Sorcerers of Dobu


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Any two persons who have privately shared food together, or have given each other magical ritual, or have lain the two in close succession with a woman they have been cooperating in seducing, or have shared a journey on their common errand, avoid each other’s personal names as a token of their friendship. It must be a private matter between two persons only. In an essentially similar way a youth never uses the name of a girl he has lain with in his nightly excursions, or she his. I have no evidence that the avoidance of names between two persons of the same sex who have shared in a private tête à tête affair is homosexual, however. It is obviously wider than sex. For instance, I had to avoid the personal name of the man with whom I went for many days deep into the bush to learn magical ritual. We always called each other igu esoi, my partner of a day’s private journey. Similarly, two men who share cooked sago privately call each other my sago sharer, or cooked fish, my fish sharer, or a joint seduction of a woman, my sharer in seduction. Persons who contract these privately chosen partnerships give each other private gifts often. The whole relationship is nonpublic, nonceremonial, privately contracted friendship. Here the disuse of personal names connotes the opposite of distance in feeling.1

We have seen in other chapters that social distance is very finely discriminated, and the fact that avoidance is used to signalize both affective remoteness and nearness, and also to define relative positions in a group (as in the Yukaghir example), indicates that its most general meaning is that of a sign to denote status.

The notorious mother-in-law avoidance has sometimes been interpreted as a sexual avoidance. The young husband, it is said, and the wife’s mother are brought by marriage into daily contact and throw up a barrier of reserve by not speaking to or looking at one another. But the practice has no such meaning. The mother-in-law avoidance is no more than a perseverative application of a device for denoting relationship, and we shall notice presently that the most extreme direction of the avoidance is in some cases not toward the mother-in-law but toward someone else. But the mother’s establishment has been invaded, and while she may welcome the alliance, she frequently takes advantage of the situation to discipline and conform her daughter’s husband, to hold him in a state of suspense, and often to exact tribute from him.

1Fortune, R.F.n/an/an/an/a, , 66–67 (London: George Routledge and Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. By permission).


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Chicago: "Sorcerers of Dobu," Sorcerers of Dobu in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed May 28, 2022,

MLA: . "Sorcerers of Dobu." Sorcerers of Dobu, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 28 May. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Sorcerers of Dobu' in Sorcerers of Dobu. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 28 May 2022, from