Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches

Reply Thu 23 Oct, 2008 01:28 pm
Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches
The Riddles of Culture
Marvin Harris
ISBN: 0-679-72468-0
Publisher: Vintage Books

OVERVIEW: This is a non-fiction presentation by leading anthropologist Marvin Harris that attempts to place the broad subjects of cultural differences, economic considerations, political and religious movements and our collective history into one coherent framework of understanding. Its framework is foundational in that you need to read chapter 1 to see how it ties with subsequent chapters for a rather intriguing and logical view of how it all fits. "Cows" refers to an in depth look at the Hindu taboo on eating beef, "Pigs" does similarly by looking at the other side of the coin with respect to cultures whose cultural/religious taboos oppose eating pork. The "Wars" goes into great depth looking into how various wars start; from backwoods tribes to great national powers and their commonalities. "Witches" ties it all up, describing theories on how mysticism and objectivity - ostensibly two different sides of a coin - interact and, more often than not, compliment the socio-economic goals of any particular sect. This is a very good book that's narrated in a matter-of-fact way. Whether or not you agree on his conclusions, I think it's a good read for anyone of the sociological/anthropological mind. My wife recommended this book some time ago, I only wish I'd read it earlier.


  • Very extensive; the author draws upon a vast basis of social, political and religious research.
  • I'd guess that even those who don't subscribe to any conclusions the author comes to would probably concede to the logic used.
  • Well Supported; Even for the most ardent technocrat, many forms of numerical and statistical references are given
  • No dry at all; interposed wit and humor nicely peppers this often laconic subject
  • Allegorical; At the end, the author gives us several lessons, not the least of which is to impress the reader how important it is to understand the practical genesis of any seemingly-random event or cultural norm
  • The book is relatively short at 266 paperback pages; a low-stress read.


  • I sensed, from the first words, that this felt like someone concerned with popular "70's" notions of other cultures. I checked out the copyright, ta da! 1974. But it's still quite good and quite valid; its message endures
  • Written for the every-day person like me, examples and historical events described tend towards the "popular" (though certainly not all). I'd have liked to see more depth in this form of supporting narration
  • In the "War" portion, the book spends a good amount of time describing the rising of messianic religions; how some of their beginnings were based in revolt-movements and violence. Although I believe this to be true, I'd offer this as a caution to the deeply-religious reader; this could be offensive. Read it! To be sure, but put on your thick skin before doing so.
  • The book is relatively short at 266 paperback pages; I'd like to have seen more!


  • What may appear a strictly mystical taboo may also be immensely practical (pp 20)
  • Example: Primitive warfare, not escalated to today's wholesale level, as an ecological, biological and substance relief valve (pp 67)
  • Outstanding case study of gender roles in the perpetuation of warring tribes; the power of fecundity and various feminine roles (pp 76)
  • Population control/abortion within non-industrialized and/or tribal cultures (pp 78)
  • Symbiotic cultural systems and how labor, kings, states and your average joe all play a part (pp 119)
  • Cultural norms, pride and real charity between cultures; why those that succeed, do (pp 125)
  • Historical account of the beginnings of christianity as a part of the cultural adaptive mechanism under roman rule, later modified as a martyr? (pp 187)
  • Biblical contradictions that hint at the insurgent nature of the christian uprising contrasted with later modifications towards pacifism (pp 190)
  • How early-european witch hunts, the inqusition, etc. served to play one against another and keep focus off mismanaged people, established power structures and early-religious leaders themselves; the dynamic therein, not as a conspiracy per say (pp 237)
  • Cautions against the lure of the mystic; against demonizing all objectivity (pp 252)


NOTABLE QUOTES: [INDENT]"Lee found, for example, that his Bushmen worked at subsistence for only ten to fifteen hours a week. This discovery effectively destroys one of the shoddiest myths of industrial society--namely that we all have more leisure today than every before. Primitive hunters and gatherers work less than we do--without the benefit of a single labor union-- because their ecosystems cannot tolerate weeks and months of intensive extra effort. Among the Bushmen, Stakhanovite personalities who would run about getting friends and relatives to work harder by promising them a big feast would consistute a definaite menace to society... ...So reciprocity and not redistribution predominates among the Bushmen, and the highest prestige falls to the quietly dependable hunter who never boasts about his achievements and who avoids any hint that he is giving a give when he devides up an animal he has killed".
[/INDENT][INDENT]"The practical significance of the witch mania therefore was that it shifted responsibility for the crisis of late medieval society from both Church and state to imagionary demons in human form. Preoccupied with the fantastic activities of these demons, the distraught, alienated, pauperized masses blamed the rampant Devil instead of the corrupt clergy and the rapacious nobility. Not only were the Church and state exonerated, but they were made indispensible. The clergy and nobility emerged as the great protectors of manking against an enemy who was omnipresent by difficult to detect. Here at least was a reason to pay tithes and obey the tax collector. Vital services pertaining to this life rather than the next were being carried out with sound and fury, flame and smoke. You could actually see the authorities doing something to make life a little more secure; you could actually hear the witches scream as they went down to hell."
[/INDENT][INDENT]"Within counter-culture's freedom to believe, witches are once more as believable as anything else. This belief, for all its playful innocence, makes a definite contribution to the consolidation or stablization of contemporary inequalities. Millions of educated youth seriously believe that the proposal to kiss away the corporate state as if it were an 'evil enchantment' is no less effective or realistic than any other form of political consciouness. Like its medieval predecessor, our modern witch fad blunts and befuddles the forces of dissent."
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