since ihtg pointed out that at least some ethiopians — including ethiopian jews — have a tradition of avoiding any close-cousin marriages (out to sixth cousins!), i’ve been trying to read up on the ethiopians.

it seems to have been the amhara who started this tradition in ethiopia — or, at least, the other groups who also practice “generation counting” picked it up from the amhara via a general ongoing amharization process that happened throughout ethiopia over the centuries. the amhara are the ethnic group that have been the most literate and have produced the most royals throughout ethiopian history. they have been the bearers of ethiopia’s high culture.

my questions are:

- for how long have the amhara/other ethiopian groups been practising such strong cousin-marriage avoidance?
– how is the practice enforced?
– are they endogamous in some other way, like the greeks avoiding the nearest cousins but marrying locally, or do they marry completely exogamously? do they keep marrying within their kin-group, or do they marry completely out of their kin-group?
– and, what is amharan society like? is it open, individualistic, trusting? or is it closed, clannish, hostile? is there any evidence here to support the idea that outbreeding leads to more a more open society, or is that idea totally bunk?

the following are just some notes based on what i’ve read in the last day or so, so it’s obviously not the final word on the matter!

the rule for counting out seven generations to determine whom one can marry is part of the ethiopian (amharan) law code, the fetha negest [pg. 134, pg. 10 of the pdf], which was compiled in 1240 by an egyptian copt and later adopted in ethiopia in 1450. so, if the first introduction of this seven generation rule only goes back to 1450 — well, that’s pretty far back, but it doesn’t compare to the 400s for european tribes. in this scenario, the european tribes would’ve had a one thousand year headstart, give or take a few hundred years here and there. (if you haven’t been following along, it’s more complicated than that. see the Inbreeding in Europe series down below in the left-hand column for more details.)

christianity, though, has been around in ethiopia for much longer than that. it became the official state religion in 330 a.d., but there were probably christians in the region even earlier. and the church in ethiopia had long been tied to the coptic church in egypt, so if the seven generations thing was present in egypt earlier (and it seems to have at least been talked about as early as 1240), then perhaps it was present in ethiopia before 1450 as well. difficult to know.

in any case, the seven generations thing does seem to have been introduced to the ethiopians from the copts in egypt (unless it was a general egyptian/ethiopian practice that was just codified in the 1200s in egypt), so i’m guessing that it was not an indigenous ethiopian practice.

how is this seven generations thing enforced? by tradition, it seems. marriage in ethiopia is generally not a religious affair, i.e. most people traditionally did not get married in the church. royals and some aristocracy did, but not peasants [pg. 795]:

“Although it is generally agreed that the Amhara and the Tegranna-speakers recognize several different forms of legitimate marriage, observers are unanimous in reporting that marriage as a sacrament performed within the church … was rare compared to the various other options. Among the comparatively few who choose this option are priests and their spouses. It is also found among elderly couples, who have been married in another form of ceremony and celebrate a church wedding when they realize that they will not divorce or re-marry.

“Samanya is marriage by a civil contract, and is the generally preferred form. Although it is in accord with the law of the Church, and the agreement between the families may be followed by a religious ceremony, and official Church ceremony whether Orthodox or other is rare.”

so, at least in modern times, the out-marrying regulation has not been enforced by the church, unlike the ban on cousin-marriage by the catholic and, later, protestant churches in europe. in europe, it would’ve been difficult, if not impossible, to marry various cousins (depending on the time period) without permission from the church. in ethiopia, nowadays anyways, the church is not the enforcer.

divorce and re-marriage — and affairs — are also rampant in ethiopia. how long this has been the case, i don’t know. is the seven generation thing followed in all these instances? or just in the case of first-marriages? on divorce in ethiopia [pg. 797]:

“Many authors have commented on the instability of marriage in Ethiopia. This appears to be due to a combination of cultural and historical circumstances. Marriage may often end in divorce because the couple themselves often have little say in the choice of spouses. On the other hand, later marriage may be fragile bonds, because there is little family involvement and hence little pressure to maintain the union.”

so, what’s amharan society like [pg. 231]?:

“Traditional Amhara social structure took the form of a peasant society. Agriculturalists subsist on the ox-drawn plough-cultivation of cereal grains and herding of livestock…. They live in households that function as a unit of political economy, an oikos, rather than a kinship unit. Its members each carry out specific tasks assigned according to gender and other status markers, all under the authority of a single senior male. Each household lives in a compound containing a small number of round buildings built of wattle or stone, capped with conical thatched roofs. Homesteads usually are located on land worked by the peasant, though often a number of them group into hamlets.

“Beyond that, Amhara households have been linked to one another along three separate axes. Economically, they are linked through weekly markets. Politically, they were linked traditionally by obligations to lord over seigniories who held rights to tribute referred to as gelt, such that traditional Amhara society may be classed usuefully as feudal. Since the bureaucratization of public administration following World War II, household have been subordinated to subdistrict, district and provincial governors. Ecclesiastically, they have been linked through parishes, named after the sacred ark of its church, often coterminous with one or more local seigniories. Traditionally, Amhara churches have been supported through gelt right to usufruct and labour.”

sounds rather medieval-europe-like. there’s more:

“With respect to kinship, Amhara persons are linked through an ambilineal descent system. The Amhara rule of exogamy, prescribed in the Feth Nagast, requires that marriage-partners not be closer then ‘seven houses'; that is, not have a common great-great-great-grandparent. Kinship ties figure to some extent in connection with avenging murders, but primarily through determining the distribution of rights to the use of land. Other forms of Amhara social relations include the daily coffee klatch; monthly religious feasting associations in honour of a particular saint or angel; arrangement for reciprocal help in connection with farming, housebuilding and feasting; and voluntary dyadic personal relations including godparent-child, guarantor-guarantee and, pervasively, patron-client ties.”

clientelism?! ruh-roh.

more anon!

previously: mating patterns and society in ethiopia

(note: comments do not require an email. ethiopian homestead.)

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