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Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture Paperback – December 17, 1989


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (December 17, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679724680
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679724681
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.3 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

This book challenges those who argue that we can change the world by changing the way people think. Harris shows that no matter how bizarre a people's behavior may seem, it always stems from concrete social and economic conditions.

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Customer Reviews

It's captivating and interesting, too -- hard to put down and entertaining.
Brian Bentel
Hopefully, the ideas presented in Harris' book will lead its readers to a better understanding of the human condition.
Regis Schilken
I first read this book as "light" reading when I was a graduate student in anthropology.
Diane P. Levine

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Diane P. Levine on January 16, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I first read this book as "light" reading when I was a graduate student in anthropology. Now, as an anthropology instructor, I assign it as a textbook in a course on Religion, Magic and Witchcraft. It proposes logical and fascinating solutions to such puzzles as (1) why Hindus are better off going hungry than slaughtering and eating their cattle,(2) why religions of the Middle East have made pork taboo, while cultures of the South Pacific organize their ritual life around pork feasts, and (3) in what way are New Guinea cargo cults, the 12 disciples of Jesus, the European witch trials, and the popularity of New Age beliefs of today the results of similar cultural pressures.
This is the first book I have ever assigned in class that students have asked if they may read all at once, instead of a chapter a week. They can't put it down!
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54 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Peter A. Farrell on April 10, 1999
Format: Paperback
I've read this book twice already, and on the third time, I'm still getting new perspectives from Harris' masterful analysis of puzzling cultural phenomena like religious dietary restrictions (why are cows sacred and pigs aren't?), cargo cults (why are some countries rich and others poor?), and witch hunts (what did religion have to do with it?). All the quick explanations for these phenomena we were given in school were, at best, oversimplified and incomplete. The reviewer who wrote that the book debunks mythology could also have been referring to the mythology believed by historians, scientists, and adademics. Harris occasionally turns the microscope on our own culture and the assumptions we hold and the explanations we accept for things we don't understand. He takes on the sacred cows of anthropology and history, including Sacred Cows, and presents a new paradigm for understanding each subject.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
First published in 1973, Marvin Harris' book suffers slightly from time lag (it closes with a refutation of the now-defunct counterculture movement), but is otherwise wholly engaging and undeniably fascinating. Tackling the "Most Wanted List" of anthropology's mysteries, Harris plunges in by explaining the practical socio-economic origins of the cliched "sacred cows" of India, then keeps on going through the reasons for religious dietary restrictions and on into the relationship between secular pressures, leaders and the many faces of messianism from the Middle East to the Middle Ages. His explanations are meticulously constructed, eminently reasonable and provide fuel for many a debate.
Written in an open and accessible style, COWS, PIGS, WARS & WITCHES is aimed toward the academic community, but doesn't read that way at all. Though it references classic anthropological works such as Ruth Benedict's PATTERNS OF CULTURE, the book is careful to seed the rest of the text with explanation, thus keeping the more scholarly aspects of the work from alienating readers from the "outside" and deep-sixing the book's readability.
In short, Harris' book is a solid addition to any reader's library, provided his unflinching analysis of some of the more common "sacred cows" doesn't offend.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Mark Forkheim on June 13, 2000
Format: Paperback
A delightful little book that goes a long way to explaining why religions around the world have developed the way they have. He shows how common sense survival rules have become religious rules, how oppressed people develop 'Messiah's" and how those in control used fear and panic to keep control.
Of course some Christians might not like what he has to say about their 'Messiah', but when all the facts are looked at, including the development of 'Messiah's' in other cultures, he is very convincing.
Even though he doesn't say it, his book shows how cultures around the world live by a simple rule, 'those who have lots - waste lots, those who have little - waste little'. I found this amusing as environmentalists usually look to primitive societies as 'waste not want not' societies.
This is a book that should seriously be incorporated into the school curriculum. It's explanation of how our differences developed show how similar we actually all are.
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44 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Hagios on August 15, 2006
Format: Paperback
Harris made a strong case for the beneficial role of the Hindu religion's belief that cows are sacred. The reason is because male draft animals are needed to plow the fields for next year's harvest, and cows are needed to breed the draft animals. Succumbing to temptation during a famine and killing your cow is like killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Harris was not as convincing describing the "pig love" of the Maring tribe. They are a polygamous society in which women do all the work, both gardening and raising pigs. The pigs are beloved and wander freely. But after eight or ten years there are too many adult pigs. They cause too much destruction in the gardens, and they consume too much food. So the men agree to hold a grand feast, or kaiko, in which most of the pigs are slaughtered and eaten. Then the men go to war with the neighboring tribe. This is a strange arrangement. If the Maring wanted to be efficient, they should pen the pigs. That way they won't damage the gardens. They should also slaughter the pigs as soon as they reach their adult size. Continuing to feed them for another eight years after they've already reached their adult size is a waste of food. That is not adaptive! Of course, Harris has an explanation. The reason why the Maring behave in their seemingly counter-productive way is that by being inefficient they can keep their population in check. Maximizing their pig production would take them dangerously close to the carrying capacity of their environment. The ritual warfare after the periodic feasts and the female infanticide also contribute to keep the size of the Maring population in harmony with the environment.

The role of "pig love" contradicts the role of "cow love." If a trait is good then it is clearly functional and adaptive.
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