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Anthropology/How come in many communitarian tribalist "backwards" cultures they chant songs of praises when someone sacrifices his life rather than weep?


Years ago I remember reading about how after a Palestinian young man got into a firefight with Israeli soldiers and got killed from M16 rounds, his family began to shout out in joy how the young man gave his life up for the community and proceeded to have a festival. They were GLAD to see their eldest son DIE!

At first I thought it was a non-Western mentality because in addition to Middle Eastern terrorists, I remember Japanese mothers rather than weeping were simply calm and happy after the news of their sons death  took out an American battleship during World War II. Indeed there are many cases of treating it calmly as Japanese men were dying by the tens of thousands while their wives, mothers, and lovers were simply drinking tea at home and smiling as they invited the mailman, military official, or whoever arrived to send the news to drink tea in the living room.

However..... I remember in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett was worried that Ashley was in one of the most dangerous PoW camps that he might die, Melanie responded she was proud to know Ashley will die for the Southern cause. Scarlett who was in love with Ashley could not understand how Melanie-who was Ashley's wife and claims to have loved him with all her heart as a good wife should- is not in terror that he might not come back alive.

In Medieval literature,a  common theme is when knights go off to fight pagans such as in the Song of Roland, rather than being in dread, their fathers and mothers remain calm and stoic at the possibility of death. Once news arrive after a battle that Sir Lancelot had fallen in battle, they begin to prepare a big party for the event of the death of the young knight and the parents begin to sing out a song they just came up in an instant to praise the dead knight. Which as their echoes get heard throughout the castle, other servants from the king's personal generals to a spearman to peasants who clean the latrine, they begin to join on singing the song. The parents who are the lords of this castle actually end the song out with a chant "he gave his life for the name of defending God!" or something akin to this. Which has scary parallels towards the Palestinian man who got killed in a  firefight and his Muslim family having a grand feast afterwards.

Basically showing this isn't exclusive to Eastern cultures but was once a part of the Western mentality.

But I am curious why do people not only in "backwards" non-Western cultures (pre-WWII Japan and most Arabic countries as examples) but also even in Western cultures before the rise of modern secularism and democracy have this psychology? Of rather than weeping they treat it like its a great thing their sons have died for a cause?

Even the comparatively more civilized Ancient Greeks and Romans (when compared to their Medieval European counterparts) who valued democracy as a basic ideal treated the dying of young men for their city states (in the case of Greece) or the Roman Republic and later Empire as something to take joy in and celebrate about.

Where as modern cultures starting in the 1700s weeping and sadness is now considered the norm. Anyone who thinks its a great thing to send their son to Vietnam and than appear smiling and boasting in public that Bobby came back in a bodybag especially at the funeral would be seen as cruel, if not outright insane. Even deaths of fellow friends in the modern battlefield of the 21st centuries while guns are shooting and artillery shells are landing around can make even the toughest special forces weep in the middle of battle (even if he still continues to fight despite tears streaming).

I mean to read in the Songs of El Cid about a knight just calmly maintaining formation without either tears oar anger and even stoically being proud he saw his dearest childhood peasant friend get beheaded is just CHILLING and makes me see the knights in this poems as terrorists on the level of Bin Laden in ruthlessness rather than defenders of civilization and freedom.

What is the logic behind this mentality? What exactly happened in Western culture that removed this backward savage "songs of joy" after the death of a beloved member who sacrificed his life for the cause?

And why do many cultures on outside of the West still maintain this mindset despite vast changes in technology and to a degree social structure? As seen in many African and Middle Eastern countries?

Hi Jimo,

This is a very complicated question.  You have pointed out that in many different cultures there is a sense of Joy or Happiness at the death of someone.  In many of the cultures you have indicated, death in battle is viewed as glorious as this means that the person's soul will be taken directly to "heaven".  So, it is closely tied to religious beliefs of those cultures.  It is to some degree a Martyr complex or viewpoint or a "hero complex".  Some of this still hangs on in todays culture as well, an example is a wake given to a fallen police officer or fire fighter.  IT is a celebration of their lives as heroes.  In large measure it is part of the grieving process for these cultures.  

In our society we have lost some of this due to the TV showing us the horrors of  war, death on the streets etc... We have to some degree lost the view of Martyrdom or Heroes.  We view live as far more precious today then even a mere 60 years ago (WWII).  During Vietnam, we saw daily newsreels of the death and destruction in living color and we came to realize that there is nothing heroic about this horror.  We mourn the loss and feel it much more keenly today because of the TV nightly news.  

These cultures are not "backward" just different from ours and in many ways some of these cultures are well ahead of ours.  While, indeed, some appear to be a little "backward" or take very different view point on death.  

In some cultures, life and death are on a continuous were death is inevitable and is part of the whole process birth, live, death, re-birth etc... It is only the US (and then only parts of our culture) that views death differently today.  WE feel surrounded by it because of the media focus.  That has sensitized us to everyones loss.  This is not the case in other parts of the world and in other cultures.  This view, as ours, is neither "good" or "bad", it is just different.

I'm not sure if I've answered your questions adequately.  If not, please ask follow up questions.


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Ralph Salier


Business Anthropologist. Business negotiations in multiple cultures and working with multiple cultures in the business arena. Broad understanding of business practices and business "ethics" in different parts of the world.


25+ years in international procurement and negotiations.


MA Anthropology, Proximics

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