The saddest outcome of the idea of woman as property was the status of widows. In uncivilized society a widow is considered dangerous because the ghost of her husband is supposed to cling to her. Hence she must be slain that his spirit may depart in peace with her, as well as with the weapons and other possessions which are buried with him or burned upon his funeral pyre. The Marathi proverb to the effect that “the husband is the life of the woman” thus becomes literally true.
The best known case of widow slaying is of course the custom of “suttee” in India. The long struggle made against this custom by the British government is a vivid illustration of the strength of these ancient customs. The Laws of Manu indicate that the burning of widows was practised by primitive Aryans. In the Fiji Islands, where a wife was strangled on her husband’s grave, the strangled women were called “the carpeting of the grave." In Arabia, as in many other countries, while a widow may escape death, she is very often forced into the class of vagabonds and dependents. One of the most telling appeals made by missionaries is the condition of child widows in countries in which the unfortunates cannot be killed, but where the almost universal stigma of shame is attached to second marriages. A remarkable exception to this, when in ancient Greece the dying husband sometimes bequeathed his widow to a male friend, emphasized the idea of woman as property.
Although the taboos which are based on the idea of ownership are somewhat aside from the main theme of our discussion, they nevertheless reinforce the other taboos of the seclusion and segregation of woman as unclean. Moreover, as will be shown in a later chapter, the property idea has certain implications which are important for the proper understanding of the status of woman and the attitude toward her at the present time.
In the face of the primitive aversion to woman as the source of contamination through sympathetic magic, or as the seat of some mystic force, whether of good or evil, it may well be asked how man ever dared let his sexual longings overcome his fears and risk the dangers of so intimate a relationship. Only by some religious ceremonial, some act of purification, could man hope to counteract these properties of woman; and thus the marriage ritual came into existence. By the marriage ceremonial, the breach of taboo was expiated, condoned, and socially countenanced.[1, p.200] This was very evident in the marriage customs of the Greeks, which were composed of purification rites and other precautions. The injunctions to the Hebrews given in Leviticus illustrate the almost universal fact that even under the sanction of marriage the sexual embrace was taboo at certain times, as for example before the hunt or battle.
We are now prepared to admit that throughout the ages there has existed a strongly dualistic or “ambivalent” feeling in the mind of man toward woman. On the one hand she is the object of erotic desire; on the other hand she is the source of evil and danger. So firmly is the latter feeling fixed that not even the sanction of the marriage ceremony can completely remove it, as the taboos of intercourse within the marital relationship show.