David Graeber - my favourite author - on money
DEBT, VIOLENCE, AND IMPERSONAL
MARKETS: POLANYIAN MEDITATIONS
If The Great Transformation will be remembered for anything a century from now, it will
be as the definitive rejoinder to the great liberal myth. This is, of course, the assumption that
there is something natural about what Polanyi called “self-regulating markets”, that they arise of
their own accord as long as state interference doesn’t prevent them. Polanyi examined the very
period when this ideology first emerged, and managed to demonstrate just how crucial
government interference was in creating “the self-regulating market” to begin with—just as it
has continued to be necessary to maintain it.
One need hardly point out that in the current, neoliberal age, Polanyi’s insights are more
relevant than ever. The ideology that Polanyi felt was gone forever in the ‘40s has returned with
a vengeance—returned to reap a terrible vengeance, in fact, on the most vulnerable of the people
of the earth. Yet at the same time the intellectual landscape has shifted dramatically. Among
what passes as the intellectual opposition, grand sweeping theory in the Polanyian tradition has
fallen largely out of favor. At the same time, the high theorists of neoliberalism—at least, the
most sophisticated of them—often appear more than happy to incorporate many of Polanyi’s
insights. Most will, if pressed, be happy to admit that “the market” isn’t really an empirical
object at all, that when they refer to “markets” they are really talking about abstract models,
constructed by selecting only certain features of reality and intentionally ignore all others; and
that of course one needs constant political work to maintain conditions where those models will
take on any semblance of empirical form. Of course, when giving policy advice, these same
economists will then turn around and declare that “the market”—now transformed from an
abstract model to a quasi-deity—will punish those who disregard its sovereign dictates.
When arguments don’t even have to make logical sense, critique might well seem to lose
its point. Nonetheless, it strikes me that new theoretical tools would be helpful here—if only
because how we conceptualize the moment has everything to do with how we imagine
alternatives. Polanyi wrote at an historical moment when it seemed that the very governments
that had created self-regulating markets seemed to be in the process of transcending them. Today
we’ve seen those same social democratic regimes often leading the way in stripping away social
protections, and anti-capitalist movements increasingly moving away from any notion that the
state—which is, after all, basically a means of organizing violence—can help solve anything.
What I would like to do in this essay then is to make a few suggestions about how we
might begin to reconceptualize Polanyi’s approach to economic history from this, rather
different, historical perspective. This means coming up with new terms to supplement, and to
some degree supplant, Polanyi’s distinctions between reciprocity, redistribution, and market,
special and general purpose monies, and introduce distinctions between what I will call “human
economies” and different sorts of market, some dominated by credit institutions, others by
anonymous exchange of metal bullion. In both cases, I want at least to consider the importance
of war and violence as critical elements in allowing the transformations of one form into the
other.1 The easiest way to begin to reconstruct this history, I think, is by looking at the history of
1: Value versus Debt
The approach to economic history I will propose here has larger theoretical implications.
While this is not the place to develop them in any detail, it seems to me that we have come to the
point where we have largely moved past the hoary opposition between individual and society,
and might better begin instead from an opposition between value and debt: that is, between webs
of dyadic relations based on various forms of (usually mutual) obligation, and the creation of
virtual arenas for the realization of human creativity.
This point may seem obscure. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to explain how I came
In 2001, I wrote a book which among other things tried to develop a new approach to
some of the intricate problems of Marxian value theory. My key point was that our distinction
between “value” (in the economic sense) and “values” (in the social sense) really turns on the
commoditization of labor. Where human energies are directed at profit, or wages, we are in the
domain of “the economy” or “the market”, which operates according to the law of value. When
we enter into other pursuits, such as domestic life (housework being probably the most important
form of unremunerated labor in industrialized societies), or religion, politics, and so on, we are
suddenly said to jump into the domain of “values”: this is precisely where people begin to talk
about “family values”, religious faith, political ideals, the pursuit of beauty, patriotism and so on.
All these are seen as commitments that ought to be uncorrupted by the market. At the same time,
they are also seen as utterly unique, effectively, incommensurable. It would be absurd to search
for a mathematic formula that could allow one to calculate just how much personal integrity it is
right to sacrifice in the pursuit of art, or how to balance responsibilities to God and to your
The entire argument here turns on money being an impersonal abstraction. “Value” is
that which money measures. Money is a generic substance whose only quality is that is can be
precisely counted; aside from its denomination, one banknote is precisely the same as any other.
Therefore no particular dollar bill can develop a unique history. It is pure potentiality. Without
such a generic medium, one is left with a series of unique historical crystallizations.
1 This might be considered an extension of an argument about the similarities between
impersonal market relations and violence itself as forms of radical simplification
Marx as we all know saw the value of money as ultimately rooted in human capacities for
creative action, or “labor power”. He also argued that it was only through the institution of wage
labor that such creative potential itself becomes a commodity. One interesting concomitant is
that as a result, wage laborers—who are after all working in order to get money—are effectively
working in order to obtain symbolic tokens that represent the importance of their own work.
Money, then, is a symbol that effectively brings into being the very thing it represents. As such it
comes to seem the source of the value of the labor, rather than something having been produced
by it. The premise of the book was that any system of value tends to operate this way. Value is
simply the way that we represent the meaning or importance of our own actions to ourselves.
Our actions become meaningful and important by becoming part of some larger social totality,
real or imagined; this must also necessarily happen through some material medium: if not
money, then treasures, tokens, performances, privileges, and so on. The medium can be almost
anything, but its nature has very definite implications as to how this realization of value takes
place. With a quantifiable abstraction like money, one can develop systems of abstract value;
when the most important tokens of value are unique but permanent heirlooms, betokening
“fame”, one might end up with something more like a kula system (Munn 1986); when they are
elaborate, but ephemeral, ritual performances that express “beauty”, one can end up with
something more like the Kayapo rituals described by Turner (1984, 1985, 1987). Nonetheless,
there are always certain constants. One is that since value can only be realized in the eyes of
others, what we think of as “society” largely emerges as the audience for different projects for
the realization of value. From the perspective of the actor, at least, “society” is simply all those
whose opinions he actually cares about. It is always to a certain degree an imaginary totality.
Another is that the tokens through which they are realized tend to become fetishized, in the sense
that from the point of view of the actors, they are seen as the source of that which they motivate.
The desire to acquire tokens of honor inspires honorable behavior; the desire to attain tokens of
faith, or certificates of educational attainment, comes to inspire piety or learning, even to
organize the form such actions take. The result, as in the case of money, is that it often seems as
if these tokens, rather than the human actions aimed at acquiring them, are what brings piety or
learning into being in the world to begin with—since, from the point of view of the actors, this
often might as well be true.
Value theory then is about how desire becomes social. It is about how our actions become
meaningful by being reflected back at us in the form of representations—ultimately, of those
very actions—that come to seem their aim and origin. And this is about how different
conceptions of “society” are constantly being thrown up, like shadows on a wall, as a necessary
part of that process.
The main weakness in this approach, I soon discovered, was its treatment of money. Like
Marx, I emphasized the anonymous, impersonal qualities of money. These do exist. There’s
absolutely no way to know where a dollar bill in one’s pocket has been; the result is that the
history of objects bought and sold by dollar bills tend to be effaced as well. This is of course, the
key to Marx’s conception of fetishism, where objects come to seem to embody the intentions of
their designers and producers, since one has no way of knowing who those people actually were.
The problem is that, while this may be true of cash, most transactions in contemporary
societies do not employ cash; and the largest, most significant transactions almost never do—
unless, that is, they are criminal in nature. There is a reason why bank robbers and drug kingpins
are the only people who prefer to operate with suitcases full of hundred dollar bills. Ordinary
monetary transactions do indeed leave a history, since they usually operate through credit and, as
law enforcement agents are well aware, it is quite possible to keep exact and detailed tabs on the
movements of any citizen simply by monitoring their bank and credit card transactions. While
this does not change Marx’s main point about commodity fetishism—I still don’t have the
slightest idea who was involved in creating and assembling my cell phone or my toaster—it
means that money is a far more complex object than we might otherwise assume. Where some
see money as wiping away the possibility of memory, Keith Hart, for example, insists instead
that money “is mainly… an act of remembering, a way of keeping track of the exchanges which
we enter into with the rest of humanity” (1999:234).2
It seems to me Hart is a good place to start on a reconsideration of this problem because
he’s one of the few authors who looks at money neither as a means of recording history nor as a
means of effacing history, but rather sees the peculiar quality of money as lying in the fact that it
is an unstable suspension of both:
Look at a coin from your pocket. On one side is ‘heads’—the symbol of the
political authority which minted the coin; on the other side is ‘tails’—the precise
specification of the amount the coin is worth as payment in exchange. One side
reminds us that states underwrite currencies and the money is originally a relation
between persons in society, a token perhaps. The other reveals the coin as a thing,
capable of entering into definite relations with other things, as a quantitative ratio
independent of the persons engaged in any particular transaction. In this latter
respect money is like a commodity and its logic is that of anonymous markets
Marx, of course, made the famous argument that in fetishism, what are actually relations
between persons are displaced and made to appear as if they were relations between things.
Mauss’ distinction between gifts and commodities actually works by an analogous logic: a
transaction is a gift if it is largely concerned with the relations between persons, a commodity
exchange, if what is being established is instead equivalence between things. What Hart is
pointing out is that this distinction is inscribed into the very nature of money itself, so much so
that economists have produced completely contradictory theories as to what money even is. On
the one hand we find the familiar “Metallist” or “commodity” theory of money (what Hart would
call the “tails” approach), that sees money as having first emerged from the inconveniences of
barter. We’ve all heard this story.3 At first human beings bartered useful objects directly one for
another; after a while, they came to realize that it would be much easier simply to denominate a
single commodity as a means to pay for every other one. For various reasons, precious metals
seemed the most convenient choice. According to this view (e.g., Samuelson 1947), modern
economies are still really just elaborate systems of barter, a way for economic actors to trade
useful commodities for others, with money merely serving as a convenient technology of
exchange. This view is, effectively, economic orthodoxy: the overwhelming majority of
2 In fact, the very word is derived from memory: the English “money” ultimately derives from
the temple of Juno Moneta in ancient Rome, where coins were struck during the Punic Wars—
Moneta being the goddess of Memory and mother of the muses (1999:15, 256).
3 This theory of the origin of money already appears in Adam Smith, though in its
canonical version it was most famously laid out by Jevons (1875) and Menger (1892).
professional economists accept it, despite there being virtually no evidence that anything like this
Ranged against it is a variety of heretical, “Chartalist” approaches that rely on the other
side of Hart’s coin. These assume that money did not arise from individual actors trying to
maximize their material advantage, but rather, from public institutions aiming to calculate and
manage social obligations: that money arises, in effect, from debt. The paradigm is Knapp’s
“State Theory of Money” (1928), where he argued that money arose not as a medium of
exchange but as a unit of account (and secondarily, means of payment), specifically, as a means
of assessing and levying tax payments. Money, here, is a way of managing debt, starting with the
debt that subjects or citizens were assumed to have to their sovereign. In order to do so, the state
must establish the nominal units of account, and fixes the conversion rates between commodities.
Moreover, as colonial regimes were to rediscover in the 18th and 19th centuries,
demanding cash payments from one’s subjects is the most effective way to encourage a market
in goods and services, and this might often have been at least half the point. It is in fact much
easier, from the point of view of a government, to create a market for goods and services, and
then buy what it needs, than to requisition everything directly, either in kind or in labor. The key
point though is, as Michael Innes (1913, 1914) originally put it, that “money is debt”: the state
issues tokens of its own obligations that become validated and go into general use by citizens
seeking to cancel their debts with one another, because the state is willing to accept them to
cancel debts which (it has declared) citizens owe to it.4
The Chartalist view has always been in a minority among professional economists—even
though almost all the historical evidence seems to support it. Still, it has its exponents, especially
amongst the followers of John Maynard Keynes. However, the two camps have always, as Hart
noted, tended to state their positions in absolute terms, arguing money is purely one thing or the
other. Hence Keynesians end up arguing for state-managed manipulation of the money supply as
a tool of policy, while “monetarists” insist the government’s role is simply to back up a stable
currency but otherwise let the market do its work, and policy tends to swing back and forth
wildly between them.
As Hart observes, for the most part anthropologists have simply ignored these debates.
They have had especially little to say about the phenomenon of debt. This is in a way surprising,
since anthropologists have over the years had a great deal to say about social obligation.
Structural functionalist anthropology was, more than anything else, an elaborate system of
mapping out “rights and duties” (two concepts which are, like credit and debt, themselves two
sides of the same coin.) In fact, it seems to me that such oppositions between theories of value
and theories of debt open up a much more interesting set of theoretical problems than more
familiar (and increasingly sterile) divisions between “individual” and “society”. The Metallist
view, for example, doesn’t begin with one individual who confronts society: it begins with a
series of dyadic relations (mainly buyer-seller) and then tries to see how an endless network of
such relations can gradually produce an imaginary totality it calls “the market”. The Chartalist
4 Innes also noted that banks, which specializing in the canceling credits against debts,
developed as intermediaries with the state: in every case we know about, it was
governments (even, in the case of Medieval Europe, no longer existing governments: see
Einaudi 1953) that were seen as establishing the abstract units of exchange, just as they
were seen as establishing systems of weights and measures.
view starts from the state—an entity that I have argued always begins primarily as a utopian
project (Graeber 2003)—and works its way down to the regulation of networks of obligation.
The state in this view creates money in much the same way as it regulates justice: as a means of
balancing moral accounts.
This in turn raises two particularly sticky conceptual questions. The first is about the
origin of the idea of debt. How do social obligations, rights and duties that people have with one
another, end up becoming attached themselves to objects of material wealth, so that the mere
transfer of such objects can often render one person entirely at another’s command? The second
is even larger: how does one relate a theory of value to a theory of debt? It is possible to
conceive what we call “societies” as an endless web of inter-personal relations; it is possible to
conceive them as imaginary totalities that serve as arenas for the realization of value. It is very
difficult to understand them as both at the same time.
I cannot solve all these problems here. But I want to attempt an outline of what a theory
of debt might look like, because I think it should be critical to the larger task of conceptualizing
the current historical moment in a way that allows for alternatives. Certainly the problem is
profoundly under-theorized. The modern state, after all, is often said to have emerged with
deficit financing; the economies of wealthy countries are now driven largely by consumer debt;
international relations are increasingly dominated by the debt bondage of the poor to the IMF
and World Bank and by the debt of the United States to East Asia. Yet there is remarkably little
written about the nature of debt itself. It’s a question of particular political interest, it seems to
me, since debt has long been one of the chief ways in which relations based on exploitation and
even violence have come to seem moral in the eyes of those living inside them. Throughout
history, there have been classes of people who essentially live off the labors of others; in a
remarkably large number of cases, they appear to have managed to convince the latter that it is
they who are somehow in their debt. Yet they do not do this, normally, as a class. They do so
through an endless multiplication of individual—or, more accurately, dyadic—ties.
2: On infinite debt and transactional logics
The logical place to begin a theoretical inquiry into the nature of debt would seem to be
Marcel Mauss’ essay on the “the Gift” (1925). Mauss wrote it, ostensibly, to explain why it was
that those who receive feel obliged to make a return present: it was in this sense of debt, he
argued, that one could find the origins of the current notion of contractual obligation. It should
then be a foundational work for any theory of debt. Still, Mauss never develops this connection
explicitly; even worse, on those few occasions that he does, he assumes that commercial
principles like credit and interest can already be found within gift economies in almost in exactly
the same form. Michael Hudson (2004:100, 2002:9), complains that, as a result, Mauss’ work
has long stood in the way of any attempt to understand the actual history of credit institutions—
and particularly, the development of money lent at interest. The practice of charging interest for
debts, he argues, appears to have been invented in 3rd millennium Mesopotamia, and spread quite
slowly. It does not appear to have ever been practiced in Pharaonic Egypt, for instance, and
Tacitus claims the Germans of his day were still unaware of the institution. It is hardly universal.
Hudson in fact suggests Mauss was actually observing practices inspired by European influence
and simply assumed that they were a traditional part of gift economies.
There is every reason to believe that he is right. Mauss only really mentions debt and
credit explicitly when discussing the potlatch:5 for example, in claiming that that unlike
Melanesians, Northwest Coast societies appear to have developed a system of credit (1925
: 35-36), or that potlatches “must be reciprocated with interest, as must indeed every gift.
The rate of interest generally ranges from 30-100 per cent a year” (ibid: 42).
The obligation to reciprocate worthily is imperative. One loses face for ever if one
does not reciprocate, or if one does not carry out destruction of objects of
equivalent value (1925 :42)
The problem with these statements is that, except for the last, they turn out not to be true. Boas’
claim that items given at potlatches had to be repaid at 100% interest was simply a mistake (see
Graeber 2001:209-210): in reality, gifts given at potlatches do not have to be reciprocated at all.
When two aristocrats are dueling over a title, they will sometimes try to outdo each other in
generosity, which can lead to tit-for-tit battles of one-up-manship. But the only gifts that had to
be paid back double were those presented as a means of assembling resources from allies or
followers before a potlatch. These were really just ways of soliciting contributions, though, and
the specification of an exact interest rate even for these was so unusual that later ethnographers
(Drucker and Heizer 1967:78) suggested the idea was probably originally inspired by the
example of an early trading post loan shark.
Actually, there is only one reference to “debt” anywhere in “the Gift”, and it follows
immediately on the above-cited line about interest rates.
The punishment for failure to reciprocate is slavery for debt. At least, this
functions among the Kwakiutl, the Haïda, and the Tsimshian. It is an institution
really comparable in nature and function to the Roman nexum. The individual
unable to repay the loan or reciprocate the potlatch loses his rank and even his
status as a free man. Among the Kwakiutl, when an individual whose credit is
poor borrows, he is said to ‘sell a slave’. There is no need to point out the
identical nature of this and the Roman expression (1925 [1990:42])
ow, this isn’t true either. While the societies in question did have an institution of chattel
slavery (in fact they were among the few Native American societies that kept slaves in any
numbers), these appear to have been war captives. Debt bondage of the Roman variety appears to
be limited to commercial economies: though, significantly, it appears around the same time as
lending at interest itself. We appear to be dealing instead with the notorious Kwakiutl flair for
the dramatic (Testart 2001).
Still, it is a constant metaphor—repeated, for instance, in the famous Inuit proverb that
“gifts make slaves like whips make dogs”—and we might do well to begin by asking why it
5 He appears to draw his material here mainly from the researches of Robert Davy, who
he mentions was his co-researcher on a more general project to investigate the origins of
contractual obligation. Only one other work appears to have come out of this project,
Davy’s Foi Jurée (1922) on the potlatch complex of the Northwest Coast, and Mauss
cites it frequently in the text,
should occur to anyone that receiving gifts one cannot repay, and therefore feeling that one is in
another’s debt, should be considered comparable to being in the condition of a war captive.
In order to do so, I think, we must first of all reexamine what is meant by “the gift”. The
term is actually used to lump together a very wide range of different forms of economic
interaction that in fact proceed by very different logics. For present purposes allow me a highly
abbreviated list—which among other things may give the reader a sense of just how varied what
I’ve been calling “dyadic relationships” actually can be:
1) Communistic relations
I use “communistic” in the sense of relations that operate on Louis Blanc’s
famous principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
While there has almost certainly never been a society in which everyone interacts on this
basis all the time, in any social system there is always a baseline communism, at least for
certain basic needs (i.e., you offer directions to strangers because you assume any
stranger would do it for you; in some societies, no one would normally refuse a request
for food), or for help in dire emergencies. Sometimes communistic relations are
institutionalized: two clans might each have responsibility for, say, burying the other’s
dead. Here the responsibilities are rigorously specified, but no accounts are kept:
obviously no one would keep count of who has buried more. In relations between very
close kin, close friends, “blood brothers” and the like, the range of responsibilities can
become so wide as to encompass almost anything: hence Mauss (1947:106) suggested
that most societies can be seen as threaded with relations of what he called
Communistic relations are reciprocal only in the sense that both sides are equally
disposed to help one another; there is no feeling that accounts ought to balance out at any
given moment—in part, because there’s no assumption such relations will ever end.
2) Reciprocal Exchange
Here falls the exchange of compliments, or favors, or rounds of drinks. Such
relationships can be broken off after every round because the return is considered to be a
more or less exact equivalent to the initial gift. Often relations are kept up by delaying the
response in time: I buy dinner for a friend, he will likely feel in my debt until he is able to
reciprocate. Or people make a point of ensuring the response is not quite an equivalent (if
he buys me a much more expensive dinner, or a much cheaper one, the feelings of debt
do not quite cancel out. There are numerous variations here, ways of testing the limits.
The critical thing is that unlike communistic relations, these are by no means assumed to
be permanent and in fact can usually be broken off at any point. Reciprocity of this sort is
about maintaining one’s personal autonomy in a relatively equal relationship.
3) Hierarchical Relations
Relations between masters and slaves, patrons and clients, parents and children,
and so on, do not tend to operate in terms of reciprocity but rather by a logic of precedent.
If one gives money to a beggar (or to a charity fund), they will almost certainly not feel
obliged to return something of equal value; rather, they will be likely to ask for more.
Similarly, if parents allow a child an indulgence, that child is likely to expect the same in
the future. The converse is equally the case: if a medieval serf or vassal presented an
unusual gift to a feudal superior, it was likely to be treated as a precedent, added to the
web of custom, and thus, expected to be treated as an obligation in the future (Bloch
1961:114). There are endless variations here too—from institutionalized plunder or
ritualized theft to redistribution, inheritance or other gifts that pass the superior status to
former inferiors—but, except for the last, they all presume a permanent or at least
ongoing relation that has nothing to do with reciprocal exchange because it is not
assumed to have anything to do with equality.
4) The Agonistic or Heroic Gift
Tit-for-tat exchange can also mount into contests of one-upmanship, where each
party tries to present a gift or counter-gift so lavish their rival cannot reciprocate; in these
the equal standing of the two parties is up for grabs at any moment, with the danger is
that they might degenerate at any moment—at least symbolically—into subordination
None of these is in any way peculiar to what those following Mauss have called “gift
economies”. We are all communists with closest friends, and feudal lords when interacting with
small children. What varies is how they knit together, and, when present, with more impersonal
commercial relations. It’s also clear that such transactions are by no means uniformly governed
by principles of reciprocity, and communistic and hierarchical relations are not even really forms
Mauss’ text deals first and foremost with the agonistic or heroic gift. As a public
institution, this seems to reach its fullest flowering in heroic societies—that is, stateless
aristocratic societies like Vedic India, Homeric Greece, or Celtic or Germanic Europe, or for that
matter the Maori of New Zealand or the peoples of the Northwest Coast. Such contests could
occasionally descend into contests of destruction of property, or even outright violence. The
stakes here can be very high. Mauss (1925a) cites a Greek text about Celtic festivals where
noblemen engaged in public duels that could occasionally turn deadly, and at the same time, vied
to outdo each other with gifts of gold and silver treasures. If any were presented with a gift so
magnificent he could not possibly repay it, the only honorable response was to kill oneself (and
distribute the wealth to one’s entourage.)
One might, again, wonder if this every really happened, or how often. But, if nothing
else, it makes the “slave” metaphor easier to understand. According to Roman law, for example,
a slave is first and foremost person captured in war who, spared by his captor, therefore
effectively owes his life to him. He therefore stands in a relation of unlimited debt or obligation.
This is what is referred to in the literature on slavery as “social death”; all previous rights and
obligations held by the slave (citizenship, kinship ties, and so on) are voided; the only
relationship remaining is that with his new master, and the demands that new master can place
on him are in principle limitless. Clearly, the stakes in the most dramatic gift transactions
between aristocratic rivals can be equally high: this is why in Posidonius’ Celtic festivals, duels
and contests of generosity are treated as variations on a theme, and their consequences,
potentially at least, are equally fatal. To best an opponent completely in a contest of liberality,
then, becomes equivalent to defeat in war: it too establishes an infinite debt and, if it does not
lead to actual death (which presumably is rather exceptional), it leads to something very much
like “social death”, at the very least, the destruction of one’s honor and social standing, rendering
one the hierarchical inferior of the giver.
In Primitive Mentality (1923), Lucien Lévy-Bruhl devotes a whole chapter to the
apparently inexplicable responses of Africans and Melanesians whose lives were saved by
modern medicine: rather than seeking to repay their benefactors in any way, many appear to have
reacted by demanding to be fed, given clothing, knives, or other valuables.
You save a person’s life, and you must expect to receive a visit from him before
long; you are now under an obligation to him, and you will not get rid of him
except by giving him presents (Bulléon in Levy-Bruhl 1923:425).
Accounts like this became something of a cliché: how many of us have not heard the rumor that
among some exotic people (in my childhood I heard it variously ascribed to Inuit, Buddhists, and
Chinese) if one saves someone’s life, you have to take care of them forever. Such stories are
striking because they seem entirely inexplicable in terms of the norms of reciprocity, as the
missionaries in question were invariably quick to point out. But, as I remarked, not all such
relations are governed by reciprocity. These accounts make a great deal of sense if one assumes
that those whose lives were saved therefore concluded that they were, in fact, now within a
relation of complete hierarchical dependency. Hierarchies operate in terms of precedent, rather
than reciprocity, so that the terms of this new relation had now to be negotiated. The fact is, they
assumed they were negotiating the terms of their newfound dependence with alien creatures of
apparently infinite wealth. And anyway, to abandon the assumption of equality with a stranger is
no little thing; it is hardly surprising many were shocked when they discovered they were dealing
with such apparently niggardly patrons.
3: On “Primordial Debts” and the State
So the analogy between debt and slavery seems to occur to people because slavery itself
is conceived of as a permanent, absolute, and unpayable debt, a life-debt. This is presumably
why, in commercial economies, defaulting on a cash loan can reduce one to the same status as a
war captive. In either case a situation of formal equality (combat, market exchange) is converted
to one of absolute subordination. It is only in retrospect, when one is trying to justify such
unequal relations, that one tries to demonstrate that they are really reciprocal after all.
All of this is critical, I think, to understanding debates about money itself and particularly
the Chartalist approach.
Anyone who wishes to seek the origin of money in tax debts immediately runs into at
least two conceptual problems. One is the question why, if the state creates money, it would need
to levy taxes in the first place. What is the point of minting coins, distributing them, and then
demanding that subjects deliver them back? The answer, as I’ve already observed, is that by
doing so the authorities create a market in goods and services—based on the exchange of these
same debt-tokens—that makes it much easier for them to acquire the things they need than by
systems of direct requisition. The other question is on what basis does the state collect taxes?
That is, if one does not see taxes simply as a system of institutionalized plunder, a conclusion
Chartalists, being for the most part social democrats, generally wish to avoid.
Insofar as theorists of money address themselves to this question, the usual solution is to
see the state as having simply adopted a much more fundamental or “primordial” debt that
everyone could be said to owe to society.
At the origin of money we have a “relation of representation” of death as an
invisible world, before and beyond life – a representation that is the product of the
symbolic function proper to the human species and which envisages birth as an
original debt incurred by all men, a debt owing to the cosmic powers from which
humanity emerged... Payment of this debt, which can however never be settled on
earth – because its full reimbursement is out of reach – takes the form of
sacrifices which, by replenishing the credit of the living, make it possible to
prolong life and even in certain cases to achieve eternity by joining the Gods. But
this initial belief-claim is also associated with the emergence of sovereign powers
whose legitimacy resides in their ability to represent the entire original cosmos.
And it is these powers that invented money as a means of settling debts – a means
whose abstraction makes it possible to resolve the sacrificial paradox by which
putting to death becomes the permanent means of protecting life. Through this
institution, belief is in turn transferred to a currency stamped with the effigy of the
sovereign – a money put in circulation but whose retour (sic) is organised by this
other institution which is the tax/settlement of the life debt. So money also takes
on the function of a means of payment which makes it possible to “settle” a debt,
in other words to “finance” it (Théret 1999:60-61).
This argument has developed largely within France, spearheaded by the work of economist
Michel Aglietta (Aglietta & Orléan 1992, Aglietta et al 1998). It’s largely inspired by certain
texts in the Vedas that, as Charles Malamoud (1983, 1988, 1998) have shown, do propose a
theory of existential debt. As one typical text puts it, “in being born every being is born as a debt
owed to the gods, the saints, the Fathers and to men” (in 1983:27). The word used is not the same
as that for a duty or obligation, but what one would use for a borrowed object or a commercial
loan. Ultimately the gods will reclaim this loan by taking back your life; in the meantime, one
can offer the lives of cows and sheep in sacrificial rituals, as a kind of interest payment.
There are a number of problems here, however. First of all the notion of an existential
debt might appear in the Vedas, but there’s no hint of it in Near Eastern or Classical theories of
sacrifice. Even more serious: the very idea of a universal sovereign inventing money by
transforming cosmic debt into tokens of value seems contradicted by the historical evidence.
It’s telling that primordial debt theorists almost never consider the example of
Mesopotamia, even though Mesopotamia saw both the world’s first states and the world’s first
money. This is all the more striking since the Mesopotamian evidence in many ways confirms
Chartalist assumptions. For example, it confirms that money did indeed begin as a unit of
account, and existed as such for thousands of years before the creation of a uniform medium of
exchange. It also confirms that money developed within large public institutions: specifically, in
Sumerian and Babylonian palaces and temples. These institutions did indeed establish standards
of conversion, starting with a conversion rate between silver and barley. One shekel of silver was
made equivalent to one gur or “bushel” of barley, considered an adequate month’s ration. Hence
one silver mina, 1/60 of a shekel, was equivalent to one of two allotted two daily meals—since
the year, for ease of calculation, was divided into months of exactly 30 days. The state also set
price schedules, interest rates, and so forth (Hudson 2002, 2003, 2004; cf. Henry 2004 on Egypt).
All this is precisely as Chartalist theory would predict. The problem is that there does not appear
to have been a single unified state; and there was no generalized system of taxation.
Palaces and temples operated autonomously, were major landholders, maintained craft
workshops, and collected revenues from renting their land, selling merchandise, and (in their
own capacity, or via officials working in a private capacity) lending out money at interest.
However neither palaces nor temples imposed taxes. The ruler of a given city-state might impose
tribute on the citizens of conquered rivals, but their own citizens were not subjected to uniform
state levies, for the very reason that it would imply servile status. Even more strikingly, insofar
as rulers did intervene in their cosmological capacity as universal sovereigns, it was not to
impose debts, but rather, to eliminate them. While the precise origins of making interest-bearing
loans are not entirely clear,6 by c. 2400 BC it already appears to have been common practice on
the part of palace or temple local officials, or other wealthy individuals, to provide such loans to
needy farmers—particularly during times of famine or other disasters—and then to appropriate
lands, family members, and ultimately, the farmers themselves. Often, in fact, debt peons appear
to have ended up as dependents in temple workshops. The social dislocation so caused was such
that it became customary for each new sovereign, on taking the throne, to wipe the slate clean,
voiding all outstanding consumer loans, returning all land to its original owners and sending all
debt peons back to their families. Hudson suggests that is was precisely because Sumerian and
Babylonian rulers saw themselves as sacred kings that they could make such gestures of cosmic
renewal. Societies lacking sovereigns of such universal pretensions, he notes, were much less
able to contain the dangers inherent in the creation of widespread structures of monetarized debt
when these diffused from the ancient Near East. In ancient Israel, prophets substituted the notion
of a periodic “jubilee”, but in the Classical Mediterranean,7 sacred kings had long since
vanished. As a result, periodic debt crises led to endless social dislocation and movements for
reform or revolution. When the latter were stymied, the results were often catastrophic.
What I hope comes through from all this is that the very notion that there must always be
something that one can label “society”—a single totality to which everyone is born with a set of
obligations—is not itself primordial. True, imaginary totalities must be created in the process of
creating value. But these often take an infinite variety of overlapping forms. The logic of debt,
however, is not totalizing in this way. It is inherently dyadic. Even Malamoud notes that, in the
actual Vedic texts, there is a strong tendency in most contexts to emphasize not the universal
debt to the gods but the more particular debt of a man to his father, one that can only be repaid
by oneself bearing a son (1983:32). It seems to me that, like so many theories of “primitive
society”, one wonders if what really lurks here is in fact the shadow of the nation-state.
It is quite likely in fact that, when one does find the notion of primordial debts, it arises in
reaction to the logic of the market. Egoism and altruism, as Maussian theory has repeatedly
taught us, are terms that only make sense in relation to one another; they are themselves “two
sides of the same coin” that appear to have only become conceptually possible with the advent of
commercial logic. It’s quite possible that the early Vedic texts are attempts to work out the
morality of this new situation. So, in a different way, is the ideology of the modern nation-state.
6 Hudson (2002) hypothesizes that the custom of lending money at interest originated in
officials’ loaning handicrafts produced in Temple or Palace workshops to merchants
engaged in long-distance trade, so as to collect a share of the proceeds (though others—
e.g. Steinkeller 1981, Mieroop 2002:64—suspect it might have originated in rental fees).
7 Where “classical Greeks”, incidentally, also “looked upon direct taxes as tyrannical and
avoided them whenever possible” [Finley 1981:90]
It seems significant, in this context, to contemplate the fact that the word “altruism” was coined
by Auguste Comte, who also appears to be one of the first European authors to really articulate a
notion of primordial debt.
In his Catechisme Positiviste, Comte completely rejected the notion of rights on this
Positivism will never admit anything other than duties of all to all. For its social
point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on
individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our
predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these
obligations increase or accumulate before the point where we are capable of
rendering anyone any service. On what human foundation could one thus seat the
idea of “rights”….? (1891:295)
The “final state” would consist only of duties, which in turn, could be boiled down into the
famous imperative “to live for others” (ibid:47): altruistically.8
Comte’s proposal that we are all born in debt to society appears to have been picked up,
at the end of the century, by French political thinkers like Alfred Fouillé and Léon Bourgeois,
who called it the “social debt”. They in turn provided much of the political inspiration for
Durkheim. It is essentially a nationalist notion. Nationalist doctrines almost everywhere are
based on appropriating the emotional intensity of very local and particular forms of
commitment—for instance, of debt to fathers—and attaching to them some conception of a
social whole. In this way, one might even suggest that what theorists of primordial debt have in
fact produced is something of a nationalist myth, the Chartalist counterpoint, one might say, to
the notorious “myth of barter”. A less idealized theory of the state might express the matter of
absolute debt—when indeed it was invoked—in terms of a much simpler logic. Sovereignty,
after all, is the power of life and death. Ultimately, then, governments claim the same power over
their subjects as victorious warriors do over their prisoners, and their (usually, in principle,
unlimited) right to extract resources from them follows for exactly the same reason.9
4: less totalizing alternatives: marriage and vengeance
All this seems very far from anthropological writings on the origin of money, which, such
as they exist, tend to focus on what Polanyi called “special purpose monies”, and early
ethnographers referred to as “primitive currencies” (e.g., Quiggin 1949, Einzig 1949). These
latter tended to be employed in societies without strong states, and they were used neither
primarily for taxes nor for buying and selling commodities, but first and foremost in matrimonial
There’s been surprisingly little theoretical reflection on such currencies in recent
anthropological literature. One of the great exceptions is a book by Philippe Rospabé called La
8 The fact that Comte developed this notion in the course of proposing a new religion,
broadly modeled on Catholicism, strongly suggests that the real origin of such notions
goes back less to Vedic ideas than to Christian doctrines of original sin.
9 This appears to be the reason centralizing states almost always try to limit or even
eliminate forms of private slavery—see Testart 2002.
Dette de Vie (1995). Based on a survey of the literature from North and East Africa and
Melanesia, he makes a compelling argument that such tokens, too, typically represent
recognition of an infinite (or at least, unpayable) debt. Rospabé’s central point is that such goods
always seem to given “as a substitute for life, as a pledge by which givers promise to render a
life for one which they have taken from another group” (1993:35). That is, “savage money”, as
he prefers to call it, is first of all a means of payment but never of purchase, and second, that
what it “pays” for is ultimately life itself.
There is no room here to summarize the entire argument, but it starts from marriage
payments, which Rospabé argues is the paradigmatic case. The only equivalent to a woman
given in marriage is another one. Bridewealth is only paid when this does not happen: and,
though it consists of objects of wealth, this wealth is never treated as the equivalent of a woman
(or more precisely, her fertility). In many cases people are quite explicit that we are dealing here
with a mere acknowledgement. In other words, in paying bridewealth you are recognizing the
existence of a debt—a debt of life, since what bridewealth really secures is the paying clan’s
right to claim any of the woman’s children as their descendants—that can only be expunged in
later generations when one gives one of one’s own daughters as a bride in her turn.
As Rospabé emphasizes, the power to generate life is an incommensurable, an ultimate
value. It cannot be purchased because there is no possible material equivalent. Certainly no
amount of, say, shell money is considered to be such—even if the womb-like symbolism that so
often surrounds objects like shell money itself seems to refer to this. They are tokens
representing the very thing for which they are an inadequate substitute: the immutable
abstraction of generative power.
The logic of bloodwealth, he argues, can be seen as a kind of variation: again, the price of
a life (in this case, a life taken) can never really be repaid, unless, perhaps, by the gift of a
woman as compensation.10
What this suggests is that, insofar as one can speak of primordial or absolute debts, lifedebts
in Rospabé’s sense, they take the form not of cosmic but of dyadic relationships—or, to be
more accurate, they are cosmic relationships that can only take dyadic form. The question of
course is how tokens meant to express recognition of a debt that cannot be paid eventually
become the means of settling debts; how such inherently unique dyadic ties can eventually knit
together to create a uniform system for the measurement of value. Rospabé does not attempt to
answer this question. Even so, he seems to imply that commodity money simply could not have
10 Occasionally, compensation can be paid in the form of a woman whose children will
then be considered replacement for a murder victim (sometimes they will even be given
the same name); in other cases, as most famously with the Nuer, the rate of compensation
is exactly that required to obtain a wife who can then be “married” to the victim’s ghost,
in parts of North Africa to the “owner of the blood”, again, in order to secure progeny.
This is as close to true compensation as one might come. According to Rospabé, the logic
of ceremonial exchange, such as the tee or moka rituals of Highland Papua New Guinea,
would seem to be the result of a gradual process of abstraction where the tokens, in
circulating, gradually achieve a kind of autonomy from the powers of life to which they
arisen from such a system: it had to develop from outside.11 But there are examples of such
currencies (in parts of Melanesia, for example, or aboriginal California) where the use of tokens
that in certain places are restricted to matrimonial transactions and the like are, in other places,
extended to buying fish, houses, pots, and so forth.
The closest I know to a proposed solution is the theory of the origins of money
developed by a numismatist named Philip Grierson (1977, 1978). It is often referred to as the
“wergeld theory”, as it focused not on bridewealth but on bloodwealth. It is largely based on his
reading of what are often referred to as the Barbarian Law Codes, or “the laws of the Germanic
peoples who settled within or along the old frontiers of the Roman empire in the fifth and sixth
centuries A.D.” (1977:19). These legal systems were generally meant to provide a series of scale
compensation payments for death or serious injury intended to head off blood feuds. Generally
they were calculated according to a single unit of account: cattle in Wales, gold in Germany, furs
in Russia. These payments were never imagined to be material equivalents to the loss of life or
limb—such injuries were seen as incalculable—but emerged from “the need to assuage the anger
of the injured party and make good his loss in public reputation” (op cit).
The conditions under which these laws were put together would appear to satisfy,
much better than any market mechanism, the prerequisites for the establishment
of a monetary system. The tariffs for damages were established in public
assemblies, and the common standards were based on objects of some value
which a householder might be expected to possess of which he could obtain from
his kinsfolk. Since what is laid down consists of evaluations of injuries, not
evaluations of commodities, the conceptual difficulty of devising a common
measure for appraising unrelated objects is avoided (ibid:20-21).12
Grierson, and those who have taken up his argument, provides a good deal of compelling
linguistic evidence that, just as the English word “to pay” is ultimately derived from the Latin
pacere, “to pacify”, many terms for “debt” or even “money” in European languages appear to be
11 This, certainly, was the conclusion reached by any number of theorists, who concluded
that what Polanyi called “general purpose money” did indeed emerge from barter, but
that barter occurred between societies, and not within them. Marx (1858, 1867) was
already suggesting in the mid-19th century that commerce, and therefore commercial
money, had first emerged “in the pores” of the ancient world, only later to be adopted
within. Karl Bücher (1904) adopted this position, as did Max Weber (1961). One could
argue that Polanyi agreed (1968). My own position is that, since money does not have a
single origin, both the internal and the external theories of the origin of money are likely
to be in some part correct.
12 Note here that Grierson carefully avoids any suggestion that these schedules of tariffs
were created by rulers, even though most were, in fact, attributed to individuals who
considered themselves kings. Presumably he is more interested in using this early
Medieval records as a way of reconstructing an earlier, presumably more egalitarian
period, more like that described by Tacitus, in which standards of value were not imposed
by worked out in “communal assemblies”.
derived from terms for “sin”, or “fault”, or “guilt” (see also Hudson 2002:102-3, Ingham
This does allow one to imagine how the system could expand to a more general system of
currency: 2 gold plates for a broken knee, 5 for a severed arm, and so on. Still, it doesn’t really
resolve the fundamental conceptual problem. If weregeld is originally a recognition of the
incommensurable value of a human life, how then does it ultimately become the measure of a
man’s “worth”, or “price”—which is, in fact, what the word appears to mean etymologically?
Even more, how one can move from such profoundly dyadic relations (tokens, in effect, of the
recognition of and desire to assuage another’s justifiable anger) to a systematic measure of the
value of pots and chickens and the like? Grierson does not think it was likely to have occurred
through attempts to systematize the value of the objects used in payment. Instead, he is forced to
fall back on the longstanding earlier involvement of most of these barbarian populations in the
Roman slave trade (1977:23). Roman slave traders, he notes, were familiar figures beyond the
Rhine and Danube in the centuries immediately before these laws were recorded, and
etymological evidence again suggests that most of the terms for buying and selling in Germanic
languages originally referred to trade in people: many of the victims being precisely those sold
because they were unable to pay some fine or compensation. This became a very common
pattern all over Africa and Southeast Asia as well as in zones where powerful commercial
economies came into contact with those organized on a very different basis: legal systems, even
bridewealth systems, are converted from ways of regulating relations between people into ways
of turning human beings themselves into commodities. A slave, as I’ve noted, is considered to
owe an absolute life-debt to his owner. But at the same time a slave can be traded for a specific
amount of money. The conversion of a recognition of unpayable debt into the “price” of a man or
woman, then, appears to have been affected principally through an alchemy of violence.
5: On the Relation of Human Economies to Market Economies
Scholars studying the rise of impersonal market relations—even those who see them as
arising first between societies, and only later extending to relations within—rarely pay adequate
attention to the role of violence, and particularly, the formative role of the slave trade.
Here I have space to propose only the barest outlines of a theory; but let me begin by
suggesting that there are in fact two possible ways to make the jump between absolute debt and
the logic of the market. One is the power of social creativity. As I often point out (Graeber
2001), the central concern of any social system is creation, and that means first and foremost, the
creation of human beings and social relations. Here one might suggest that, just as for Marx the
value of money in a capitalist society is ultimately the value of the human creative powers
invested in creating marketable commodities, so in the societies that Grierson or Rospabé
describe—I would venture to call them “human economies”—the predominant forms of currency
are invariably representations of the powers of social creativity. Women’s reproductive powers
are merely the concrete symbol for the more general power to nurture, shape, and foster human
beings. That is why, as I have suggested elsewhere (Graeber 1996), money tends to be
symbolically identified with the owner’s inner capacities, the “promise of power” they embody.
The phrase appeals in part because it is so obviously paradoxical. One might object: are
not all economies, ultimately, human economies? Obviously so. They are, above all, because
they are always, ultimately, concerned with the creation of (certain valued sorts of) human
beings. What is unusual about market economies is, perhaps, that at least in certain contexts, they
can pretend to be about anything else. Commodity money would appear to be one of the
principle instruments by which they do so. Substituting the phrase “human economies”, at least
in this context, for “gift economies” therefore seems a nice way to capture the paradox. It also
helps to underline Mauss’ most important point about gift economies: that outside of commercial
markets, even in what might seem to us to be economic transactions, it is always the status of
human beings, and relations between them, that is ultimately at stake. There is also a relatively
easy way to identify a human economy: one need merely check to see whether the main form of
currency is used primarily to rework relations between people, or primarily, to purchase things
like noodles, furniture, or shoes.
This does suggest a common conceptual basis to all forms of currency. Creative
capacities are, precisely like credit, a potential for future productivity. Debt is a claim on future
creativity. It is only the monetarization of debt that allows anyone to specify the depth of this
future, in fact, to charge for each unit of time by which this creation is delayed. In terms of
human production, however, any such calculation seems entirely absurd. In general, the gulf
between human economies and market systems would seem to be such that any attempt to move
directly from one to the other would at the very least have profoundly jarring effects on the entire
system of social production. This is, indeed, precisely what happens the moment impersonal
markets begin to develop—usually, I suspect, in at least tangential relation to the spread of new
forms of predatory violence. The moment the same forms of wealth that were once used
exclusively for arranging marriages, paying fines, and so on can be used for buying and selling
goats and leather pouches, one invariably starts to witness intense social struggles over the
dangers of the potential commoditization of human beings—specifically, over prostitution and
slavery. All this is quite apparent in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, where elites strove
to define themselves specifically as those whose daughters’ reputations were in no sense to be
sullied by the market (Lerner 1983, 1986; Kurke 2002). But one sees the same thing on the
fringes of the system, wherever commercial and human economies meet. The history of the
expansion of the slave trade into Africa and Southeast Asia, as I’ve mentioned, is in almost every
case a story of the abusive manipulation of forms of debt, of the abusive transformation of
obligations into commodities.
6: Notes On the History of Monetary Instruments: Commodity, Credit, Trust and Violence
Predatory violence, I would suggest, has been the main instrument enabling the
conceptual leap from a human to a commodity economy, of transforming tokens that served as
acknowledgements of one’s inability to repay acts of cosmic creativity into instruments for the
marketing of people. Ideologies of debt, in turn, have been and continue to be the single most
effective way of making human relationships created and maintained by violence appear to be
rooted in morality. Most of the arguments marshaled in this essay, from the discussion of
hierarchical versus egalitarian modes of gift exchange, to the various ideologies of absolute or
primordial debt, have been ultimately aimed at trying to understand how it is possible for them to
Let me now turn from the peripheries to the centers of great civilizations, and offer the
tentative outline of a new historical architecture, constructed around the shifting relations
between credit and commodity monies. The historical evidence, it seems to me, strongly
confirms that, as Geoffrey Gardiner succinctly put it, “bullion is the accessory of war, and not of
peaceful trade” (2004:139). Commodity money, particularly in the form of gold and silver, is
distinguished from credit money most of all by one spectacular feature: it can be stolen. An ingot
of gold or silver is indeed an object without a pedigree; throughout much of history it has served
the same role as the drug dealer’s suitcase full of dollar bills, an object without a history that will
be accepted in exchange for other valuables just about anywhere, with no questions likely to be
asked. As a result, credit systems seem to arise in periods of relative social peace, across
networks of trust, whether created by states or, in most periods, international institutions;
precious metals replace them in periods characterized by widespread plunder. Predatory lending
systems certainly exist at every period; but they seem to have the most damaging effects in
periods when money was most easily convertible into cash.
The story is too long to tell in any great deal but one might suggest a very tentative
breakdown of Eurasian history along the following lines:
I Age of the First Agrarian Empires (3500-800 BCE)
Dominant form: Virtual credit money
Our best information on the origins of money goes back to ancient Mesopotamia,
but there seems no particular reason to believe matters were radically different in
Pharaonic Egypt, Bronze Age China, or the Indus Valley. The Mesopotamian economy
was dominated by large public institutions (Temples and Places) whose bureaucratic
administrators essentially created money of account by establishing a fixed equivalent
between silver and the staple crop, barley; debts were calculated in silver, but silver was
rarely used in transactions: payments were made in barley or in anything else that
happened to be handy and acceptable. Major debts were recorded on cuneiform tablets
kept as sureties by both parties to the transaction.
Markets, certainly, did exist. Prices of certain commodities that were not
produced within Temple or Palace holdings, and thus subject to administered price
schedules, would tend to fluctuate according to the vagaries of supply and demand. Even
here, though, such evidence as we have (e.g., Hudson 2002:25, 2004:114) suggests that
everyday purchases, such as beer advanced by “ale women”, or local innkeepers, appear
to have been on credit, with tabs accumulating to be paid, typically, at harvest time.
Interest rates, fixed at 20%, remained stable for two thousand years. This was not
a sign of government control of the market: at this stage, institutions like this were what
made markets possible. Insofar as governments did intervene, it was to deal with the
effects of debt. In bad years the poor tended to become hopelessly indebted to the rich
and would often have to surrender their lands and ultimately, family members into debt
peonage; hence, it became customary for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel
debts, and return bonded laborers to their families.
II Axial Age (800 BCE - 600 CE)
Dominant form: Coinage and Metal Bullion
This is the age that saw the emergence of coinage, as well as the birth, in China,
India, and the Middle East, of all major world religions.13 It was a period of spectacular
creativity and in much of the world, of almost equally spectacular violence, from the
Warring States period in China, fragmentation in India, to the carnage and mass
enslavement that accompanied the expansion (and later, dissolution) of the Roman
Coined money, the actual use of gold and silver as a medium of exchange,
allowed markets in the now more familiar, impersonal sense of the term. Precious metals
were also far more appropriate for an age of generalized warfare, for the obvious reason
that they can be stolen. Coinage, certainly, was not invented to facilitate trade (the
Phoenicians, the consummate traders of the ancient world, were among the last to adopt
it). It appears to have first been invented to pay soldiers.
Throughout antiquity one can continue to speak of what Ingham (2004:99) has
dubbed the “military-coinage complex”. He might better have called it a “militarycoinage-
slavery complex”, since the diffusion of new military technologies (Greek
hoplites, Roman legions) was closely tied to the capture and marketing of slaves, and the
other major source of slaves was debt: now that states no longer periodically wiped the
slates clean, those not lucky enough to be citizens of the major military city-states were
fair game. The credit systems of the Near East did not crumble under commercial
competition; they were destroyed by Alexander’s armies—armies that required half a ton
of silver bullion per day in wages. The tax systems of the Hellenistic and Roman empires,
that demanded payment in coins the state itself had mined and minted, were designed to
force their subjects to abandon other modes of circulation and enter into market relations,
so that soldiers (and government officials) would be able to buy things with that money.
The effects of the constant wars conducted by those legions, in turn, guaranteed that
much of the consequent trade was in fact in human beings, or in the products of slavelabor.
However tawdry the origins of coinage, the creation of new media of exchange
appears to have had profound intellectual effects. Some (Shell 1978, 1982, Seaford
2004) have even gone so far as to argue that early Greek philosophy only became
possible due to conceptual innovations introduced by the technology of coinage.
Certainly, it seems significant that this was precisely the age that saw, in India, China,
and the Eastern Mediterranean, the emergence of all major philosophical trends and all
major world religions. What’s more, they appear to have been almost exactly the times
that also saw the emergence of coined money. While the precise links are yet to be fully
explored, one thing is clear. Ideals of charity, altruism, and selfless giving typically
promoted within these new World Religions of the time appear to have arisen in direct
reaction to the logic of the market. As Mauss liked to point out, in a gift economy, either
13 The phrase the “Axial Age” was originally coined by Karl Jaspers to describe the
relatively brief period between 800 BCE – 200 BCE in which, he believed, just about all
the main philosophical traditions we are familiar with today arose simultaneously in
China, India, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Here, I am using it in Lewis Mumford’s
more expansive use of the term as the period that saw the birth of all existing world
religions, stretching roughly from the time of Zoroaster to that of Mohammed (see e.g.,
pure selfishness, or pure selflessness, would be almost inconceivable. To put the matter
crudely: it would seem that, if one relegates a certain social space simply to the selfish
acquisition of material things, it is almost inevitable that one should soon come to set
aside another domain in which to preach that, from the perspective of ultimate values,
material things are unimportant, and selfishness—or even the self—illusory. The fact that
these markets were, in fact, based on coinage, which allowed for far more impersonal,
and hence, potentially violent, forms of market behavior than earlier credit relations
presumably made the distinction all the more compelling.
III The Middle Ages (600 CE – 1500 CE)14
Return of Virtual Credit-Money
If the Axial Age saw the emergence of complementary ideals of egoism and
altruism, commodity markets and universal world religions, the Middle Ages was the
period in which those two institutions began to merge, so that monetary transactions
increasingly came to be carried out through social networks defined and regulated by
those same world religions. This enabled in turn the return, throughout Eurasia, of
various forms of virtual credit-money.
In Europe, where all this took place under the aegis of Christendom, coinage was
only sporadically, and unevenly, available. Prices after 800 AD were calculated largely in
terms of an old Carolingian currency that no longer existed (it was referred to at the time
as “imaginary money” - Einaudi 1953), but ordinary day-to-day buying and selling was
mainly carried out with tally-sticks, notched pieces of wood that were broken in two as
records of debt, with half being kept by the creditor, half by the debtor. Such tally-sticks
were still in common use in much of England well into the 16th century (Innes 1913,
1914, MacIntosh 1988). Larger transactions were handled through bills of exchange, with
the great commercial fairs serving as their clearing-houses. The Church, meanwhile,
provided a legal framework, enforcing strict controls on the lending of money at interest
and prohibitions on debt bondage.
The real nerve center of the Medieval world economy though was the Indian
Ocean, that along with the Central Asia caravan routes, connected the great civilizations
of India, China, and the Middle East. Here trade was conducted through the framework of
Islam, which not only provided a legal structure highly conducive to mercantile activities
(while absolutely forbidding the lending of money at interest), but allowed for peaceful
relations between merchants over a remarkably large part of the globe, allowing the
creation of a variety of sophisticated credit instruments. China in this same period saw
the rapid spread of Buddhism, the invention of paper money, and the development of
even more complex forms of credit and finance.
14 I am here relegating most what is generally referred to as the “Dark Ages” in Europe
into the earlier period, characterized by predatory militarism and the consequent
importance of bullion: the Viking raids, and the famous extraction of danegeld from
England, might be seen as one the last manifestations of an age where predatory
militarism went hand and hand with hoards of gold and silver bullion.
All this is not to say that this period did not see its share of carnage and plunder
(particularly during the great nomadic invasions) or that coinage was not, in many times
and places an important medium of exchange. Still, what really characterizes the period
appears to be a movement in the other direction. Money, during most of the Medieval
period, was largely delinked from coercive institutions. Money-changers, one might say,
were invited back into the temples, where they could be monitored; the result was a
flowering of institutions premised on a much higher degree of social trust.
IV Age of European Empires (1500-1971)
Return of Precious Metals
With the advent of the great European empires—Iberian, then North Atlantic—the
world saw both a reversion to the use of chattel slavery, plunder, and wars of destruction,
and the consequent rapid return of gold and silver bullion as the main form of currency.
Historical investigation will probably end up demonstrating that the origins of these
transformations were more complicated than we ordinarily assume. One of the main
factors of the movement back to bullion, for example, was the emergence of popular
movements during the early Ming dynasty, in the 15th and 16th centuries, that ultimately
forced the government to abandon not only paper money but any attempt to impose its
own currency. This led to reversion of the vast Chinese market to an uncoined silver
standard. Since taxes were also gradually commuted into silver, it soon became the more
or less official Chinese policy to try to bring as much silver into the country as possible,
so as to keep taxes low and prevent new outbreaks of social unrest. The sudden enormous
demand for silver had effects across the world. Most of the precious metals looted by the
conquistadors and later extracted by the Spanish from the mines of Mexico and Potosi,
(at almost unimaginable cost in human lives) ended up in China. These new global-scale
connections have of course been documented in great detail. The crucial point is that the
delinking of money from religious institutions, and its relinking with coercive ones
(especially the state), was here accompanied by an ideological reversion to
“Metallism”.15 Credit, in this context, was on the whole an affair of states that themselves
ran largely by deficit financing, a form of credit which was, in turn, invented to finance
increasingly expensive wars. Internationally the British Empire was steadfast in
maintaining the gold standard even through the 19th and early 20th centuries.
V Current Era (1971 onwards)
The Empire of Debt
The current era might be said to have been initiated on August 15, 1971, when US
President Richard Nixon officially suspended the convertibility of the dollar into gold and
effectively created the current floating currency regimes (Gregory 1997). We have
15 The myth of barter and commodity theories of money was of course developed in this
returned, then, to an age of virtual money, in which consumer purchases in wealthy
countries rarely involve even paper money, and national economies are driven largely by
consumer debt. All this has been accompanied by what’s often called a “financialization”
of capital, with speculation in currencies and financial instruments becoming a domain
unto itself, detached from any immediate relation with production or even commerce
(e.g., Arrighi 1994, Harvey 2005). What remains to be seen is whether, as in previous
ages dominated by virtual credit money, there will arise overarching institutions prepared
to impose some sort of social controls over the human consequences of spiraling debt. So
far, the trend has been the opposite: such overarching institutions as have emerged—for
instance, the IMF or World Bank—have been more concerned with enforcing debts,
leaving poorer nations locked in a kind of permanent debt peonage.
Historically, as we have seen, ages of virtual, debt-money have also involved
controls of some sort on the destructive social consequences that ensue when debt spirals
entirely out of control. So far the movement this time has been if anything in the other
direction: we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative
system, operating through the IMF, World Bank, corporations and other financial
institutions, largely in order to protect the interests of creditors against debtors. However
the age has only just begun and the long-term consequences of this shift back to virtual
money are entirely unclear.
To conclude, let me turn briefly to the question of debt versus value: or, to be
more specific, society seen as a network of dyadic relations of obligation and society
viewed as an imaginary forum for the realization of some conception of the Good.
In section 2 above I noted that hierarchical relations, for example within feudal or
patronage systems, operate in practice on a principle of precedent that is in many ways
the exact opposite of reciprocity. An unexpected gift is likely to be taken as a precedent
and similar gestures will be expected in the future. However, the moment theorists of
feudalism felt the need to represent society in the abstract, they would almost invariably
argue that relations between the different ranks and statuses of society were, ultimately,
based on reciprocity after all: nobles provide protection, peasants provide food, and so
forth. The reason would seem simple enough. While reciprocity may or may not be the
basis of any particular transactional logic, it would appear that it is everywhere the basis
of conceptions of justice.
The list of transactional logics in section 2 was really meant to make clear that
what we call social or economic systems are, in reality, an endless interweaving of dyadic
relations that operate, often, on completely different grounds. Some are based on forms of
pragmatic communism, some on a hierarchical logic of precedent, some on principles of
balanced exchange—which may in turn be relatively personal or relatively impersonal,
ephemeral or sustained. Others are based on outright theft or extortion. In no case—even
assuming one could draw a bounded circle and call it a “society”—do accounts all
balance out. And of course, any such drawing of circles is itself an ideological gesture:
there are no natural boundaries; real social relations always overflow any such bounds.
However, it is an extremely important ideological gesture. For much of its history
social anthropology has wrestled with the problem of how to square these abstract
representations with what one actually finds on the ground: for example, in the famous
problem of “circulating connubium”, how to reconcile the endlessly complex networks of
hierarchical marriage relations that actually exist with the universal insistence that really,
society is organized into a simple series of clans that marry in a circle, clan A giving
women to clan B, B to C, C to D, and D back to A again. Edmund Leach (1954) seems to
have been the first to recognize that all such claims are merely abstract images of totality;
they are ways of conceiving the endless messiness of social life as pieces of a single
“society”. Such representations are always created by plucking certain dyadic relations—
dyads based, as they are, on a certain notion of mutual indebtedness—from that infinitely
complicated reality and creating an image of justice, an imaginary sphere in which all
accounts perfectly balance out.
The market is, of course, the same. “Markets”, as I pointed out at the beginning of
this essay, don’t really exist. Economists are perfectly happy to admit this. The market is
a model. The question is what kind of model? At this point I think we can answer: it is a
model created by isolating certain principles within a complex system (in this case by
fixing on a certain form of immediate, balanced, impersonal, self-interested transaction
that we call “commercial exchange”, which is almost never found in isolation but always
surrounded by and drawing on other logics—hierarchical, communistic…) and then
creating a totalizing model within which the books all balance and all debts and credits
ultimately cancel one another out. In reality no such bounded entity could ever exist,
either in time or in space. Nonetheless, such bounded entities are endlessly invoked: in
part, so as to create theaters for the realization of certain forms of value, and in part, in
order to make ideological statements about the legitimacy of existing social relations.
One needs a market to exist in some immediate concrete form when one needs to
determine the value of one’s house or art collection, especially if one wishes to realize
that value by selling it. One needs “the” market to exist, at least on the level of rhetoric,
when one wishes to represent capitalism as ultimately just.
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WAMPUM AND SOCIAL CREATIVITY AMONG THE IROQUOIS
In this chapter, I'd like to say a little bit about wampum, the white and purple shell beads which
became a currency of trade in early colonial Northeast North America. Among "primitive
valuables"—a category that includes such things as kula necklaces, Kwakiutl coppers, or the iron
bars used in bridewealth exchange by the West African Tiv—wampum holds a rather curious place.
Simply as an object, it's by far the most familiar. The average reader is much more likely to know
what wampum looks like, or to have actually seen some in a museum, than any of the others.
Nonetheless, unlike the others, wampum has never been treated as a classic case in anthropological
There are probably several reasons for this. For one thing, the contexts in which wampum
circulated is closer to what a Western observer would be inclined to see as political than economic.
The heyday of wampum was also a very long time ago: in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
long before the birth of modern ethnography. But it's also hard to escape the impression that the
case of wampum is in most other ways just a little bit too close to home. Wampum was, after all,
material manufactured from clams found primarily off the coast of Long Island, whose shells are
still to be found scattered on the beaches of Fire Island, the Hamptons, and other places where
New York's stockbrokers and literati like to spend their summer weekends; it was used mainly for
trade with the Iroquois towns that then dotted what is now upstate New York. Wampum was first
manufactured in bulk by the Pequods of Connecticut, a group later to be wiped out by English
settlers in a notorious massacre in 1637. This is not the sort of history most New Yorkers like to
dwell on—or Americans in general, for that matter.
Finally, anthropologists' own role has not always been entirely innocent. In the late 1960s,
when many of the Six Nations of the Iroquois were trying to win back control of their heirloom
wampum collection from New York State museums, William Fenton, who was then and remains to
this day one of the most respected Anglo authorities on the subject, took it upon himself to write a
major treatise entitled "The New York State Wampum Collection: the Case for Integrity of
Cultural Treasures" (1971) which made an elaborate case for refusing to accede to their requests.
The essay, as one might imagine, served only to reinforce the widespread (and to a large extent
historically justified) Native American impression that anthropologists were at best agents of
cultural imperialism, and at worst, of even worse. Resulting bitterness has made the whole issue of
anthropological views of wampum somewhat sensitive.
All this is quite a shame because it seems to me that the study of wampum is of potentially
enormous interest to any theory of value. For one thing, it is probably the best documented case of
beads being used as a medium of exchange between European traders and a very differently
organized society in which we have a fairly clear picture of what the non-European parties to the
transaction did with the beads once they got them. The focus in this chapter will be on the
Iroquoian peoples of what came to be known as the Five (later, Six) Nations. What I'm going to do
first of all is tell the history of wampum, up to around the end of the eighteenth century, which
took on an extraordinary importance in the creation of the Iroquois Federation itself. The first
effect of the arrival of European traders in search of fur, and soon after, settlers, on the coast of
Northeast North America was, predictably, to plunge the peoples of the interior into an almost
constant state of violent upheaval: a world of endless feuding, massacres, forced migrations, whole
peoples scattered and displaced, of two hundred years of almost continual war. Wampum had a
peculiar role in all this. It was the principle medium of the fur trade, which had sparked so much of
the trouble to begin with—wampum was one of the lures held out by the newcomers to inspire
people to attack each other; but at the same time, within the Iroquois confederacy—and the
Iroquois were considered by their Indian neighbors a particularly ferocious and terrifying
population of warriors—it was valued primarily for its ability to create peace.
the origins of wampum
So much changed so quickly once Europeans began to arrive on the coasts of Northeastern North
America that it becomes difficult to say anything for certain about the years before. There's no
consensus about whether something that could be called "wampum" even existed before 1500;
nonetheless, this is something of a technical question, since polished beads of one kind or another—
rare stones, mica, beads of shell or quill—and similar bright and mirrored objects certainly did, and
they were an important indigenous category of wealth across the northeast woodlands (Hammond
During the sixteenth century, European interest in North America focused mainly on fur—
particularly beaver pelts, then in great demand for the manufacture of hats. Dutch and English
traders began arriving on the coast armed with liberal supplies of glass trade beads—these were
already being mass-produced in Venice and the Netherlands for use in the markets of Africa and
the Indian Ocean—and usually found the inhabitants willing to accept them in exchange for pelts.
For a time, they became a regular currency of trade. There was even an attempt to manufacture
them in Massachusetts. But as time went on and European settler enclaves grew, their place was
gradually supplanted by wampum: the small, tubular white and purple beads that the Algonkianspeaking
peoples of Massachusetts and Long Island had long been in the habit of manufacturing
from whelks and quahog clams. English and Dutch colonists apparently found it a relatively simple
matter to force them to mass-producie them, stringing the beads together in belts of pure white or
pure purple (the latter, because of their relative rarity, were worth twice as much) and setting
fixed rates of exchange with the Indians of the interior: so many fathoms of wampum for such and
such a pelt. Later, after the coastal Indians had been largely exterminated, colonists began to
manufacture the beads themselves (Ceci 1977, 1982; Beauchamp 1901).
Wampum was not just a currency of trade. Settlers used it in dealing with each other. The
early colonies were also notoriously cash-poor; silver money was almost unheard of, and most
transactions between settlers were conducted through barter, credit, and wampum. Colonial
governments recognized wampum as legal tender until the middle of the eighteenth century, many
settlers preferring wampum to coins, even when the latter had become easily available—if only,
perhaps, because Indians were more likely to accept them (Weeden 1884; Martien 1996). On the
other hand there's no evidence that even the Indians living in the closest proximity to Europeans
used wampum to buy and sell things to one another. We really are talking, then, about two
profoundly different regimes of value.
When the first European settlers arrived, most of the coast was occupied by speakers of
Algonkian languages; the woodlands west of the Hudson were inhabited mainly by speakers of
Iroquoian ones. These latter were people who lived mainly in large fortified towns and who were
grouped into a patchwork of political confederacies, of whom the most prominent were the Huron
along the Saint Lawrence and Iroquois, scattered across the north of what is now upstate New
York. Since most of the beaver along the coast were quickly hunted out, the Huron (allied with the
French traders then established in Quebec) were best positioned to control the rotes to hunting
grounds out further west. In the early seventeenth century, then, we have much more detailed
information on the Huron than any other Iroquoian peoples, particularly because of the fact that
French Jesuits had settled in most Huron communities and kept detailed records of their work. The
Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy to the south—the Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk,
and Cayuga—were less well known. Most of the Algonkian peoples of the coast seem to have
considered them as terrifying cannibals1—but the Iroquois had the advantage of alliance with the
Dutch, and therefore, acess to a much more dependable source of firearms. During the so called
"Beaver Wars" from 1641 to 1649, they managed to destroy most of the major Huron towns, carry
off a large number of Huron as captives, and scatter most of the remaining population. By 1656 the
Iroquois had broken the power of the Petun and Neutral Confederations to the west as well, thus
establishing a monopoly over the trade that they were to maintain for at least a century.
During the next hundred and fifty years or so, the Iroquois were involved in an endless
series of wars: between the British and French, the British and American colonists, and any number
of other Indian nations. It was especially during this period that wampum—which the Iroquois
acquired both as payment for furs and as tribute from subjugated peoples—came to play a central
role in their political life, even, one might argue, in the constitution of Iroquois society itself.2 This
is the period which I especially want to look at; but in order to understand what happened, it will
first be necessary to try to at least attempt to reconstruct something of early Iroquoian social
the resurrection of names
Like the Algonkian peoples to the east, Iroquoian nations were matrilineal and matrilocal. Unlike
them, the Iroquoians (Five Nations and Huron alike) shared a very particular constitution: they saw
their societies not as a collection of living individuals but as a collection of eternal names, which
over the course of time passed from one individual holder to another.
Most of the peoples of northeast North America had a custom of the occasional
"resurrection" of names. If a famous warrior, for example, were to die, another man might be given
his name, and then be considered in a certain sense an incarnation of the same person; if he were a
chief, he might also inherit his office. According to a Jesuit relation written in 1642 about the
It has often been said that the dead were brought back to life by making
the living bear their names. This is done for several reasons,—to revive the memory
of a brave man, and to incite him who shall bear his name to imitate his courage; to
take revenge upon the enemies, for he who takes the name of a man killed in battle
binds himself to avenge his death; to assist the family of a dead man, because he
who brings him back to life, and who represents him, assumes all the duties of the
deceased. . . (JR 22: 287-89)
It was accomplished, significantly, by hanging a collar of wampum around the man's neck; if
the latter accepted it, and did not shake it off, he would then become the dead man's former self.
The Iroqouis, however, took this principle much further: all names should eventually, be
resurrected by being passed on to someone else. An Iroquois nation (or "tribe") was normally
composed of a series of matrilineal clans, which were in turn grouped into two moieties. Each clan
had its own collection of names and a matron who was its keeper. The most important, chiefly,
names could equally well be thought of as titles—since each corresponded to a position in the
political structure of the tribe or confederation. When one such office-holder died, the name was,
as the Huron put it, "resurrected" by being conveyed to some person of similar qualities, would
thereby also be invested in the title's associated regalia and thus in the office itself (Goldenweiser
1914; Parker 1926:61-65; Shimony 1961; Heidenreich 1978:371-72; for the Huron, see Tooker
1964:44-45). One might say then that the number of "persons"—using the term in the Maussian
sense, as particular social identities fixed by socially recognized insignia of one sort or another—in
the Iroquois cosmos was fixed, since, like Tylor's "images," they survived the death of the holder.3
At any point in history, one would encounter the same basic collection of personae, the only
difference being that while all the chiefly roles would be filled, some of the less exalted ones would
be likely to be without occupants at any given moment.
Iroquois sources often spoke of this as "hanging the name around the neck." Evidence is
sketchy, but at least among certain Iroquois nations—and perhaps all of them—each clan did have a
collection of "name-necklaces" corresponding to its stock of names, and kept by the same matron
responsible for keeping track of them (Fenton 1926:65). The major chiefly titles came with their
own belts of wampum, which functioned as insignia of office, and which were indeed placed around
the neck of the man who succeeded to it, along with other insignia of office (Hewitt 1944:65-66;
Beauchamp 1901:347-49; Fenton 1946:118; cf. Druke 1981:109-110).
It is a little difficult to generalize because we are dealing with a variety of peoples whose
habits were probably not entirely consistent even within any one time and place. Probably even
different clans or longhouses had different practices. But it's clear that among the Five Nations in
particular, the resurrection of names became crucial to the constitution of society itself. It is
possible this was simply a cultural quirk, but it's hard to escape the suspicion that this had
something to do with the unusually predatory nature of Iroqouis society.
war and social structure
The League of the Hodenosaunee (or "Iroquois") consisted, at first, of Five Nations, the Onondaga,
Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida, all of whom occupied a swath of territory to the direct south
of Lake Erie in what is now upstate New York.4 The population was concentrated in a series of large,
fortified towns—Dutch and English sources usually call them "castles"—perched on hilltops and
surrounded by elaborate palisades.
Inside the palisades was female territory. Each longhouse was organized around a core of
related women. The male domain was "the forest," with the usual emphasis on war and hunting.
Villages and nations were of course connected by an overarching network of political institutions—
the organization of the Iroquois League, which seems to have emerged in the years before 1500,
just before Europeans appeared on the scene, was one of the inspirations for the federal system
adopted in the United States. There were thus a set of different councils operating on different
levels: from longhouse to village, village to nation, nation to the federation itself. There are two
points here that I think deserve special emphasis. The first is that this system involved an
extremely important role for women. Longhouses were governed by councils made up entirely of
women, who, since they controlled its food supplies, could evict any in-married male at will. Villages
were governed by both male and female councils. Councils on the national and league level were also
made up of both male and female office-holders. It's true that the higher one went in the
structure, the less relative importance the female councils had—on the longhouse level, there
wasn't any male organization at all, while on the league level, the female council merely had veto
power over male decisions—but it's also true that decisions on the lower level were of much more
immediate relevance to daily life. In terms of everyday affairs, Iroquois society often seems to
have been about as close as there is to a documented case of a matriarchy. The second is that for
all the complex federative structure, society was in most respects highly egalitarian. Officeholders,
male and female, were elected from among a pool of possible heirs; the offices themselves,
at least the male political ones, were considered as much a responsibility as a reward as they
involved no real material rewards and certainly granted the holder no coercive power.
Of course, most of our evidence comes from a time of constant war. It's hard to tell
precisely how all this affected the relative roles of men and women. On the one hand, it could only
have increased the relative importance of the male councils, which were largely concerned with
matters of war and peace. On the other, it eventually created a situation in which a large proportion
of the men in any given community were not really Iroquois at all, which could only have increased
the authority of women on the local level.
Iroquois warfare conformed to a pattern common to much of aboriginal North America.
Daniel Richter (1983, 1992:32-38) calls it the "mourning war" complex. The logic is similar to, but
not quite the same as, that of the feud. The death of almost any important person might lead to the
organization of a military expedition, whether or not that person had been killed by enemies. Among
the Five Nations, the logic might be considered an extension of the principle of replacing the dead.
Whenever a man or woman holding an important office died, his or her name would be transferred
immediately to someone new: the ceremony has come to be known in the literature as a
"Requickening" ceremony, because it restored the life and vitality that had been lost to the entire
community through death. More humble members of society would eventually be replaced as well.
But in the meantime, the effects of loss could be disastrous, especially for those closest to the
deceased. The grief and pain of mourning was seen as capable of driving survivors entirely insane.
Often, then, the women of the bereaved household could demand a raiding party be got together
(usually from among their male affines) to capture a replacement. Normally this raid would be
directed against some neighboring people who were considered traditional enemies. At times, they
could escalate into major wars, replete with stand-up battles in which large parties of warriors
would meet each other in "largely ceremonial confrontations between massed forced protected by
wooden body armor and bedecked in elaborate headdresses" (Richter 1992:35). Death in battle was
quite unusual, in part, because the main purpose of war was taking of prisoners.
As for the prisoners, their fate, once brought back to the Iroquois homeland, could be
either surprisingly benign or utterly horrendous. All prisoners were formally adopted into the local
family that had suffered a recent loss. It was up to family members whether they would then be
tortured to death or kept on as a replacement for the deceased. European observers saw the choice
as a matter of whim, almost entirely unpredictable. Those to be killed were first feasted, then tied
to a stake where they were systematically cut, gouged, and most of all, burned with firebrands and
red-hot metal, often over the course of an entire night before dying—ceremonies that, apparently
sometimes did end with a communal feast on parts of the body of the dead (in other words, what
their neighbors said was not entirely untrue). The vast majority of women and children captured on
raids, and a very good proportion—probably the majority—of the men were not, however, killed but
permanently adopted. They would be given the name of the deceased and, ideally, almost instantly
find themselves treated like a member of the family, having all rights and relations of the deceased
(i.e., a man would normally take his place as husband of the dead man's wife), and treated with the
utmost tenderness by his female relatives. After a trial period during which they were carefully
watched for any sign of disaffection, such prisoners could eventually become fully accepted
members of society, even in some cases leading war parties or receiving higher names and offices
with political responsibilities.
This anyway was how the situation appears to have worked in indigenous times. Warfare
became much more severe and destructive during the seventeenth century, during which the
Iroquois managed to break, one after the other, a series of rival federations, including the
Mohicans, Hurons, Petuns, Neutrals, Erie, and Susquahannock—wars that often involved both
unprecedented massacres (one Iroquois chief ordered eighty Huron prisoners slaughtered in one
day, in order to assuage his grief and anger at the death of his brother) and the massive
incorporation of alien prisoners into Iroquoian society. It was around this period one reads accounts
of a society effectively divided into classes, with adopted prisoners doing the bulk of the menial
labor and with members of their adopted families having the right to kill them for the slightest
infractions or impertinence (Starna and Watkins 1991), and missionaries complained that in many
communities most men were not particularly fluent speakers of their own nation's languages (Quain
1937). It may be that the unusually systematic nature of the Iroquoian naming practices only
emerged in this period (alternately, it may be that it had existed for a very long time, and this was
one of the reasons the Five Nations were able to expand and incorporate others more effectively
than their neighbors). Anyway, this exceptionally brutal period did not last long: the children of
these captives were considered full members of their adoptive clans.
the making of peace
At this point, let me return to the role of wampum. Wampum in fact played an essential role in the
mechanics of both making war and ending it.
For example, if a man's death inspired members of his family to commission a war party, the
clan matron was said to "put his name on the mat" by sending a belt of wampum to a related war
chief; he would then gather together a group of men to try to bring back a captive to replace him
(Lafitau in Fenton 1978:315). If the man in question had been killed, however—at least, if the killer
was not from a completely alien group—the usual practice was to appoint an avenger.5 The only way
to prevent this, in fact, was for the killer's people to pay a gift of wampum immediately to the
victim's family. The usual fee was five fathoms for the life of a man, ten for that of a woman (T.
Smith 1983:236; Morgan 1854:331-34; Parker 1926). Within the league, elaborate mechanisms
existed to ensure any such matters would be quickly resolved; councils would be convoked, large
amounts of wampum raised by canvassing the important members of the killer's clan. Even then, it
was still the bereaved family who had the last word. If stubborn, they could still insist on sending
the avenger on his way.
The mechanics of peacemaking are especially important because this is what the League was
essentially about. The Iroquois term translated "league," in fact, really just means "peace": the
entire political apparatus was seen by its creators primarily as a way of resolving murderous
disputes. The League was less a government, or even alliance,6 than a series of treaties establishing
amity and providing the institutional means for preventing feuds and maintaining harmony among the
five nations that made it up. For all their reputation as predatory warriors, the Iroquois themselves
saw the essence of political action to lie in making peace.
Wampum was the essential medium of all peacemaking. Every act of diplomacy, both within
the League and outside it, had to be carried out through the giving and receiving of wampum. If a
message had to be sent, it would be "spoken into" belts or strings of wampum, which the messenger
would present to the recipient. Such belts or strings were referred to as "words"; they were often
woven into mnemonic patterns bearing on the important of the message. Without them, no message
stood a chance of being taken seriously by its recipient. In council, too, speakers would accompany
their arguments with belts of wampum—also called "words"—laying them down one after the other
as the material embodiments of their arguments (Beauchamp 1901; Smith 1983:231-32).7
When envoys were sent to propose a treaty to another nation, not only would the conditions
of the treaty itself be "spoken into" belts of wampum, but the envoys would be given belts and
strings to convey as gifts for the nation to whom the treaty was proposed. These might also be
woven into "words"; at any rate, they would be presented one by one to the accompaniment of words
of conciliation. Since Iroquois diplomacy is well documented, we have a good record of what these
conciliatory speeches were like:
They run somewhat as follows, each sentence being pronounced with great
solemnity, and confirmed by the delivery of a wampum belt: 'Brothers, with this belt
I open your ears that you may hear; I draw from your feet the thorns that pierced
them as you journeyed thither; I clean the seats of the council-house, that you may
sit at ease; I wash your head and body, that your spirits may be refreshed; I
condole you on the loss of your friends who have died since we last met; I wipe out
any blood which may have been spilt between us'. . .
And his memory was refreshed by belts of wampum, which he delivered
after every clause in his harangue, as a pledge of the sincerity and the truth of his
words (Brice in Holmes 1883:242).
Afterward, an envoy might place the treaty belts themselves over the shoulders of the
chief, who could either accept the treaty or reject it by shaking them off (Heckewelder in Holmes
1883:246-47). If accepted, copies of the treaty belts would be sent back with the envoy, and both
sides would keep their belts as a permanent record of their mutual obligations.
Michael Foster (1985) has suggested that the exchange of wampum in such negotiations was
seen first and foremost as a way of opening up channels of communication. Hence the rhetorical
emphasis on "opening the ears" and "unstopping the throats" of those who received it, and of
otherwise putting them at ease with one another. This was particularly important if (as was usually
the case) there had previously been hostilities between the two parties. It seems to me this is true
as far as it goes; but the notion of "communication" plays into much larger cosmological ideas.
Iroquois religion, as Elisabeth Tooker (1970:7; Chafe 1961) has aptly put it, was in its essence "a
religion of thanksgiving." Ritual was seen above all as a way to give thanks to the Creator by showing
one's joy at the existence of the cosmos he had created. Even today just about every ritual event
or even meeting involves thanksgiving speeches, in which the speaker lists the main elements of the
cosmos—earth, trees, wind, sun, moon, sky—and celebrates the existence of each in turn.8 This
celebration or joy could also be imagined as feeling of expansiveness, an opening of oneself to the
totality of creation and to the social world. In a similar way acts of condolence, such as the giving
of wampum, were meant to clear all the grief and anger that obstructed the minds and bodies of
those bereaved by death and to restore them to full communication with the world and other
people. This is why the givers spoke not only of opening the eyes and ears and throats of their
recipients but also of "revealing the sun" and "revealing the sky" to them once more. "Opening up
channels of communication," then, is not simply a matter of creating an environment in which people
can talk to one another; it is a matter of opening them up to the universe as a whole.
But why should gifts of wampum be an appropriate medium for this?
The most plausible explanation is provided by George Hammel (1984). Throughout the
eastern woodlands of North America, he suggests, there was a broad category of objects that were
seen as embodying what he calls "life and light"—illumination, in Hammel's analysis, being roughly
equivalent to my "expansiveness." These included a wide range of bright or mirrored objects,
ranging from quartz crystals to obsidian to certain sorts of shell, as well as, later, wampum and
glass beads. Even before the advent of Europeans, these constituted a category of wealth that was
traded over long distances, and in special demand by those engaged in shamanistic pursuits.
Wampum was thus seen as carrying an intrinsic capacity to lift away grief. A Seneca myth about
Hiawatha—who was said to be the inventor of wampum, as well as one of the founders of the
League—has him gathering together the first string and vowing:
If I should see anyone in deep grief I would remove these strings from the pole and
console them. The strings would become words and lift away the darkness with
which they are covered. (Hammel 1984:19)
Just in these few references one can already see a fairly clear set of terms of opposition. The
difference between pleasure and pain, joy and grief is conceived as one between expansion and
contraction; and by extension between light (which allows extend one's vision into the world, to see
the sun and sky) and darkness (in which one's vision contracts to the immediate environs of the
self). Even more importantly, perhaps, it is an opposition between articulate speech and silence or
inarticulate rage; strings of wampum are themselves things of light, but they are also "words," that
unstop the ears and throats of those who receive them, allowing them to pass into that domain of
"self-extension" which is made possible only through language (Scarry 1985). The two possible fates
of Iroquois prisoners are a perfect expression of this: one the one hand, to have a name hung
around the neck, in the form of a string of wampum; on the other, to have red-hot axes hung around
the neck, which burn into the flesh and send the prisoner into a spiral of agony that will ultimately
lead to the ultimate contraction, that of death.
the origins of the Great Peace
In 1946, the Seneca anthropologist Arthur Parker suggested that if one wished to understand his
people's history, one had to begin by taking a cosmological perspective: that is, to see how
Iroquoians themselves place themselves in the overall history of the universe. Those of his time saw
the latter as structured around three great creative moments: the first, that of the creation of
the universe; the second, that of the creation of the League, or "Great Peace," and the third, the
reforms of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Around
each there is an extensive oral tradition. During the period we are dealing with, there would appear
to have been only two.
Iroquois legends concerning the origins of the League (Converse 1962; Hale 1883; Hewitt
1892; Parker 1916)9 always begin by describing a time when incessant feuds and warfare had laid
the country to waste. The Iroquois' ancestors had reverted to a state of savagery, fleeing to the
forests and giving themselves over entirely to murder, cannibalism, and rapine. In these stories, the
effects of their grief and rage are often figured as physical deformities: the people had literally
become monstrous. The action begins when, in the midst of all this chaos, war, and degradation, a
man named Deganawideh emerges to reform the people, by magic and persuasion, and to have them
agree to a Great Peace. The story follows him as he does so, meeting and joining forces with
Hiawatha, and creating present day Iroquois society in the process by giving names to its
constituent clans and nations. Its climax comes when the heroes are faced with most monstrous
being of all, the evil sorcerer Thadodaho, of the Onondaga—described (in Hewitt's version:
1882:138-40) as having the hands of a turtle, the feet of a bear, snakes for hair, and a penis of
many fathoms wrapped several times around his body. Rather than do battle, they offer him
thirteen strings of wampum, one after the other, accompanying each with a song. With each
presentation one of his deformities disappears, until by the end he is once again a normal human
being. The reformed Thadodaho agrees to become the fire keeper of the central Onondaga council
lodge and guardian of the League's wampum (including those very thirteen strings). Deganawideh
goes on to speak the rules of the League into wampum strings that Thadodaho will preserve, and
then disappears from the earth.
All the other protagonists of the story, including Hiawatha, remained just as the clans and
nations to which Deganawideh gave names. Thadodaho himself became the keeper of the League's
treasury of wampum belts; and ever since, whoever becomes the keeper of the treasury thereby
Note once again the parallel between the removal of grief, and the bestowal of names.
Deganawideh and Hiawatha consistently do both. One might say that in doing so they create society
in two senses: first, by creating peace, the potential for sociality that makes it possible; second, by
establishing differentiations within this newly created peace, and thereby giving society its
structure. All these primordial gestures continue to be reenacted in the present through acts of
giving wampum. As in so many mythological systems, most present-day acts are not seen as
fundamentally creative in the same sense; they are simply a matter of re-creating the same
structure of names and offices over and over again. Nonetheless, without that continual recreation,
the Great Peace would cease to exist and humanity would presumably revert again to
savagery and rage.
The climax of the myth—the reform of Thadodaho—was recapitulated in the most
important League ritual: the Condolence ceremony, held yearly to "raise up" new chiefs to replace
those who had died. Like the smaller clan rituals on which it was modeled, it consisted of a
confrontation between two moieties, one "clear-minded," the other bereaved. At the end, the clearminded
moiety would lift the others' bereavement by presenting thirteen "words," or messages,
each accompanied by a string of wampum whose pattern reproduced the message in visual form
(Hale 1883, Hewitt 1944, Parker 1926, Tooker 1978:437-40). Here, too, each string was intended to
remove some hurt or obstruction that had been the consequence of grief: to wipe away the tears
from their eyes, remove the obstruction from their ears, unstop the throat, straighten the body,
wipe the bloody stains from their beds, lift their surrounding darkness, and so on. It was only after
this that new chiefs could be raised up by giving them the strings or belts corresponding to the
dead ones' names.
If the ritual was performed in full, there would also be a recitation of the League's chiefly
names and of its constitutive regulations (Hale 1883:54-55). The belts into which Deganawideh
originally spoke the latter were kept together with the League's collection of treaty belts (treaties
that were in a sense their extensions) in the central Onondaga lodge under the care of Thadodaho.
They too were laid out one by one as elders explained their significance.
At certain seasons they meet to study their meaning, and to renew the ideas
of which they were an emblem or confirmation. On such occasions they sit down
around the chest, take out one string or belt after the other, handing it about to
every person present, and that they all may comprehend its meaning, repeat the
words pronounced on its delivery in their whole convention. By these means they are
able to remember the promises reciprocally made by the different parties; and it is
their custom to admit even the young boys, who are related to the chiefs, to. .
.become early acquainted with all the affairs of state. (Loskiel in Holmes 1883:245-
46; cf. Parker 1916:48)
Such belts were almost always woven in complex pictures, which could be interpreted as visual
statements of the words once spoken into them, but these pictures were in no sense hieroglyphics.
They were essentially mnemonics, and would have meant nothing unless interpreted by elders who
used them, as Morgan says, to "draw forth the secret records locked up in their remembrance"
(Morgan 1851:120-21; Druke 1985).
circulation and history
The Iroquois of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then, appear to have conceived
themselves as endlessly reproducing a social order that was essentially founded on the principle of
peace, even as they themselves were engaged in constant, often predatory warfare. The unusually
static conception of history—especially the conception of society as a collection of permanent,
named positions—seems only to have facilitated this, because it meant that the often sordid or
gruesome details of actual history could, as it were, be made to melt away at ritual moments when
beautiful words and beautiful objects re-created the essential foundations of society, its ultimate
Wampum became the necessary medium for this process. Now, on the face of it, this might
seem somewhat paradoxical, since wampum was, after all, not something that Iroquois society itself
produced. It came in from outside. But in a way this is only appropriate for a material that was
itself seen as carrying the power of social creativity. It turns on a common cosmological dilemma:
how can that which has the power to constitute a certain order itself partake of that same order?
(This is of course another version of the Goedelian problems discussed in chapter 3.) The origins of
Deganawideh himself were, as so often with such heroes, somewhat extra-social: he was born to a
virgin mother in a Huron village. After having constituted the social order, he then vanished; alone
among the characters of the story, he did not remain part of it.
Wampum entered Iroquois society in two principal ways. One was the fur trade. The
Iroquois became more and more central players in the trade over the course of the seventeenth
century; Dutch, French and English merchants supplied large amounts in exchange for furs. The
other was through tribute. In the wars by which the Iroquois fought against other groups to take
control of the fur trade, they also imposed very unequal treaties, obliging defeated groups to pay
what amounted to hundreds of fathoms of wampum in tribute every year. In both cases, wampum
tended to arrive already woven into belts uniform both in color and in size.10
Once it arrived, wampum appears to have been divided among important office-holders, a
class who some early sources even refer to as 'nobles"' "It is they who furnish them," wrote
Lafitau, "and it is among them that they are redivided when presents are made to the village, and
when replies to the belts of their ambassadors are sent" (Holmes 1883:244); though there are
some hints of ceremonial dances or other events in which office-holders would "cast wampum to the
spectators" or otherwise redistribute the stuff (Michelson 1974; Fenton 1998:128; Beauchamp
1898:11). But it does not really seem to have circulated in the sense of being transacted, passed
from hand to hand. Neither for that matter was it much used as a casual form of adornment
(Morgan 1851:387-88), by notables or anyone else. Instead, it was kept hidden away in chests or
pouches in its owner's longhouse until needed for some ritual or diplomatic act, whereupon the
women of the longhouse would weave it into the required patterns. Beauchamp remarks that "to
some councils they were taken almost by the bushel, over a hundred being sometimes used, but
nearly all these were afterwards taken apart or made to do duty on some other occasion." For such
league-wide events, office-holders could seem to have had the right draw on the reserves of those
they represented; afterwards, they would presumably redistribute part of what they themselves
received to the contributors. (At any rate, that was the case in diplomacy, which could involve even
more grandiose expenditures.)
Hidden wampum, then, represented a kind of potential for political action: for making peace
but also for making war. It remained invisible until something important needed to be said or done:
a speech made at council, a war-party commissioned, an agreement negotiated, a mourner consoled.
On such occasions one might make gifts of generic wampum, belts of pure white or "black" (purple).
More often, though, one gave belts made of both white and black beads woven into concrete,
particular patterns that could be displayed, one by one, as the visual complement to a speaker's
arguments. If the words were truly important, the belts could be preserved in that form, placed in
a chest but periodically brought out to be displayed and their words remembered; otherwise, they
would be cut up into their component beads and distributed again.
One can, I think, distinguish two different forms of value here, which can also be thought
of as two different ways in which wampum was similar to speech. On the one hand, the designs of
wampum used to resolve disputes or to "open up channels of communication" were as ephemeral as
ordinary conversation, but as in much ordinary conversation, what was said was not so important as
the mere fact that people were speaking to one another. Beads, as Hammel emphasized, embodied
what might be considered the ultimate value in Iroquois culture: the sense of brightness, clarity,
expansiveness, of unhindered communication with the cosmos, whose social manifestation was peace
and the unobstructed solidarity of human beings. But wampum was not simply a representation of
value. By assembling, distributing, and presenting it as soothing words to unblock the obstructions
of grief and anger in others, one actually created that peace and solidarity. Like Marx's money,
wampum was a representation of a value that could only be realized through its exchange.
On the other hand, certain "words"—certain figured belts and strings—could become
significant and memorable in themselves. Like the unique heirlooms discussed in chapter 4, their
value was either (in the form of name-belts) tied to unique personal identities, or else (in the form
of law- and treaty-belts) derived from a unique history of human action. This is presumably why,
according to Lafitau, the latter could be referred to equally as "words" or as "transactions": they
were the embodied memory of previous acts of diplomacy and peacemaking. If hidden, generic, or
ephemeral wampum was the potential to create peace, heirloom belts were peace in its crystalline
creation and intentionality
Let us imagine the history of piece of wampum, circa 1675. It was manufactured from a whelk shell
by an Algonkian somewhere on Long Island and became part of a solid white belt, which was then
passed by its manufacturer as tribute to some Dutch official. For a while the belt circulated as
money back and forth between colonists in New England in New Amsterdam, the memory of each
transaction disappearing with the next. Finally, an English trader used it to purchase the pelt of a
beaver that had been killed somewhere around Lake Michigan, from a member of the Seneca nation
who had got it from an Ojibwa trade partner. From there the belt might have passed west to the
Great Lakes, where the pelts were being extracted by tributaries of the Iroquois, and from there,
passed back to the Iroquois as tribute once again; or it might have remained in the longhouse of the
man who had sold the English trader the pelts. In any event, memory of each specific transaction
would continue to be effaced with each new one. The value of the wampum, then, derived not from
the importance of past actions but, like money, from its capacity to mediate future ones, and also,
one should add, the fact that it was the medium of a larger circuit of exchange, spanning most of
North America, a totality of interactions that continued to be reproduced through its medium.
Again like money, it was a tiny portion of a greater, undifferentiated totality. Only if the belt were
broken up and reworked into "words" would the bead's value shift from that of a potential for
future actions to that of actions already taken in the past.
Note that outside of the colonies, wampum functioned only in an anonymous fashion in
dealings between people who did not consider themselves part of the same society: a English trader
and a Seneca, and Seneca and an Ojibwa. . . In transactions between members of the same society,
or even transactions between members of different nations intended to create peace, all this
changed. Sometimes, the "words" could simply be reenactments of actions taken in the mythic past,
whether of naming or condolence. Others, however, were not simply repetitions but creative acts
that, if successful, could themselves end up memorialized Here is the twenty-third clause of the
League's Constitution, as translated by Arthur Parker in 1916:
23. Any Lord of the Five Nations Confederacy may construct shell strings
(or wampum belts) of any size or length as pledges or records of matters of national
or international importance.
When it is necessary to dispatch a shell string by a War Chief or other
messenger as the token of summons, the messenger shall recite the contents of the
string to the party to whom it is sent. That party shall repeat the message and
return the shell string and if there has been a summons he shall make ready for the
Any of the people of the Five Nations may use shells (or wampum) as a
record of a pledge, contract or an agreement. (1916:37)
The contractual language may seem a bit expostfacto, but "pledge" seems far closer to the
Iroquoian conception than "gift." True, the recipient would usually keep what was given him, but
even payments of white wampum in bloodwealth were considered "not in the nature of compensation
for the life of the deceased, but of a regretful confession of the crime, with a petition for
forgiveness" (Morgan 1851:333). A gift of wampum then revealed the intentions of the giver (when
they were not called "word," they could be described as bearing the "thought" or "mind" of the
giver: Hewitt 1892:146-48). But they did so in a form that was potentially permanent. It was the
fact that it could be kept as a memorial that made the giving of wampum a pledge of sincerity, so
that no important proposal or argument would be taken seriously without it.
The crucial moment of the act or "transaction" that was memorialized was not even so much
the giving of wampum as the mere revealing of it: it came when the speaker pulled the strings or
beads out of the pouch or basket in which they had been hidden, and placed them on the ground
before the assembly. It was an act of revelation, of bringing the invisible, intangible contents of
mind or soul into visible, physical reality. It was in a sense the quintessential creative act, by which
new political realities could be brought into being.
The connection of mind specifically with words deserves further consideration, since it
appears to have a particular relevance to the cultures of the Northeast woodlands in general, and
particularly with notions of the person. The key text here is Irving Hallowell's ( 1967) essay
on conceptions of the soul among the Ojibwa, an Algonkian people of Canada. By "soul," Ojibwa refer
to any being with a capacity for perception and intentionality. While Ojibwa assume that souls can
take many different appearances or shift from one appearance to another, the uniform kernel
behind them is never itself visible to the eye (177). On the other hand, one thing all souls do have in
common is an ability to speak, and "the only sensory mode under which it is possible for a human
being to directly perceive the presence of souls of any category, is the auditory one" (180, his
emphasis). In other words, even if souls are invisible, they always make some sort of sound.
If this sort of analysis applies to Iroquois conceptions as well (and both Hallowell and
Tooker suggest that it does)11 then words themselves can be seen as mediating between the
invisible and the visible in much the same way wampum does. They provide the necessary medium
between hidden desires and concrete, visible realities. This is very important because, I think, it
opens up the question of an underlying theory of creativity.
I have already mentioned that Iroquoian ritual is constantly marked out by thanksgiving
speeches in which the officiant proceeds to draw attention to each aspect of the cosmos that gives
humans happiness and pleasure and thanks the Creator for its existence. In these speeches,
creation itself is always treated as an act of speech. After each aspect of the cosmos listed, the
speaker comments, "this is what the Creator decided (or "intended")"—then cites his words and
confirms that these words were indeed true and continue to be true, and that for this reason we
should all be grateful. Here's a brief sample of the rhetoric:
And this is what the Creator did. He decided, "There will be plants growing
on the earth. Indeed, all of them will have names, as many plants as will be growing
on the earth. At a certain time they will emerge from the earth and mature of their
own accord. They will be available in abundance as medicines to the people moving
about on the earth." That is what he intended. And it is true: we have been using
them up to the present time. . .. And this too the Creator did. With regard to the
plants growing on the earth he decided, "There will be a certain plant on which
berries will always hang at a certain time. I shall then cause them to remember me,
the people moving about on the earth. They will always express their gratitude when
they see the berries hanging above the earth." And it is true: we see them when the
wind becomes warm again on the earth; the strawberries are indeed hanging there.
And it is also true that we use them, that we drink the berry water. That is what he
did. And it is true: it comes to pass. (Chafe 1961:17-24)
And so on with springs, forests, and animals. The image of creation is always a series of
deliberate, intentional acts.
It is important to stress that such thanksgiving speeches were (and are still) given at
virtually every important ritual occasion, so ordinary people were likely to have heard them dozens,
probably hundreds of times. This is why it is a bit surprising when one looks in collections of
Iroquois myths, and discovers that in stories about the creation of the world, the very origins of
the universe look quite different.
The myths in question were mostly gathered in the mid- to late-nineteenth century among
elderly members of several Iroquois nations and translated somewhat later (E. Smith 1883; Hewitt
1903:167, 1928:479, Converse 1908; cf. Levi-Strauss 1988:130-34.). In these stories, the original
creator/protagonist, sometimes referred to as the "Holder of the Earth," is represented simply as
the chief of a people who lived in the sky. At this time there was no sun or moon but a great tree in
the very center of the sky that provided illumination during the day and grew dim at night. This
chief, it was said, had just married a certain young woman, a young virgin. While conversing with her
outside his longhouse, their breath mingled together as they talked and she became pregnant as a
result. This certainly would suggest the chief's words had creative efficacy of a sort. However, he
does not appear to have been aware of the fertilizing properties of his own speech, because when
she later told him she was pregnant (they had not yet had sexual relations) he became profoundly
Here is the original text, in the rather annoying, stilted English that translators then felt
appropriate for myths:
It is certain, it is said, that it formed itself there where they two
conversed, where they two breathed together; that, verily, his breath is what the
maiden caught, and it is that which was the cause of the change in the life of the
maiden [that is, her pregnancy]. . .
Thus it was that, without interruption, it became more and more evident
that the maiden would give birth to a child. At that time the chief became convinced
of it, and he said: "What is the matter that thy life has changed? Verily, though art
about to have a child. Never, moreover, have thou and I shared the same mat. I
believe that it is not I who is the cause that thy life has changed. Dost thou thyself
know who it is?" She did not understand the meaning of what he said. (1908:167-68)
While the chief did not understand the power of his speech, his wife was apparently
ignorant even of what we would consider the normal mode of procreation. Eventually, she gave birth
to a daughter. By that time the chief had begun to fall ill.
His suffering became more and more severe. All the persons dwelling in the
village came to visit him. . . They questioned him repeatedly, seeking to divine his
Word, what thing, seemingly, was needful for him, what kind of thing, seemingly, he
expected through as dream. Thus, day after day, it continued that they sought to
find his Word. . . what manner of thing his soul craved. (1908:171)
Illnesses, as we shall see, were normally understood to arise from frustrated desires:
desires that were often as not unknown to their victims, or revealed only indirectly in their dreams.
The creator, we are told, called his people to assembly, announced that he had had a dream,
and asked them to "find his word"—to guess what his dream had been. Many tried and failed.
Finally, someone suggested the dream was that the great tree standing next to the chief's
longhouse had been uprooted, so that all were able to stare through the hole into the abyss below.
This, he said, was the right answer, and so the people promptly carried it out. The tree was
uprooted. The chief looked down, then invited his wife to follow suit. When she did so, he kicked
her down the hole.
The myth goes on to describe how, below, she ultimately gave birth to twins. At this point,
the original creator, not fully conscious of either his own creative abilities or destructive impulses,
seems to split in two: into one Good Twin (who seems to correspond to the creator of the
thanksgiving speeches) who does indeed create the various features of the universe and names
them, trying to construct a world amenable to mankind, and an Evil Twin trying to undo everything
his brother does. Still, the rather odd reference to guessing dreams deserves further explanation,
as it corresponds to a very important dimension of Iroquoian ritual practice.
the dictatorship of dreams
There are a series of elements that appear to me to be crucial to the story and to the underlying
theory of creativity it entails:
1) What sets off the whole sequence of events is the protagonists' fundamental ignorance
of the nature of his own powers of creation
2) This ignorance then leads to anger and aggression—though, it would seem, the
protagonist is not fully aware of this either. It appears in somewhat symbolic form: the desire to
uproot the great tree. In the symbolism of Iroquois diplomacy, at any rate, "the tree of peace" was
a symbol of the League that sat at its center, and "uprooting the tree" meant war (Jennings,
Fenton, Druke and Miller 1985:122).
3) In every case, creation cannot take place alone but only through the mediation of others.
The chief's "words" can bring things into being only through the medium of his wife (by making her
pregnant), and then through others "guessing his word" and then translating his desire into reality.
The custom of dream-guessing appears to have been an important one among all Iroquoian
peoples, and early missionary sources invariably have a great deal to say about the matter. So does
Anthony Wallace, who in 1958 wrote a famous piece on the subject, called "Dreams and Wishes of
the Soul." In 1649, for instance, a Jesuit named Ragueneau wrote of the Huron:
In addition to the desires which we generally have that are free, or at least
voluntary in us, which arise from a previous knowledge of some goodness that we
imagine to exist in the thing desired, the Hurons believe that our souls have other
desires, which are, as it were, inborn and concealed. . .
Now they believe that our soul makes these natural desires known by means
of dreams, which are its language. Accordingly, when these desires are
accomplished, it is satisfied; but, on the contrary, if it be not granted what it
desires, it becomes angry, and not only does not give its body the good and
happiness that it wished to procure for it, but often it also revolts against the body,
causing various diseases, and even death. (quoted in Wallace 1958:236)
Wallace goes over a large number of accounts of such Iroquois theories, which for obvious reasons
he compares with Freud's. To realize such dreams, though, one usually needed the help of others;
and Jesuit reports make it clear that neighbors or kin felt it was incumbent on them to comply with
all such "wishes of the soul," insofar as they were able to do so. If it was the dream of an important
person, a council might be immediately invoked to discuss its possible significance and how to realize
it. Obviously unacceptable dreams might be acted out in symbolic form: a woman who dreamed of
acquiring someone else's fields might have to make do with a gift of a few symbolic furrows; a man
who had dreamed of being tortured to death, might receive a mere token burn (cf. Wallace op cit.,
Tooker 1970, Blau 1963); but sometimes they could lead to quite elaborate and, to the missionaries,
quite shocking dramatizations, as in the example of an old sick Huron woman who dreamed all the
young men and women of the village paired off in a great orgy inside her longhouse, and whose
dream was quite literally reenacted.12
Quite frequently, these dreams seem to have focused on physical objects. This was
certainly the case during the annual dream-guessing festivals. In these, part of the midwinter rites,
people would present their dreams to one another in the form of riddles or charades—it was
important at any rate that even if understood by the dreamer, they never be stated in clear,
straightforward terms. Friends and neighbors would then offer objects, one by one, trying to
determine if these were their "soul's desire." The same could sometimes happen when a person fell
sick, and realized their illness was the result of an unfulfilled dream. The ill person—in Jesuit
accounts, it most often seems to have been a woman—might not even present a riddle, but simply
move throughout the village with her entourage, demanding that everyone guess her dream. In 1636
Le Jeune described a Huron ritual held
when some one says that they must go through the Cabins to tell what they have
dreamed. Then, as soon as it is evening, a band of maniacs goes about among the
Cabins and upsets everything; on the morrow they return, crying in a loud voice, "We
have dreamed," without saying what. Those of the Cabin guess what it is, and
present it to the band, who refuse nothing until the right thing is guessed. You see
them come out with Hatchets, Kettles, Porcelain, and like presents hung around
their necks, after their fashion. When they have found what they sought, they
thank him who has given it to them; and after having received further additions to
this mysterious present—as some leather or a shoemaker's awl, if it were a shoe—
they go away in a body to the woods, and there, outside the Village, cast out, they
say, their madness; and the sick man begins to get better. (JR 10:175-177)
Note the element of initial disruption: in other accounts, the violence is much more in the
foreground. Take Father Dablon's description of an Onondaga dream guessing festival of February
1656: as soon as the elders announced it had begun, "nothing was seen but men, women, and children
running like maniacs through the streets and cabins," most barely dressed despite the bitter cold:
Some carry water, or something worse, and throw it at those whom they meet;
others take the firebrands, coals, and ashes from the fire, and scatter them in all
directions, without heeding on whom they fall; others break the kettles, dishes, and
all the little domestic outfit that they find in their path. Some go about armed with
javelins, bayonets, knives, hatchets, and sticks, threatening to strike the first one
they meet; and all this continues until each has attained his object and fulfilled his
dream (JR 42:155-56)
Similarly, Le Jeune elsewhere writes of "bacchantes" in outlandish costumes who during each night
of the festival have "liberty to do anything, and no one dares say a word for them."
If they find kettles over the fire, they upset them; they break the earthen pots,
knock down the dogs, throw fire and ashes everywhere, so thoroughly that often the
cabins and entire villages burn down. But the point being that, the more noise and
uproar one makes, the more relief the sick person will experience. (JR 17:170)
The violent chaos, and indulgent patience on the part of the community, are followed by the actual
guessing of dreams, whether by riddles, charades, or simply a laborious process of elimination. In
most cases objects that did not turn out to be right were eventually handed back, but it would seem
that large amounts of property could sometimes change hands. "It would be cruelty, nay, murder,"
Dablon notes, "not to give a man the subject of his dream; for such a refusal might cause his death.
Hence, some see themselves stripped of their all, without any hope of retribution; for, whatever
they thus give away will never be restored to them, unless they themselves dream, or pretend to
dream, of the same thing" (JR 42:165). Dablon adds that he does not imagine this often happens,
since faking a dream was believed to lead to all sorts of terrible misfortunes. Finally, the objects
given were often seen as carrying an ongoing protective power for the dreamer; a bearskin or
deerskin given in dream-guessing ritual, for instance, would thence be regarded as a "remedy," and
used to cover the body or kept close by whenever the owner was threatened, as a kind of protective
talisman (Carheil in JR 54:65-67).
The sequence, then, is much the same as in the myth: ignorance (the dream indicates
something the dreamer had not even been aware that he or she desired), aggression (the wild
threats and destruction of the evening), and the need for others to transform one's desires into
Not all dreams expressed merely desires of the soul. In some it was not entirely clear
whether the inspiration was from the dreamer's own soul or from a deity called the "Holder of the
Skies," and also "Master of our Lives"—apparently the Creator in a particular aggressive aspect
(Tooker 1970:86-88): this seems to be the reason why the dreams of important people were often
considered matters of national concern. Or even of decisive import in political debates: Brebeuf
claims that "if a Captain speaks one way and a dream another, the Captain might shout his head off
in vain,—the dream is first obeyed" (JR 10:169). One rather doubts, though, that the same dream
would weigh so heavily no matter who it was who had it.
Finally, there were also what Wallace calls "visitation dreams" (1967:61) in which gods or
spirits would appear to announce news, predict the course of future events, create new rituals, or
even establish new guidelines for the storage of crops. Two oft-cited examples are that of a Huron
woman who had been, contrary to custom, married away to another village, and who encountered the
Moon in the form of a beautiful woman: she revealed herself to be the lord of all the Hurons,
declared her love the dreamer, and announced that she wished her to be dressed entirely in red and
to receive tribute from all the Huron allies in a great feast that, she ordered, was also to be
repeated henceforth by other villages and nations; and the sick, "disfigured" Onondaga warrior who
on his return from an unsuccessful expedition against the Erie announced he had encountered the
Creator in the form of a dwarf, who demanded he be given two women and that dogs, wampum, and
food from each longhouse be offered in sacrifice to ensure future victories (the first LeJeune in
JR 17:165-87; the latter in Dablon, JR 42:195-97). Iroquoian societies at the time appear to have
been open to constant ritual innovation, and great new cosmological truths seem to have been
revealed in dreams on a regular basis, usually only to fade away almost as soon as they appeared.
Midwinter ceremonial and the white dog sacrifice
It's not always easy to square the sketchy and often sensationalistic accounts of Iroquois ritual to
be found in early missionary sources with the meticulous descriptions compiled since the nineteenth
century. For example, the wintertime "Feast of Dreams" mentioned by several early authors was
clearly part of what is now called the Midwinter Ceremonial (Tooker 1970), the Iroquois New Year
and the most important event of the present-day ritual calendar. In most Iroquois communities, the
midwinter rites continue to involve dream-guessing, but the general tenor of the ritual has obviously
changed a great deal in the intervening centuries. Spontaneous dream-guessing seems to have
The most striking of these changes is the degree to which what was obviously an extremely
free-form and improvisational process has since become tamed and formalized. The "language" of
dreams has now become codified, and dramatic reenactments no longer occur; instead, there is an
established code of what dreams are significant and an elaborate series of correspondences with
certain foods and miniature talismans that are considered appropriate gifts for each. The best
account is Harold Blau's description (1963; cf. Beauchamp 1888, ) of the Midwinter dream-guessing
rituals among the New York Onondaga in the early 1960s. The Onondaga nation is divided, like most
Iroquoians, into two moieties; at the height of the ceremony, each moiety takes its turn presenting
its dreams to the other in the form of riddles and guessing those of the other side by offering the
equivalent sorts of food; once a dream is guessed correctly, the dreamer moves back to his own
moiety's assembly house, where a member of his own moiety has to guess correctly too; both will
later provide appropriate gifts. For instance, a man who dreamed of playing lacrosse might end up
with a pound of sugar and a tiny model lacrosse stick. Similarly there are all sorts of other symbolic
tokens, miniature versions of the real object of desire: animals, canoes, sleds, false-face masks and
any number of other things, which the dreamer will normally keep afterward as her personal amulet
The climax of this ritual involves a fascinating set of inversions. After about a hundred
dreams have been guessed, a man impersonating the Creator himself enters and offers his own
riddles to the people of both moieties. The answer though is always the same. In the nineteenth
century, the Creator's desire was for the sacrifice of two dogs, which were first strangled, then
immolated, painted white, and festooned in belts of white wampum. These appear to have been
substitutes for the death of war prisoners, who were, in a certain sense, seen as offerings to the
Creator. Since 1885, even the dog sacrifice has been abandoned, and the Creator is offered
tobacco and white ribbons instead (Hale 1885; Hewitt 1910b, 1910c; Speck 1946:145-46; Blau 1964;
Tooker 1965, 1970:41-47, 102-103, 128-41). The sacrifice is marked by any number of inversions on
the usual relation between Creator and humanity. Where normally people perform thanksgiving
speeches and songs to celebrate creation, here the Creator himself sings a song of thanksgiving (it
isn't clear to whom); where normally the thanksgiving speech emphasizes the truth of the Creator's
words, here the sacrificers declare they are making the offer "to prove their words are true."
Finally, according to Fenton's informants, "the white dog which is sacrificed to the Creator. . .is a
dream token from all the people to the Creator and it becomes his guardian" (1942:17).
So we are back where we started: with a dreaming god who once again seems slightly
confused about his own role in the process of creation, and who (therefore?) ends up mixing urges
for destruction in his creativity.
This is not what I mainly want to emphasize, though. What really interests me is the
underlying theory of creativity and its relation to conceptions of the person. We have already
encountered two aspects of the latter: on the one hand, the formal, Maussian persona, which among
the Five Nations was embodied in the eternal name; the second, the inner "soul," or seat of desires.
One was embodied in visible tokens such as wampum, while the other was fundamentally invisible and
perceptible mainly through dreams and voices. Both were to a certain degree exterior to
consciousness, but exterior, one might say, in opposite directions: one a social imposition, the other,
desires so intimate even the desirer was not entirely aware of them.
Dreams were the desires of this inner soul, or "the language" in which those hidden, invisible
desires could begin to take visual form. What Wallace stresses, though, is that this process, by
which hidden desires could become visible, manifest, and specific, finally taking on permanent
material form—could happen only through the participation of others. "Dreams are not to brood
over, to analyze, and to prompt lonely and independent action; they are to be told, or at least hinted
at, and it is for other people to be active" (247). In other words, the hidden can become visible (or
the generic specific) only by the individual becoming social (or the specific, generic). This social
action reaches its highest form in the midwinter dream-guessing, in which the entire community is
mobilized to bring material being to each other's dreams. If gifts people give on such occasions are
kept and treasured as talismans and guardians, it must be because they are not only material tokens
of the hidden content of a person's mind but also embodiments of the protective action of others.
Wallace places a psychological spin on all this; understandably enough, considering the
nature of the material and the direction of American anthropology at the time. Iroquoian societies
combined a very indulgent attitude toward children, with extreme psychological pressures on adults.
Children were never to be punished; to frustrate a powerful desire in a child might endanger their
health. Adults, on the other hand, especially men, were held to high standards of generosity,
bravery, and above all stoic impassivity in the face of hardship. Even those tortured to death were
expected to, and generally did, face their fate with a show of utter equanimity. Iroquois dreamtherapy
gave one a chance to be indulged in a similar way by society as a whole; the closest
contemporary equivalent to the great dream feasts are the antics of the false face societies,
whose members are also privileged at certain times to wreak havoc among people's houses, playing
practical jokes, begging, tossing things around, and who are indulged like whimsical children. They
represent the same psychological complex: "a longing to be passive, to beg, to be an irresponsible,
demanding, rowdy infant, and to compete with the Creator himself; and to express it all in the name
of the public good" (Wallace 1967:93).
It's also possible to look at the same phenomena from the perspectives sketched out in the
first half of this book: how forms of value emerge to regulate a process which is ultimately about
the creation of people. The Midwinter Ceremonial was also a time for the naming of children and
consolation of mourners; and condolence, like dream-guessing, was something for which one needed
the services of the opposite moiety.14
Generally speaking, moiety structures are a way of creating imaginary totalities: if both
"sides" are present at a ritual, then in a sense society as a whole is present. Such totalities are both
constructed out of, and serve as the means to reproduce, relations within whatever domestic units
make up that society's basic building blocks. In the Iroquois case these were of course matrilineal
longhouses, each organized around a core of women, and in which women appear to have made all the
most important decisions. Dream-guessing does not seem to have been particularly marked for
gender one way or the other in early times, but now it seems to have passed largely into the hands
of men; condolence was always very much a male concern, one in which women played little part.
Still, it was in the longhouses that the most important forms of labor took place, and therefore it is
all the more frustrating that we don't have all that much detail about how they were organized.
Still, Wallace's observations on socialization are useful here, particularly his emphasis on the
combination of indulgence of whims and the gradual process of "hardening" children (for instance by
intentionally leaving them underdressed in winter, and occasionally dunking them in cold streams.)
The two modes seem to represent opposite poles of the same process, meant to produce highly
autonomous adults, as one might expect in a society that seemed to place a roughly equal stress on
egalitarianism and individualism.
Both dream-guessing and condolence are clearly modeled on this labor of socialization. In
each case, members of one moiety provide nurturant care for the other. They are similar in other
ways as well. In each case, the focus is on the psychological condition of individuals, which are full
of dire possibilities: frustrated desires can kill, and the grief of mourning can drive the mourner
entirely insane. In fact, one could go further: in each case, nurturant care was set against a strong
undercurrent of (at least potential) violence. The violence is most explicit in the Jesuit accounts of
dream-guessing, in which the dreamers go about at night attacking people, scattering fires, and
destroying furniture;15 but even if it's not dramatized in the same way in condolence rituals, this is
because it doesn't really have to be: the whole point of the proceedings is to lift away emotions
that can lead to the desire for revenge and terrifying projects of war and cruelty. In each case,
finally, objects change hand between the two sides that are, or become, probably the most
treasured tokens of value known to Iroquoian society.
From another perspective, dream-guessing and condolence might be said to represent two
opposite movements in the construction of the person. The first is about the realization of the
most intimate fantasies and desires of individuals, though this can only be achieved through the
help of others—in fact, insofar as dreams have to be guessed by the opposite moiety, achieved only
by society as a whole. Condolence, of course, is set off not by individual desires but by the
dissolution of the individual in death: in all Iroquoian societies, one of the main tasks of moieties is
to bury one another's dead. It is also about the creation of sociality and what endures despite the
death of the individual. Wampum is the prime medium through which that enduring life of society is
re-created: both through condolence itself and the giving of names. If dream-guessing is about how
the individual can only be realized through the mediation of society, then one might say the
resurrection of names is about how society itself cannot continue to exist except through the
mediation of individuals. Hence the objects that pass back and forth between moieties in each case:
in the former, the very most particular, in the latter, the very most generic.
Hence the difference between the essential models of creativity involved in each. In one,
the object reveals the mind, or "word" of the giver; in the other, it reveals the mind, or "word" of
Not everything moves across moiety lines, however. In each case there was a complementary
gift from within one's own moiety. In the Onondaga Midwinter Ceremonial, once someone of the
opposite moiety guesses one's dreams, the guess has to be confirmed by someone from one's own.
Both parties end up giving gifts, though it is the one from the other side who provides the actual
talisman; one's own matrilineal relatives merely provide an equivalent variety of food: a bag of corn,
a sack of sugar, and so on. In other words, a relatively generic gift complements a relatively
specific one. In the matter of condolence it was even more extreme, since while condolence itself is
something that one "clear-minded" moiety must carry out for its opposite ("the mourners"), the
subsequent transfer of names occurs not only within one's own moiety but within one's matriclan.
And while one is an affair of men, the other is conducted exclusively by women: even in the case of
the most important federal chiefs, it is a female council that chooses the successor. In this case, in
other words, one's matrilineal kin provide a relatively specific gift (a unique name) to complement a
relatively generic one (the standardized gifts of even more standardized wampum) provided by
If these complementary gifts have anything in common, it is that they are comparatively
straightforward; gifts of food or names seem to lack the overtones of peril and violence that
always seem to lurk behind relations between moieties. It seems to me this is the key to the nature
of the moieties themselves. Tradition has it that Iroquois moieties were once exogamous (Morgan
1851:83, Fenton 1951:46, Tooker 1970:23). If so, this doesn't seem to have been the case for some
time—one is now forbidden only to marry members of one's own clan—but even if Iroquois moieties
were never actually exogamous, it seems important that people believe they were. Lynn Ceci
(1982:102-103) points to an Iroquois myth of the origins of wampum that is also a myth of the
origins of exogamy: a young warrior from an enemy tribe is the only one able to kill a magical bird
covered with wampum. He marries the local chief's daughter, and distributes the beads between his
own and his wife's people as a way of establishing peace (E. Smith 1883:78-79). But as Ceci notes,
normally it was exogamy itself that created peace, "since in this way young hunter-warriors are
dispersed among their in-laws" (103). Iroquois marriage really could be considered an exchange of
potentially dangerous young men between largely self-sufficient groups of women.16 Hence it would
only make sense that in the larger, "political" relations between moieties, these same men—and
especially older men—adopted forms of ritual action modeled on the work of primary socialization,
as a way of overcoming the potential for violence and disruption that ultimately originated in
All of this might help to explain one otherwise curious feature of wampum. Parker (1916:46)
claims that in League Belts, white beads represent the League's women, the purple or "black" ones,
its men. This is not surprising in itself: by all accounts it was the white beads that embodied the
values of "light and life" that made wampum suited for its political role—black ones, by contrast,
represented its opposite, the negative values of grief, mourning, anger, and war, the last at least
considered a male domain (Holmes 1883:241; cf. Hammel 1992). The curious thing is that despite
embodying an essentially feminine virtue, wampum was one of the few important forms of property
in Iroquoian society that women did not control.18 Houses, fields, food, most tools, and household
implements—even such items as the brass kettles that were one of the earliest and most important
trade item acquired from Europeans (Turgeon 1997)—were either owned by individual women, or
owned by collective groups like longhouses or clans, in which women played the most important roles.
While women actually wove the beads together, outside of certain limited forms such as name belts,
belts and strings circulated almost exclusively among men.
This might be considered a final way in which actions taken on the political sphere of
peacemaking inverted those typical of that below: Iroquois kinship, after all, was largely a matter of
groups of women exchanging men; politics, of men exchanging an essentially feminine substance. But
one can also see it as the result of a necessary and inevitable tension in any philosophy of society
that sees "peace" as the ultimate human value. Granted, the Iroquois defined peace about as
broadly as one possibly could: as Paul Wallace put it, peace was "the Good expressed in action"
(1946:7), an expression of "wisdom and graciousness" as well as a joyous unity with the cosmos. It
was, as a Dumontian might say, the ultimate, encompassing value, since it was about the relation of
humans to the cosmos as a whole, the ultimate "imaginary totality". Yet logically, it was entirely
premised on the prior existence of its opposite. Without war, "peace" is meaningless. In a sense,
then, the wampum belts themselves—or, perhaps more accurately, the process of weaving them
together—was itself a model of the process it was meant to mediate, one constantly reproduced in
ritual: of converting the potential for destruction into harmony by integrating it into a larger social
Let me finish with a few words of historical context.
The basic structure described in the last section appears to be very old. This is probably
true both of the fundamental forms of producing people and their ritual refractions: something like
dream-guessing, and something like condolence, were probably being practiced among the speakers
of Iroquoian languages long before the first foreign ships began appearing offshore. The same no
doubt goes for the concrete tokens of value that emerged from them: people were no doubt
treasuring dream-tokens and using bright objects derived from faraway places in peacemaking for
quite some time as well.
On the other hand, it was only in the late seventeenth or even early eighteenth century that
wampum became the universal medium of diplomacy, and probably in the nineteenth century that the
language of dreams was largely reduced to a matter of symbolic tokens. In fact, the one thing that
really jumps out at one reading the Jesuit relations and other sources from the same period is just
how open-ended such things were, especially in comparison with the careful ceremonial etiquette of
later times. Of course, this has something to do with the nature of the sources. But it also seems to
reflect a genuine change.
European merchant and fishing vessels—French, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, English, and
Basque—began appearing off the northeast coast of North America in the 1500s, and with them
came trade goods: glass beads, but also brass kettles and steel axes, which seem to have spread
quite quickly. It was only in the next century, however, when European settlements began to be
established and Amerindian societies drawn into the global fur trade, that one can speak of the
beginnings of a dependant economy in the familiar sense of the term. The Huron Confederacy and
then the Five Nations were soon dependent on Europeans for their tools, domestic equipment,
clothing, weapons, even foodstuffs, all of which was obtained in exchange for a single product: fur.
They were dependent on goods got through commercial transactions with outsiders in order to
maintain their society, but within that society, regimes of property and distribution remained
Within the Huron community, there were no commercial transactions,
properly speaking. Goods acquired were spontaneously shared within lineages (or
segments of clans). This generalized practice of giving insured equality and
accounted for the disdain with which the accumulation of goods was viewed; it
governed the rules of courtesy at all times as well as the Huron penchant for games
of chance, contributions to feasts, rituals, and carnivals, and the obligation to
satisfy any desire expressed by a member of the community. As a result, there were
no sellers nor buyers among the Hurons, neither commanders nor commanded,
neither rich nor poor. . . 'On returning from their fishing, their hunting, and their
trading, they exchange many gifts; if they have thus obtained something unusually
good, even if they have bought it, or if its has been given to them, they make a feast
to the whole village with it. Their hospitality towards all sorts of strangers is
remarkable'. (Delâge 1993:52-53)
Delâge argues that among the Huron, new regimes of property and the possibility of
personal accumulation, really emerged only among converts to Christianity; among the Five Nations,
they do not seem to have emerged at all. However, it's hard to avoid the temptation to interpret
the dramatic intensity of some of the Jesuit accounts—games in which people would bet all their
personal possessions, down to their very clothes; rituals in which domestic property was smashed,
and houses often burned down, in which huge amounts of wealth could change hands in order to
indulge someone's dream—as arising to some degree in reaction to this situation. It is probably not
entirely coincidental that the "Hatchets, Kettles, and Porcelain" hung around dreamers' necks in
Lejeune's account were probably the three most important items of import during the first century
One might argue, as Delâge seems to, that this was the morality of a hunting economy, or at
least one in which people's main experience of a sudden windfall is of large quantities of meat.
Trade goods, which were themselves acquired in exchange for animals, were treated in much the
same way. Still, factors like dream-guessing and the apparently constant appearance of new
revelations and prophets leave one with the impression of a society of enormous instability, in which
almost everything, in a sense, was potentially up for grabs. No doubt if one were living there at the
time, one would discover an endless game of political maneuvering between women and men, young
warriors and elders, young women and old matrons, those with access to foreign wealth and more
traditional authorities, and so on. Of course, such struggles always exist in any society, but here
the usual comparatively gentle tugging back and forth seems to have turned into a situation burst
wide open, a poker game in which half the cards had suddenly been made wild.
I don't think the phrase "dream economy" is entirely inappropriate here: at least, it
captures something of its combination of absolute unpredictability and ephemerality. Radical
moments seem to have flickered away almost as quickly as they appeared.
There is a more common pattern here, one that has tended to be obscured a bit by the way
anthropologists have approached the question of culture change. A key concept has been the
"revitalization movement," a term that, in fact, was coined by Anthony Wallace (1956) with Iroquois
history very much in mind. At times of extreme cultural disruption, the argument goes, one often
finds the emergence of prophets with self-conscious projects of cultural reformation, the paradigm
being the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake who, in the years of the Six Nations' defeat and
demoralization following the American Revolution, came forward with what might be considered the
final, definitive dream-revelation: a new moral code mixing Quaker and Iroquoian elements, which
among other things placed Iroquois males back firmly in control of their nations' economic and
political life. The kind of tumultuous world described in the Jesuit accounts, then, tends to be seen
simply as the years leading up to revitalization movements—which, if the situation becomes truly
desperate, can take the extreme form of millenarian cults and expectations of the immanent
destruction of the world.
There are other ways to look at this. Many anthropologists and historians have noted the
remarkable bursts of cultural creativity that so often occur during the first generation or two
after many traditional societies are suddenly integrated into a larger world economy. If the
conditions are right—if the group maintains some degree of political autonomy and happens to be in
a relatively advantageous position in relation to the market—the result can be a spectacular
expansion and enrichment of existing cultural forms: of art, architecture, drama, ritual, exchange.
Often such a result is referred to as a cultural renaissance. It's not the best possible term,
perhaps, since the notion of "rebirth" implies that something was previously moribund, or dead.
Still, an analogy to, say, the Italian Renaissance is not entirely inappropriate: that too was made
possible at least partially by the newfound wealth of cities in the process of being integrated into a
larger world economy, much of which was invested in fairly self-conscious projects of cultural
renewal, both inventing and elaborating traditions as they did so. For anthropological parallels: the
Kwakiutl renaissance of roughly 1875 to 1920 is probably the most famous, along with the
efflorescence of Highland New Guinea exchange systems like te and moka during the 1950s and
'60s; or, to take a less familiar example, of Malagasy mortuary art and ritual around the same time.
Examples are legion. What they all seem to have in common is that despite the intense social
struggles that so often give them force, new means are mainly being put to very old ends; more
specifically, a vast flow of new resources is put to the task of pursuing traditional forms of value.
Such situations rarely last more than fifty years or so; the boot comes down eventually, in
one form or another.
The kind of "dream economy" one encounters in the American Northeast in the 1600s, then,
might be considered a darker possibility. In some ways it seems the sociocultural equivalent of a
bubble economy, in which vast fortunes are made and lost overnight, but especially, in the at least
implicit awareness that bubbles always burst. Or even more, perhaps, one might imagine the wartime
economy of a probably doomed city, in which vast amounts of wealth can be scammed or stolen one
day, then gambled away the next. The seventeenth century was, after all, a period that combined
newfound sources of wealth, and a newfound dependency, with absolutely unprecedented epidemics,
famines, and genocidal wars. Most of the population between Pennsylvania and Quebec died; during
the beaver wars alone, the Petun, Neutrals, Susquahannock, Mohicans, and Hurons, among others,
were destroyed as political entities, their populations massacred, scattered, or incorporated into
rival societies. It would be surprising if some of this insecurity was not internalized in the life of
the societies themselves.
It did so, one might say, in rather the way a theorist of commoditization might predict:
through an emphasis on individual self-realization. But it was individual self-realization in profoundly
different cultural terms.
Wampum took on its overwhelming importance only toward the end of this period, and
primarily among the Five Nations, as they were in the process of either destroying or incorporating
all the others. At this point, wampum, as the currency of the fur trade, could be seen as the very
symbol of their growing dependency and of what had caused the region to collapse into a state that
must have seemed increasingly reminiscent of the chaos described in the Deganawideh epic. The
number of wampum beads in circulation by 1650 has been estimated as high as three million (Richter
1992:85), and they became one of the great media for the Iroquois' great political project of the
times, what Matthew Dennis (1993) has described as "cultivating a landscape of peace" by gathering
all the region's people together in the structure of the League. Doing so of course involved the
endless repetition of the very precise etiquette of condolence, a spirit obviously very different
from that of dream-guessing. But by converting the money of the trade, the very stuff of violence,
into the potential to create peace, League office-holders were following an ancient ritual logic. And
the beads themselves, as they moved back and forth between abstract potential and concrete
forms, also created a bridge between a commercial system dedicated to the accumulation of
material objects, and a social system whose great imperative had increasingly become the
accumulation of people: effected, most often, by throwing a belt of wampum around a captives
shoulders and thus giving them a name.
1 "Mohawk" in fact is from an Algonkian word meaning "cannibal". "Iroquois" seems to be
derived from one for "killer".
2 This was the period in which wampum was no longer playing the role of currency among
settlers: as of circa 1652-54, it was no longer recognized as legal tender in the English colonies.
The Dutch kept using it, but the English then began to dump supplies for fur and Dutch goods to
create a severe inflation in the New Netherlands.
3 Among the Huron, at least, there was one aspect of a person's "soul" that was said to be reborn
when the name was resurrected; another that ascended to an otherworldly village of the dead
(Heidenreich 1978:374-75). I have not been able to find any information exactly paralleling this
from Iroquois sources.
4 Later a sixth, the Tuscarora, was added on, but only in a subordinate, nonvoting capacity.
5 Whether through giving him the victim's name (as with the Huron) or through the giving of a
belt, we are not told.
6 Eric Wolf makes a great point of this (1982:168-70): in no major conflict in which they were
involved did all of the nations of the league even take the same side.
7 In the absence of wampum, other gifts could be substituted, such as hatchets or beaver pelts
(Snyderman 1954:474; Druke 1985). The crucial thing was that some object had to change
hands. But all sources agree that wampum was the proper gift; at times, parties to negotiations
who did not have any wampum on hand would simply give sticks as a pledge for wampum to be
8 The formal speeches may have been inspired to some degree by missionary influence (Fenton,
personal communication, 1999), but almost all Iroquois rituals can be seen as thanksgiving
rituals in one way or another.
9 For two recent treatments of the epic, with full background on the various extant
versions, see Dennis 1993, chapter 3; Fenton 1998, chapters 5-6.
10 One purple belt was worth two white ones, since the purple beads were more rare. In exchange
with European settlers the logic of supply and demand still held, so white beads were worth less,
despite the fact that they were held to convey the highest value in Iroquoian terms. Over time
most of the pelts arrived as tribute as well.
11 Hallowell 1960:52; Elisabeth Tooker (1979b) agrees.
12 Some dreams implied dangers not just for the dreamer but the community as a whole, or
alternately were seen as prophecies: hence, if a man dreamed of being burned to death by
enemies, it was often felt necessary to carry out some kind of milder version of this fate, so as to
prevent it from happening for real. I note in this case the desire appears to be not the dreamer's
soul but the Creator's.
13Wallace too notes that the "soul," the inner invisible aspect of the person is identified with
intentions and desires, though the terms for this are continuous with those for the talismans given
to satisfy them (Hewitt 1885:113).
14 This is most explicit among the Onondaga (Blau 1962) but appears to be a general principle
even in places where dream-guessing is no longer such an important part of the ceremonies (e.g.,
Fenton 1936:17-18, Speck 1949:122, Shimony 1961:182-83).
15 It's much less pronounced in contemporary material; it appears primarily in the antics of the
False Face society, whose members were drafted by means of dreams on a cross-moiety basis
(e.g., Fenton 1936:17).
16 For example, a young man's brothers would probably be scattered across different
clans and his father would belong to the opposite moiety.
17 Though of course women could also be the immediate cause of war, since when
someone died, it was usually their female relatives who would demand a mourning war
(cf. Dennis 1993:109-10).
18 The obvious exceptions were name belts and strings; still, the more generic forms, the closest
to the raw power to create political realities, seem to have been exchanged almost entirely