Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches

cows, pigs, wars, and witchesCows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches is a fun romp by everybody’s favorite anthropologist, Marvin Harris. It looks at behavior that seems illogical to an outside observer—the sacred cow, the hated pig (and even the loved pig), the potlach, and so on—in an attempt to explain away the riddles.

There are numerous chapters (as there are in many books), and each deals with a different riddle—though the explications Harris provides are somewhat cumulative, building on each of the previous answers. Some of the answers, which right away Harris reminds the reader aren’t even answers so much as reasonable theories, are more dubious than others; on the whole, however, the book is amusing, interesting, and edifying. And, for all the complexity of the subject, Harris keeps his explanations low-key, straightforward, and simple.

Which, you have to admit, is a good thing.

What’s most interesting, maybe, is Harris’ rational for writing this book. His rational is basically that, as soon as you’ve answered one riddle, another pops up. In using a brute-force method of attacking riddles one after another, Marvin not only provides feasible explanations, he also begins to show the reader how to arrive at these explanations. Granted, CPW&W isn’t exactly a How-To-Become-A-Professional-Anthropologist (or anything else, for that matter) manual in all the gory detail. But by the time the reader’s gotten to the end of the book, she (he/it) has at least a sense of how to begin looking for answers.

CPW&W covers lots of topics, like I said earlier. It covers the sacred cow (Cows), various attitudes towards pigs (Pigs), and primitive wars (Wars). It covers phantom cargo and religious messiahs. It covers witches (& Witches). In short, there’s something for everybody. Even if you don’t buy all the explanations—and you’re probably not going to, would be my guess—it’s an interesting journey that’s bound to impart at least some kind of knowledge on your wearied brain.

So there you have it.