The avoidances observed by first-born children towards their parent of like sex were quickly and frequently brought to my notice among the Tallensi. As I have described elsewhere (1945, 1949, 1959) they are not only a matter of common knowledge but have a critical significance for Tale social structure both within ad beyond the domestic domain in which they are primarily operative. The personal avoidances of the Namoo first-born are public moral obligations in that adherence to them is a symbol of their situation with a tone of pride, though it might seem, to the outsider, to be irrationally burden-some and fraught with the humiliation of rejection. Of course, first-borns are injured from babyhood to the disabilities of their status and these are ritual injunctions stamped with absolute inviolability from the outset. But what a first-born is inured to looks, to the outsider, more like a deprivation loaded with threat. From early childhood he must not eat from the same dish as his father lest his finger scratch his father's hand. Tallensi say that if this happened it would cause misfortune, possibly even death, to the father. But he sees his younger brothers share their father's dish with impunity. If they scratch his hand by chance no harm ensues. And it is the same with other observances - the prohibition against wearing his father's clothes, using his bow, and looking into his granary. Yet first-born sons do not speak with resentment of their situation. They accept it with equanimity, with good grace, often, as I have said, with a kind of pride. It is, quite simply, from their point of view, a rule of life, in their language, an ancestral taboo (kyiher); but not an arbitrary and irrational one.
This is of great importance. It is accounted for in terms of rational interpretation of the social and psychological relationships of fathers and sons - an interpretation which makes sense equally from the point of view of Tale social structure and Tale venues and from that of the anthropological theory of kinship. To see how apposite it is, one has to remember that Tale fathers are devoted to their children and are not denied by custom the freedom to show affection and familiarity towards their sons. The picture given by Professor Carstairs (1957) of the attitude of fathers to their children, and especially of the relationships between fathers and sons, among the Hindus of Rajasthan would horrify Tallensi; they would not even agree unreservedly with the maxim that a 'man must always defer unhesitatingly to his father's word', though they insist that fathers must be accorded respect and obedience. Carstairs makes much of the aloofness, the lack of spontaneous warmth and intimacy, in the relations of father and son, and connects this with the strict obligations that exist for both sides. The Tallensi are not so severe. They do not idealize the father, like these Hindus, as a feared and remote model of austerity and self-control in whose presence everything associated with pleasure, levity, and most of all sexual life is forbidden. For them, too, the ultimate disaster, beside which death itself is insignificant, is to die without a son to perform one's funeral ceremonies and continue one's descent line. But having no notion of an afterlife corresponding to hell and nirvana, they would not properly comprehend the Sanskrit maxim quoted by Carstairs (1957, p.222) that 'a son is he who rescues a man from hell' and assures his attainment of nirvana. As we shall see, for Tallensi, to have a son is to ensure one's own ancestorhood, and that is all the immortality one aspires to. With their nebulous ideas of the mode of existence of ancestors, Tallensi do not have beliefs that it can be influenced by the conduct of offspring and descendants.
I have cited Carstairs's observations in order to bring out the relatively rational attitude and amicable compromise achieved by Tale custom, at any rate in its manifest and public aspect, in handling the tensions in the relationship of father and son, as focused upon the first-born son. As I have shown elsewhere (1949), this fits in with the lineage system, the domestic organization, and the widely ramifying web of kinship that together form the basis of Tale social structure. As in all societies in which patrilineal descent is the key principle of the social structure, the relationship of fathers and sons is the nuclear element of the whole social system. Opposition and interdependence, to use rather non-committal terms, are mingled in their customary conduct to one another. But what is of particular interest for my present theme is that Tallensi recognize quite frankly and even with some irony that the opposition between fathers and sons springs from their rivalry. Moreover, they regard this rivalry as inherent in the very nature of the relationship. If they had the word they would say that it was instinctive. In particular, they perceive that the prohibitions followed by first-born sons not only give customary expression and legitimacy to this fact but serve as a means of canalizing and dealing with the potential dangers they see in it. They are also well aware of the economic, jural, and moral factors in the situation. (Fortes 1949; 1959).
It will help to clothe this bald summary with verisimilitude and to lead to the next step in my argument if I stop to give you a typical instance from my field records. Saa of Kpata'ar, a man of about forty-two, was showing me his home farm one day and explained that until five years before he had lived and farmed with his father.
'Then', he said, 'my father told me to come and build a house for myself and my wives and children on this land where his grandfather had formerly lived and to farm and provide for my wives and children by myself. Now he lives in his house and my younger brother, and his own younger brother live and farm with him.' [Then, with a humorous glint in his eye and half smiling, he went on] 'You see, I am my father's eldest son. In our country, for all of us, whether we are Talis or Namoos, this is our taboo; when your eldest son reaches manhood he either goes out on his own or cuts his own gateway in his father's house. If my father and I were to abide together it would not be good. It would harm us. It would harm men and would that not be injurious also to my father?'Now I knew Saa's old father quite well and had often seen him at his father's house assisting and advising in family and lineage affairs. Their public intercourse seemed to be as friendly and their mutual loyalty as staunch as was overtly the case with most elderly fathers and their mature sons. I therefore pressed Saa further, asking how he and his father could conceivably harm each other merely by living in the same household and farming together. He replied in the same matter-of-fact manner in which he had earlier given me some details of his farm work.
'It's like this', he said, 'if we abide together our Destinies wrestle with each other. My Destiny struggles that he shall not live and his Destiny strives that I do not live. Don't you see, there sits my father and he has his ancestor shrines; if he were to die to-day it would be I who would own them. Thus it is that my Destiny strives for him to die so that I can take over his shrines to add to my Destiny and his Destiny strives for me to die so that my father can keep his shrine to sacrifice to them.' [He spoke as if he were describing the action of external forces that had nothing to do with his own will and desires. I remarked that this suggested a standing enmity between his father and himself. He responded in a more personal, but still philosophical tone of voice.] 'Indeed', he mused, 'we don't like and oldest son, we care for the youngest son. As for my father, of course I am attached to him. If he were to die to-day I would have a hard time of it. His younger brothers would take possession of the family home. I am only a minor person. It is because my father is head of the family, on his account, that I have a house of my own and possess this farm. If he were to die his next brother inherits the family property and that includes what I have. Nowadays, if a big sacrifice is performed my father gets his share and he gives some to me; his brother would not do this. Nowadays, I act on my father's behalf in public affairs; when he dies I shall become a nobody. I want him to live.' [I pointed out that he seems to be contradicting himself; to which he replied:] 'When my father and I dwelt together he used not to heed what I said. If there was a dispute he would listen to the others, never to me. Now that he does not see me every day and I have my house and he has his, his soul at length turns towards me. True, I only left him recently. That was because I was not ready for it before. As I farmed with him I was entitled to have him pay the bride price for any wife I married. When he had provided for me to marry to my satisfaction I was ready to go out on my own. My younger brothers have remained to farm with him. They can't inherit his ancestor shrines when he dies, so their Destinies have no quarrel with his.'This revealing confession sums up the normal and conventional conception of the relations of men with their sons among the Tallensi. Many such statements, supported by observations of people's attitudes and behaviour in many situations, confirms its accuracy and sincerity. What Saa tell us is that there is a latent antagonism between a man and his eldest son all through life. In the son's youth it does not stand in the way of their daily association and their amicable co-operation in farming and other household concerns. But when the son marries, and in due course becomes a natural father in his own right, responsible for the support and care of wife and children, his further growth in social achievement and personal maturity begins to be felt as a threat to the father. Unconscious antagonism turns into potential strife.
What is at stake is clear enough. It is the status of fatherhood. This is exhibited in the possession of the rights of disposal over family property, but, more significantly is conferred by attaining custody of the ancestral shrines. But what matters most is that it is a unique status. Given the patrilineal lineage system, there can be only one father-of-the-family, in the sense of the person vested with supreme authority in the family, at any time. And there is only one way in which this status can be attained and that is by succession. But this presupposes the death of the holder (to borrow Dr Goody's valuable concept (Goody 1959) which brings out the natural transiency of such holding). And this is the crux, The safeguard the rightful holder from the competitive aspirations of his rightful heir-apparent is the issue. It is presented as a curiously impersonal issue, as if it were a given fact of human nature. And this fits in with the way it is dealt with by means of the quasi-impersonal imperative of taboo. What is accomplished, in fact, is the segregation of the protagonists from each other in respect of the two primary spheres of paternal authority, the control over property and dependants and the monopoly of the right to officiate in the worship at ancestor shrines. As Saa claims, voicing common sentiments, relationships of goodwill and mutual affection on the personal level are not disturbed. These go back to a father's devoted care for his children during their infancy. And we can see the point of the avoidances imposed at this stage. In the patrilineal and patrilocal joint family system of the Tallensi, fathers have to support, bring up and educate their sons to follow in their footsteps and succeed them. A son cannot be socially and materially segregated in childhood.
The social structure and economy of the Tallensi rules out the possibility of sending a child away to be brought up by maternal kin, as is done among the Dagomba, for instance, nor are the age-villages exploited by the Nyakyusa (Wilson 1951) to segregate successive generations feasible.
How can the son, designated by jural and ritual custom to be his father's successor, be kept submissive to paternal authority in childhood except by excluding him from activities and relationships that smack of sharing in his father's status? How can the son be equipped to perceive and feel his obligatory separation from his father; how can he dutifully make plain that he is not his father's equal and does not covet his father's position? Physical separation being ruled out, the answer is found in the symbolic avoidances described earlier. In the circumstances they have to be more explicit and categorical than the forms of etiquette by means of which respect for parents and elders are shown in some African societies, even, for instance, among the Thonga (Junod 1927, p. 411 seq.), where the eldest son's situation is very close to that of the Tallensi. For what is demanded is more than respect though less than the extreme spatial and politico-ritual insulation of filial from parental generation that is found among some Central African peoples. (I have instanced the Nyakyusa, but the custom is widespread in Central Africa.) What is symbolized is that an eldest son must not pretend to equality with his father as economic head of the household (hence the granary taboo), in respect to the rights he has over his wives (hence the taboo on eating with the father, since one of the main duties of a wife is to cook for her husband) in his status of mature manhood, as an independent jural and ritual person, which can, as I shall presently emphasize, only be reached upon the death of the father (hence the taboo on the father's bow and quiver), and lastly, in his capacity as a unique individual (hence the ban on wearing his father's clothes). And these observances must be kept - I can vouch that they are so kept - without destroying the personal warmth and trust that is also an essential component in the relationship of the son with his father.
This will be clearer if I hark back to note that what I said earlier about inheritance and succession was elliptical in one respect. I should have pointed out that a father of a family has two distinct elements of status. He is father of his children by right of begetting as Tallensi say, and by this token his sons are simply extensions or parts of himself during his life time. They have no jural standing in their own right, even if they are economically self-supporting and live separately. This is a basic norm of Tale social structure. I was vividly confronted with it when a young man employed by me appealed to me with mingled anger and resignation. He had married a girl by elopement and the placation gifts had been accepted. But his father had refused to complete the formalities on the grounds that he could not afford to pay the bride price cattle. Yet my young friend had saved enough to buy two cows which would be an ample first instalment on the bride price. Why, I asked, did he not, then, himself hand over the cows to his father-in-law? It would be outrageous, he replied, even if the wife's lineage kin were unscrupulous enough to accept them. You can't pay your wife's bride price yourself while you own father is alive, not even while one of your father's own brothers is alive. It would be 'setting myself up as my father's equal', he explained. 'We should quarrel, he would curse me and refuse to sacrifice on my behalf; does not one man surpass another in standing?'
His one hope was that I might persuade his father to give in. But note an important corollary. My informant would have been no better placed, jurally, to take a wife even if he already had one wife and children of his own; for a man does not have the jural autonomy to act independently, on his own behalf, even in regard to rights over his own children, until his father dies.
The other side of a father-of-a-family's status is his position as head of the lineage segment which constitutes the core of the family. He arrives at this status, not by having children or by succeeding his father by right of filiation, but by succeeding to it by seniority in the lineage. By this reckoning lineage brothers succeed first and then sons; and of course all brothers who survive can in time succeed. There is not the specificity of filial succession. Thus Tale fatherhood conforms to Maine's (1864, chap. vii) dictum that 'patriarchal' power is not only domestic but political'. Taking fatherhood as a status in the politico-jural domain, in which the relationships between holder and prospective heir are modelled on siblingship, we see that there are no avoidances between a man and his prospective lineage successor either of a ritual or of a secular nature. Brothers borrow each other's clothes and may inherit each other's widows. As lineage head a man cannot frustrate his brother or his brother's son in the matter of bride price as arbitrarily as a father can, nor can he refuse to sacrifice to a common ancestor without grave cause.
We must conclude that the first-born's avoidances are to be understood as referring to his father's strictly paternal and his own strictly filial status in the domestic domain during his father's life time. This is an inescapable nexus; and this explains why Tallensi account for the opposition of father and first-born son, prescribed by custom though it is, by means of spiritual concepts rather than in jural and economic terms. Breach of the taboos would be an affront to the father's soul (sii) and Destiny (yin). For a man's soul is in his granary and his vitality is in his garments and weapons because they are covered with the sweat and dirt of his body. This is more vividly brought out among the Talis clans which do not impose avoidances between father and first-born as taboos, though they follow the practice for what they regard as reasons of propriety. Among them a first-born son may be sent by his father to fetch grain from his granary. But when a father dies his bow and quiver and leather pouch are hung up inside his granary by the officiating elders. From that day until the final obsequies, which may not take place for two or three years, the eldest son may not look inside the granary. If he did, he would see his dead father and himself die. A younger son can enter the granary with impunity. He would never see the dead. At the final obsequies the hidden articles are brought out and eventually taken by the eldest son to be deposited in the sacred grove of the lineage ancestors. Thereupon he legitimately succeeds to the status which gives him the ownership of the granary and all that goes with it.
I am concentrating on the first-born son, but two qualifications should be added. Firstly, Tallensi understand quite clearly that he is singled out by reason of his place in the sibling group so to speak; he is, they say, the nearest to the succession. Secondly, first-born daughters have parallel avoidances in relation to their mothers and to some extent to their fathers. This shows how critical is the position of the first-born irrespective of sex. As Tallensi point out it is the first-born whose birth transforms a married couple into parents once and for all.
But I fear that I may be conveying an impression of pervasive tension and antagonism in the relations of parents with their first-born children, the children whose fate it is to have conferred parenthood upon them and to be waiting for the succession. I do want to stress again that there are no obvious signs of anything of this sort in their normal relationships and in their every-day behaviour towards one another. Fathers speak with pride, affection and trust of their eldest sons; rather disconcertingly so when, as so often happens, a father follows a eulogy in the son's presence by adding, 'of course, he is my first-born and though he is still so young he wouldn't care if I died to-day. He is only waiting to step into my place.' Eldest sons, likewise, as I have already noted, are normally attached and loyal to their fathers. Tallensi are very critical of sons who leave their natal settlement to work or farm abroad for many years. They would be appalled at the idea that a son might resort to violence, or even parricide, as is reported of the Bagisu, in order to assert his claims on his father (La Fontaine 1960).
On the contrary Tallensi never cease to emphasize the duty of what I have elsewhere (1949, chap. VI) called filial piety; and that they faithfully observe it is constantly shown. It is illustrated by the attitude of the youth whose father refused to pay his wife's bride price. But similar incidents are of daily occurrence. For example, I happened to meet Toghalberigu just after a stormy argument with his father, who accused him of neglecting the family farm in order to get ahead with the weeding of his own private strip of land. Complaining to me he ended, more in sorrow than in anger, 'Is it right, the way he treats me? Yet how can I leave him since he is almost blind and cannot farm for himself? Would he not starve to death? Can you just abandon your father? Is it not he who begot you?
Here lies the crux. Filial piety is a parent's unquestioned and inalienable right because he begot you - or, in the mother's case, she bore you. Character conduct do not come into it. Bad parents are just as much entitled to filial piety as good parents. It is an absolute moral rule. Nor is it purely one-sided; for it is an equally impregnable moral rule, adhered to with great fidelity according to my observations, that a parent may not reject a child, no matter how he misconducts himself. Piety, in fact, is a reciprocal relationship, compounded of reciprocal sentiments, ties and duties. And its source (though not its raison d'être) is the irreducible fact of procreation, the fact that confers parenthood in the elementary sense in which a person achieves parenthood independently of lineage membership.
What I am calling piety, then, is a complex of conduct and sentiment exhibited par excellence in the relations of a man with his eldest son and felt to be an absolute norm of morality. It pervades all their relationships in a curiously interdependent partnership of growth and development during life. Yet when Tallensi speak of this relationship they say that the supreme act of piety required od any man is what falls to him on the death of his father. It is the duty then of the first-born son, and failing him of the oldest living son, to be responsible for his father's mortuary and funeral rites. I am translating the Tale phrase maal u ba koor, for in actuality the elaborate sequence of rites is supervised and largely carried out by fellow members of the dead man's lineage, aided by representatives of allied lineages and other kinsfolk. The children, widows and grandchildren undergo ritual and observe ritual taboos. They do not officiate.
Nevertheless the essential rites cannot, by right, be carried out without the presence and the lead of the eldest son. And whether or when he takes the necessary steps for this is solely his own responsibility. There are no sanctions of a jural or material kind that can be brought to bear on him. He can, if he wishes, also turn a deaf ear to public opinion, which may be impatient if the deceased held an office, since no successor can be appointed until his final obsequies are performed. Nor may a younger brother take action. That would be usurpation and contrary to the rules of age and generation priority in the sibling group and the lineage. Indeed, it would be an act of impiety against the deceased, even if he had been his father's favourite son. It is wholly a matter of conscience with the responsible son, or as Tallensi put it, it lies between him and his ancestors. If he delays the funeral inordinately, the ancestors will take offence and he will suffer. Funerals are frequently delayed, often for lack of livestock and grain supplies that are required to perform them, but sometimes for motives interpreted by the Tallensi as perverse or selfish. When Nindoghat procrastinated over his father's funeral, among the motives attributed to him were arrogance and malice due to the hostility between his lineage segment and that of the prospective successor to his father's office. So it is not uncommon for diviners to reveal that sickness and deaths are due to wrath of ancestors offended by the delay of a funeral.
Tale mortuary and funeral rites are elaborate and locally varied but here I am concerned only with the most important of those in which the participation of the eldest son is ideally indispensable. (I say 'ideally' because the Tallensi are a practical people and in exceptional circumstances the lineage will act without them). These are, firstly, the rites by which the deceased is established among his ancestors and is thus transformed from a living person into an ancestor; and secondly and consequentially, those by which the son is invested with his father's status or is made eligible for this. Significantly, it is the eldest son who should make the rounds of all the ancestor shrines that were in his father's custody and, with the customary libation, appraise them of his death. Then, he must attend the divination session at which the ancestral agent of his father's death is determined; for he must concur in the verdict since the sacrifices to appease the ancestors and to reconcile them with the living are his responsibility. Finally, he (usually accompanied by his first-born sister) is the main actor in rites which free him to do those things which were forbidden to him in his father's lifetime or, in Talis clans, during the period of suspended paternal status since his father's death. No display of grief is permitted in these rites but strict silence is enjoined on the actors in the most solemn of them. This is because the dead is deemed to be participating with them and would strike down anyone who broke the ritual silence.
I want to stop for a moment to consider the implications of these rites. We must remember that among the Tallensi the ancestors continue the ultimate tribunal, the final authority in matters of life and death. Every normal death is their doing. The decreased is said to have been slain or to have been summoned by them, and it is always in retribution for neglect of ritual service demanded by them or breach of promises made or duty owed to them (cf. Fortes 1959). A son is a jural minor during his father's lifetime. As such he has no standing in relation to the ancestors and therefore only indirect and minor ritual liabilities towards them. Then when he informs the ancestors of his father's death he is, in effect, presenting himself to them as the prospective successor to his father's responsibilities towards them. As heir he must accept the penalty imposed by the ancestors for the fault for which his father incurred death; but though he provides the animal to be offered he may not perform the sacrifice. His father's status has not yet devolved on him. so one of his younger brothers acts as if deputizing for the father.
Then as to the rites of silence, these mime eating and drinking with the dead father, hitherto prohibited to the son. But he must be freed to do so in the future, if he is to be able to sacrifice to his ancestor-father, since this requires partaking of the offering. To end the funeral among the Talis, he takes his father's bow and quiver from the tabooed granary to the external boghar. There he hands it to the assembled lineage elders to be deposited among those of the other forbears with whom the father is now joined. Among the Namoos, he is clad in his father's tunic turned inside out, girt with his father's mimic bow and quiver and very solemnly shown the inside of the tabooed granary with gestures that symbolize compulsion from the lineage elders to submit. (Cf. Fortes 1949, chap. VIII. It should be noted that the 'bow and quiver' used are small mimic articles made for the funeral and therefore expendable.) At this point he stops being the heir and replaces his father in status. Henceforth he is his own master (within the limits of lineage obligations) jurally, economically, and above all ritually, with authority over his dependants and his family property, and with the right to officiate in sacrifices to the ancestor shrines of which he now becomes the custodian. But he will never cease to be reminded that he holds his status solely in virtue of being his father's successor; for his weal and woe, and that of his dependants hangs upon the will of the ancestors, and they can be influenced only in one way and that is by pious tendance and ritual service, which cannot be rendered except through the intermediation of his dead father.
It is pertinent to add that various offerings of animals and beer are made to the deceased in the course of the funeral rites. They are accompanied by a constant refrain. Always the officiant calls upon the deceased by name to accept the offering 'in order that you may reach and join your fathers and forefathers and let health, peace, child-bearing, fertility of fields and livestock now prevail'. Thus the climax of filial piety is for the eldest son to see to the proper dispatch of his father to the community of the ancestors of which he now becomes one, and thereupon to displace him in status. Is is perhaps not unreasonable or illogical that ancestors, thus dispossessed and thrust out of society by the cruel inevitability of nature, should be known to have a mystical existence, and believed to retain final authority, chiefly by virtue of the pain and misfortune they inflict on their descendants from time to time. No wonder Tallensi declare that it is harder to serve and honour the ancestors with piety than the living. No wonder, too, that they have to find consolation in the belief that the ancestors are always just (cf. Fortes 1959).
Filial succession relates to paternal status in the domestic domain. I have never heard an heir express gratification over this. In fact his attitude, until he is invested with paternal status, is more likely to be one of resignation and submission to what must be. But a lineage successor to office may and does take pride in it. It is rash to speculate about underlying motives in customary behaviour as I hinted at the beginning of this lecture. But I do not think it is going too far to see a connexion between these attitudes and, on the one hand, the avoidance relationship between father and son, on the other the equality of lineage brothers. In a lineage system like that of the Tallensi, paternal status merges into lineage eldership just as and because the relations arising from filiation become relations of common descent in the next and subsequent generations. This provides the framework for the extension of filial piety from the domestic to the lineage level. It is in fact quite directly mediated by the relegation of the father, when he becomes an ancestor to the communion of all the ancestral forebears symbolically accessible in a shrine dedicated to them collectively.
Return to Previous section | Go to next section
|Go to the main Ancestors in Africa page||Go to the main Experience Rich Anthropology page||Go to the CSAC Anthropology Pages -online|