Guinea Coast art (and statue genitalia) at the Museum of Anthropology

I went to MoA just for fun when I was in Vancouver this weekend and not for a specific research purpose, but, as I should have expected, they had some really beautiful objects from my area of research! (INT, MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY, DAY: Meg stands in front of the ibeji statues, looking sidelong at other visitors and wondering how much they would mind if she suddenly interrupted their conversations to infodump about the statues’ missing penises.) Now that their online collections are back up, I had to go digging a little further.

The statues were particularly interesting because many of the males are missing their dicks, not to mince words. In Abiodun’s Yoruba Art and Language, he says that the penis and breasts of ibeji statues (these are statues created in memory of twins if one or both die) are considered to be the parts that really show a person is a master carver, because they protrude from the body and require a pleasing shape. I have to remember I’m no art historian and one source isn’t a scholarship, but I did immediately wonder whether the carvers of these statues were just not willing to risk messing up the part that would make people judge them, like an early artist on devArt who always draws figures with their hands clasped behind their backs, or if some faint-of-heart art collector had just chopped them off at some point, because heaven forfend there be a penis in the home of a respectable white art collector. This is obviously the story that gets my grit up, and I’m even tempted to email the collections people to ask if they know about the history of these particular objects, but I also can’t assume too hard that this isn’t the way they originally were made! Regional and personal styles are definitely a thing. But still…I mean, take a look at these poor babies.

Courtesy of the MoA Online Collection.

These are male figures according to the MoA. Since I saw them I’ve been going crazy with Google Search trying to figure out if their whole groinal area was how the carver made it, normal wear (perhaps because ibeji statues are often handled lovingly over many years) or an act of vandalism of some kind. The more innocent theories are looking more and more plausible, but I also don’t know what might have happened to the other figures in major art collections which turn up in cursory searches! A resort to some scholarship specifically about ibeji statues is probably going to be necessary. Add it to the pile.

Two-tined forks

At my university there’s a little gallery of materials that our art history professors have used to teach. Among the displays of potsherds and fabrics there’s also a couple of sets of cutlery.

Count ’em. (This particular fork is 18th c. Scottish.)

(I feel bad skimming over the fabrics–they’re astonishing ikat blankets from fieldwork in Borneo. Weaving is called the “women’s warpath” in the area the cloths are from and cloth and wood are contrasted as feminine and masculine materials. Women dye the threads before they’re woven, thread by thread, and we’re talking cloths that would cover your wall. Then they can be used for lots of sacred purposes, including, lest one think that “warpath” is a cutesy euphemism, cradling the decapitated heads of enemies brought back by male warriors.)

But this is about cutlery. When I write, “Baron von Past picked up a fork,” I would assume that fork looks much like a fork I have in my house, except maybe it’s rougher and made out of wood. My mental image is actually one of those soft-tined, cutesy camping forks like maybe you could see laid beside a quinoa bowl in a lifestyle magazine. It definitely has three tines.

Nope. And why should it? Why shouldn’t it have four tines? Just because all my forks have three tines means nothing. Where did we even get that extra tine?

This seems like a big problem for writing historical fantasy. And especially writing historical fantasy for an era that’s never been in your cultural orbit, since odds get better and better that your assumptions are wrong the farther you stray from England circa 1800. I’m sure historians have written extensively about this but I’m no historian; I’ll hope to read some words from them later and respond to my own post with takeaways from the papers I review. But in the meantime, this comes up often enough to make a poor amateur stress about describing anything. For instance, I learned that hand fans are one of the objects associated with the òrìṣà Ọ̀ṣun (a spirit/goddess/entity/facet of the universe), and thoughtlessly started to doodle a paper folding fan. Nope!

From the collection of the Met museum.

“Why is it metal?” I thought. Then, “….Why not?

I’m focusing a lot on objects because it’s so easy to contrast the assumption with the reality, but of course, the knottiest examples of this problem concern much more intangible things.When I write about Baron von Past’s marriage, I’ll probably be sharp enough to catch that “bride is dressed in white dress” is an assumption imposed by my understanding of marriage and have them exchange bracelets or something instead of rings. But this isn’t enough. The fantasy marriages I would write in this framework are just reskins of modern Western marriage. I may still carry a lot of assumptions about Western marriage into Baron von Past’s attitudes toward his marriage and his wife; about his wife’s attitudes toward him and their marriage; about what is acceptable within their marriage to their community and what isn’t; what they’ll do together, what they’ll do apart. When I started writing about marriage in Geometry of Ashes, I really didn’t recognize the extent to which marriage means something different in different cultures. And because nobody ever creates semantic networks of what they mean by “marriage” in books where they briefly discuss marriage, I’m still only scratching the surface and it’s difficult to articulate. Here’s two anecdotes from Igbo books I found very striking:

In Things Fall Apart, of course, Ekwefi remembers running away from her first husband to join Okonkwo. I’ll just repeat the passage; it’s on page 99.

She had married Anene because Okonkwo was too poor then to marry. Two years after her marriage to Anene she could bear it no longer and she ran away to Okonkwo. It had been early in the morning. The moon was shining. She was going to the stream to fetch water. Okonkwo’s house was on the way to the stream. She went in and knocked at his door and he came out. Even in those days he was not a man of many words. He just carried her into his bed and in the darkness began to feel around her waist for the loose end of her cloth.

I still haven’t close-read Things Fall Apart, so if there’s something I’m about to say that contradicts the wealth of scholarship, let me know. But here’s some assumptions I had made about marriage that this passage shows us are not true for Ekwefi:

  • Marriage is either forever or it takes a lot of work to break. I presume that Ekwefi went through some kind of divorce proceedings after this but apparently they weren’t arduous enough to make it into the text. (Imagine me writing the word “presume”, then looking back over my writing, sighing and putting my face in my hands.)
  • You wouldn’t marry somebody just to be married. Clearly there’s economic incentive for Ekwefi to marry Anene, but I think our Western assumption is that you would marry a rich man for his riches, not because you have to be married and he’s the best option. Marriage is something you opt into–even though implicit cultural pressure might suggest otherwise–not something you must have, like a job.
  • Taking a lover outside marriage demands secrecy. It’s not like women elsewhere in the book aren’t judged for supposedly having lovers outside their marriage, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem like Ekwefi is planning to have Okonkwo be her side guy. The pattern of extramarital sexual relations we’re used to in the West is of, like, an executive who’s banging his secretary and stringing his wife along. Rather than keeping a lover in secret, she just leaves her husband.

Here’s a second one: I don’t currently have a copy of Male Daughters, Female Husbands on me, but in it, Imi Amadiume explains that in the language under discussion (Nnobi Igbo dialect), the female slaves of a woman are called her “wives.” She clarifies that this relationship is probably not sexual. This is an interesting one because I actually suspect this ends up at pure synonymy, so I don’t want to draw strong conclusions from it. (Imagine if an Igbo blogger studying English-speaking cultures declared that because English men call their penises “cocks” they must have subliminal connections between penises and roosters that suggest they think their penis wakes people up at the break of day.) But, this case isn’t so absurd as that, and “wife” and “female slave” are at least the same category of thing (human women). So, similarly, although I assumed the following things, we can maybe think that for Nnobi Igbo speakers they are not necessarily intrinsic to marriage or at least for “wifehood”:

  • Marriage is an equal economic exchange between two families or an equal emotional exchange between two people. Elephant in the room: we can construe this synonymy as suggesting that wives are in a position of servitude to their husbands. This is anathema to any Westerner, but I keep coming back to thinking of marriage as labour. Maybe you have a boss who expects certain things from you, but in return, you expect certain things from him. You can be friendly with your boss, but he’s still your boss. You might think your boss is the best boss on earth, and sing his praises to all your friends, but he’s still your boss. In this case, your boss doesn’t pay you, but has responsibility to care for your well-being. And (coincidentally or not?) this is also the arrangement as far as I can tell in most West African traditional slavery. This isn’t to say any of that isn’t unjust, but boss-employee relations are still accepted by the majority of Westerners and really how just can we judge the average boss-employee relationship to be?
  • Marriage is a specific relationship, not a type of relationship. It doesn’t mean “a love relationship to another person.” It means this specific love relationship to another person. You wouldn’t say “I married my dog” even though you have a love relationship with your dog, live with your dog, and sleep in the same bed with your dog. But if we believe that the word for “female slave of a woman” and “wife” have a meaningful semantic relationship, which remember we aren’t convinced of, that means that “being a wife” is a category of relationships in this translation; “wife” is a category of people at one end of a power relationship.

Now imagine going through this process for every word and concept in your book and you start to understand why people might slap a new skin on Western marriage and call it a day. But maybe, like me, you’re insufferably pedantic, I said as I realized Ekwefi also calls a pre-dawn time morning, dragged my nails down my face, and highlighted each instance of “morning” over the last 200 pages of novel.



We believe pretty much anything we’re told, which was great in a time when we were only ever told things by our close family and friends (who probably saw those things firsthand) but not so great now that we’re constantly being told things by strangers. Lots of people, including me, like to think of themselves as not so credible; but there’s so many things I’ve just accepted because my friends told me they were true, and so many things I’ve relayed from some random on the Internet–usually with enough epistemic honesty at least to mention my source and say “take this with a grain of salt”–without knowing whether they were backed up by evidence.

I’m thinking about this for two reasons. One is the election we’ve all already thought too much about–but at the same time can’t safely stop thinking about, like, the second I wanted to stop thinking about it Trump named Steve Bannon chief strategist. As a person who regularly reads Slate Star Codex + a smug liberal I was used to thinking of the Breitbart people as ideological enemies of about the same calibre as 4channers, so this is almost more surreal than the presidency. Facebook fake news and blatant untruths in the far-right media were the subject of a lot of journalism leading up to the election. Leftists like to think we read the true media, but how much can we really pat ourselves on the back? We can think: I hear and believe things that are also heard and believed by NPR. But what are my reasons for believing NPR is a good source, and are those reasons any different or any more objectively rational than the reasons of somebody who trusted a Facebook news item about how Hillary went in as a commando to kill American personnel in Benghazi with nothing but a combat knife and a can of hairspray?

The other reason is that I’ve been reading about Yoruba epistemology in Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft by Hallen and Sodipo. It so happens this is actually my first introduction to formal epistemological philosophy outside a semantics classroom, so I’m sure to some extent the stuff I’m astonished by is old hat–the Quine chapter completely blew my mind right out of the gate and there’s another blog post to be written about that. The writers complicate the traditional translations of mo (translated as “knowing”) and gbagbo (translated as “believing”). Mo ideally is seeing with one’s eyes. Gbagbo they translate as agreeing to accept what you have heard. And of course there are many other languages where the speaker marks propositions to tell the hearer how they came by the information–hearsay, seeing with your own eyes, inferring from context, heard it on Facebook.

Once in an anthropology intro class my TA tried to explain the point of view of some Indigenous opposition to the Land Bridge Theory: “There’s different ways of knowing than just the scientific one.” The snide white jokester she was talking to was like “You mean the truth?” I believe in the scientific project and in objective knowledge but, I mean, come on. That guy doesn’t mo that people moved from Siberia to America tens of thousands of years ago, he just gbagbos it. (From what I’ve read, I gbagbo it too, but what the hell, I wasn’t there.) Just accepting what you were taught by one person as opposed to what you would have been taught by a different person if you had been born in 1200 in a Kwakwaka’wakw settlement doesn’t necessarily make your thing true and their thing fake. Believing this seems to be the root of a lot of unnecessary smugness–yeah, yeah, including my liberal smugness. Either way you’re just accepting what you hear unless you’re willing to start digging much deeper, and digging deep on everything you hear isn’t really feasible. (Or is it? Note to self: Run an epistemology project for a year where I fact-check everything I hear, ???, profit.)

At the same time, it’s hard to dislodge your ego and take material seriously that contradicts your ideology. You have to kind of virtualize your belief set and run their OS alongside yours so you can safely delete it when you want to go back to normal. And I don’t think I’d want it any other way–I don’t want to internalize material I believe to be false–but are my reasons for not wanting that even valid? How would I know if my belief was false and the OS I installed just to try out a few programs was true?

I feel glumly Sapir-Whorf about the idea that maybe languages with evidential markers encourage their speakers to avoid categorizing material we hear in the same bin as material we experienced firsthand. That’s definitely a topic for further research, though, not a real theory. Don’t quote me. Definitely don’t think of that as something you know.