Magical Origins of Love

People have come up with various ways to explain the origins of passionate love, including the scientific (we can find answers in our evolutionary past and  in our current biology, particularly the brain) or the mysterious (it’s ineffable, beyond comprehension). Others focus on the magical. The following passage comes from Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnography of the Trobriand Islands, “The Sexual Lives of Savages” where he relayed the Trobriander view on the mythic origins of passionate love, as told by some of his informants, as well as his interpretation of the need for explanation (1929:539-44).

Bronislaw Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders, 1918. (wikipedia)



Love, the power of attraction, the mysterious charm that comes forth from a woman to a man or from a man to a woman and produces the obsession of a single desire, is, as we know, attributed by the natives to one main source: the magic of love. 

In the Trobriands, most important systems of magic are founded on myth. The origin of man’s power over rain and wind; of his ability to control the fertility of the soil and the movements of fish; of the sorcerer’s destructive or healing powers — all these are traced back to certain primeval occurrences which, to the natives, account for man’s capacity to wield magic. Myth does not furnish an explanation in terms of logical or empirical causality. It moves in a special order of reality peculiar to dogmatic thought, and it contains rather a warrant of magical efficiency, a charter of its secret and traditional nature than an intellectual answer to the scientific why. The facts narrated in myth and the ideas which underlie it, colour and influence native belief and behaviour. The events of a remote past are re-lived in actual experience.This is especially important in the myth we are discussing, since its basic idea is that magic is so powerful that it can even break down the barrier of the strongest moral taboo. This influence of the past over the present is so strong that the myth generates its own replicas and is often used to excuse and explain certain otherwise inexcusable breaches of tribal law.

We have already spoken about the several systems of love magic, and pointed out that the two most important ones are associated with two local centres, Iwa and Kumilabwaga, which are united by a myth of the origin of their magic.

This is the story of the myth as I obtained it from informants of Kumilabwaga, the locality where the tragic events took place.


The story itself is fairly lengthy, but to summarize: long ago, a man made a potion of magical herbs, mint leaves, and coconut oil. He then hung the concoction in a vessel near the door of his family’s hut and left to bathe. His sister returned and accidentally brushed her head against the vessel, which allowed the potion to seep into her hair. She then smelled it, at which point “the power of magic struck her, it entered her inside, and turned her mind.” She then asked her mother where her brother was, found him, and removed her clothes, causing him to flee. Eventually, the magic overtook him as well, after which they copulated three times– in the water, on the beach, and in a nearby grotto. They then fell asleep, and died from shame and remorse for breaking the brother-sister incest taboo.

Malinowski wrote that there were several morals in the story. First, it was not a true origin myth. Rather, it was about how love had been transferred from one part of the islands (Kumilabwaga, where the brother and sister had lived) to another (Iwa). After the brother and sister had died, an Iwa man saw them in a dream, then paddled his canoe to their home and learned what happened from their mother, who –despite her grief– taught him the secrets of the magic, which he took home with him. Therefore, love’s origins had no true beginning. Instead, “most magic is imagined to have existed from the beginning of time, and to have been brought by each sub-clan from underground.” 

Second, Malinowski noted that in the story, the bulk of the blame for the siblings’ shame and ultimate death lay primarily at the feet of women, however unfairly. It was the mother who told her daughter to enter the hut in the first place to find some drinking water because she was too busy to pour some for her.  Malinowski compared the account to the biblical story of Eve giving the apple to Adam, or the legend of Isolde giving a love potion to Tristan: “in most mythological and legendary incidents, the man remains passive and the woman is the aggressor.” 

Finally, the magic of passionate love was powerful enough that it could overpower even one of the strongest taboos in Trobriand society. As Malinowski wrote, magic and myths from the past are “often used to excuse and explain certain otherwise inexcusable breaches of tribal law.” For those with a more scientific mode of thinking, they might remove the magical explanation and substitute it with hormones, neurotransmitters, or a specific brain region. Or, you could combine magical and scientific approaches: “I pull up to the front of your driveway, with magic soaking my spine.” Some of these are extrinsic to the individual, while others are intrinsic. What they have in common is that they fill a void in the search to explain agency and causality.


12 thoughts on “Magical Origins of Love

  1. The blaming of women, of course, applies to more heteronormative conceptions of society. I don’t know whether Malinowski’s claim that most tragic myths tend to blame women was completely accurate. I’m not saying he was wrong either; I just don’t have the data in front of me. Alternately, one could interpret the Trobriand story as blaming the man for making the potion in the first place (we aren’t told why he did it), but Malinowski’s view was that the Trobrianders saw women as more at fault.

    Just something else I came across: in Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, the cause of passionate love is not magic, or Cupid, or hormones, but “electricity,” crudely referring to the nervous system. However, it is a woman to blame.

    “If it’s so painful to love and absorb electricity, how much more painful it is to be a woman, to be the electricity, to inspire love.”
    ― Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

    • I remember my advisor at IU saying that (to paraphrase) “people talk about Malinowski’s racism, but he was much more of a misogynist.” So it could have something to do with the interpreters, I say, half-jokingly.

      • I need to read more on him, but from what I’ve seen, lots of his foibles became public posthumously with the publication of his diaries. Is that right? Although, I imagine that he couldn’t completely hide some of his more deeply felt biases while he was alive.

        And, as for advisors….

        My advisor at Binghamton liked to use the word “chronocentrism” (I think he might have made it up). In a general sense, it was a reminder about being careful about holding people from the past to present-day standards. I guess the important comparison would be how racist or misogynistic Malinowski was compared to his peers. OTOH, one would think that anthropologists of Malinowski’s day would be a bit more accepting than the average person. Maybe not.

      • I need to read more on him, but from what I’ve seen, lots of his foibles became public posthumously with the publication of his diaries. Is that right? […] My advisor at Binghamton liked to use the word “chronocentrism” (I think he might have made it up). In a general sense, it was a reminder about being careful about holding people from the past to present-day standards.

        What my advisor was talking about was related to that. Readers approaching his diaries from a century after the fact perspective are going to find their attention drawn to the theme of racism. But readers attempting to read them from the social perspective of Malinowski’s time and within the context he wrote them in—doubly homesick, bored, frustrated, frequently sick, etc.—are going to find a lot more there.*

        When we were reading Morgan in our History of Anthropology seminar my advisor was explaining how LHM’s interest in ethnology began through his membership in what might be described as a Victorian historical reenactors’ group in Rochester. He heard several of my classmates giggling under their breath, and said, “We’re all just people watching other people. It can be hard not to laugh at that,” and gave it a beat to sink in. (Don’t know if it did at all.)

      • You’re right about context. He was living in pretty difficult conditions. I wonder about some of the more extreme comments from his diary — writing “exterminate the brutes (Trobrianders),” and how sincerely he believed that. It’s a reprehensible comment, but was it was just frustration boiling over and then jotted down in a private diary, or was it something he really believed? He soon followed that comment with a criticism of himself, for missing a chance at a good photograph of some dancing so it seems mostly like frustration.

        Robert Cooper added below that publishing private diaries doesn’t do anybody any good. I think there’s some truth to that because they are unfiltered thoughts. And all of us filter ourselves in public to some degree. It’s why George Costanza can’t drape himself in velvet or urinate in public. He really wants to, but it’s not socially acceptable.

        “We’re all just people watching other people. It can be hard not to laugh at that.” I like it.

        • Patrick.  I really don’t think there is anything really wrong with somebody who thinks ‘exterminate the brutes’ and writes it in his personal, private diary.  If he acts on that thought and attempts to exterminate ‘the brutes’, there is something seriously wrong, but M. did not (openly) support the racism of his time as evident among others of his ethnic origin.  We all have such thoughts (at least I hope I am not the only one!) but control them ~and perhaps minutes later are hugging the person we felt like killing.  I too kept a diary during my initial two years with Hmong in the most primitive conditions.  It was normal to enter problems and dislikes, it was less normal to enter times when everything was okay or good.  When an ethnographer is ‘alone’ he is his own confessor.

            Dr Robert Cooper Director, Lao Insight Books PO Box 3727, Vientiane, Lao PDR Tel (856) (20) 5689 3741

          • Someone once said that one of the problems with the internet today is that it can take away “the right to be forgotten.” I guess that’s true of diaries, or writing in general, that it can crystallize private, transient thoughts that aren’t always meant for public consumption. Our pre-literate ancestors never had to confront that. They were allowed to blurt out their half-baked ideas, let it stew for a while and re-evaluate things, without their peers being able to cite their original words verbatim.

            I think most people have private moments of frustration, maybe even violent fantasies. We’re not always in control of our thoughts. You’re right that it’s whether we act on those thoughts that counts.

          • The internet has certainly shortened the time between thought and publication to less than the time taken to count to ‘one’. This rather dates the good old adage of counting to ten before doing anything that might possibly rebound on the speaker or writer. Not that the Malinowski Diary controversy is internet related. He kept it long before the internet was conceived. The old-fashioned diaries often came with a ‘lock’ on them which served as a reminder to both the writer and any reader that what was inside was stuff to ‘Dear Diary’ and not suitable for public consumption. Many anthropologists who knew and respected M. (people like Fox and Leach) were appalled, at least initially, at the publication of private diaries. I do not think they really damaged M’s academic reputation, and perhaps they are useful for any traditional fieldworker living among people very different to the self. To an extent, the famous forego the write to a private life, but this is no justification for publication without direct consent of the writer. The Diaries sold (I think) as many copies as The Sexual Life of Savages and perhaps both books helped the sale of the other. But M was not around to profit. I think a person works on creating a public image that is never 100% that person, and the personal imaginations and occasional feelings of the self in private are also not 100%. Not that reality necessarily lies somewhere in between. If there is a lesson to be learnt from The Diary it is that public and private coexist and need each other (an established avenue of anthropological investigation).

  2. Malinowski enters. Better late than never. Remember Patrick that in offering an explanation for the Sexual Life of Savages, M. was acclaimed for his observations ~and criticised for his participation!

    • Right. I’ve been reading biographical bits and pieces about Malinowski. He had an interesting, conflicted life. I liked this description of his personality, and how it affected his view of people and culture:

      “The key to an understanding of Malinowski’s personality and at the same time of his scientific creativeness would seem to lie in his acutely sensitive nature. Essentially humble beneath a surface vanity, he craved warmth and appreciation, and was ever ready to respond in kind. He found it difficult, however, to brook unfriendly criticism – a trait which sometimes embroiled him in acrid controversies. In his scientific work, this sensitivity to the responses of others made him an extraordinary observer, as appreciative of nuances in behavior as of those in language. Aware of many of his own emotional depths, he persistently sought to discover in others the motives underlying even conventional behavior, and thus he could never rest content with depersonalized descriptions of human activities in terms of the interaction of culture patterns, the operation of social processes, or the like. To him the actors in the drama of mankind were never mere culture-bearing marionettes but always human animals using cultural forms as instruments in their striving for biological and derivative gratifications.”

      Click to access 095malobit.pdf

  3. Your post makes me think of how the theme of love potions tends to be cast as possibly misguided, but rarely as nefarious, in Western folklore. In Cherokee cosmology, forms of love magic sit squarely on the side of bad magic—they affect the target’s mind, and robbing an individual of autonomy is nefarious by definition. I’m not culturally relativistic enough to believe this Death Cab for Cutie song is not about witchcraft.

  4. Interesting re the Cherokee, Matthew. I’ve always thought of all potions and charms in any society as essentially neutral, with any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ lining up subjectively.

    Re M’s racism. I think that, along with his amorous adventures in the field stems mostly from his diaries. I would take M., as any anthropologist, on the basis of published work baring his name. I think to publish his personal diary after his death did no service to anybody. I find it amazing that academics can criticise M. for what he never intended to be in the public domain. I suppose the lesson is, don’t keep a diary.

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