satanism today and tomorrow

Sex and Family in Pagan Societies

Cacilda Jethá, Christopher Ryan


The birds and the bees are different in the Amazon. There, a woman not only can be a little pregnant, most are. Each of the societies we’re about to discuss shares a belief in what scientists call “partible paternity.” These groups have a novel conception of conception: a fetus is made of accumulated semen.

Anthropologists Stephen Beckerman and Paul Valentine explain, “Pregnancy is viewed as a matter of degree, not clearly distinguished from gestation ... all sexually active women are a little pregnant. Over time ... semen accumulates in the womb, a fetus is formed, further acts of intercourse follow, and additional semen causes the fetus to grow more.” Were a woman to stop having sex when her periods stopped, people in these cultures believe the fetus would stop developing.

This understanding of how semen forms a child leads to some mighty interesting conclusions regarding “responsible” sexual behavior. Like mothers everywhere, a woman from these societies is eager to give her child every possible advantage in life. To this end, she’ll typically seek out sex with an assortment of men. She’ll solicit “contributions” from the best hunters, the best storytellers, the funniest, the kindest, the best-looking, the strongest, and so on—in the hopes her child will literally absorb the essence of each.

Anthropologists report similar understandings of conception and fetal development among many South American societies, ranging from simple hunter-gatherers to horticulturalists. A partial list would include the Ache, the Arawete, the Bari, the Canela, the Cashinahua, the Curripaco, the Ese Eja, the Kayapo, the Kulina, the Matis, the Mehinaku, the Piaroa, the Piraha, the Secoya, the Siona, the Warao, the Yanomami, and the Ye’kwana — societies from Venezuela to Bolivia. This is no ethnographic curiosity, either — a strange idea being passed among related cultures. The same understanding is found among cultural groups that show no evidence of contact for millennia. Nor is partible paternity limited to South America. For example, the Lusi of Papua New Guinea also hold that fetal development depends on multiple acts of intercourse, often with different men. Even today, the younger Lusi, who have some sense of the modern understanding of reproduction, agree that a person can have more than one father.

As Beckerman and Valentine explain, “It is difficult to come to any conclusion except that partible paternity is an ancient folk belief capable of supporting effective families, families that provide satisfactory paternal care of children and manage the successful rearing of children to adulthood.”

When an anthropologist working in Paraguay asked his Ache subjects to identify their fathers, he was presented with a mathematical puzzle that could be solved only with a vocabulary lesson. The Ache claimed to have over six hundred fathers. Who’s your daddies?

It turns out the Ache distinguish four different kinds of fathers. According to the anthropologist Kim Hill, the four types of fathers are:
• Miare: the father who put it in;
• Peroare: the fathers who mixed it;
• Momboare: those who spilled it out; and
• Bykuare: the fathers who provided the child’s essence.

Rather than being shunned as “bastards” or “sons of bitches,” children of multiple fathers benefit from having more than one man who takes a special interest in them. Anthropologists have calculated that their chances of surviving childhood are often significantly better than those of children in the same societies with just one recognized father.

Far from being enraged at having his genetic legacy called into question, a man in these societies is likely to feel gratitude to other men for pitching in to help create and then care for a stronger baby. Far from being blinded by jealousy as the standard narrative predicts, men in these societies find themselves bound to one another by shared paternity for the children they’ve fathered together. As Beckerman explains, in the worst-case scenario, this system may provide extra security for the child: “You know that if you die, there’s some other man who has a residual obligation to care for at least one of your children. So looking the other way or even giving your blessing when your wife takes a lover is the only insurance you can buy.

In a personal communication, Don Pollock makes an interesting point about the notion of multiple fatherhood, writing, “I have always found the Kulina notion that more than one man may be a ‘biological’ father to a child to be, ironically, similar to the genetic reality: in a small, genetically homogeneous population (or close to it, after many generations of in-marrying), every child has close genetic similarities to all of the men with whom his or her mother had sexual relations — even to those the mother was not involved with.

Because these interlocking relationships are so crucial to social cohesion, opting out can cause problems. Writing of the Matis people, anthropologist Philippe Erikson confirms, “Plural paternity is more than a theoretical possibility... Extramarital sex is not only widely practiced and usually tolerated, in many respects, it also appears mandatory. Married or not, one has a moral duty to respond to the sexual advances of opposite-sex cross-cousins (real or clas-sificatory), under pains of being labeled ‘stingy of one’s genitals,’ a breach of Matis ethics far more serious than plain infidelity”.

Being labeled a sexual cheapskate is no laughing matter, apparently. Erikson writes of one young man who cowered in the anthropologist’s hut for hours, hiding from his horny cousin, whose advances he couldn’t legitimately reject if she tracked him down. Even more serious, during Matis tattooing festivals, having sex with one’s customary partner(s) is expressly forbidden — under threat of extreme punishment, even death.

Among the Mohave, women were famous for their licentious habits and disinclination to stick with one man. Caesar (yes, that Caesar) was scandalized to note that in Iron Age Britain, “Ten and even twelve have wives common to them, and particularly brothers among brothers...” During his three months in Tahiti in 1769, Captain James Cook and his crew found that Tahitians “gratified every appetite and passion before witnesses.” In an account of Cook’s voyage first published in 1773, John Hawkesworth wrote of “a young man, nearly six feet high, performing the rites of Venus with a little girl about 11 or 12 years of age, before several of our people and a great number of natives, without the least sense of its being indecent or improper, but, as appeared, in perfect conformity to the custom of the place”. Some of the older islander women who were observing this amorous display apparently called out instructions to the girl, although Cook tells us, “Young as she was, she did not seem much to stand in need of them”.

Samuel Wallis, another ship captain who spent time in Tahiti, reported, “The women in General are very handsome, some really great Beauties, yet their Virtue was not proof against a Nail.” The Tahitians’ fascination with iron resulted in a de-facto exchange of a single nail for a sexual tryst with a local woman. By the time Wallis set sail, most of his men were sleeping on deck, as there were no nails left from which to hang their hammocks.

There is a yam-harvest festival in the present-day Trobriand Islands, in which groups of young women roam the islands “raping” men from outside their own village, purportedly biting off their eyebrows if the men do not satisfy them.

Ancient Greece celebrated sexual license in the festivals of Aphrodisia, Dionysia, and Lenea. In Rome, members of the cult of Bacchus hosted orgies no fewer than five times per month, while many islands in the South Pacific are still famous for their openness to unconstrained sexuality, despite the concerted efforts of generations of missionaries preaching the morality of shame.

Though the eager participation of women in these activities may surprise some readers, it has long been clear that the sources of female sexual reticence are more cultural than biological, despite what Darwin and others have supposed. Over fifty years ago, sex researchers Clellan Ford and Frank Beach declared, “In those societies which have no double standard in sexual matters and in which a variety of liaisons are permitted, the women avail themselves as eagerly of their opportunity as do the men.

Those anthropologists willing to acknowledge the realities of human sexuality see its social benefits clearly. Beckerman and Valentine point to the fact that partible paternity defuses potential conflicts between men, noting that such antagonisms tend to be unhelpful to a woman’s long-term reproductive interests. Anthropologist Thomas Gregor reported eighty-eight ongoing affairs among the thirty-seven adults in the Mehinaku village he studied in Brazil. In his opinion, extramarital relationships “contribute to village cohesion,” by “consolidating relationships between persons of different clans” and “promoting enduring relationships based on mutual affection.” He found that “many lovers are very fond of one another and regard separation as a privation to avoid.”

Rather than risk overwhelming you with dozens more examples of this community-building, conflict-reducing human sexuality, we’ll conclude with just one more. Anthropologists William and Jean Crocker visited and studied the Canela people — also of the Brazilian Amazon region — for more than three decades, beginning in the late 1950s. They explain: It is difficult for members of a modern individualistic society to imagine the extent to which the Canela saw the group and the tribe as more important than the individual. Generosity and sharing was the ideal, while withholding was a social evil. Sharing possessions brought esteem. Sharing one’s body was a direct corollary. Desiring control over one’s goods and self was a form of stinginess. In this context, it is easy to understand why women chose to please men and why men chose to please women who expressed strong sexual needs. No one was so self-important that satisfying a fellow tribesman was less gratifying than personal gain.

Recognized as a way to build and maintain a network of mutually beneficial relationships, nonreproductive sex no longer requires special explanations. Homosexuality, for example, becomes far less confusing, in that it is, as E. O. Wilson has written, “above all a form of bonding ... consistent with the greater part of heterosexual behavior as a device that cements relationships.

Paternity certainty, far from being the universal and overriding obsession of all men everywhere and always, as the standard narrative insists, was likely a nonissue to men who lived before agriculture and resulting concerns with passing property through lines of paternal descent.

/from “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”, ch. 6/


The diffused sense of parental responsibility resulting from these intersecting webs of sexual interaction extends to mothers as well as fathers. Anthropologist Donald Pollock tells us that while the Kulina believe the fetus to have originally been formed of accumulated semen (men’s milk, in Kulina), they attribute the baby’s growth after birth to women’s milk. “Any number of women might nurse the child,” he writes. “It is particularly common for a group of sisters to share nursing functions; it is not unknown for the mother’s mother to allow an infant to nurse, even if the grandmother is no longer lactating, to quiet a crying child whose mother is occupied.” When he asked whether these other women were also mothers of the child, Pollock was told this was “obviously so.”

Recalling his childhood among the Dagara, in Burkina Faso, author and psychologist Malidoma Patrice Some remembers how freely children wandered into houses throughout the village. Some explains that this “gives the child a very broad sense of belonging,” and that “everybody chips in to help raise the child.” Apart from the many obvious benefits to parents, Some sees distinct psychological advantages for the children, saying, “It’s very rare that a child feels isolated or develops psychological problems; everyone is very aware of where he or she belongs.”

Though Some’s account may sound like idealized memory, what he describes is still standard village life in most of rural Africa, where children are welcome to wander in and out of the homes of unrelated adults in villages. Though a mother’s love is no doubt unique, women (and some men) the world over are eager to coo over unrelated babies, not just their own — an eagerness common to other social primates, none of whom, by the way, are monogamous. This deeply felt, broadly shared willingness to care for unrelated children lives on in the modern world: the bureaucratic ordeal of adoption rivals or exceeds the stress and expense of childbirth, yet millions of couples eagerly pursue its uncertain rewards.

When seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune lectured a Montagnais Indian man about the dangers of the rampant infidelity he’d witnessed, Le Jeune received a lesson on proper parenthood in response. The missionary recalled, “I told him that it was not honorable for a woman to love any one else except her husband, and that this evil being among them, he himself was not sure that his son, who was there present, was his son. He replied, ‘Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we all love all the children of our tribe.’

Belief in partible paternity spreads fatherly feelings throughout a group, but this is just one of many mechanisms for enhancing group solidity. Anthropologists report numerous societies in which naming ceremonies and clan affiliations create obligations between individuals more binding than blood relations. Referring to the Matis people, with whom he lived, anthropologist Philippe Erikson notes, “When it comes to defining kinship ties, relationships deriving from naming practices have absolute priority over any other considerations, such as genealogical connections. When conflicts arise between the two modes of reckoning, sharing a name has precedence...

Some anthropologists question whether kinship is an important concept in band-level societies at all — however defined. They argue that since everyone in such a small-scale society is likely to be related to each other in some way, affinity tends to be measured in more fluid terms, such as friendship and sharing partners. “Fatherly behavior is expected of all the males of a local clan toward all the young of the clan,” says anthropologist Janet Chernela. “Multiple aspects of caretaking, including affection and food-getting, are provided by all clansmen.” Anthropologist Vanessa Lea notes that, based upon her experience among the Mebengokre, “The allocation of responsibility is socially constructed and not an objective fact...” Among the Tukanoan, “Clan brothers provide for one another’s children as a collective. Through the pooling of the daily catch, each male regularly labors for all of the children of a village — his own offspring as well as those of his brothers.

This diffused approach to parenting isn’t limited to villages in Africa or Amazonia. Desmond Morris recalls an afternoon he spent with a female truck driver in Polynesia. She told him that she’d had nine children, but had given two of them to an infertile friend. When Morris asked how the kids felt about that, she said they didn’t mind at all, as “all of us love all of the children.” Morris recalls, “This last point is underlined by the fact that, when we reach the village, she passes the time by wandering over to a group of toddlers, lying down in the grass with them and playing with them exactly as if they were her own. They accept her instantly, without any questioning, and a passer-by would never have guessed that they were anything other than a natural family playing together.

/from “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”, ch. 7/


Even if we overlook the ubiquitous linguistic confusion, people who consider themselves to be married can have strikingly different notions of what their marriage involves. The Ache of Paraguay say that a man and woman sleeping in the same hut are married. But if one of them takes his or her hammock to another hut, they’re not married anymore. That’s it. The original no-fault divorce.

Among the !Kung San (also known as Ju/’hoansi) of Botswana, most girls marry several times before they settle into a long-term relationship. For the Curripaco of Brazil, marriage is a gradual, undefined process. One scientist who lived with them explains, “When a woman comes to hang her hammock next to her man and cook for him, then some younger Curripaco say they are married (kainukana). But older informants disagree; they say they are married only when they have demonstrated that they can support and sustain each other. Having a baby, and going through the fast together, cements a marriage.

For many societies, virginity is so unimportant there isn’t even a word for the concept in their language. Among the Canela, explain Crocker and Crocker, “Virginity loss is only the first step into full marriage for a woman.” There are several other steps needed before the Canela society considers a couple to by truly married, including the young woman’s gaining social acceptance through her service in a “festival men’s society.” This premarital “service” includes sequential sex with fifteen to twenty men. If the bride-to-be does well, she’ll earn payments of meat from the men, which will be paid directly to her future mother-in-law on a festival day.

Cacilda Jethá (coauthor of this book) conducted a World Health Organization study of sexual behavior among villagers in rural Mozambique in 1990. She found that the 140 men in her study group were involved with 87 women as wives, 252 other women as long-term sexual partners, and 226 additional women on an occasional basis, working out to an average of four ongoing sexual relationships per man, not counting the unreported casual encounters many of these men likely experienced as well.

Among the Warao, a group living in the forests of Brazil, ordinary relations are suspended periodically and replaced by ritual relations, known as mamuse. During these festivities, adults are free to have sex with whomever they like. These relationships are honorable and believed to have a positive effect upon any children that might result.

In his fascinating profile of the Piraha and a scientist who studies them, journalist John Colapinto reports that “though they do not allow marriage outside their tribe, they have long kept their gene pool refreshed by permitting their women to sleep with outsiders.”

Among the Siriono, it’s common for brothers to marry sisters, forming an altogether different sort of Brady Bunch. The marriage itself takes place without any sort of ceremony or ritual: no exchanges of property or vows, not even a feast. Just rehang your hammocks next to the women’s and you’re married, boys.

This casual approach to what anthropologists call “marriage” is anything but unusual. Early explorers, whalers, and fur trappers of the frigid north found the Inuit to be jaw-droppingly hospitable hosts. Imagine their confused gratitude when they realized the village headman was offering his own bed (wife included) to the weary, freezing traveler. In fact, the welcome Knud Ramusen and others had stumbled into was a system of spouse exchange central to Inuit culture, with clear advantages in that unforgiving climate. Erotic exchange played an important role in linking families from distant villages in a durable web of certain aid in times of crisis. Though the harsh ecology of the Arctic dictated a much lower population density than the Amazon or even the Kalahari Desert, extra-pair sexual interaction helped cement bonds that offered the same insurance against unforeseen difficulties. None of this behavior is considered adultery by the people involved. But then, adultery is as slippery a term as marriage.

/from “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”, ch. 8/


According to anthropologist Robert Edgerton, the Marind-anim people of Melanesia believed: “Semen was essential to human growth and development. They also married quite young, and to assure the bride’s fertility, she had to be filled with semen. On her wedding night, therefore, as many as ten members of her husband’s lineage had sexual intercourse with the bride, and if there were more men than this in the lineage, they had intercourse with her the next night... A similar ritual was repeated at various intervals throughout a woman’s life.” Welcome to the family. Have you met my cousins?

Lest you think this a particularly unusual wedding celebration, it seems the ancestors of the Romans did something similar. Marriage was celebrated with a wedding orgy in which the husband’s friends had intercourse with the bride, with witnesses standing by. Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 “Sexual Life in Ancient Rome”, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity.

In many societies, such unchaste shenanigans continue well beyond the wedding night. The Kulina of Amazonia have a ritual known as the dutse’e bani towi: the “order to get meat.” Don Pollock explains that the village women “go in a group from household to household at dawn, singing to the adult men in each house, ‘ordering’ them to go hunting. At each house, one or more women in the group step forward to bang on the house with a stick; they will serve as the sex partners of the men of the house that night, if they are successful in their hunt. Women in the group ... are not allowed to select their own husband.

What happens next is significant. Feigning reluctance, the men drag themselves from their hammocks and head off into the jungle, but before splitting up to hunt independently, they agree on a time and place outside the village to meet later, where they’ll redistribute whatever they’ve bagged, thus ensuring that every man returns to the village with meat, guaranteeing extra-pair sex for one and all. Yet another nail in the coffin of the standard narrative.

Pollock’s description of the hunters’ triumphal return is beyond improvement: “At the end of the day the men return in a group to the village, where the adult women form a large semicircle and sing erotically provocative songs to the men, asking for their ‘meat.’ The men drop their catch in a large pile in the middle of the semicircle, often hurling it down with dramatic gestures and smug smiles.. After cooking the meat and eating, each woman retires with the man whom she selected as her partner for the sexual tryst. Kulina engage in this ritual with great humor and perform it regularly.” We’ll bet they do. Pollock kindly confirmed our hunch that the Kulina word for “meat” (bani) refers both to food and to what you’re thinking it does, dear reader. Maybe marriage isn’t a human universal, but the capacity for sexual double entendre just might be.

The Mosuo (pronounced “MWO-swo” — also referred to as Na or Nari), an ancient society in southwest China, are a society where paternity certainty is so low and inconsequential that men do indeed raise their sisters’ children as their own.

In the mountains around Lugu Lake, near the border between China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, live about 56,000 people who enjoy a family system that has perplexed and fascinated travelers and scholars for centuries. The Mosuo revere Lugu Lake as the Mother Goddess, while the mountain towering over it, Ganmo, is respected as the Goddess of Love. Their language is not written, being rendered in Dongba, the sole pictographic language still used in the world today. They have no words for murder, war, or rape. The Mosuo’s relaxed and respectful tranquility is accompanied by a nearly absolute sexual freedom and autonomy for both men and women.

In 1265, Marco Polo passed through the Mosuo region and later recalled their unashamed sexuality, writing, “They do not consider it objectionable for a foreigner, or any other man, to have his way with their wives, daughters, sisters, or any other women in their home. They consider it a great benefit, in fact, saying that their gods and idols will be disposed in their favor and offer them material goods in great abundance. This is why they are so generous with their women toward foreigners.” “Many times,” wrote Polo, with a wink and a nudge, “a foreigner has wallowed in bed for three or four days with a poor sap’s wife.

Macho Italian that he was, Polo completely misread the situation. He misinterpreted the women’s sexual availability as a commodity controlled by the men, when in fact, the most striking feature of the Mosuo system is the fiercely defended sexual autonomy of all adults, women as well as men.

The Mosuo refer to their arrangement as sese, meaning “walking.” True to form, most anthropologists miss the point by referring to the Mosuo system as “walking marriage,” and including the Mosuo on their all-encompassing lists of cultures that practice “marriage.” The Mosuo themselves disagree with this depiction of their system. “By any stretch of the imagination, 'sese' are not marriages,” says Yang Erche Namu, a Mosuo woman who published a memoir about her childhood along the shores of Mother Lake. “All sese are of the visiting kind, and none involves the exchange of vows, property, the care of children, or expectations of fidelity.” The Mosuo language has no word for husband or wife, preferring the word azhu, meaning “friend.”

The Mosuo are a matrilineal, agricultural people, passing property and family name from mother to daughter(s), so the household revolves around the women. When a girl reaches maturity at about thirteen or fourteen, she receives her own bedroom that opens both to the inner courtyard of the house and to the street through a private door. A Mosuo girl has complete autonomy as to who steps through this private door into her babahuago (flower room). The only strict rule is that her guest must be gone by sunrise. She can have a different lover the following night — or later that same night — if she chooses. There is no expectation of commitment, and any child she conceives is raised in her mother’s house, with the help of the girl’s brothers and the rest of the community.

Recalling her childhood, Yang Erche Namu echoes Malidoma Patrice Some’s description of his African childhood, explaining, “We children could roam at our own will and visit from house to house and village to village without our mothers’ ever fearing for our safety. Every adult was responsible for every child, and every child in turn was respectful of every adult.”

Among the Mosuo, a man’s sisters’ children are considered his paternal responsibility — not those who may (or may not) be the fruit of his own nocturnal visits to various flower rooms. Here we see another society in which male parental investment is unrelated to biological paternity. In the Mosuo language, the word Awu translates to both father and uncle. “In place of one father, Mosuo children have many uncles who take care of them. In a way,” writes Yang Erche Namu, “we also have many mothers, because we call our aunts by the name 'azhe Ami', which means ‘little mother.’

In a twist that should send many mainstream theorists into a tailspin, sexual relations are kept strictly separate from Mosuo family relations. At night, Mosuo men are expected to sleep with their lovers. If not, they sleep in one of the outer buildings, never in the main house with their sisters. Custom prohibits any talk of love or romantic relationships in the family home. Complete discretion is expected from everyone. While both men and women are free to do as they will, they’re expected to respect one another’s privacy. There’s no kissing and telling at Lugu Lake.

The mechanics of the agia relationships, as they are referred to by Mosuo, are characterized by a sacred regard for each individual’s autonomy — whether man or woman. Cai Hua, a Chinese anthropologist and author of “A Society without Fathers or Husbands”, explains, “Not only do men and women have the freedom to foster as many agia relationships as they want and to end them as they please, but each person can have simultaneous relationships with several agia, whether it be during one night or over a longer period.” These relationships are discontinuous, lasting only as long as the two people are in each other’s presence. “Each visitor’s departure from the woman’s home is taken to be the end of their agia relationship,” according to Cai Hua. “There is no concept of 'agia' that applies to the future. The 'agia' relationship only exists instantaneously and retrospectively,” although a couple may repeat their visits as often as they wish.

Particularly libidinous Mosuo women and men unashamedly report having had hundreds of relationships. Shame, from their perspective, would be the proper response to promises of or demands for fidelity. A vow of fidelity would be considered inappropriate — an attempt at negotiation or exchange. Openly expressed jealousy, for the Mosuo, is considered aggressive in its implied intrusion upon the sacred autonomy of another person, and is thus met with ridicule and shame.

Travel writer Cynthia Barnes visited Lugu Lake in 2006 and found the Mosuo system still intact, though under pressure from Chinese tourists who, like Marco Polo 750 years earlier, mistake the sexual autonomy of Mosuo women for licentiousness. “Although their lack of coyness draws the world’s attention to the Mosuo,” Barnes writes, “sex is not the center of their universe.” She continues: “I think of my parents’ bitter divorce, of childhood friends uprooted and destroyed because Mommy or Daddy decided to sleep with someone else. Lugu Lake, I think, is not so much a kingdom of women as a kingdom of family — albeit one blessedly free of politicians and preachers extolling ‘family values’. There’s no such thing as a ‘broken home’, no sociologists wringing their hands over ‘single mothers’, no economic devastation or shame and stigma when parents part. Sassy and confident, a Mosuo girl will grow up cherished in a circle of male and female relatives... When she joins the dances and invites a boy into her flower room, it will be for love, or lust, or whatever people call it when they are operating on hormones and heavy breathing. She will not need that boy — or any other — to have a home, to make a ‘family’. She already knows that she will always have both.

/from “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”, ch. 9/


Mangaian youth are encouraged to have sex with one another, with particular emphasis on the young men learning to control themselves and take pride in the pleasure they can provide a woman. The Muria of central India set up adolescent dormitories (called ghotuls), where adolescents are free to sleep together, away from concerned parents. In the ghotul, the young people are encouraged to experiment with different partners, as it’s considered unwise to become too attached to a single partner at this phase of life.

/from “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”, ch. 21/