“I Am Only Human:” Malinowski & Integration


Bronislaw Malinowski, circa 1920. Source.

Bronislaw Malinowski, circa 1920. Source

For fun, I’ve been reading bits and pieces about the life of Bronislaw Malinowski, often described as one of the most important anthropologists of the early twentieth century for his contributions to ethnography. I’m not an ethnographer or a cultural anthropologist, but I stumbled across an essay by Michael Young about Malinowski’s life, as revealed by his own diary, which then led me to Young’s larger, book-length work (2004).

It is admittedly voyeuristic to look into the private thoughts of another person through their diaries. But it’s also a reminder about how complex we all are (some more so than others). For all his flaws, I find Malinowski to be a sympathetic figure. Maybe it’s because of his flaws. Young described him as “moody, irritable, sentimental, and melancholic” who made enemies as easily as friends. “But he could also be gregarious, emotionally generous, deeply courteous and scintillatingly eloquent. He was a demonically hard worker whose zeal galvanized those around him” (p. xxv). Again, he was complex.

The recurrent theme was that Malinowski was preoccupied with introspection in order to reform and improve himself. This seems rather commonplace, but his unique motivation was the desire to ‘integrate’ himself, by which he meant creating a coherent whole: 

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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.