Nautilus

The Point of Men’s Cults

Men’s cults are not universal, but they recur throughout history and across cultures. Does their pervasiveness tell us something important about evolution and human behavior?From The Cassowary’s Revenge (1997) by Donald Tuzin

One surprising thing about secret societies is how visible they are. In the ethnographic record, they can be found almost everywhere. They’re particularly well documented across Melanesia,1 the Amazon,2 and West Africa.3 There are mixed-sex,4 and all female,5 secret societies, but the ones that physically coerce, ritually deceive, and violently punish outsiders and taboo-violators are often entirely made up of males.6,7 These all-male secret societies are best described as “men’s cults,” because of their exclusionary nature and strong connection to male sex roles. They can be found among hunter-gatherer societies, horticulturalists, and agriculturalists alike, although many of those that have been described may no longer exist.8

The men’s cult is a conspiracy in plain sight. The “men’s house,” where the cult gathers, is often the largest structure in a village, built in a position of prestige at the center or top of a settlement. In villages across the Alaskan mainland This is where most adult males and teenage initiates spend most of their time when not hunting or foraging. Among other things, it’s a ritual center for the men, where the cult’s sacred paraphernalia—often masks and/or musical instruments—is kept hidden from women and children.

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