#36 The First Death: Matavilye, and Suicide in Childbirth, Weaning, and Twins

It is a basic Mohave tenet that all possible events in life, as well as all beliefs, customs, and rituals constituting culture, were established during the period of creation, usually by means of a mythical precedent.

The mythical origin of death. – The precedent for all deaths, from any cause whatsoever, was set by Matavilye. He decided that man had to be mortal, lest the earth should become so crowded that people would have to void their excreta on each other. He was in the primal house when he resolved to die, so as to set a precedent. He was ill at that time and felt the need to defecate. Rising from his bed, he headed toward the door and, according to the Yuma version, on passing near his daughter, he deliberately touched her genitals. According to the Yuma account, it was this act which exasperated his daughter, while according to the Mohave account she was offended because her father wished to void his stools. Be that as it may, the daughter, who was also the first witch, immediately dived into the ground, emerged exactly under her father, and, by swallowing his excreta, bewitched him. Shortly thereafter Matavilye died, as he intended to die, thereby bringing death into being….

If one examines this account, the following points help one to understand the place of suicide in Mohave culture:

  • The first death, which is the cause and prototype of all deaths on earth, was due to an act of will: Matavilye decided to die. Otherwise expressed, the prototypal death was a vicarious suicide….

… There exists a radical difference between murder and suicide on the one hand and death from natural causes, such as old age, on the other hand. This difference consists in the fact that it is possible to die of illness or of old age without either imagining or accepting the fact of death, whereas, at least in the human being, both murder and suicide presuppose the idea of death and its acceptance. It is suggested that this fact suffices to explain why intellectual explanations of the origin of death – even when they are heavily tainted with fantasy, as in myths concerning the origin of death – tend to favor theories, hypotheses, and mythical occurrences which include the psychic representation of death and the acceptance of the idea of death, and therefore view either suicide or murder, or some intermediate model, such as the Mohave myth of the death of Matavilye, which blends murder and suicide into a unified whole, as the basic prototype of death….

The Mohave apply the term suicide to the following occurrences:

(1) Certain stillbirths, with or without the simultaneous death of the mother, which are believed to be caused either by the spontaneous unwillingness of a future shaman to be born, or else by the fact that the bewitched nonshamanistic fetus was taught by a witch “the fatal trick” of killing both itself and its mother at birth.

(2) The death of a suckling who, because its mother is pregnant once more, has to be weaned suddenly and therefore allegedly makes itself sick from spite.

(3) The death of one or both twins either at birth or at any time before they get married.

(4) The symbolic or social pseudo-suicide of a man who, on marrying a kinswoman, consents to his own partial social death by allowing a horse to be killed at his wedding. The death of the horse (= bridegroom) supposedly dissolves the bonds of kinship between the future spouses, and enables a “new boy” to marry the “former” kinswoman.

(5) A bewitched person may actually wish to become the victim of the beloved witch and may therefore refuse to cooperate with his or her therapist.

(6) An aging witch may overtly or tacitly incite the relatives of his victims to kill him, so that he can join – and permanently retain his hold over – the beloved ghosts of his victims.

(7) A warrior, weary of life, may deliberately stray alone into enemy territory, in order to be killed.

(8) Funeral suicide.

(9) Real suicide.

…It is psychologically interesting that no language (so far as I know) has a special root-word denoting suicide. This suggests that, both historically and psychologically, the concept of self-killing is derived from the concept of killing someone else….

In Mohave, real suicide cannot be designated in less than two words, and vicarious suicide in less than three words….

… Generally speaking, the Mohave condemn suicide, and seek to prevent it by all means at their disposal. On the other hand, they do not disapprove to the same extent of all forms of suicide, the intensity of their disapproval being, to a large extent, determined by the actual or imputed causes of the suicidal act. Moreover, even though the Mohave disapprove wholeheartedly of suicide per se, they are quite capable of being lenient toward those individuals whose suicidal motivation seems more or less “adequate” and “reasonable” to them – i.e., toward those with whose despair they are able to empathize….

The suicide of stillborn children is deplored, since it interferes with the perpetuation of the tribe….

The suicide of forcibly weaned babies is viewed somewhat more critically. The sick baby suffering from a weaning trauma is admonished not to be jealous of its unborn sibling and not to begrudge another Mohave the chance to be born.

The suicide of twins elicits a rather ambivalent reaction. On the one hand, in accordance with the theory that twins are heavenly visitors, the Mohave blame those who have offended the twins. On the other hand, however, in accordance with the theory that twins are acquisitive ghosts who return to earth for additional funeral gifts and property, the Mohave blame twins for being overly sensitive and demanding and admonish them to be more tolerant and patient.

The symbolic social suicide of a man who marries his cousin is criticized not so much because it is a form of suicide, but because such a marriage disturbs the smooth functioning of the intratribal system of kin and gens exogamy and also because it jeopardizes the survival of the incestuous couple’s entire extended kin.

The willing victims of witches, who refuse to cooperate with their therapists, are blamed for their foolish compliance with the wishes of murderous witches.

The vicarious suicide of witches is viewed as the inevitable consequence of their personality makeup and of their nefarious activities. Hence, persons not related to a slain witch sometimes overtly express their satisfaction over the slaying of the witch…. In fact, whenever the guilt of the witch is generally accepted, his own relatives often refuse either to protect him or to avenge him. Thus, the Mohave Indians’ disapproval of such witches is not due primarily to their vicarious suicidal behavior; they are criticized for being witches. On the other hand, when the slain shaman is not believed to be a witch, he is sincerely pitied… and his killers are condemned. An unjustly accused shaman, who commits suicide is, likewise, pitied rather than blamed….

The suicidally motivated straying of senior warriors into enemy territory is viewed as behavior compatible with the character structure of braves, who know that they are not meant to reach old age….

Here, as in many other contexts, the “official” Mohave reaction seems to be: “It is their nature; they can’t help it.” Yet there are indications that this superficial tolerance masks quite a lot of resentment, since the lost warrior’s male relatives sometimes frustrate the attempts of a shaman to discover, with the help of a medium, his fate and whereabouts.

Funeral suicides elicit a rather complex reaction: while the attempt itself is, more or less, a minor custom, it is not one which has the unambivalent backing of Mohave society. The suicidal attempt of a widow… was ridiculed, because her subsequent marriage allegedly proved her gesture to have been hollow exhibitionism. A father who threw himself on the pyre of his son, whom his nagging had driven to suicide… was criticized more because of his cruelty toward his son than because of his suicidal gesture.

Finally, males attempting to commit funeral suicide are criticized more than females, since funeral suicide is viewed as a typically feminine gesture.

Real suicides are condemned more consistently than other types of suicide. This disapproving attitude is present – at least in theory – even where explicit cognizance is taken of the fact that the suicide has been seriously wronged. This, however, simply means that the Mohave criticize not only the suicide, but also those who have wronged him. The suicidal person is considered “weak” or “crazy” and is said to lack the Mohave Indian’s traditional strength of character and stoicism….

In addition to being called “weak and crazy,” the person who commits suicide is also blamed for being stubborn, since he refuses to listen to well-meaning persons who try to comfort him and to dissuade him from killing himself [… as are others …] for causing grief to their relatives and to the community.

Yet… the Mohave… is far from consistent in his attitude….

On the whole, no great significance should be attached to the Mohave view that suicides are objectionable simply because they are weak enough to experience extreme psychic distress. This attitude is nearly always voiced only in the form of general statements about suicide. Thus… whenever a concrete case was discussed [… every Mohave] nearly always added a word of regret, made a more or less lame attempt to justify the suicide, or tried at least to arouse compassion for the person who killed himself.

Finally, there is a marked difference in the Mohave Indian’s reaction to those who kill themselves because their feelings were hurt in some manner, and to those who kill themselves because they grieve over the death of a brother or relative. The latter are hardly ever described as “crazy” or “weak,” perhaps because the idea of following the dead to the land of ghosts pervades many aspects of Mohave culture….

…The Mohave view of the white suicide is quite uncharitable and therefore clearly reflects the intensity of his basic condemnation of suicide, even if one makes allowances for the fact that, in Mohave opinion, nearly everything a white does is necessarily bad.

The chief difference between the Mohave Indian’s evaluation of the suicide of a white person, and of that of a Mohave is that, in his opinion, the Mohave suicide regrettably failed to live up to both ideal and (supposedly) real Mohave standards, whereas the white who killed himself acted in a manner which is (supposedly) precisely what one can expect from members of a characterologically and ethically defective group, which consistently fails to live up even to the most basic standards of human ( = Mohave) dignity. …In brief, whereas the Mohave suicide is viewed as a maladjusted member of an ethical society, the white suicide is held to be a fully adjusted member of an unethical society.

[#36] Mojave: “The First Death: Matavilye, and Suicide in Childbirth, Weaning, and Twins,” from George Devereux, Mohave Ethnopsychiatry and Suicide: The Psychiatric Knowledge and the Psychic Disturbances of an Indian Tribe. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 175, Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1961, pp. 286-289, 291, 308-312, 331-333, 336-341, 344-345, 348-354.


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