Blog post

On Maurice Godelier

Anne Chemin on the ‘historian of humanity’ and his encounters with other cultures.

27 July 2021

On Maurice Godelier

Maurice Godelier is an international figure in anthropology, recipient of the CNRS Gold Medal and the Alexander von Humboldt International Prize. Scientific Director of the CNRS Department of Human and Social Sciences (1982-6), then of the Musée de l’Homme (1997-2000), Godelier graduated in philosophy before starting his career in the 1960s with the historian Fernand Braudel, then with the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In 1966, Maurice Godelier went off to study the Baruya, a tribe in New Guinea, where he spent several years. He analysed this society, which had neither state nor market economy, in The Making of Great Men (1982), a standard work that would be followed by many others: The Mental and the Material (1984), The Enigma of the Gift (1996), The Metamorphoses of Kinship (2004), Au fondement des sociétés humaines (2007), Claude Lévi-Strauss (2013) and The Imagined, the Imaginary and the Symbolic (2015). 

‘Prolonged immersions’
The mission of the anthropologist, Maurice Godelier stresses, is to go out and meet other human societies. ‘An anthropologist without a field is a philosopher,’ he joked in Fondamentaux de la vie sociale (2019). ‘This implies being accepted, knowing how to live with others and getting people to cooperate with your work, which means understanding and knowing them. When the anthropologist is in the field, he or she is like a child going to school. It is the men and women among whom they have come to live who teach what they are.’ By multiplying these ‘prolonged immersions’ in other cultures, the anthropologist as ‘historian of humanity’ gradually discovers, as Maurice Godelier observed, ‘the invariants that structure social relationships’ in all human societies. ‘The more one deepens one’s knowledge of a different society, the more one discovers that there are universal elements in the particularity of that society,’ he wrote in Fondamentaux de la vie sociale, ‘so that a good knowledge of the particular does not detract from the universal.’

Interview (Le Monde, 26 March 2021)
Camille Kouchner’s recent book ‘La Familia grande’ has rekindled the debate on incest, to the point where the French parliament intends to establish a firm principle of non-consent when a victim of intra-family rape is under 18 years of age. What are the origins of the prohibition of incest? Is this taboo universal, as Claude Lévi-Strauss claimed? Do its contours vary in the different human societies that have populated and still populate the planet? We put these questions to one of the greatest anthropologists, Maurice Godelier, former scientific director of the CNRS Department of Human and Social Sciences, and author of a great anthropological classic, ‘The Metamorphoses of Kinship’.


Could you define what incest is?
To go straight to the core of its definition, I would say that incest, beyond its multiple cultural forms, refers to the norm of forbidding parents to have sexual relations with their children, and forbidding brothers and sisters to have sexual relations with each other. However, care must be taken: in many societies, given the nature of the kinship system, all the father’s brothers are considered the child’s fathers, all the mother’s sisters are considered the child’s mothers, and all their children are considered the child’s siblings. In these societies, the prohibition of incest therefore extends to those individuals whom we in the West consider to be uncles, aunts or first cousins.

These systems clearly show that societies differentiate between filiation as a social relation, which can extend to many people, and bodily filiation, which involves only two people whom we in the West call biological parents. Until the late nineteenth century, human societies were in fact unaware of the actual biological process of conceiving a child. Faced with this mystery, they invented, before the advent of modern science, myths about the making of a baby. If we want to understand the variety of forms of incest, it is essential to know these social imaginaries: it is on the basis of these collective beliefs that societies have forged prohibitions on sexual practices.
Nowhere is sexual intercourse between a man and a woman considered sufficient to produce a child. The couple make a foetus, but in all cultures the child is completed in the woman’s womb by the arrival of a vital principle, a spirit or an ancestor. In Hinduism and Buddhism, each individual is the reincarnation of another, and will reincarnate into another. In Christianity, the soul that will animate the body is not made by sexual intercourse, but introduced in the woman by God, at the moment He chooses and in the form that He wants. In fact, Hildegard von Bingen, a German nun from the late twelfth century, painted a picture showing the arrival of the soul in the form of a ball of fire into the body of a pregnant woman.

In ‘The Metamorphoses of Kinship’, you write that the prohibition of incest is based on the fact that certain individuals are too ‘identical’. What do you mean by this?
If incest is forbidden in all human societies, it is because it brings together people who are considered ‘too similar’: they share essential components of their being, whether physical – sperm, blood, milk or flesh – or immaterial – soul or name. The meeting of these components through sexual union is forbidden, because this excess of similarity can lead to disastrous consequences for them and their relatives, but also for the reproduction of the global order of society, even of the universe.

Can incest be said to be a universal prohibition?
All human societies make incest a taboo, but this universality takes very different forms. Each culture determines the common component that underpins this prohibition; the notion I mentioned – ‘identical-different’ – varies from one society to another. The ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that no cosmic or social catastrophe was attached to a union between brother and sister, whereas in the West we consider it one of the most seriously incestuous.
In matrilineal kinship systems in Africa, Oceania and indigenous America, children born from a union belong to the maternal clan – the mother and the mother’s brother. The inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands [Papua New Guinea], where the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski lived in the early twentieth century, consider that a child is conceived when the spirit of an ancestor wishes to be reincarnated in the body of a descendant of his clan. The foetus is the mixture of the ancestor’s spirit and the woman’s menstrual blood. The man’s sperm therefore has nothing to do with the generation of the child; the father, i.e. the mother’s husband, is not considered the progenitor. In this society, the worst crime is therefore for a mother to have sexual relations with her son, since he is made up of her own identity and that of her ancestors. It is also a crime, for the same reasons, for the mother’s brother to have sex with his niece. On the other hand, sexual relations between father and daughter are not considered incest. By behaving in this way, the father is making a very bad social use of his sex, but he is allowed to have sexual relations with her, since he is not responsible for her procreation.

In the West, what is socially and culturally reprehensible about a sexual relationship between parent and child?
In the West, the family is a ‘nuclear’ family – a man, a woman and their children. Sociologically and emotionally, if a parent seduces and has sex with his or her child, they put the child in competition with their spouse. This forbidden sexual relationship thus explodes the authority of the elder over the younger, which is necessary for children’s education, welfare and morality, and the mutual responsibility of family members to reproduce together. Incest thus undermines the fundamental sociological and psychological underpinnings of the family. It destroys the responsibility, authority and protection that family members need to provide for each other in order to maintain their social bonds in a socially and intimately positive way.

What role did Christian theology play in the prohibition of incest in the West?
In Western societies, Christianity has shaped prohibitions on sexual practices for two millennia. To understand the representations of incest that spread from the early Middle Ages onwards, it is necessary to evoke a principle that the Bible dates back to Adam and Eve. By uniting sexually, a man and a woman, whether married or not, form one flesh, and this flesh is also that of their children – the dogma of ‘una caro’. This is how Genesis (2:23-24) explains the birth of Eve, whom God created from Adam’s body: ‘And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh... Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be one flesh.’
This Christian principle has considerably broadened the scope of the sexual prohibition of incest. If husband and wife are one and the same body, and if this is also the case for parents and children, then a sister-in-law is similar to a sister, a brother-in-law similar to a brother, a father-in-law similar to a father, a mother-in-law similar to a mother, first cousins similar to brothers and sisters, and so on. By turning all in-laws into quasi-consanguines, Christian mythology steadily extended the prohibition of incest. Over the centuries, the web of prohibitions became so wide – up to the seventh degree of cousinhood in the thirteenth century – that the Catholic Church, in the following centuries, reduced it to four degrees of distance, then to two.

The incest described by Camille Kouchner in her book ‘La Familia grande’ concerns a stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, and his stepson. In what way, in Western societies, has the prohibition of incest been extended to social kinship relations created by reconstructed families?
This recognition that social kinship has a fundamental role in societies exists in our society in a spontaneous state. When a woman or man remarries and brings their existing children with them, their spouses must, according to popular opinion, behave ‘like mother and father’, i.e. provide the child with protection, education and affection, and guarantee the material conditions of its existence and development – as if they were the mother and father who had fathered these children. How many times do we hear a man or a woman declare: ‘My real father is the one who raised me, not the other one.’ In the case of La Familia grande, the stepfather did not behave like a father: he used his quasi-father status to have sexual relations with his partner’s son. He therefore committed homosexual incest. In France, parents in a second marriage were traditionally called ‘parâtre’ and ‘marâtre’. These terms, which carried negative charges sociologically, have been replaced by ‘father-in-law’ and ‘mother-in-law’, which are used to denote a fictitious consanguinity. In England, where a distinction is made between father-in-law and stepfather, the first and second spouses of a woman have the same responsibilities towards the children – the Children’s Act specifies that they share the obligation of protection, material well-being, education, morality and affection. In France, there is a legal vacuum in this area.

In connection with ‘La Familia grande’ you mentioned a homosexual incest. Does the prohibition of incest also concern this form of sexuality?
Yes, it also concerns homosexual relations, because human sexuality is both homosexual and heterosexual. In many societies, homosexuality is either denied or condemned as ‘unnatural’, but in many others it is recognised. The society gives it a place in its construction and reproduction, making it an element of major politico-religious initiations. In ancient times, it seems, women from the aristocracy of Lesbos, who were ‘lesbian’ during their initiation, would then, in the course of their lives, engender children who kept the society in existence – they were thus recognised as bisexual. Often in Oceania, in male initiations, all young men must have homosexual sex with each other until they are married – after which it is forbidden. There is, however, a very big difference between this ritual homosexuality imposed on everyone and homosexuality as a form of love for the other and a life choice as it exists in the West.

Is the condemnation of sex between brothers and sisters as universal as the condemnation of sex between parents and children?
It is almost universal, but there are rare exceptions, which have a profound meaning. In some societies – ancient Persia, ancient Egypt or the Inca Empire, for example – incest between parents and children was strictly forbidden, but the union of brother and sister was, on the contrary, the form of marriage most socially and religiously valued. The taboo between siblings was lifted for religious reasons. In Persia, according to the imaginary of the Mazdean state religion, humanity was in fact born of a triple incest between the gods – first between the god of heaven and his daughter earth, then between their son and his mother, who gave birth to twins, and then between this brother and sister, who were the ancestors of all humanity. These twins constituted perfection in the combination of masculine and feminine forces.
In this society, a minority of individuals were also called upon to unite with their sibling in a special rite [xwêtôdas]. This union was not experienced as incest, but as a replication by humans of a divine act: it helped to expand the realm of good and to repel evil in the universe and in society. Individuals married according to this rite were promised a special place in heaven. In these societies, the union of brother and sister was a way of sublimating incest into a mystical act, which made humans participate in the divine world.

In ‘Totem and Taboo’, Sigmund Freud maintained that the incest taboo emerged as a result of the ‘murder of the father’, an event that he believed really existed in the distant prehistoric past. What do you think of this hypothesis?
Freud noted that incestuous desires generate destructive rivalries within families, and proposed a fictional scenario to explain the birth of human society. In the beginning, society did not exist; there were inbred families composed of a man who had found a woman to unite with. They have children and when the daughters reach puberty, the father appropriates them sexually – according to Freud. The sons, in their frustration, decide to kill the father in order to appropriate their mother and sisters, then they eat him. After the murder, they discover that they would themselves be prepared to kill one another to fulfil their desires. So they decide to exchange their sisters with sisters from other family units, who do the same. According to Freud, this is the birth of society through the exchange of women.
This scenario is completely refuted by archaeology and paleoanthropology. We know that the human species is a naturally social species, which originally appeared in the form of hunter-gatherer-fisher bands. Within these bands, families were formed when the division of labour between the sexes, which does not exist in higher primates, led to cooperation between men and women in order to feed and protect the children born into the band. This is what gave rise to human families. In this process, the prohibition of incest never involved the killing of the father.

Do you think, like Claude Lévi-Strauss, that the prohibition of incest enabled humanity to emerge from animality?
That’s right. Nature endowed our male or female body with a sexual, anatomical and physiological apparatus that allows the reproduction of the social species that we are, but in its spontaneous state sexual desire can turn towards forbidden persons. It is not at all impossible, for example, for a son to desire his mother – the proof is that it must be forbidden. In this sense, human sexuality is fundamentally ‘a-social’. But for more than one hundred and twenty thousand years, Homo sapiens sapiens, who has experimented with very different forms of social organisation, has universally concluded that sexual permissiveness must be prohibited. Because sexuality is a source of conflict, exclusion and rivalry, it cannot be left entirely to the freedom of each individual.
In all human societies, therefore, sexuality has been placed under the control of society. It must be domesticated, because it must constantly be subordinated to the reproduction of other social relations, whether political, religious or economic. The prohibition of incest is a mental invention: it prohibits certain social uses of sexuality in the name of the constraints that humans must necessarily impose on themselves in order to continue to produce the family, religion and the economy.
Humanity is not only a species of primate living in society; it is the only species that produces society in order to live, and that consciously and socially manages its sexuality by explicitly setting prohibitions and limits to the uses of sex. By subordinating sexuality to the reproduction of social relations, all societies transform the sexed male or female body into a kind of ventriloqual machine expounding the moral and social order that should reign in society. By becoming ‘socialised’, sexuality contributes to the reproduction of this moral and social order.

What were the other steps from animality to humanity?
The first transition point was the domestication of fire, which seems to have appeared in our ancient ancestors four hundred thousand years ago. The sharing and consumption of both raw and cooked food opened up a huge new domain of food resources and social behaviour for hominids. The second point of transition was the division of labour between the sexes. In the great apes, only females raise and feed their children, but this was no longer the case in hominids or our own species. A third point was articulated language, which is the symbolic support of thought. A fourth point was the fact that the brain of Homo sapiens sapiens developed because of the complexity of the tasks our ancestors learned to do, which allowed human thought to understand processes, learn from the past and imagine alternative futures. To this must be added, of course, the prohibition of incest.
These different points of distancing and transformation from an animal starting point have been united in our species Homo sapiens sapiens. Claude Lévi-Strauss correctly indicated most of these points of transition – the raw and the cooked, the sexual division of labour, articulated language and the performance of the brain and thought.

Do you think that, as many philosophers or religious people say, the family and kinship relations are the foundation of society?
Every individual begins life in a small or extended kinship group. This starting point is fundamental to their survival: it gives them their first identity. But beyond that, in their development, every individual becomes more than what they were at the start: they become integrated into the complexity of the society in which they live. When we compare societies, as anthropologists do, it is clear that nowhere are kinship relationships the foundation of a society’s existence.
What produces a society is the fact that social groups, whatever they may be – clans, castes or classes – jointly assert their sovereignty over a territory, its resources and its inhabitants. These social relations, which enable the establishment of a society, are politico-religious relations which encompass and integrate into their functioning kinship relations and kinship groups. For thousands of years, only politico-religious relationships have made it possible to create societies which have then consciously reproduced themselves as a whole. And in most recent modern times the evolution of certain societies has led to the separation of religion and the state, and asserted the sovereignty of peoples over their destiny.

Published by Le Monde. Translated by David Fernbach