Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Burmese Legends, Power and 'Jungian' Sexuality ...

To our last post, we can now add other types of legendary Asian arrangemenst to the polyamorous (South Indian). We have the 'licentious'-pragmatic (Chinese), the nomadic-Darwinian (Mongolian) and the imperial-Jungian from Burma to consider.

Chinese legends (at least of an early period) seem to have a pragmatic open sexuality that is thoroughly unromantic from a Western perspective. Confucianism struggled against what it called licentiousness, playing the role of Kallikkaman in last week's Sundarar tale.

Like Christ, Muhammed and the Buddha, probably for good 'developmental' reasons, Confucius' view won out so that we now have the puritanical Leninist-Confucianism of the New Chinese Empire as the eventual result. But it was not always thus ... any more than modern Hindu puritanism was the past.

In one particularly 'licentious' province (Cheng), in the spring ['when the eastern winds have melted the ice and the peach trees blossom'], the 'higher spirits were invoked' and orchids were gathered for which the foot of Mount Tu-Liang was well known.

As the local Chen and Wei flooded the land, the teenagers would go to the orchid beds and engage in sexual pleasure after which the girls were given a flower as a token. This obvious fertility legend sounds much like pre-Christian fertility rites in the West and it is truly a world we have lost.

For an example of sexual pragmatism that eventually leads to the rescue of a wife from a sex-crazed pirate, there is the legend of Ch'en Kuang-jui, the father of T'ang-seng, the floating monk - but I shall leave you to research that complicated early medieval Chinese legend yourself.

Then, there is a Buryat legend about Genghiz Khan. A tribal leader (whose attitude to love is unknown) has two wives. The younger one bore him a child but the older was barren. The older substituted the first's letter to him announcing the fact with one saying that the younger had given birth to a wild animal.

The Khan wrote back to take no action but, again, the older one substituted his letter and wrote another that told the younger to drown the child. The younger was not one to disobey the Khan and she placed the child in a sealed cradle and threw it in the lake as commanded.

Naturally, (since this is a legend), it floated back and the little lad kicked his way out. Needless to say, the lad was Genghiz Khan.

But, again, the ostensible purpose of the legend - why Genghiz Khan is named after the lark's cry (don't ask!) - masks the social tensions within 'patriarchal' warrior culture between women where the youth of the girl is less interesting than her ability to bear the lord a strong son.

A warrior lord may not last long into his middle age (the old age of the era) without strong sons. It is a practical matter. In the real history of such societies, women do not compete so much as wives but as mothers so that their children get access to power when the old man dies.

The price of failure would be the probable death of their child from their half-brother since no fit rivals can easily be allowed to flourish if the sons compete. This is not polyamory but a brutal struggle for scarce resources in a world of survival of the fittest. The slaughter amongst the Turkic Sultans was real enough.

As for Burma, we can start by saying that medieval Burma was at the hard end of patriarchy with the assumption that women were tribute. We find tales, like the Mongolian, of jealousy in the 'harem' against new and beautiful acquisitions (as in the legend of one of Nga Tinde's sisters).

But the stories around King Duttabaung (of which the Nga Tinde sister legend is a minor part) suggest that, despite all the concubines and trade in women, Jung's archetypal view that a male was most fulfilled with two partners of differing psychological meaning appears to be given some evidential base in the two successive triads in the story cycle.

Burmese legends are complex and surreal so the detail here is less important than the structure. A King's son becomes a hermit and has a magical and very beautiful (if not very bright) daughter, Bedayi. The King's Queen, presumably mother to the son, also gives birth to two blind boys.

There ensues a classic story about the Queen saving her two children from the King (details only on request).

After many adventures and the curing of their blindness, the sons meet up with Bedayi and the other older son of the King (whether half-brother or brother) and the eldest marries Bedayi, presumably a niece (though not stated as such).

The standard gangland politics of primitive societies then means that the Queen of Pyu (another Queen altogether) asks the help of the hermit.

The King's son persuades her to take the son-in-law as husband so he becomes King of Pyu with Bedayi and The Queen of Pyu as his partners. Note the father is happy to see Bedayi enter such a household. The Queen has a daughter and dies.

The King of Pyu (the older of the two once-blind brothers) dies. Bedayi marries the younger son who became King in his turn and their child was Duttabaung.

The notion of a wife marrying the next in line of brothers is not uncommon as a means of retaining property rights. After 35 years, this second King of Pyu dies.

Indra (this is a pre-Buddhist tale up to this point) installs Duttabaung, fully mature, on the throne and his two Queens are the daughter of the Pyu Queen (daughter of the other wife of his uncle) and the Nagini Besandi who shares with Bedayi, Duttabaung's mother, the characteristic of having a magical origin - she is one of the serpent-spirits or nagas.

Duttabaung's reign is the great kingly legend of Burma and this legend shifts into Buddhist piety of a kingly type quite quickly.

However, unintended impieties result in him losing his powers, with the most interesting loss arising from within a story that is hard to interpret in any way other than a story of sexual jealousy perceived in cultural terms as disloyalty.

Duttabaung was collecting tribute from India when one of the tributary queens took a 'foul garment' (unspecified in my source), turns it into a cloth and wipes the face of the unsuspecting King with it.

This is an incident filled with notions of taboo but the upshot is that the act results in the disappearance of an 'auspicious mole' (Burmese surrealism at work) and the consequent disappearance of the Nagini Besandi who is clearly his magical link to the land of Burma.

The King compounds his growing problems - he appears to have upset the Buddha in an earlier act and then his beautiful naga who may represent his vital force, represented in terms of sexual energy - by spitting into the ocean as he returns from India and so angering the nagas as a class.



The angry nagas carry him away at a great age on board ship. The legendary cycle can be read at many levels but, primarily, in conjunction with other legends, as a magical account of the history of Burma.

Its kings try to weigh up a right balance of duties to the new religion of Buddhism and to the old religion of the spirits of the land represented by the nagas (and the nats in another cycle).

This historical tension is overlaid by another story about kingship in which the waning powers of the old King (he said to be over 100 by the time of his death on the ship returning from India) seem to be attributed to his excessive wanderings far from his own land, to his consorting with foreign queens on foreign territory and to his lack of respect for tradition.

Sex, as always, is power. Placing the simple brutal business of women as tribute and as guarantee of loyalty from vassals to one side, the five women in the story fall into three broad categories.

The least positive is the trickster Hindu Queen who represents dalliances or inappropriate alliances overseas and with whom we have dealt.

The Queen of Pyu and her daughter clearly represent political and strategic alliance through sexual partnership - land, retainers and the dynastic blood line. The closeness of the royal family in its high status mating indicates a classic case of ensuring right order by keeping it in the family.

The first Queen is pure alliance fodder and her daughter partners the son of the younger brother and successor to her husband who then inherited this Queen's co-wife. (I hope I have got that right).

Both Queens are relative cyphers in the story but there is no reason to believe that they are not honoured and respected.

On the other hand, the magical daughter of the hermit (the possible neice to her two future husbands), Bedayi, and Nagini Besandi are of a very different order.

They are more active participants in the drama and are variously presented not so much as regal cyphers carrying the blood-line like the Queens so much as either rather beautiful but dim (Bedayi in the story of a gourd that we won't go into here) or beautiful but moody (Nagini Besandi walking off in a huff over a desecration).

Although the legend is more about interpreting history, religious struggle, politics and the expression of right order in society than psychology or spirit, we cannot ignore this psychological undercurrent deep within the tale.

Regardless of the ready sex available from innunerable concubines, the King's high status relationships represent a different sort of balance that reflects Jung's opinion (probably based on his own experience) that a man needs two women in his life.

This Jungian observation underpins the very common Western phenomenon of the wife and the mistress. As such, this is definitely not a tale of polyamory like our South Indian tale. Indeed, it might even be that the threat of the Indian Queen is the threat of polyamory to a stable and ritualised system but this is speculation.

What it might be (given that the pattern is repeated twice in one cycle) is an expression, in a warrior-based culture, of a situation where sex is easily available but where trust and at least a version of love are in short supply.

This we see an arrangement within traditionalism that is analogous to the French model of the wife and the tolerated mistress. One might say that the woman who wants to 'own' her man is as unbalanced as the man who insists on 'owning' (emotionally) many women.

The mistress saves a man from servitude (to the household where he may lose his competitive 'edge') and from the brothels (on which resources will be wasted). Or so may go the theory ...

If anything, the arrangement is a formalisation of a 'natural' psychological triad. Although property is at stake, the man is caught between the need to run a household (whether feudal or bourgeois) and the need to be loved or to exist in a more dynamic way, a rather mysterious way that is not at all rational but is disruptive if not tamed. Perhaps it works only where the 'wife' is secure in her possession of the household.

Indeed, if one thinks about it, the disruptive nature of male sexuality and the fact that the property exists because of the male's life force (in that type of society) means that the self interest of the woman in charge of the household is not to tame the drive into non-achievement but to direct it safely into the care of a collaborator, the co-Queen or 'mistress'.

The sexual triad operating within rules of this type may stabilise the system so that the women (treated with respect as high status) manage to get control of power by the back door and both live off the unrestricted dynamic of the alpha male.

The conduct of the Nagini Besandi suggests that the King is as bound by these rules as anyone.

Although in other stories and most cultures, jealousy is a component of all types of arrangements involving multiple partners, what is interesting is that the relationship between the Queens and the magical co-wives appears positive as if both understand their differing roles in maintaining a particular system of power.

This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that there is strong emotion in the story - the hermit is highly protective to his daughter, the first King's Queen is highly protective of her two blind sons to the extent of defying her Lord, the Nagini Besandi walks out on the old King when he breaks the rules and appears to bring a third player into the game.

Perhaps the best we might say of this model is that religious traditionalism and the determination to hold on to property (comparing Catholic France) can construct models in which love is tamed (unlike the free polyamorous approach) into a triadic structure in which everyone knows the rules and no-one asks too many questions.

Above all, the purpose of the Burmese approach and the French approach is to keep property in the family and manage the costs of sexuality in terms of power and wealth more finely. In this system, Nagini Besandi was perfectly within her rights to walk away when the King started to bend accepted rules.

Perhaps also the Burmese legend (and French practice) might cause us to be less sure about a simplistic assertion that women are victims of 'patriarchy'.

The tribute concubines in the harem were certainly victims, though more of in terms of political exploitation with sexual characteristics, a system in which all vassals and peasants were victims of their lords.

However, these high status co-Queens, much like the wife and intelligent courtesan or mistress in the West, present a more complex picture to that of the patriarchalism of the nomadic Mongol type, based on resource poverty and Darwinian approaches to survival.

In this model, nomadic survivalist patriarchalism (much like that in the Bible) is replaced by a collaborative sexual model of developed traditionalism that tames the male's vital energies in the direction of most value to the women involved, given the need to sustain control of power and wealth in a competitive environment.

In fact, against the feminists, it might be said that, assuming a world of competition for resources (which is actually what we have whether we like it or not), the triadic arrangement may be the most successful in ensuring the acquisition and holding of property, the security of offspring and the maintenance of female power in the household.