Women in Kogi society

‘In the beginning there were no animals, no plants. Only the sea. The sea was the Mother. The Mother was not people, she was not anything at all. She was when she was, spirit. She was memory and possibility. She was alúna.’


I use the above quote as an introduction because the role of the feminine principle in Kogi thinking must be fundamental to women’s status and position in society. Although Kogi cosmology is complicated, and its exegesis poses problems for the Western mind, yet one thing is clear - before there was anything at all, there was the Mother. Although the priestly ruling class is predominantly male, all Kogi believe that the source of all life is Gaulcovang. Gaulcovang is the Great Mother, the origin of all things, occasionally referred to as Spider Woman. She appears in various guises in her own creation - for instance as Hába Guxsénse, she is the mother of fire, or as Hába Sívalidsínue she is the mother of the snowfields. In the above quote, Gaulcovang is equated with alúna, but she is not always seen as directly related with this concept. Other references describe her as a beautiful naked woman with long black hair, sitting upon a black stone at the bottom of the sea; or as an invisible force floating upon the dark primeval waters. Still others say that, on the earliest mythic time level, the Mother appeared in the shape of a huge black serpent that encircled the sea, or in some contexts the Mother is seen as a huge black bird that laid the cosmic egg. In whatever form she is represented, it is she who gave birth to manifestation by thinking it into being. She was creator and teacher. ‘The Great Mother taught and taught. The Great Mother gave us what we needed to live and her teaching has not been forgotten right up to this day. We all still live by it.


Given this emphasis on the importance of the feminine, how does the role of women manifest in society? There are some basic labour divisions; women spin cotton but do not weave it - that is the men’s role, as is its cultivation. Once woven, it is the women, and the daughters who make the bags and clothes whereas it is the men who make the pottery. In horticulture, and this is an agrarian society, the men will clear, break and prepare the ground but it is the women who sow, harvest and prepare the crops. Whilst I was there, for instance, I noticed a rack for drying beans in the sun - it was a woman who came and tended it during the course of the afternoon. To help understand why it is the women who do this work, here is a quote from Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’; ‘When a Catholic priest remonstrated with the Indians of the Orinoco on allowing their women to sow the fields in the blazing sun, with infants at their breasts, the men answered, “Father, you don’t understand these things, and that is why they vex you. You know that women are accustomed to bear children, and that we men are not. When the women sow, the stalk of the maize bears two or three ears, the root of the yucca bears two or three basketfuls, and everything multiplies in proportion. Now why is that? Simply because the women know how to bring forth, and know how to make the seed bring forth also. Let them sow, then; we men don’t know as much about it as they do” ’ .

Women do own land - it is usual for the daughter to inherit from their mothers, and sons from their fathers - and those possession rights are protected by the law as interpreted by the Mamas if there is a divorce. And, in practise, women’s views directly influence the day to day running of society, as shown by this quote from Alan’s book; ‘Women rule the house, the domestic arena; men have an exclusive domain in the public arena, the ceremonial house. That is not to say that women have no say in public affairs; there are many stories of lengthy debates in the ceremonial house, lasting several nights, at the end of which a decision is reached on how to deal with some community problem. Then the men go home, tell their wives what has been decided, and the following day they reconvene somewhat shame-faced and agree a different solution. But in principle, it is the men who decide.’

Menstruation, Marriage and Divorce

The Kogi do not have the concept of adolescence that we do, that is as a lengthy period between puberty and adult responsibilities. A girl becomes a woman at menstruation and is straight away ready for love and marriage. Here is a Mama talking about both a girl’s rite of passage into womanhood and immediate marriage, although it does not always follow that the two coincide. ‘So then, we know this, so even today we keep a young woman who has just had her first period in a corner, that woman cannot be touched. When she has had her second period, she has become a woman. Then she is ready to love, then the Mama blesses the man, orders the man to confess. He orders the young woman to confess whether she has committed any sin without the Mama’s permission, without the permission of her mother, then she asks for forgiveness and the Mama makes a payment, purifies the person so that she will be cleansed, will have a clear mind, good heart, good soul and marries them.’

In marriage, long term monogamy is the ideal. Marriage for love is complicated by the esoteric demands of their belief system. Certain lineage orders must be balanced for the good of society as a whole and arranged marriages allow this balance to be brought about. This is to satisfy the natural order, as taught by the Great Mother. But once these demands have been satisfied, the nuclear family is the basis of Kogi society. Ereira says this about divorce; ‘This is not to say that partnerships do not fail and break apart. Divorce among the Kogi is very simple: a woman simply switches her allegiance to another man, and symbolises that by accepting a piece of meat from him. If the woman leaves her husband, it will always be to enter into a new relationship - and men appear to have little trouble finding a new bride. But for an abandoned wife the problems are very serious. The balance has been destroyed, since neither sex can perform the other’s work. A single mother is an anomaly: she has to become a dependent of her parents, part of their family once more. She may well be left with her own farm - indeed the Mamas will generally ensure in a divorce settlement that the woman has enough land to sustain herself and her children - but she cannot work it without the help of her family.’ And this is what a Kogi woman says about the realities of divorce; ‘When you’re single and no one comes to be interested in you, yes you have to be in the house with your parents. If someone does come, fine, you can go and get married again. But if not you have to be with your mother and father. You see women don’t go looking for men. Its the men who have to look for us. But Kogi women when they’ve got five children no one is going to come and look for them, so then they know they will have to stay single.’

The Balance between Masculine and Feminine


Yulúka means the process through which balance is achieved. This balance is the raison-d’être of life, according to Reichel-Dolmatoff - it must be achieved within the individual, within society and within the world, and principally it means the balance between the feminine and masculine principles. The idea of the balance between the masculine and the feminine runs through the whole of Kogi life, not just their sexual mores. Thus you cannot build a bridge, a hut, a loom, or construct a path that winds through a village without the masculine/feminine principle being explicitly represented in some way. In constructions such as a hut, some pieces of timber will be masculine and others feminine; if a path bisects a village, one side will be masculine, the other feminine; during weaving, a thread spun with a right-hand twist is masculine whilst the threads of the warp, which open to receive the shuttle, are feminine. The sun in its path across the sky bisects it into one side that is feminine and the other, which is masculine. Even the poporo, used only by the men, has its masculine and feminine parts. Alan Ereira says; ‘When we look at the Kogi world, we do not see what they see. Men and women are not simply people, they are the embodiment of principles…. The harmony and balance of the world is constructed out of the partnership of masculine and feminine, the dynamic process of weaving on the loom of life. All Kogi life is built around the complementarity of male and female. The Mother did not only create the physical world, but also shaped and peopled alúna, creating a Mother and Father for everything that exists. Life is meaningless without procreative energy, and whatever is alive must have a Mother and a Father - not only in physical fact, but also in alúna, the metaphysical world. The Kogi perceive life in many things which are in our understanding inanimate; any object which has purpose and meaning in the world has a metaphysical form in alúna, and therefore must be sustained by a balance of sexual forces, by its own Mother and Father.’

And the result of this consideration and contemplation of the feminine, according to Mary Ramos (whose dissertation on the Kogi is available from the Trust), is that ‘Woman is the focal point of Kogi culture since their central deity is the Great Mother. They are born from her and return to her uterus when they die. The Kogi horizon is not formed by mountains and valleys, but by the outward appearance of all that is feminine, for example, the green fields and the blue lakes are erotic visions, caves and lagoons are all considered to be hába’s womb where they can leave offerings and make her fertile. (Haba means ‘mother’). Women therefore should be treated with the utmost respect.’

And here is a woman Mama, Theresa, talking about the initiation of a young boy; ‘Mama Theresa listened to all this earnestly, and then joined in. The point she wanted to stress was that it is woman who gives men their manhood. ‘Yes, that’s the way it is. I know how to give the poporo too. You put two coca leaves into the mouth of the boy and you bless them. And you also have to bless the poporo stick before you put it into his mouth. Just as the Mother first gave the poporo to men I also give it now. You have to be able to stay awake for four nights thinking of the Mothers and Fathers of coca and of the poporo stick and of the shells and of the poporo.’