>From: Dennis King <[log in to unmask]>
>This is the first time I've seen "potlatch" used in an Irish context, so I
>hope someone out there with a knowledge of Fénechas, or medieval Irish
>anthropology (!), will be able to tell us more about this.
If one is going to use a behavioral model from another culture to describe
one in Irish culture, then I think the first step is to look at what the
other culture's model is and only then see if it truly applies.
The following paragraphs from Tollefson, Kenneth D., "Potlatching and
political organizations among the Northwest Coast Indians" in Ethnology,
Winter95, Vol. 34 Issue 1, p53, 21p may be helpful in that regard. (Please
see the source for references cited in the text and for the complete
"Three considerations in the selection of a clan chief were education,
wealth, and personality. A clan chief received extensive training in
tradition and ritual, household accomplishments, and ceremonial procedures.
One Tlingit elder explained that the speeches at a potlatch differed as much
from ordinary speech "as high school lectures differ from college lectures."
Wealth was another important consideration in the selection of a clan head.
Petrov (1882:166) noted that the "chiefdomship" was hereditary in families,
but the authority of the position was "dependent upon wealth."
"Goldschmidt and Haas (1946:4) attributed the position of leadership to
wealth acquired through the control of property. Olson (1967:6) stated that
the selection of a household head was based on "wealth and wisdom." After
the death of a chief, the clan preferred a candidate who had attained the
age of 35, in the belief that by this age the personality of the person had
acquired sufficient stability and maturity to enable the group to make a
good choice. A Tlingit explained, "You don't choose a leader so much as you
recognize the innate ability for leadership."
"The clan leader became an "uncle" to the whole clan when he succeeded to
office (de Laguna 1972:465). Oberg (1937:77) suggests that the proper way to
show respect to the clan head was by continually giving him gifts of food.
The "uncle" supervised the training of the nephews and assumed much of the
responsibilities for their labor, trading, and raiding activities. The
larger the number of "nephews" a clan head could recruit as laborers,
warriors, and craftspersons, the greater was his authority and wealth. A
large portion of the plunder taken in raids was retained by the clan head,
who also supervised the distribution of the remaining amount.
"While all clan members contributed to the prestige of the clan chief, the
"nephews" and slaves were the real measure of his actual authority
(Averkieva 1966:75; Garfield and Wingert 1966:29; Krause 1956 :111;
Olson 1967:49; Petrov 1882: 166). Swanton (1908:449) states, "revenge for
the death of someone for whom no payment had been made and desire to obtain
slaves in order to increase the power of the chief and his clan [were] the
commonest incentives to war." Chief Katlean who headed up the powerful
Kiksadi Clan of Sitka reportedly announced "that he could force the other
chiefs into the agreement" to permit Baronof to establish a Russian trading
post at Sitka (Bancroft 1886:368). Powerful and wealthy chiefs seem to have
exerted considerable influence in regional affairs."
It seems to me that if you go down the list of statement made by Tollefson
and substitute "ri/" for chief, substitute clients for "nephews" and throw a
few cows in with the slaves, then one has a fairly good picture of how
alliances were probably made and power was distributed in early Irish
society. I'm especially struck by the suggestion made elsewhere that
potlatch was held at funerals to re-establish the balance of power upset by
the death (see Hanson, John H., "Power, philanthropy, and potlatch: What
tribal exchange rituals tell us about giving" in Fund Raising Management,
Feb97, Vol. 27 Issue 12, p16, 3p):
"'Potlatching is just like a bank. When you give away, those people have to
give you back next time. What I put down, they have to remember.'
"--Tancross Indian, Alaskan Yukon, 1970
"Anthropologist Stanley Walens observes:
"'Potlatches have traditionally occurred at points of social stress
accompanying any part of the process of ascension or succession
to rank . . . coming of age . . . a mortuary feast for a previous
rankholder; and sometimes even as a means of discrediting rival
"These rituals serve the purpose of momentarily allowing the powerful
individual's wealth to appear briefly as social wealth, without
endangering the status of the giver:
'The purposes of potlatch are to maintain social equilibrium, consolidate
chiefly power over commoners, provide for the orderly
transfer of wealth and power, provide a measure of group identity and
solidarity, redistribute surplus wealth and level economic
imbalance, provide outlets for competition without recourse to violence, and
provide an occasion for aesthetic expression and
dramatic entertainment.' (Walens) Potlatch also affirms a connection between
cosmic and social orders, endorsing social
hierarchy as a moral imperative. At the same time, through the ritual of
distribution, giving ritual softens the unequal competition
against the unforgiving forces of nature and contains the potential anarchy
of clan rivalry."
Seems to me like both a complement to and extension of the client system.
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