Tribal Law

Tribal Law

You find yourself in the unhappy circumstance of being attracted to your second cousin’s wife, Gurtina—and of knowing that she is attracted to you. Now, your second cousin is a fine fellow, and you wouldn’t intentionally hurt him, but these things happen: You and his wife are possessed by the love madness.

It’s really very touching and pathetic. Living in the same camp, you can’t help but see each other daily. You circle each other like binary stars, drawn together by one force, thrust apart by another. What you read in each other’s eyes is plain but untested. You yearn to test it, but . . . you know what the testing will inevitably cost.

No matter. Soon you can endure it no longer. The fire of love is burning you alive. One day in passing at the outskirts of camp, you confront her.She lowers her eyes modestly, as always, but your determination is fixed.

“Tonight,” you whisper, “past the saltbush on the other side of the stream.” She hesitates a moment to consult her own heart, but she too knows that the time has come. “At the setting of the moon?” she asks. “At the setting of the moon.” She nods and hurries away, her heart bursting with joy and dread.

That night you’re there a little beforehand, of course, to prepare your bower of love, your nest of passion. Gurtina comes to you at last.

Your hands touch. You embrace. Ah!

A few hours later, exhausted with delight, you sit by a tiny fire and watch it grow pale in the burgeoning dawn. You exchange a glance, and more is written in that glance than in all your night’s endearments and caresses. You have tested your passion. Now, this glance says, it’s time to test your love. With a sigh, you smother the fire and head back to camp, trying not to let your feet drag. Your faces are a careful display. Exultation would be childish and insolent. Shame would be a denial of your love. Instead, what’s seen there is something like repose, acceptance, fortitude.

You both know what you’re going to see, and without fail you see it. At one side of the camp the men are arrayed, already hopping with fury. At the other side wait the women, smouldering. You and Gurtina exchange another glance—this one briefer than the beat of a gnat’s wing—and then you’re engulfed in a wave of wrath.

The men descend on you, the women on her. Rocks and spears and boomerangs are flying through the air, clubs and digging sticks are being wielded with abandon. But you don’t just stand there and take it—far from it. You both battle back in defense of your love, answering screams with screams, rocks with rocks, spears with spears, blows with blows, until all weapons and combatants are finally exhausted.

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Gurtina, bleeding and battered, is returned to her husband, and you’re told to roll your swag and get the hell out if you know what’s good for you. For a while the men’s bodies are exhausted, their fury isn’t, and when they revive, you’ll be fair game again. So you roll your swag, thinking. Thinking very hard. The test of your love isn’t over, it’s just begun. The next few hours will be the true test, and this test will be in your head and heart alone.

You leave camp, knowing that as yet you have a choice. . . .

The question is: Do you really want this woman? Do you want her more than anything you hold dear in the world? If you don’t, if there’s the slightest doubt . . . you will just keep going—go on walkabout for a few weeks. When you come back, the men’s fury will have abated. They’ll jeer at you for a few weeks and then forget all about it. Gurtina . . . ah, Gurtina will know you for what you are, a craven seducer, a hollow man, and she’ll never forget. And of course there’ll be a price to be paid to your cousin. But all these are bearable. The alternative, on the other hand . . . You circle the camp all day, staying out of sight and out of reach, thinking. But by dusk you know that your doubts have vanished. In the gathering darkness, you approach camp stealthily, to the spot where your loved one is being guarded. Lightly guarded.

Lightly guarded—to keep her from running away with you. Ah, the exquisiteness of that guard! Do you see its effect?

Gurtina has her own choice to make, you see—the same terrible choice as yours. And the restraint provided by those guards defines and delimits her choice. For she’s guarded. You’re not. You have to prove your courage by coming for her. She doesn’t need to prove her courage by coming for you. And in fact, she can’t. She’s guarded, you see. So that, should you not come for her, she will not be shamed. Rather it will be you who is shamed.

But this is only half of it. The guards are there to protect you as well, because Gurtina too has her choice to make. Does she really want you?

Does she want you more than anything she holds dear in the world? If not—if there’s the slightest doubt—when your signal comes at dusk, she need only shrug helplessly, as if to say, “See? I can’t get away, my love. I’m being too well guarded.” Thus the presence of the guards enables her to express her choice in a way that does not crush your self-esteem. The presence of the guards makes it possible for her to end the whole episode in a moment, without a single word, as painlessly as possible.

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Now note very well that none of this is or was worked our rationally or consciously, of course. Nevertheless, the guard on Gurtina is in fact curiously inefficient. Efficient enough to serve all the purposes I’ve just mentioned—but inefficient enough to allow her to escape at your signal, if that is her will. Because of course the Alawa are sensible enough to know that if she wants you this much, it would be foolish to make escape impossible.

The testing is over now. You and she have made your decision. Now the price must be paid. The price for disrupting the life of the tribe, for cheapening marriage in the eyes of the children. And thai price is, next to death itself, the heaviest that can be paid: detribalization, lifelong exile.

At your signal, Gurtina slips away from her guard and, together at last and forever, the two of you hurry away into the night, never to return. You are journeying into the land of the dead now. Detribalized, you are dead to all you left behind and to all you shall ever meet for the rest of your lives.

Now you are truly homeless, by your own choice, alone and adrift in a vast, empty world. Your home is now each other, which you chose above the tribe. There will be no comradeship for you forever except what you find in each other: no friends, no father and mother, no aunts and uncles, no cousins, no nieces and nephews. You have thrown it all away—to have each other.

And you know that this is truly a price you’ve paid of your own choice, not a punishment. To have each other and go on living with the tribe would be unthinkable, disgraceful, even worse than exile. It would in fact destroy the tribe, because once the children saw that there was no price to be paid for adultery, marriage would become a laughingstock, and the basis of the family and of the tribe itself would disintegrate.

What you see at work here in this example is the stupendous efficacy of tribal law. Nothing like invented law, which just spells out crimes and punishments, tribal law is something that works. It works well for all concerned. A man and woman whose love is as great as this must of course have each other. But for the sake of the tribe, they must be gone—out of sight, out of mind forever. The children of the tribe have seen with their own eyes that marriage and love are not the trifling matters they have become among “advanced” peoples like us. The husband’s dishonor has been avenged—and there will be no snickering among his comrades about it, for they stood side by side with him to lambaste the adulterer.

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But perhaps you had a question at this point in the story: Why would the lovers return to the camp at all?

Oh, that’s exactly the crux of the law. It wouldn’t work at all without that. Suppose, after your night of lovemaking, you were to suggest to Gurtina: “Oh, why should we wait another day to be together? Let’s run away now!”

What would she think? She would think, “Uh-oh, what have I gotten myself into here? What kind of a man is this? A coward, obviously, who would have us slink off into the night rather than go back to face the others and say, ‘Well, here we are! Do your worst!’ ”

And if she made the suggestion instead of you, you’d think the same of her. So the two of you must go back. . . .

Every part of this process is the law, and every actor in it is a participant in the law. The law for these people isn’t a separate statute written in a book. It’s the very fabric of their lives—it’s what makes the Alawa the Alawa and what distinguishes them from the Mara and the Malanugganugga—who have their own ways of handling adultery, which are the best for them. It can’t possibly be said too often that there is no one right way for people to live; that’s only the delusion of the most murderous and destructive culture that history has ever produced.

I’m sure it’s all but self-evident to you that this law of adultery could not have been the invention of any committee whatever. It’s not an improvisation or a contrivance, and because it’s not an improvisation or a contrivance, it has weight with the Alawa. It might not occur to any of them to analyze it as I’ve done here tonight, but that doesn’t matter in the least.

They don’t obey the law of the Alawa because it checks out under analysis.

They obey the law of the Alawa because they’re the Alawa, and to give up the law would be to give up their identity—would be to become detribalised.

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