Tattooing, Gender and Social Stratification in Micro-Polynesia

By Hage, Per; Harary, Frank et al. | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Tattooing, Gender and Social Stratification in Micro-Polynesia


Hage, Per, Harary, Frank, Milicic, Bojka, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese

In a recent work, Gell (1993) carries out a combinatorial analysis showing how variations in tattooing practices are related to differences in social organization in western Polynesia and Fiji. A combinatorial analysis, unlike a typology, is an invitation to further research. Accordingly, we will extend Gell's analysis by showing that several of the unrealized combinations in his table of tattooing practices are found in the chiefdoms of nuclear Micronesia. This is a logical and essential step because the societies of Polynesia, Fiji and nuclear Micronesia are genetically related as descendants of a common Proto-Oceanic society (Pawley 1982). They share many distinctive features of social organization, including hierarchically ranked descent groups - the conical clan - and dual chieftainship (Hage & Harary 1996). Their cultures also share some of the design features of the Lapita complex identified by Green (1979).(1) If Gell's theory of tattooing is true for Polynesia and Fiji, it should also hold for nuclear Micronesia. Our analysis has important implications for comparative studies of symbolic structures and social stratification in Oceania, and illustrates the advantages of combinatorial methods in anthropology.

Gell's theory

Gell's general theory is that tattooing is an expression of social or cosmological derogation. From his 'epidemiological' survey of tattooing in western Polynesia and Fiji he arrives at the following conclusions:

1. Differences in tattooing were associated with intrinsic differences in rank.

2. Where hypergamy led to the superior rank of sisters over brothers and a sacred sister complex, females were either not tattooed or were less tattooed than males.

3. Chiefly sanctity was associated with restrictions on tattooing. In chiefly diarchies the sacred ruler was untattooable while the secular, executive ruler was tattooable and tattooed.

4. The combination of (2) and (3) produced non-tattooed couples at the head of chiefly hierarchies.

Gell presents the combinatorial variations in tattooing practices in relation to differences in gender (male v. female), marriage alliance (hypergamy v. hypogamy) and residence (virilocal v. uxorilocal) in western Polynesia and Fiji in the following table.

Table 1 shows sixteen logically possible combinations, nine of which are empirically realized. Two of these nine are regarded as 'canonic'. The first variation, HPE-VIR-1, is 'Viti', i.e. non-Tonganized central-west Viti Levu. In Viti brothers outranked sisters and marriage was hypergamous 'in the sense that the wife [was] the husband's social inferior, if not all her kin' (Gell 1993: 120). Marriageable women were tattooed while men were not. Tattoos were applied to the buttocks, genital area and upper thighs. Tattooing was compulsory and rituals were focused on a girl of high rank accompanied by girls of lesser rank who 'shared her pain'.

The second canonic variation, HPE-VIR-4, depicts marriage within and between Tonga and Samoa. Tongan hypergamy was based on matrilateral cross-cousin marriage. Heads of senior lines of the conical clan were wife-takers to heads of junior lines (Gifford 1929). In contrast to Viti, sisters outranked brothers and held a sacred status. Accordingly, women were either not tattooed or tattooed only peripherally with fine tracery on the fingers and arms. Although it was not compulsory, most Tongan men were tattooed, except for the sacred paramount chief, the Tu'i Tonga, and individuals who could not afford or who were afraid of the operation. There were two types of tattooing: elaborate court tattooing and simpler demotic tattooing representing perhaps vulgar imitations of court patterns.

In Samoa hypergamy was not institutionalized as a marriage rule but took the form of a marriage strategy in which heads of households sought to marry their daughters to holders of the highest (matai) titles, offering as inducements large dowries of fine mats (Hjarno 1979-80). …

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