her in the ritual; and the Oedipal being about identifying with the father, from whence he can now go on to desire women other than his mother. But mostly, he aligns himself with the Bettelheim type of explanation, based on envy of women (45). He argues that the flutes involved in the rituals (parallel to bullroarers) are like fetishes. They serve as symbolic substitutes for the boys’ mothers. The flute is a detachable phallus: like a transtitional object, it offers the penis and homosexual relationships as sensual substitutes for the mother breast. These serve as partial substitutes for the whole mother (46). For Herdt the close relationship between the boys and their mothers necessitates some type of ritual to separate one from the other. The boys must dis-identify with the mother and identify with the masculine. The absence of the father, both psychologically and actually, further heightens the problems of separation.
Herdt, here, suggests that: “…initiation is an alternative to the Oedipal transition” (47). However, in the end he opts for the rituals being about pre-Oedipal development rather than centrally concerned with Oedipal concerns. He concludes:
The outstanding impetus of Sambia first stage initiation concerns the generalized difficulty of the male’s separation-individuation from his mother and traumatic adjustment into the highly masculine gender role. (48)
Herdt here takes Mahler’s work on separation-individuation, seeing it as being about pre-Oedipal concerns. He combines this view with Bettelheim’s view of the early period of a boy’s life being about envy and identification with the mother, and he disassociates this view from Freud’s, Reik’s, and Roheim’s emphasis on castration and the incest taboo. I do not see such a view as, seeing this phenomena as being just transitional ones akin to fetishism, doing justice to the phallic signification, as being a central structuring principle, not just of the rituals, but of the whole Sambia culture.
Separation from the mother is an Oedipal concern. It is carried out by the command of the father. Certainly the pipes and homosexual contact come in place of the mother, not as secondary or transitional phenomena, but as primary phenomena. They come as compensation for the separation from the mother, and involve an entry into culture, and the possession of the phallus. Unlike fetishism which disavows the castration of the mother, these rituals very much present the mother as castrated. Obeyesekere, an anthropologist, tries to keep to basic psychoanalytical concerns such as castration and Oedipus. He is rightly criticized by Kurtz, who accuses him of psychoanalytical dogmatism, when he describes the Sambia as engaged in regressive concerns, in their ritual activity. Kurtz suggests that the practice of collective fellatio is a way of pulling initiates out from incestuous attractions and moving them towards heterosexual activities (49). But Kurtz does this by abandoning the universality of the Oedipus complex and of castration anxiety.
Obeyesekere keeps to these themes, but is hindered from making a more positive analysis of the practices, as are all the analysts mentioned so far, including Kurtz, by not seeing the role of symbolic (50) castration as against actual or imaginary castration of the penis. The penis is seen as the Phallus by these writers. The lack of the concept of the symbolic leads both Obeyesekere and Kurtz to different understandings of the phenomenon. Obeyesekere keeping to a Freudian view ends up seeing the Sambia engaged in regressive concerns. Kurtz moves away from Freudian ideas to a new type of explanation which he calls polysexualization, where “… infantile desires are overcome through a collective seduction of the child into more mature forms of pleasure” (51)
With an understanding of the difference between the symbolic, imaginary and real registers (52) of human experience, as Lacan developed them, and their applicability to the themes of the Oedipal scenario and castration, the above explanations of Obeyesekere and Kurtz can be further developed.
Just as to leave out Oedipal concerns in analysis would be to ignore the central principle that structures an individual’s personality, leaving one working more on the surface level of the individual, so in the cultural social world, to leave out Oedipal concerns would be to look at society on a more surface level. This has lead some interpreters to looking at ritual initiation in the Sambia and elsewhere as defensive phenomenon. Thus Obeyesekere sees it as regressive phenomenon, and Spiro sees these types of initiation ritual arising in cultures that have not sufficiently repressed the Oedipal complex. He sees it as a wasteful development (53). But I would find useful to look at the Sambia rituals’ emphasis on masculinity, strength, semen, etc. To not give such an account, would be a fundamental lack in analyses of these types of rituals and to miss the utmost importance which Freud (as shown by Lacan) puts on the Phallus (54), and which the Sambia also explicity put on it.
The Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris shows us so well, according to Goux, the function of the phallus (55).
The god Osiris is killed and his body dismembered. His companion Isis reassembles the corpse but can not find his penis, so she replaces it with a simulacrum which she orders everyone to honour. Goux in this brilliant analysis of the Phallus and its relation to Initiation rites, points out, also, that it is a woman who reassembles the body and puts the simulacrum in place, and it is the women who then parade this phallus (56). Van Baal writing of the Marind-anim culture of South New Guinea points out, and wonders why, a male effigy used in the cult has a detachable phallus (57).
For Lacan “the phallus is a signifier”, albeit the “privileged signifier” (58), underlying all other signifiers. It has a symbolic rather than real or imaginary role and it is veiled. It is not a phantasy (59). It is a similacrum, a fabrication that simulates what is missing, making it larger than life. It “… is the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generations” (60), giving access to enjoyment (a certain limited, cultural form of enjoyment, masculine jouissance) (61). He associates it with exchange:
… women in the real order serve … as objects of exchange required by the elementary structures of kinship … while what is transmitted in a parallel way in the symbolic order is the phallus. (62)
Other psychoanalytical theories mistake the phallus for the penis. We can see this difference of the phallus from the penis by looking at a Sambia myth of male parthenogenesis, which Herdt places at the centre of the male initiation rituals, and of male life. For the Sambia men, it is not until the last sixth stage initiation, that they learn about this myth.
Numboolyu’s penis was so small, that he did not know what it was and it was not enjoyable to his partner Chenchi, who had now changed from a man into a woman, although she still had no vulva. Chenchi, therefore, with a bamboo knife, slit open Numboolyu’s foreskin, exposing his glans penis, whereupon it became bigger and nicer (63). Here, perhaps, we can see a castration (a symbolic one), and an unveiling of the Phallus. Numboolyu here lost his female breasts. He became a man with possession of the phallus. Chenchi became pregnant. Numboolyu made a vertical slit in the women’s pubic area, and this created a vagina for the women (64). We can say that the woman discovered her castration, here. She definitely did not have the phallus. The possession or not of the phallus, is seen in this myth to separate the sexes. Both the man and the woman were, in this myth, in some way, symbolically castrated, but only in the man’s case was there a substitution of the phallus. Here, then, in this myth we can see quite clearly the difference between what Lacan calls the penis and the phallus.
The second part of the myth shows why the castration is brought about. On being approached by one of his sons, who asks what he can do with his erect penis, Numboolyu, thinking that the boy would go to his mother and so incite fighting between father and son, sent his son to the boy’s brother. Homosexual intercourse now makes up for intercourse with the mother.
Herdt comments that:
We can hardly ignore the Oedipal content of this last part of the narrative and that the mythology makes it quite clear that homosexual activities come about in order to avoid incest, fighting and parricide. (65)
But Herdt stresses more the ritual as disguising men’s deep doubts about maleness. He calls it a transsexual phantasy arising “from the inability to be convinced that one is really a male and not a female” (66).
While this is true, I think, that it is not so much because a transsexual phantasy is involved, what could be described as imaginary phenomena, but because the Sambia are right, one could be a woman. The possession or not of the Phallus decided this, as indeed, the myth of Numboolyu shows. Before the symbolic castration, Numboolyu had only a useless penis, and his sex itself was ambivalent. He had breasts. The penis was symbolically destroyed and this, paradoxically, enabled him to become a man. The phallus, for Lacan, stands in for the absent penis. The doubts, then, of the Sambia about being a man are the usual doubts of those who have the Phallus. To interpret this phenomenon as being just phantasy material, is to not see its central signification in the construction of “being a man” for the Sambia.
The myth of Gandei is about some men coming upon a deep canyon, where women live, without grass skirts-which is unusual, as females are always covered from when they are babies, in the Sambia society. They are said to live without men, although it is said that the big yaandu tree, with its fruits like the glans penis, is their man. The women chase away any men who come upon them, frightened that they will cut down the tree.
As the first two myths have parallels with Oedipal Complex as seen in Freud’s The Ego and the Id (67), so we can see parallels between this myth of Gandei, and what I call Freud’s “social Oedipal,” in Totem and Taboo (68).
In the myth of Gandei the old tree, or father, has all the women to himself. Any boys born to the women are killed (kept from the women) or if we conflate this to the myth of the brothers, they could join in homosexual activity, that which Freud said the men engaged in before the killing of the father. But in the Sambia myth, the men do not kill the father, they do not take the women. They are left looking on, they lack power over the powerful women. The men are impotent or castrated on the level of this imaginary. In their lives the men would be subjected to imaginary phantasies of castration. But this is not to be confused with Numboolyu’s castration, in the first instance by his wife. The effect of this was to make Numboolyu a man and to allow him to have a potency, albeit a limited one. This is symbolic castration. In the myth of Gandei only the primal father of Totem and Taboo is present, who, seen in the old yaandu tree, keeps all the women to himself. In the previous myth of the brothers, the boys are kept away from the women, in homosexual bonds. There is, thus, a submission to the father but not a subjection, which would give to the men the status of true men with rights and duties. In the first myth there is, thus, a symbolic castration, that enables Numboolyu to become a man, by having the Phallus.
In the initiation ritual the boys find their way through the Oepidal dilemmas to the position of men, as having the Phallus and are able to take wives.
There are two dimensions of the Oedipal theme: the Social Oedipal (of Totem and Taboo, 1913) and the individual Oedipal (of the Ego and the Id, 1923). It would be helpful to look at the initiation in the light of these two dimensions. I have divided the Oedipus into these two aspects but still keep them closely related. Usually the two are kept separated. Often only the individual dimension is kept, and then this is applied to the analysis of cultural phenomenon. Lacan following Freud keeps the two together. In the social myth, Freud postulates an initial primal horde ruled over by a despotic father, who keeps all the women for himself (69). The only way out of the situation for the brothers is to come together to kill the father, which they did. They devoured him, thus ending the rule of the primal father. Be devouring him, they to some extent identified with him, gained some of his strength, celebrating in the totem meal, this event which for Freud was:
The beginning of so many things-social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion.(70)
After the initial killing, remorse and guilt so overwhelmed the brothers, that instead of carrying on the governing system of the primal horde, they gave this up and, both, outlawed the killing of the Totem (the father), and gave up the women of the group. They were thus forced to look elsewhere for women, and so the taboos against incest and homicide were instituted. This civilised organisation of themselves, forced on them by their father, and perhaps based on homosexual feelings and acts (71), issued in the organisation of society, based now on exogamy and the exchange of women. At the centre of all of this was castration. Before the death of the father the sons were either killed or castrated if they raised their father’s jealousy (72). As a psychical event, this would be seen in Lacanian terms as an imaginary castration, that which makes a man impotent. This is the same as the boys in the myth of Gandei; they look on the women in envy, and are subservient to the primal father’s power. How, then can they become men, if they are castrated? In Totem and Taboo and in the myth of Gandei there is an imaginary castration that makes men impotent. But, Freud speaks of circumcision as being:
… the symbolic substitute for the castration which primal fathers once inflicted upon his sons in the plenitude of his absolute power (73)
and he says that a person who submitted to this was prepared to be subjected to the fathers will. So, here we have in Freud the idea of symbolic castration. Freud also associated circumcision, as a ritual, with initiation ceremonies and with other practices, such as cutting hair, knocking out teeth, etc.(74). There is a symbolic castration at play in these ceremonies. The totem meal and circumcision are symbolic ways of re-presenting the primal events of Totem and Taboo. I maintain that for the Sambia the ritual events of the initiation have the same function. The bleeding of the nose is a type of circumcision, the ingesting of the semen, and later sap, is a type of symbolic meal.
In the ritual of initation being a man is associated with taking part in society. Such men enter the hunting group, they take wives, they have children. The status of this group of men are similar to that of the men of Totem and Taboo after the killing of the father. In both cases they now live in a rule governed society, where they can, as members of the society, take part in governing.
For the Sambia, there are the same homosexual bonds previous to this final stage as for the men in Totem and Taboo. These bonds later give way to heterosexual bonds, in both cases. Marriage takes place sometime towards the end of the initiations. Is this when the primal father is truly dead, for the Sambia, that the boys turn into men? But who is the father?
Freud talks of an actual castration occuring, but he also, when talking about circumcision, talks of a symbolic castration. In Totem and Taboo, to all extents and purposes the boys are made impotent by the primal father. After the killing of the father, men are symbolically castrated by circumcision which is a subjection to the dead father. In the Sambia ritual, actual fathers are involved in the rites, although, generally they keep away from their own sons. Ritual sponsors, older men, from the tribes where the men will obtain wives from, are important. But all the men act in the name of the ancestors, especially the founding father, Numboolyu. The initiates, in the rituals are given their new adult names (admittedly by their mother), but the names connect them to an originally named ancestor (“the father”). So the actual father and the other grown men in the rituals mediate access to this founding father.
Here again, it is not the actual father that is important but the symbolic father. The subjugation to the primal father, in the case of the men in Totem and Taboo, is analogous to the subjugation of the child initially to his mother in the case of the Sambia? Quinet (75) says that we can see in the mother, the father of the primal horde. So, for the Sambia, it is from the mother that the boy has to get away from, to become a man. We remember that in the myth of Gandei there is some ambiguity over who is a man or not. It is said that there are only women in the place, and yet, there is the old yaandu tree, the fruits that look like the gland penis, and the tree serves as their man. We are also told that the women in this place do not cover themselves. In one sense then they seem not to be castrated. They seem quite phallic. We remember also from the first myth of Numboolyu that at the beginning, the sexes are a little ambiguous. Namboolyu has breasts and is not yet circumcised until his partner performs that act. Also, then, we may say that the mothers for the Sambia are phallic until the initiation ceremonies convince them otherwise, by killing the mother, by showing her to be castrated. Lacan speaking of the relationship of the subject to the phallus as not being tied to anatomy says “…the mother is considered by both sexes as possessing the phallus, as the phallic mother” (76).
For the Sambia, the boys are described as being killed (77), that is, we could say, they are killed as identified with their mother and they are in a way born again from men, in the “Name of the Father”. The presence of the women at various points in the mythico-ritual complex-the women used to possess the flutes, they initially castrated Numboolyu, five of the flute players dress up as women-is not so much the indicator of women’s superior power and therefore, the markers of men’s envy, as other writers have said. No, these are harkenings back to the primal father, the mother, in the Sambia case, and also maybe are indicators of the support for the “Name of the Father”, which Lacan says will not be effective without the support of the mother.
So, in the rituals, this father (the mother) is killed. Initially, nearly everything is done to separate the boy from his mother. He is taken away, not allowed to speak to her, or to look at her, early in the initiation. In the ceremonies, women are generally ridiculed and/or beaten at some point. The boy is left, in no doubt about who possesses the phallus, and who is castrated, and the ritual is then, about how he is to come to possess it.
There is, also, in the nose bleeding, and in the thrashings, a type of symbolic castration, that takes place, which is symbolic of subjection to the dead father. The boys are warned on pain of castration, against adultery, when they are older. So it is either an actual castration or a symbolic one that they must undergo. The rituals allow them to undergo a symbolic castration.
Turning now to the individual Oedipus, we see in the myth the conflict over the mother, between father and son. We have seen this present in the Sambia, in the second myth spoken about. Initially in the symbiotic union of mother and child, Lacan sees the child as identifying with the mother’s desire, the phallus: “…the child wishes to be the phallus in order to satisfy that desire” (78). To get out of this all powerful relationship, there is a necessity for the intervention of a third factor, the father. The father intervenes by means of a prohibition, a no to this initial relationship of son to mother, and this can be seen as a symbolic castration. The son is cut off from the overwhelming relationship with his mother and he enters the cultural symbolic world. There is a sacrifice but, also a gain, just as there was for the boys in Totem and Taboo. The father forbids the desire of the mother by the son, and permits identification with himself, as having the phallus. So the boy goes from being the phallus for the mother to having it, by way of loving, and then identifying, with the father. Benvenuto and Kennedy point out that the boy runs a risk of maintaining a feminine and homosexual position and they see the mother as holding the key to the solution of the Oedipal problem, particularly when the father is distant (79). Also, the mother has to accept or mediate the father to the child. Perhaps, as mentioned before, the points where the feminine interrupts in this ritual is indicating this acceptance.
We see in the Sambia culture the distance of the father from their children. The child’s world is almost entirely taken up by the mother, and maybe the mother’s by the child. Given the suspicious relationship between male and female in Sambia culture, the women usually coming from an enemy tribe, this closeness might be exacerbated. Also there is a long post-partum sexual taboo with a long period of breast feeding. But this closeness definitely changes after initiation.
From the beginning of the initiation, the boys are forcefully removed from the mothers and the women, by way of beatings, nosebleedings, and general injunction not to approach the mother. They are slowly deprived of any identification with the mother. The boys are made aware throughout the rituals of the feminizing potential of women and the necessity of this being counted by the ingestion of semen. They are told that once men also had breasts and lacked a phallus, at least a useful one. It is only in anxiety and by means of semen, that boys can become men, and do away with the feminizing influence of women.
The initiation ritual, then, accepts that a boy does not become a man naturally, that a cultural process has to be undergone. In the ritual the boys realize that the women do not have a phallus and that they themselves can have one, not naturally, but by undergoing bloody, strenuous, dangerous rituals.
We can see in this, the first stage of the Oedipal scenario-separation or breaking from the mother. In speaking about circumcision rites in Morroco, Crapanzano says that:
… it renders the time of (separation) anxiety into an event within time… It is the time of desire that has succumbed to symbolic substitutions to culture and history. It is a time that rests cruelly upon mutilation and pain-the great sacrifice that to Freud necessitates civilization (80)
and he plays upon the Freudian idea of illusion, pointing out that the ritual makes seem real, that which is only symbolic (81). This idea, transferred to the Sambia, would place an emphasis on the new desire the boys obtained, by way of their mutilations and endurances.
After the separation, what happens next? Benvenuto & Kennedy (82) talk about a movement towards the father, a “père-version” in Lacanian theory. The no of the father to the relationship to the mother introduces the boy to the life of the men.
In the initial stage of the Sambia ritual, the boy is introduced to fellatio. He takes up the passive position, like a woman, and receives semen from the older initiates (usually from the men of his potential wives’ tribe). Here, there is still an identification with a woman at play, but he has moved on. A male is involved as love object. There is then, over the next years a movement to where he is in the dominant position, the fellator. In all of this time, his culture has impressed upon him the power of men over women. Gradually, he comes to identify himself with the men. He, can be said, to not so much submit, but to be subjected to the father. Lastly, he acquires a wife and has children. By subjecting himself to his father, the boy has moved from an identification with his father as having the phallus, and he is now, having given up his mother, able to enter into his tribe’s exchange of women with other tribes, and thus gain his own wife. As the men in Totem and Taboo re-enact the killing and devouring of the father in the totem meal ceremonies and in circumcision, so do the Sambia. Each month, at the time of their wife’s menstruation, privately, the men practise nose-bleeding rituals-protecting themselves from contamination by the feminine. The original ritual nosebleeding was like a circumcision, the nose equalling the penis. The monthly nose-bleeding, then, commemorates, or re-presents this initial act, that was the start of their rebirth as men. It signifies that they have the phallus (given that the phallus is not a natural object). Rather than just being an imitation or an envious attitude towards women who have the power of giving birth, it is more, it is a celebration of their birth as men from men, in the Name of the Father. Also, the original ingesting of semen, that which makes a man, does not take place after the final initiation is over, but there is the ingestion of sap from the trees, which is a symbolic equivalent to semen.
At the end of the rituals the men can acquire a wife from another tribe, usually in some kind of exchange, just as in Totem and Taboo the men can acquire wives, once they can accept a symbolic castration. The sexual homosexuality gives away in Totem and Taboo to a social homosexuality, which is the basis of society. This happens in the Sambia case also. Exogamy is installed and so is the law of Oedipus. Goux says that ethnology makes clear:
… the function of male initiation … in the exchange of women … there can be no woman acquired without a woman given up.(83)
Lacan relates the exchange of women to the Oedipus, seen when he talks of the social laws governing alliance and kingship being located on the very terrain which structures the unconscious and when he said that it is the phallus which is transmitted with the exchange of women (84).
The rituals of this submission to castration, as well as giving access to women, also give admission to the society of males. In the third myth there was a hint of this (boys go to their brothers). So, the ritual has completed the myths, and made accessible a way for the men to have the phallus.
Lacan saw the phallus as that which is exchanged, it is the signifier of the exchange. It is interesting that in the New Guinea tribes which have an exchange system built on shells, pigs, brideprice, there is no homosexual ritual (85). In the Sambia culture, men swap sisters but not straight away. The brothers of the women inseminate women, and so it goes on. Semen here is the signifier of the phallus.
With castration, and the direct jouissance of the mother being stopped, the satisfaction of desire, which takes its place are connected to phantasies, for Lacan. Phantasies have a role in forming identity and are associated with the erogenous zones-lips, enclosure of teeth, rim of anus, tip of penis. Lacan lists the objects as mamilla, feaces, phallus, urinary flow, what were at one time part of the subject’s body and with which the subject formed an almost symbiotic unity (86). These phantasies play a role in but are not to be confused with imaginary fantasies. Lee gives the example of lover’s breast as an imaginary substitute for the real breast which was the mother’s breast, seemingly inseparable from the subject (87). The substitute of “object a” for the infinite jouissance of the lost phallus, and of imaginary fantasy objects for real “object petit a”, makes possible the subjects’ pursuit of human others.
Certainly the Sambia boys eventually pursue women but this is via the above process. The boy is cut off from his mother and when Lee talks of :
making up for the symbolic castration by unconsciously stuffing himself (thereby creating himself) with such objects as faeces and urine (88),
we could perhaps add semen, and we have seen how for the Sambia semen does create men. A lot of fantasy does, for the Sambia, revolve around semen, and its ability to make men, and there is anxiety being present, about being depleted of semen. Semen is held to be analogous to sap and to mother’s milk. We can see, then, how semen serves as a symbolic substitute for the real breast, what has been lost forever. All the subject has left to make up for this loss is his desires which give some pleasure but not complete satisfaction.
One of the consequences of castration is the emergence of desire. Desire, then, has as its cause, fantasy, which is dependent on an object, a fragment of the “object small a”, the breast, now lost forever.
For Lacan male sexuality in particular has a fetishistic character because men are related to women as “small object a”, as cause of their desire, as almost a fetish (89). We see, here, how, for the Sambia, their phantasy system does indeed revolve around these objects, and is hardly related to women. The sexual rapport for Lacan does not exist, but there are various attempts to make up for this lack of rapport. Courtly love is an example of them, also. The Sambian ritual initiation is another. It makes something exist. For Lacan men do not relate to women, anyway. They relate to a phantasy, fetish, or “object small a”. A relationship is “hommosexual” [from the French homme, man]. But what stops it being homosexual is that the woman comes to serve as the “object a” and, as such, serves as the phallus that he lacks. The woman playing along with a man’s phantasy is involved in a double masquerade, as Lee suggests: “…the woman pretending to be the phallus … the man pretending to have the phallus” (90).
The initiation allows this masquerade to occur for the Sambia. It makes present the notion that men have the phallus and women do not. This allows a marriage of sorts to occur, albeit, a turbulent violent one. This perhaps allows the sexual act to take place. But the relationship takes a lot of convincing, to believe in it. The men are always anxious they may loose their manhood and are frightened of being contaminated by women. The initation keeps the anxiety at bay enough to allow an order to appear-the order of the Sambia culture.
In the above I have shown the central importance of the Oedipus complex for understanding the Sambia ritual life, and of the help a Lacanian analysis can make for understanding the Sambia rites of initiation, and rituals in general. The strong emphasis on castration, on the Oedipus complex, and on the phallus in Lacanian theory helps solve some of the problems in psychoanalytical theory applied to the anthropology of ritual. With this interpretation, one does not have to develop new theories, such as vagina envy, nor does one have to indulge in Western ethnocentrism.
With the Lacanian interpretation of castration, a positive interpretation can be made of the ritual phenomenon, that manages to keep both the psychic material and the cultural material, without reducing one to the other.
This, then, allows a psychoanalytical anthropology to be developed that is non reductionist and non ethnocentric. In fact, it is a return to Freud in psychoanalytical anthropology, just as Lacan is a return to Freud in psychoanalytical discourse.