This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Marilyn Strathern. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.019



Marilyn STRATHERN, University of Cambridge

Comment on Sahlins, Marshall. 2017. “The original political society.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 91–128.

Marshall Sahlins’ stirring call for something like a Copernican revolution demands the decentering of “society” from preoccupations that go back to anthropological origins in Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown, and in political thought to long before. This magnificent essay continues his lifetime challenge to deterministic explanations that have variously seen human activity as epiphenomena of biology, economics, and other autonomous forces. Of course, he does not mean that anthropologists should abandon analyses of social life, but that they might finally dislodge the priority given to social organization that regards other activity (notably, “religion”) as set apart. Whether as an effervescence of collective life, or as reflections or extensions of social structure, imagining religion as an after-effect is especially inept for the peoples addressed here, given all those descriptions of “animist” universes that talk of the pervasiveness of unseen forces. Sahlins goes further: cannily, wittily, he points out how, in the face of a great panoply of punitive power-wielding metapersons, anthropologists carry on interpreting society in other terms—as egalitarian, for example. The disconnect in interpretation is the other side of the disconnect between religion and society often promulgated in organized religion just as (organized) society is invoked as the origin of social order. Sahlins brings in a longstanding interest of his own. When in this essay he points to “religious” figures (spiritual, supernatural, metaphysical, whatever, the designations are impossible), I take them as standing for that arena of thought and practice that he has often championed as culture. And, to continue his wickedly apt train of thought, culture needs to be decentered as well.

This first Hocart Lecture is an event: something said plainly suddenly becomes obvious. I refer to Sahlins’ thesis about the presence of metapersons among peoples who shy away from subjugating one another in the manner they experience from these beings. The world does indeed move beneath one’s feet. Sahlins shows the [150]power of all those ethnographic accounts, which yield, despite their own modelings, old information anew. His task is also to show the less than benign power of analytical categories, themselves cultural assumptions, that so frequently get in the way of comprehension. So this is a project to recenter what we already know from the ethnographic record.

It is as important to keep in mind, as it is trite to observe, that the ethnographer’s manipulation of cultural categories is at once central to and obscures interpretation. Indeed, in comparison with the concept of (organized) society, “culture” is not as amenable to decentering; rather, it is a case of picking through its permutations, of, in other words, controlled equivocation. That said, I use Sahlins’ argument to explore some old terrain, keeping, too, with the ethnographic present of his sources.

Domestication and enchantment

Given the company this comment finds itself in, it seems appropriate to respond to Sahlins’ observations on Hagen, and to start with an article he cites (Strathern and Strathern 1968). Reading it after Sahlins pulls me up sharp. Its concern with classificatory schemes is of its time; what strikes me now is the classificatory scheme of the writers. It introduces a distinction between domesticated and wild objects, as they are drawn upon in spell recitations, analogous to that between ghosts of the human dead and wild spirits. The writers were aware that much was made of human beings as “seedlings” or “cuttings,” a concept also applied to pigs, one thus evoking plants pushed into the soil, though with new emphasis we might rather speak of people as those who result from another’s activity (as in planting and tending them). But where does “domesticated” come from? This translation into English seems innocent enough, but it was also a translation into Euro-American; indeed, some energy had to be subsequently expended to disentangle many of its cultural entailments (such as domesticity). Here is an example of the anthropologist’s culture getting in the way.

With Sahlins’ citation of Achuar in mind (p. 115), we may observe that Hagen plants and pigs and people are no more “domesticated” than they are “produced,” and as to plants and pigs, it is not only people who tend them. This is not to gainsay human intervention, but to relocate it away from any idea about the control of nature. Nonetheless, things fed or planted by people have different kinds of proximate owners from those of wild flora and fauna, iconically of the forest but anywhere where “inua” live. As Sahlins summarizes, these are places and beings at once dangerous and bringers of growth and fertility. Spells to help crops flourish and people thrive draw not only on familiar entities but also on those kept unfamiliar. Like gardens in other parts of Melanesia, what is planted grows with the assistance of things from elsewhere. This is a recurrent theme in all kinds of Hagen activity, including the circulation of the Great Spirit cults (e.g., Strathern 1970), where the drawing in of foreign entities indexes prosperity. People devise such strangeness among themselves too, through what anthropologists call rules of clan exogamy, categorical divisions of social identity. Strangers at the center: a clan’s vitality requires intervention from outside.

“Ownership,” we are invited to understand, is a kind of gathering together or condensing of life-force (the terms really are impossible) such that a division [151]may be created between source and recipient. This is how Strauss, in his gentle but masterly account of Hagen religion, describes the cycle of growth. “One plants seedlings, or acquires a boar and a young sow as ‘seedlings,’ in order to enjoy the fruit they bear later on; and the ‘seedling people’ [human beings] themselves are supposed to ‘bear fruit’—or offer sacrifices to those by whom they were planted. . . . Agriculture, trade, the economy . . . are centered on the offering of sacrifices” ([1962] 1990: 4). Precisely as Sahlins has it: sacrifice is a fundamental relation of production. A person’s soul partakes in sacrifices made to diverse metapersons and is strengthened thereby. The divisions here, as between planted people and the beings who planted them, the Sky People, are generative: Strauss emphasizes that the latter laid down the mi or hidden power of people’s life as a collectivity. Division also promotes a segmentation of possibilities, creating among other things a panoply of spirit entities. But, in the manner of Sedna’s immanence, life-force also pervades entities of all kinds in an unsegmented, unpersonalized (unnamed) way, including a specific self-destructive enchantment (kum) elicited by persons’ desires, which leads an independent existence. The soul that in human beings will become ancestral spirit is both a person’s own life-force and, as Strauss says (ibid.: 102), a manifestation of the generic power of all life. Soul is found throughout the body and in its appurtenances.

Along with the hazard of men marrying women from “stranger” clans, the bestowal of fertility or enablement of growth does not come without its dangers. Ancestral spirits can be punitive, the successful aftermath of a cult performance is not guaranteed, and wild spirits are capricious. Sahlins describes how Great Spirits comprise a number of entities, some semi-individualized, others generically named, who supplement the ongoing support of ancestral ghosts. They are locatable configurations or intensifications of power, just as Hagen people are aware of certain wild spirits lurking in cane grass near a settlement or hear the rustling of kum. What Sahlins says about ownership is exactly right: inua are everywhere, yet always encountered in localized form. Human activity may infringe on what a spirit thinks is its own, even as spirits are guardians of life’s sources. The sense of dependency on outside powers is evident. What Sahlins’ account then makes me ask is just how we translate the character of those metapersons. From what cultural arena do we draw comparisons? With what emphasis?

Persons and metapersons

Although we know from the Melanesian literature that attributes of human persons may be found in all kinds of entities, there seems a particular inflection to Sahlins’ figuration of persons. I mean the political emphasis he gives to the domination that outside agents seem to exert. This is not a complaint. We would not have the brilliant pointedness of his criticism if he had not seen a way to uproot what still remain as originary narratives of state and polity. Hence his account of the pervasiveness of inua is sharpened by a specific argument about the governmental-like conditions of social life, in which people do indeed see themselves as subject to others. Of course, as his opening quotation from Hocart has it, it was not government as such but the machinery of government that was sketched out in ritual [152]organization to promote life and fertility. Thus, too, the shaman’s power is not politics as such, but reveals the “germ of a human political society” (p. 100), namely the means, or rules, through which a cosmic polity is instituted. Yet it would be a pity if this vision of a political life in all but human enactment, supported by dominating personages such as gods, spirits, and diverse nonhuman agents as intentional subjects, obscured other aspects of Sahlins’ account.

Among the joinings and separatings that Sahlins so adroitly advocates is that involving human and spirit, where a line is often inappropriately drawn. This holds less in the case of those generative divisions in which a radical distinction is essential to the fruits that the relationship so created will bear, than in imagining that people do not also live in the world that spirit entities and inua of all kinds occupy. Thus Sahlins quotes Oosten’s observation that Inuit themselves are spiritual beings, and concludes with the equation that spirits = people. When ritual dancers appear in pairs, “Each knows himself to be a man, but when he looks at his partner he can see a spirit,” Schwimmer (1984: 253) writes generally of Papua New Guinea. “To embody a spirit, a man must have a partner with whom he is perfectly attuned . . . [and thereby] each is able to realize his own godlike identity. Each makes the other into a god” (ibid.: 251).

There is a parallel issue alongside Sahlins’ emphasis on the constitution of human big-man power in Hagen. If people are in themselves enchanted, what kinds of powers do they exert in relation to one another? We do not have to imagine that people deal only with spirits and outside inua. They have various ways of dividing themselves (already encountered in the reference to exogamy), and thus making themselves powerful in relation to one another, just as they also share a general propensity to influence others. We may refer in general to their agency here, but it is seemingly not in itself of an embryonic political, in the sense of intentional, kind, although certainly it may be intentionally deployed in the pursuit of specific interests. Its character might cast some light on the agency attributed to metapersons.

As an echo of aspects of Mountain Ok cosmology, I turn to a 1960s account from coastal Papua New Guinea, concerning Maenge of New Britain (Panoff 1970). These people are known abroad as gardeners who use python excrement in their garden magic, thereby enjoying their own superior access to cosmic power. Maenge garden magic is in the hands of a “Father of the village,” whose ritual labors control the growth of their staple taro and who can threaten famine by sending the soul(s) of taro away. For the object of his and everyone’s work are taro souls, who have to be enticed to stay in the gardens. The souls are owned by various deities and mythical figures, “Masters of taro,” including those who showed humankind how to digest before defecating. Digestion is a matter of assimilating the soul of taro, but, like human souls, taro soul is divisible and fecal remnants are redirected by the Father of the village to new gardens. Indeed, such souls are but instances of a generic taro soul, and dedicated action is necessary to attract as much soul as possible into the growing taro corm, to make it big and heavy and thus satisfy hunger. The Father stuffs a special taro with two kinds of earth called python excrement, the python being one of the guises of the hero who brought taro down from the sky; the excrement is taro’s nutritive substance, the soul of taro being present in the feces just as the soul of python is. Panoff’s analysis suggests one earth is male, the other being [153]female from its reddish color, which shows it covered in menstrual blood. What has passed through one kind of body is, then, to be passed through another kind. If, as Panoff (ibid.: 250) says, “food is the excrement of a supernatural being,” then people’s bodies are equally conduits for the growth and continuity of taro soul. Two further points may be made about the effects of people’s actions.

First, people have to observe restrictions on their own activity in order not to frighten the taro soul away. How they behave affects taro growth, at least of the corms they wish to consume themselves. Second, much of Maenge life is concerned with the avoidance of dirty substances, in Panoff’s phrase, precisely substances such as feces and menstrual blood, lethal remnants that can be used by sorcerers, including the invisible traces of where people have walked or sat. Parts of people’s soul can stick to anything they have come into contact with, even as the surface of the body, their outer as opposed to inner soul, can in turn be dirtied. Food becomes dangerous when exposed to bodily secretions that might be eaten along with it. This means that people are dangerous to one another. So neither a menstruating—or pregnant—woman nor her husband could give a child a piece of taro already partly eaten, for fear of contaminating the child. Childbirth, menstrual periods, coition—all require cleansing. On an everyday basis, the cycle of growth—the consumption, digestion, and excretion of the soul of taro, its nourishment of the human soul, and the regeneration of plant life—is played out in the bodily conditions by which people influence one another’s health and vitality.

Maenge are not alone in New Britain, or in Melanesia; Sahlin’s global inua is as apt a rendering of the media through which all this happens here as it is elsewhere. The concept (i.e., of inua, who may or may not be evident as metapersons) also opens up a slight shift of perspective on the animist predicament (p. 98), whether the predicament of hunters or gardeners. Despite the fact that in the Maenge case the python hero is named, and specifically invoked in the spell accompanying the stuffing of taro, his various actions being recounted in numerous stories, I wonder how much this figuring of the hero as a personage should take priority over the configuring of the enchanted digestive system. We might consider the latter as paradigmatic for all the ways in which seeking fertility and avoiding danger involve people in one another’s bodies. Their dependence on forces beyond their control is also imagined through the unseen powers they accord one another.

The outcomes are indeed not simple—Sahlins’ metapersons as third parties to people’s interactions, for a start. In the Maenge case the digestive system leads us to the perils of the soul, and by implication of life-force itself. This is as true for taro souls as for human, given the former’s uncertain agreement to stay (to be localized) in the gardens. To take the perspective of the soul, the potency of its containment—in whatever locale—is also a hazard for it.


Strauss’ longer sojourn in Hagen and his interest in nuances of language and thought lend authority to his revisions of his predecessor, Vicedom. Strauss’ account is saturated with the pervasiveness of religion and, if he had had the model, [154]“‘determination by the religious basis” (p. 114). It is intriguing in the present context that the introduction to the English translation (Stürzenhofecker 1990; see also Strathern 1987) picks out the way in which Strauss dealt with Vicedom’s interpretations of Hagen society. It is as though—in an upside-down image of Hocart among the animists—Vicedom had observed among human people what Hocart allows us to see in cosmology: hierarchy, class-like stratification, clans dominated by leading families who control access to spirit cults, and so forth, while the mi, at once owned by collectivities and owning them, was dismissed as mere magical apparatus. Strauss objected among other things to the (cultural) ineptness of this terminology. Stürzenhofecker (1990: xxvi) concludes, “While Vicedom always saw the society through the eyes of the outsider, Strauss always struggled to turn this perspective around and see it from the viewpoint of the people themselves.” Sahlins’ Hocart Lecture shows just how much and how far an apparently simple turning around can presage a horizon-shifting revolution.


Panoff, Françoise. 1970. “Food and faeces: A Melanesian rite.” Man (N.S.) 5 (2): 237–52.

Schwimmer, Eric. 1984. “Male couples in New Guinea.” In Ritualized homosexuality in Melanesia, edited by Gilbert Herdt, 248–91. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strathern, Andrew. 1970. “The female and male spirit cults in Mount Hagen.” Man (N.S.) 5 (4): 571–85.

———.1987. “Social classes in Mount Hagen? The early evidence.” Ethnology 26 (4): 245–60.

Strathern, Andrew, and Marilyn Strathern. 1968. “Marsupials and magic: A study of spell symbolism among the Mbowamb.” In Dialectic in practical religion, edited by E. R. Leach, 179–202. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Strauss, Hermann. (1962) 1990. The Mi-culture of the Mount Hagen people, Papua New Guinea. Edited by Gabriele Stürzenhofecker and Andrew Strathern. Translated by Brian Shields. Pittsburgh Ethnology Monographs No. 13. Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh.

Stürzenhofecker, Gabriele. 1990. “Introduction.” In The Mi-culture of the Mount Hagen people, Papua New Guinea, by Hermann Strauss, xxiii–xxvii. Edited by Gabriele Stürzenhofecker and Andrew Strathern. Translated by Brian Shields. Pittsburgh Ethnology Monographs No. 13. Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh.[155]


Marilyn STRATHERN is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Her ethnographic forays are divided between Papua New Guinea and Britain. Over the last twenty-five years she has written on reproductive technologies, intellectual and cultural property, and “critique of good practice,” an umbrella rubric for reflections on audit and accountability.


Marilyn Strathern
Girton College
Cambridge CB3 0JG