ethiopia notes

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.)


mating patterns and society in ethiopia

ihtg pointed out (thnx, ihtg!) that ethiopian jews have very strong exogamous mating patterns (except for mating outside of their ethnic group, presumably). he mentioned the ‘zamad’, which is the beta israel term for extended family. when looking for a marriage partner for their children, ethiopian jews would exclude anyone within the zamad related to them going back seven generations! that means marriage between sixth-cousins and anyone closer was not really (heh) kosher. from “Surviving salvation: the Ethiopian Jewish family in transition” [pg. 59]:

“For the Beta Israel, in contrast, social life was organized around the flexible and often-overlapping concepts of the extended family (zamad) and household (beta sa’ab). Zamad is a term whose precise meaning varies according to the circumstances and, in particular, according to what it is being contrasted. Thus, zamad is most frequently used to refer to an entire extended family (as opposed to strangers), but it was also used to distinguish blood relations (yesaga zamad) from in-laws (amachenat). When searching for a spouse for a son or daughter, parents would automatically exclude anyone in their zamad counting back seven generations. Thus to marry even a third cousin would be considered a form of incest! Since sons traditionally settled in the same village as their parents when they married, many local communities consisted of one or several extended families. Membership in a large and powerful zamad provided both practical benefits and social standing. Members of a zamad were expected to support each other in time of need. Within the borders of the zamad little attention was paid to the ‘real’ relationship between members. Thus, according to circumstance, grandparents, uncles, or older siblings might be a child’s ‘parents.’ A person’s ‘children’ might easily include nieces, nephews, stepchildresn, and younger siblings. His or her biological sons and daughters might be teens before they realized that some of their ‘brothers and sisters’ were in fact cousins!”

so, the beta israel are very outbred within their extended family (zamad). it’s not clear to me who a preferred marriage partner might be — someone from one’s own zamad, just beyond sixth cousin? or someone from another zamad? and if it’s someone from another zamad, is it someone from another zamad from the same village? inquiring minds want to know!

still, the beta israel are so outbred within their zamad that keeping track of who’s your sibling or who’s your first-cousin or even who’s your fifth-cousin is not really important because all of them are off-limits as far as marriage goes. they don’t need to keep track of their father’s brother’s daughter or mother’s brother’s daughter the way the arabs do, ’cause neither of those individuals are marriable. kind-of like how the germans, before the arrival of christianity, had specific words for the different types of cousins, but once they could no longer marry most of their cousins, the term ‘cousin’ was then universally applied to all of them. (these germans included anglo-saxons, too, of course.)

so, i decided to look around to see if i could find out anything about the mating patterns of other groups of ethiopians — i recalled seeing something about this prohibition against sixth cousin marriage, or something like that, somewhere else (i think it was here on wikipedia).

first of all, there are several different ethnic groups in ethiopia, of course: oromo, amhara, tagray, etc. — some are cushitic, others semitic, others nilotic — many are christians, some are muslims.

but look what i found out about some of them [pg. 406]:

“In the central highland societies of Amhara, Tagray, several Gurage groups, but also among the Omotic-speaking Dizi in the south-west, clans do not exist and people trace descent along bilateral lines. Both the above types rest on ideas of lineal kinship through descent from a father’s line, a mother’s line or through both, but bilateral tracing or ambilineality excludes clanship. Males and females can inherit through both their mother’s and father’s line, but actualization of the rights of the claims is strongly situational.

“In ambilineal societies, the nuclear family tends to be the most important unit, although in the rural areas this unit is often at least two-generational. Among the Amhara, wife and husband kept their rights of possession in property brought into the marriage, making for a relatively equal, or at least independent, and somewhat competitive relation between spouses. As clans are absent to define the kin circle outside of which one has to marry, bilateral or ambilineal societies use a generational rule of distance, e.g., the well-known one among Amhara (and taken over by many other groups) that one may not marry ‘within seven generations’ reckoned from ego upwards, i.e., no descendant from a common great-great-great-grandparent on either mother’s or father’s side. Such a group of descendants from an apical male (wanna abbat) is often called bet (‘house’) among the Amhara or anda among Tegrenna-speakers.”

“bet” like beta israel? prolly.

listen to what amhara and tagray societies are like!:

“The bilateral kinship system in the case of the Amhara, and probably even more so the Tagray, has led to a highly individualistic ethos where kin bonds are subject to high variability and negotiation. As among clan group members, there are no automatically solidary kin group units in this society. Tagray kinship in particular is marked by a strongly contractual, ‘political’ character. Locality and neighbourhood are more important than kin-based households. Ambilineal societies have thus given rise to an extraordinary social dynamism, generating individual competition (thus perhaps contributing to the meritorious complex in Ethiopia) but also to a high conflict potential on the level of households.

neato! except for the conflict part. doesn’t sound all that foreign (if you’re a europoid), eh? and, of course, it’s not the bilateral kinship system that’s led to the “highly individualistic ethos” but, rather, all the oubreeding.

there’s more:

“Among the Dizi of south-west Ethiopia, a people living in the midst of lineage societies like Me’en, Benc, and Suri, there is neither clan organization nor lineage thinking. They trace bilateral lines on both side, and in this they resemble northern Semitic-speaking societies, which whom they indeed claimed historical affinity…. Dizi exogamy rules are based on generational distance reckoning (the ‘seven generation’ rule), as among the Amhara and Tagray.

other groups in ethiopia are not as exogamous as the amhara, tagray or dizi, and they appear to be more clannish. the oromo, for instance [pg. 405]:

“The Oromo, the most numerous and diversified people in Ethiopia, are historically a segmentary, patrilineal clan society, based on named clans. The genealogical principle is strong…. Migrations and socio-economic change have led to local adaptations of the system. These societies are, however, still strongly patriarchal, and polygamy is frequent. There is no clear rule of clan exogamy among Oromo; instead there is (or was) a rule of not marrying within the hidda groups of close relatives, reckoned five generations back.

five generations back means a prohibition against marrying anyone closer than fourth-cousins. that’s closer endogamy, then, than the amhara, etc., who won’t marry sixth cousins or closer (as a general rule). it also sounds like the oromo might favor marrying within the clan, just beyond fourth-cousins. polygamy, too, also narrows the degrees of genetic relatedness within a group of people.

ethiopia sounds like an interesting place with regard to mating patterns — there are many different groups with a variety of different mating traditions, unlike western europe which just sorta has two broad patterns — in the north, don’t marry your cousins — in the south, don’t marry your cousins either, but we’ll let you get away with marrying your cousins more than they do in the north.

will have to learn more about ethiopia!

(note: comments do not require an email. crazy amharans!)