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Jill Of All Trades

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture [book review]

12.11.05 by literaghost

Random review-like-thing I wrote to get extra-credit for WHAP (AP World History) for a book I read semi-recently. Pretty good read, actually.

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of culture (by Marvin Harris)

Technically, this book covers cultural anthropology and sociology, not world history. However, I believe that these fields have important functions in the study of history, especially if one wants to determine why things happen, not just what and when. I believe that an understanding of sociology and the like is extremely beneficial in analyzing cause-and-effect relationships both in human psychology and in historical events around the world.

That being said, I would also like to introduce contextual information about Mr. Harris. It seems that his works and opinions have been the subject of much debate, at least from what I've browsed through on the internet. Many of Harris's theories are highly controversial; it's little wonder that many dismiss him as a "quack" and an "axe-grinder" whom "no one in anthropology takes seriously anymore." Harris is a cultural materialist and a Marxist, and many in his field and elsewhere are offended by his viewpoint. I, for one, find his theories fascinating (if a little far-fetched at times) and his writing style engaging. I'd recommend reading "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches" with both a grain of salt and an open mind.

"Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches" attempts to answer many perplexing questions about human behavior with practical and scientific explanations. The first few chapters offer explanations to the Hindu veneration of the cow and the Jew and Muslim loathing of pigs and pork. The last few chapters address the causes for medieval witch-hunts, and offers both explanations and criticism for the rising of the new-age movement (especially interesting, for this book was first published in 1967!). Chapters in-between address everything from Cargo Cults to an (extremely controversial!) theory of the rise of Christianity and original character of Jesus of Galilee.

Personally, I enjoyed reading this book and absorbing all the insights it had to offer, but it's probably not for everyone.

On another note, I found a rather intriguing interview of Marvin Harris.

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