To see the functioning of the recursive complementary cosmological dualism outside of the context of marriage, let's look at the example of the sacrificial post, a common feature of villages in Nusa Tenggara Timur. They are usually to be found in the centre of the village, often but not always on a raised stone platform. Examples of these are the Nage peo on Flores and the Meto hau mone found in West Timor; the latter means 'male tree', which should tell you something about its symbolism. They are usually Y-shaped, with a central trunk forking into two subsidiary branches. The post is used for tying up animals for sacrifice (blood sacrifice being another common feature of eastern Indonesian societies - blood is considered 'cooling'). In former times - i.e., before so-called 'pacification' by Dutch and Portuguese imperial forces - the posts were also used to hang heads on after headhunting raids.
Sacrificial posts occupy a symbolically 'male' position in the village, complementing the more feminine meeting house (often called using a reflex of the proto-Austonesian *balay). They are considered to be 'male' and are used in various ways to express male achievement: sacrifice is these days used as a way for men to compete and achieve status (and also to ritually cool 'hot' objects), and in pre-pacification days headhunting was the chief means by which men progressed socially. The sacrificial post is associated with both and is therefore a male object, one expressing male aims.
But the Y-shape of the post allows it to contain a bit of the female element, as well. One of the forks is the 'male' fork, the other the female fork. Female forks would sometimes be used to hang the skulls taken by headhunters, a further example of the recursive symbolism of the post - a male product hanging from the female branch of a male tree. Needham mentions this in Mamboru, West Sumba, for instance. (In other places, including Timor, heads were frequently hung from the branches of banyan trees.)
|A sacrificial post. See the forked shape. Such posts are not usually decorated with heads, but there are clearly plenty of idiosyncrasies in their decoration. h/t Wamena Gallery.|
How these were chosen depends on the orientation of the post with regard to the rest of the village and the sense of absolute direction, which varies throughout the region and is sometimes tied to landscape features. The male fork will usually be on the 'right' and the female fork on the 'left', given a particular orientation - say, with regard to the mountain behind the village, or the orientation of the island you live on conceived of as an animal's body. Timor is often considered to be the body of an animal facing east, for example, in which case the male fork will be the southern one, as the south will be the right side of the body (it doesn't always play out like that, of course).
The village itself is often considered 'female' in contrast to the wider landscape, which is 'male'. Men travel from the village into the dangerous outside world in order to take heads or, less often, to trade, both of which are dangerous activities with the potential for violent death (or 'bad death', a concept I'll discuss in a later post). Actually, this is sometimes reversed - the outside world is polluting and dangerous, and therefore 'female' - and so there is clearly some leeway here for interpreting the natural world in different ways. But for simplicity's sake let's say that the main interpretation is of the outside world as 'male', the village as 'female', and so on.
To summarise the post's symbolism, it is this, in ideal terms: The 'male' post contains a 'male' and a 'female' fork oriented according to the landscape. It is situated in a 'male' part of the village, complementing the 'female' meeting house. And the village itself is considered 'female' in contrast to the 'male' outside. It thereby exemplifies the cosmological principles on which the society is based in a recursive nest of values.
Now see how beautifully this applies to MBD-FZS marriage. Remember that wife-givers are superior to wife-takers and are considered 'male' with regard to their wife-takers. The wife-takers are considered 'female' with regard to their wife-givers. But no descent group is made up only of wife-givers; they have to take wives from somewhere, too, this being the nature of MBD-FZS marriage. They are therefore also wife-takers, and 'female', with regard to another group. That means that any descent group will include both male and female aspects, both of which are necessary to sustain and continue the descent group.
In certain rituals, the wife-takers are more important than the wife-givers; in most social situations, and with regard to most kinds of magic, including curses, the wife-givers are superior. Most importantly, each group needs the other for the creative fusion of cosmological and reproductive powers. As you can see, the structure created by MBD-FZS marriage is a perfect embodiment of the recursive complementary dualism on which much of life and ritual in eastern Indonesia is based, because the wife-givers in a given marriage alliance are predominantly male and the wife-takers predominantly female, but they must each contain female and male elements respectively in order for the system to function properly.
The marriage alliance system based on MBD-FZS marriage fits so perfectly with this recursive complementary dualism that we're left with a chicken/egg problem: did the symbolic arrangement cause eastern Indonesians to adopt a social system based on it (which seems unlikely, given the more pragmatic variables involved in determining social structure), or did the adoption of this type of marriage alliance make the cosmological principles that much more obvious and sensible?
As with the problem of the chicken and the egg (or rather, the egg-laying creature and the egg itself, given that chickens were rather late on the egg-laying stage), it seems sensible to believe that neither evolved first, and that they instead evolved together in a neat system.
On the other hand, the fact that MBD-FZS marriage fits so well with recursive complementary dualism is independently attested to by the situation described by Rodney Needham for the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Purum of Manipur in a 1958 article. The Purum also practiced MBD-FZS marriage (which Needham at the time called 'matrilateral connubium', or 'circulating connubium', following the Dutch practice), and they also conceived of a dualistic universe with a recursive and complementary set of features, primarily 'male' and 'female', as in eastern Indonesia. So perhaps MBD-FZS marriage comes first, spurred by the need to create alliances between disparate groups, and the symbolic system follows as a consequence. Either way, they fit together and are mutually supporting, and in eastern Indonesia you can't understand one without the other.
The really important thing to note is that marriage alliance is not always about marriage, and the activities that spur marriage-like ritual activity are not always marriages. That sounds odd, and it is, but in fact one of the best descriptions of marriage alliance in eastern Indonesia comes from an article about irrigation.
The 1949 article, by Lou Onvlee, describes the preparations for digging an irrigation canal in east Sumba. As Onvlee described it, the process exactly parallels the procedure for commencing a marriage alliance between two groups. Irrigation canals were the product of two communities or two descent groups who had to work together on the project, and so appropriate gifts, negotiations, and the correct 'bridewealth' had to be exchanged, and marital rituals undertaken, before starting work. These rituals were undertaken throughout the process, precisely mirroring those conducted for a marriage. For instance, there was a presentation of gifts from the wife-taking village to the wife-giving village; the initial gift was the kahi log, a log used in the construction of the irrigation channel, where an appropriate bridewealth payment would other begin marriage proceedings. Apart from similar substitutions, the process was identical with commencing a marriage alliance. (I use the past tense because Onvlee was writing in the context of the destruction of this tradition by the building of a dam by the Dutch at Mangili, and so this doesn't happen anymore.)
The whole thing was primarily concerned with relations between groups conceived of in an idiom of MBD-FZS marriage alliance, recursive complementary dualism, and the social superiority of the male group.
To take another example of this kind of thinking, the Meto (formerly known as the Atoni) of West Timor used to live in polities ruled by a diarchy (that's like a monarchy but with two rulers). The actual manifestation of this varied widely, but in general it consisted of a sacral lord, the atupas ('sleeping one') and his right-hand man, whose names varied. The atupas lived in a small palace compound and was not allowed to leave. He was symbolically female (but nevertheless biologically male). The right-hand man was not allowed within the compound and was considered symbolically male. He was the 'administrator', if we can call him that, and was often a revered headhunter - his appellation was often but not always atoin mone, meaning 'male man', emphasising his maleness and strength.
The atupas was passive and female. He couldn't go outside of his compound and was almost entirely of ritual significance, embodying the ancient Austronesian principle of a sacred centre (found also in the Pacific, in addition to western Indonesian societies). His abode was the centre of the polity, needed to keep the polity on an even keel and ensure fertility, profusion, and success. His role in these affairs comes out especially clearly in 'first fruits' rituals, in which a portion of the harvest would be ceremonially donated to the atupas in a display of fealty and fertility. To refuse to pay tribute in this way was tantamount to rebellion, and in response the atoin mone's men would come calling with firebrands and headhunting swords.
By contrast, the atoin mone was expected to lead headhunting raids, to direct the marriages of his offspring and of the atupas's relatives, and to engage in trading relationships (often based on the exploitation of sandalwood stands). In Timorese thought, this division provided a cosmological rationale for the polity and ensured its continued success by bolstering its supernatural powers. It was a fusion of male and female principles in a fertile and productive union. In reality, the atoin mone could easily become rich and powerful in his own right and the atupas was often merely a legitimising factor; if an up-and-coming headhunter wanted legitimate power, all he had to do was to tie himself to an atupas through marriage and the arrangement would be complete. Achievement was still an important feature in Meto social structure, so actually the division of power served to create more usurpers than other political systems. Timorese states were therefore not particularly stable.
It is interesting to note that after 'pacification', the atupas and his descendants were not normally considered fit for office by the local people themselves. The Dutch wanted an active guy to be Raja; an atupas simply couldn't be an active guy. It is also interesting to note that similar situations prevailed in Portuguese Timor despite an ethnic and linguistic divide. The various Tetum-speaking peoples had a similar concept of a stationary sacral lord with divine powers, presumably derived from a shared heritage (Tetum and Meto are both members of the Timor-Babar sub-family of Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian). The Portuguese governor in Dili was given this status by various groups in Portuguese Timor, even if they had an inimical relationship with the Portuguese, much to the Europeans' surprise.
It is even more interesting, given the linguistic situation of the Oceanic languages, that in Hawai'i and Tonga there was a similar division of powers, and that the Tu'i Tonga - the sacral lord of the Tongan state - was similar forbidden from leaving his palace compound and delegated temporal power to an active, symbolically male, figure (see Kirch 1984). What this tells me is that this kind of recursive complementary dualism, and possibly the idea of MBD-FZS marriage (not found widely, by the way, in Oceania), derives from a shared CEMP heritage.
In analysing state structure and marriage alliance in eastern Indonesia and the Pacific, we might be peering at reconstructible elements of eastern Indonesian prehistory. And - recursively - knowing more about eastern Indonesian prehistory allows us to better understand eastern Indonesia in the present.
See these works for more.
Kirch, P. V. 1984. Evolution of the Polynesian chiefdoms. Cambridge: CUP.
Needham, R. 1958. A structural analysis of Purum society. American anthropologist 60 (1): 75-101.
Onvlee, L. 1949. Naar de aanleiding van de Mangili stuwdam. Bijdragen tot de taal-, land-, en volkenkunde. 105 (4): 445-459.
Schulte Nordholt, H. G. 1981. The political system of the Atoni of Timor. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.