The best books on symbolic and psychological anthropology for understanding women's myths and rites

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in a family of beautiful, accomplished women at a time when most women stayed home. But the spectacular women in my mother's family also suffered spectacularly, and I was determined to understand family life at its very roots. I studied anthropology and, over a 15-year period, lived in a remote part of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea among a group of Gimi women who spent most of their time apart from men. I shared women's difficult daily lives, participated in their separate rites, learned their myths, and, through my writing, have devoted myself to giving them voices of their own.


I wrote...

She Speaks Her Anger: Myths and Conversations of Gimi Women: A Psychological Ethnography in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea

By Gillian Gillison,

Book cover of She Speaks Her Anger: Myths and Conversations of Gimi Women: A Psychological Ethnography in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea

What is my book about?

This book focuses on the lives, myths, and rituals of Gimi women in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. However improbably, women’s views recall the primal parricide that Freud lays out in the final chapter of Totem and Taboo except that they include mother and daughters as active participants.  If the band of brothers were enraged by a father who monopolized their sisters, then the sisters whom the father raped, and whose bodies he occupied in perpetuity, were just as angry or even angrier. 

Topics include: mother-child attachment; “secret” rites of female initiation; violence among women; inner workings of male dominance; first-person account of domestic violence and dysfunction in a polygynous household; cannibal rituals of the past; relationship between myth and ritual.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Totem and Taboo

Gillian Gillison Why did I love this book?

Totem and Taboo is among Freud's most-maligned works. 

It struck me like lightning when I picked up a copy in a Sydney bookstore during a break from fieldwork in a New Guinea Highlands village.  Like nothing else I had read as a graduate student in anthropology in New York, it seemed to describe what I was actually experiencing and learning. 

Freud discovered Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics not because he was racist, sexist, and imperialist, as all late 19thC European bourgeois white men are supposed to have been, but rather because, like the neurotics who came to his consulting room, the myths and rituals of small-scale, kinship-based, non-literate societies fixate upon problems of individual development, the child who persists in all of us.

By Sigmund Freud,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Totem and Taboo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1918, this landmark collection of essays by the father of psychoanalysis represents one of Freud's most penetrating attempts to decipher the mysteries of human behavior. Its focus is the conflict between primitive feelings and the demands of civilization, i.e., the struggle to reconcile unconscious desires with socially acceptable behavior.
Totemism involves the belief in a sacred relationship between an object (totem) and a human kinship group. Men and women bearing the same totem are prohibited from marrying each other, this being a form of incest taboo. Freud identifies a strong unconscious inclination as the basis of taboo,…


Book cover of The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies

Gillian Gillison Why did I love this book?

This is a very short book with a single brilliant insight into the human condition. 

It shows how wrong it is to suppose (as Marx and Engels did) that first there were self-sufficient nuclear families who then produced surpluses to exchange with other nuclear families. 

Mauss used early fieldwork in the South Pacific and Northwest Coast of Canada, to demonstrate that exchange is the very essence of human social life, inseparable from the incest taboo, marriage rules, and a fully realized highly elaborate symbolic universe based upon principles of animism, sympathetic magic and rites of passage. 

By Marcel Mauss, Ian Cunnison (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Gift as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the "public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. We appreciate your support of the preservation process, and thank…


Book cover of The Sexual Life of Savages in North Western Melanesia

Gillian Gillison Why did I love this book?

Still exciting after all these years! Perhaps because it is politically incorrect and unself-conscious. 

The cover blurb says it is an "investigation of the sex lives of the men and women of the Trobriand Islands and deals with prenuptial intercourse, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, erotic psychology, ritual, morals, and manners" – forbidden territory nowadays. 

I do not excuse the sexism and racism occasionally detectable, but think the detail, intimacy, and authorial reflexivity about a disappeared world are more valuable now than ever.  A century ahead of his time, Malinowski included himself in his observations and ideas about others. 

By Bronislaw Malinowski,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sexual Life of Savages in North Western Melanesia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This scarce antiquarian book is a facsimile reprint of the original. Due to its age, it may contain imperfections such as marks, notations, marginalia and flawed pages. Because we believe this work is culturally important, we have made it available as part of our commitment for protecting, preserving, and promoting the world's literature in affordable, high quality, modern editions that are true to the original work.


Book cover of Women and Analysis

Gillian Gillison Why did I love this book?

I am deeply persuaded by psychoanalysis as a rational scientific theory of the unconscious mind which, if it exists as Freud describes it, has a determining role in nearly every aspect of individual and social life among ourselves and exotic others. 

But most scholars, feminists especially (of whom I consider myself one), even when they acknowledge Freud's genius, "then proceed to dismiss the whole business as hopelessly out of date and culture-bound." 

This collection of essays, a series of paired expositions by classic thinkers and eminent scholars in many fields in dialogue with each other, provides an in-depth overview of the debate about 'women and analysis.' 

Book cover of Medusa's Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience

Gillian Gillison Why did I love this book?

Given the general skepticism about Freud, it is hard to find a brilliant application of his theory of psychoanalysis in anthropology that also focuses on women. 

This book about Hindu-Buddhist religious devotees at Kataragama in southeastern Sri Lanka includes detailed case studies of female ascetic-ecstatics that explore the symbolism of long locks of matted hair. Obeyesekere demonstrates that the conventional distinction between personal and cultural symbols is inadequate and naive. 

By Gananath Obeyesekere,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Medusa's Hair as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The great pilgrimage center of southeastern Sri Lanka, Kataragama, has become in recent years the spiritual home of a new class of Hindu-Buddhist religious devotees. These ecstatic priests and priestesses invariably display long locks of matted hair, and they express their devotion to the gods through fire walking, tongue-piercing, hanging on hooks, and trance-induced prophesying.

The increasing popularity of these ecstatics poses a challenge not only to orthodox Sinhala Buddhism (the official religion of Sri Lanka) but also, as Gananath Obeyesekere shows, to the traditional anthropological and psychoanalytic theories of symbolism. Focusing initially on one symbol, matted hair, Obeyesekere demonstrates…


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Jim Brown Author Of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

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Why am I passionate about this?

I have spent my entire professional life quietly patrolling the frontiers of understanding human consciousness. I was an early adopter in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, then neurofeedback and neuroscience, plus theory and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, plus steeping myself in systems theory as a context for all these other fields of focus. I hold a MS in psychology from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Saybrook Institute. I live in Mount Shasta CA with Molly, my life partner for over 60 years. We have two sons and two grandchildren.

Jim's book list on brain, mind, and consciousness

What is my book about?

In this thoroughly researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development.

He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind.

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Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

In this thoroughly-researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development. He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to truly engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind. Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through life-long brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.


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